New poetry by Gabeba Baderoon: ‘Promised land’

The Johannesburg Review of Books presents a new poem by Gabeba Baderoon, from her forthcoming collection The History of Intimacy, out from Kwela Books in August 2018.

Promised land

Bird cry in the keys
gliding to a low ending.
Hummingbird fingers quiver
dip and still
a note to almost nothing,
then you begin again,
training my heartbeat
to follow.

I listen to you at night
when I’m lonely
and not sure anymore.
So old at 18, you and not you
led us to where stillness trembles
into rapture, and rapture
into knowing we exist,
even if existence is thin
as breath.

I hear your breath in the notes.
Silence an inflection
running through everything.
Your father played you Bird
like he was family
and your grandfather gave you Marabi,
so you came from a long line
before the future opened
in you. Even then
you looked back
like the angel of history, raising
your wings into the yet-to-come,
but facing the direction you had left.

Sixteen years ago, yours
was the CD I packed in my suitcase
to tell without words
where I’m from,
not just the music
but the new, intricate country
we understood was impossible.

In those years of promises, you rested
in no easy melodies but composed
the difficult and searching
dimensions of the necessary world.
Your playing took us near beauty
because it might be enough
but in the end never is,
so you led us instead to the mapless place
of our longing.

The millennium ended after one year
with your death, presaging
our other losses.
Now I’ve lived past my youth
and also the silences I kept back then.

Moses, why
even today do we barely speak
of Florence,
who made the music happen,
and last,
and lay at your feet that night,
no words anymore between you?
But hers were the first to stop.

Even here,
she is at the end of the story,
her voice stilled.
Unsolved, they say,
but is it because
we’ve agreed not to ask?

All these years I’ve trembled at the door
between language and music, trying
the hinge between two wonders,
and did my longing also hide her
from my mind?
Was her silence
the price of yours?

Our forgetting is also
our home, and why
we never left the old country.
Now it is the after
and I have grown into the questions.
Listening in the dark,
I’m lonely and not sure anymore.


© Gabeba Baderoon

  • Gabeba Baderoon is the author of The Dream in the Next Body, The Museum of Ordinary Life and A Hundred Silences. A new collection, The History of Intimacy, is due from Kwela in August 2018. She is a member of the editorial board of the African Poetry Book Fund and co-directs the African Feminist Initiative at Pennsylvania State University. Baderoon is an Extraordinary Professor of English at Stellenbosch University and a Fellow of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.

The JRB Poetry Editor is Rustum Kozain

Header image: C Chapman/Unsplash

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