Dennis Brutus

Dennis Brutus’s longing

Recasting poetry in a time of global warming

Kaia Sand

Just months before his death late in 2009, this video of Dennis Brutus reading "Longing" was posted to YouTube. Seated before brilliant orange flowers , Brutus opens his book, A Simple Lust—first published in 1963—to “Longing,” and reads the poem built of four tercets. He is reading on a patio, and midway through his reading, rain falls briefly, eerily rhyming with the closing phrase of the poem, “rains of poison.”

“Longing” is not a new poem. Rather, he explains in the video, he was recasting a poem from 1960. Had he not framed it otherwise, I might have read “Longing” as addressing anti-apartheid struggles, as some of Brutus’s other poems did during that period. But in this video, Brutus describes how the initial subject of the poem was lost love, and now, he wishes us to read it through the context of unmitigated climate disruption.

In my commentary “Recasting Poetry” I wondered how a poet might take an active role in recasting work, so that a poem might bend, alter, accrue in new contexts. Brutus’s decision to recast “Longing” is a fine example of a poet doing just that.

"I wrote it at the end of a sad love affair, a long time ago," he said, explaining that like this experience of lost love, climate change "seems simple but is actually very complex."

Dennis Brutus's creative activism

Dennis Brutus testifying before the United Nations in 1967 on behalf of the South African Nonracial Olympic Committee as well as South African political prisoners. [African Activist Archive]

Kaia Sand

Jules most recently wrote about poetry, dissent, and the Olympics, and in this capacity, the late South African poet Dennis Brutus was legendary. African Activist ArchiveDespite the fact Brutus said he was “never a good athlete,” he turned to sports as a focus for his activism (“I was reasonably good at organizing,” he explained), and began organizing sports competitions in the 1940s at the high school where he taught (Brutus 38). Through his affiliation with a number of anti-apartheid activists, he homed in on the Olympics with his sports-organizing talents, finding a contradiction between the Olympic charter (which forbade racial discrimination by participating countries) and the apartheid government of South Africa.

Of experts and inexperts

Jules Boykoff

In her last post, Kaia wrote about inexpertise as a possibly positive interventionary poetry stance.

Many of us have a conflicted relationship with experts and expertise. To be sure, in general, contemporary society demands increased reliance on and deference toward experts and expertise. Pay heed to the news any day of the week—whether it be television or radio or a newspaper—and you’ll find a cavalcade of experts expertly asserting expertise. 

On the positive side, experts can provide us with shortcuts, time-savers, insider insights, and thought-provoking analysis. Not a day goes by when I don’t appreciate an expert offering shrewd dissection of a topic I hadn’t quite thought of in that particular way. 

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