New poetry by Ingrid de Kok: ‘Closed for Reasons of Joy’

The Johannesburg Review of Books is proud to present previously unpublished poetry by Ingrid de Kok.

Closed for Reasons of Joy



We forget. For us too
joy was the only currency
when reason and hope leapt in the streets
when the past clambered over the barricade
and met the future, ululating.
Loudhailers sounded freedom,
windows flung open
to flags surfing the swells,
strangers embraced, levitating
and Mandela’s boxer face
his upright stance, arm aloft,
joined each toyi-toyi victory dance.

What would it have taken
for joy’s gesture
to have stayed
on an ordinary shopfront
unfaded, indelible?



It does not comfort to know
not only here but everywhere
hard-earned elation, freedom’s charge
flashes through electrically,
a swift flying back to its hidden nest
under the last unbombed bridge.

Reporters of these things
warn, repeat in each case
that despite the freed flags
and the hugging in the streets
a war zone after war ends
is not a sweet fresh spring.
It is filled with bodies
floating downstream
bloated, seeping, unrecognisable.

It is not a table laden
with banks of newly harvested
apples beans potatoes
but wood splintering the backs of women
trading sex for food and shoes.

No suburb re-leafs in one or two seasons
after all the branches have been burnt.
No birds sing the following year
when even sparrow bones have been eaten.

Everywhere just after liberation day
survivors gather at the crossing:
victor   loser   partisan
the ordinary brave
quisling   askari   pimp
strategist   speculator
and those on the sidewalk
avoiding eye contact.

Then the road is crossed
as it always is
into old traffic:
and worse.



Here on home ground
the enemy was not sorry enough
not grateful enough,
bullying from an invisible height.
The victors were euphoric
but unseasoned,
wielding promises secrets
fervent manifestoes
and jockeying for position
at settlement’s high table.

The hungry angry.
The rich in their silk parachutes
preaching patience.
The comrades
no longer in arms.

Old wounds in new bandages.
New wounds in old bandages.



Yet even today, years later
when erosion unearths the land,
olive branches wilt, chalices calcify,
we long to congregate
as we did that first day
to celebrate unshuttered life.
Still hope for a sign
say on a corrugated spaza store
where we imagine its tall owner,
migrant from the imploded north
now at last embraced by neighbours
as we sing freedom once more,
willing to pay its volatile price.
Then older memory
strikes a tinder box
as a tyre rolls
down the sandy street,
stops where the sign
might once have been written
‘Closed for Reasons of Joy.’


Note: A photograph of the sign ‘Closed for Reasons of Joy’, placed on a store in Copenhagen, Denmark on 5 May, 1945, was included in an exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin in 2015, entitled: 1945 Defeat. Liberation. New Beginnings. Twelve European Countries after the Second World War.

Previously unpublished, © Ingrid de Kok

  • Ingrid de Kok has published six volumes of poetry, including a selection translated into Italian. Her work is widely anthologised and translated. She has been awarded writing fellowships and other honours and has read at numerous national and international literary festivals. She is Professor Emeritus and Fellow at the University of Cape Town.
Main image: Vladimir Chuchadeev

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