New poetry by Rustum Kozain: ‘When I write’

When I write

Prose poem
Rustum Kozain

When I write, I am aware of how meaningless and ineffectual the activity is in the context of the full scale horror all of earth is suffering—humans, animals, water, plants, all of earth—from those who murder and plunder and in other ways hurt and destroy anyone and anything standing in their way. From the individual, unspeakable rape of a baby to mass rape and mass killing in war, and, as war, the scale and the depraved nature of the violence transgresses everything that can be thought and comprehended.

It is normal and abnormal, real and surreal. The murdering and the raping increase, the statistics flood the servers and drown our brains. The misery that humans cause each other and other sentient beings—there are no words that can convey the depths of the misery and the depravity.

Language itself seems shucked of meaning—it can no longer convey the horror, it can no longer engender empathy, solidarity, resistance.

Language is shucked of meaning and serves as a system of formulas, machine code for the propagation of commerce, religion and other dogma: difference, hate, war.

Why I write, I don’t know. But I keep on writing.

I knock on it every now and again to check the rigour of my statements. I hear only echoes from within a dry wall.

I try and bend language, its syntax. It’s either in me bent already, already bent in me. It comes out ready-bent.

Or I zip it over me like a cocoon. It bends as I bend; as I bend, it bends. But it won’t bend as the world bends me, as the world bends itself. The stress fractures are past apprehension.

I get into this sentence, nevertheless, in this language that in some ways isn’t mine, but is mine in other ways—I get into this sentence and I break something, sometimes accidentally, but most of the time deliberately, a small thing, sometimes several small things.

I break something just to say I was here. Look! I say, I have despoiled this meaningless thing, I have defiled this thing already defiled. Here! I say, I shit in this empty thing on a preposition, a relative pronoun, or shatter things carefully to get an exquisite line of cracks through the empty shell, then glue back together all the broken clauses.

Sometimes it is meaningless; it makes no sense. Sometimes it makes sense to me. Sometimes someone thinks they understand some form of its flat-footed madness, that they can see and hear flames, and that there may be warmth. But they smell ash.

The embers of language everywhere have long died out.

Everything is beyond comprehension. Even the word ‘love’ is a commodity or currency. Propaganda for killing.

People kill others because they love a piece of rock or they love a character from a legend written when language was a piece of magic—when language could conjure fierce and wrathful gods. How they love their fierce and wrathful gods. And grow to become like them. And how empty lies this love in its dull repetition of everyone’s passions.

From this empty well, we turn away, close our eyes, cover our ears.


  • Rustum Kozain is The JRB Poetry Editor. He is the author of This Carting Life (2005) and Groundwork (2012), both of which won the Olive Schreiner Prize, as well as, respectively, the Ingrid Jonker Prize and the Herman Charles Bosman Award. His poetry has been published in translation in French, Indonesian, Italian and Spanish. Follow him on Twitter.


© Rustum Kozain, 2017

Image: Victor Dlamini

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