Three Afrikaans Poems

translated by Peter Constantine


oh, that fish could swim through my garden again!

Stately as whale sharks, speckled pacifists,
or goldfish freed from small glass domes
like marigolds between creepers
maybe a coelacanth or two—
millennia back there was a lake here, a sea,
if one believes the history of the rocks

rock, house, origin,
everything goes back an eternity
I gaze like the old, old philosophers
forward into the past and over my back
break waves of tomorrow, the day after tomorrow,
    some year,
amid the earthworms gathered there
among the skeletons of leviathans, serpents,
and bones of other obsolete animals,
finally mine too.



you who are holding the hammer in one hand say
you blatantly and unashamedly say
that this opening should be achieved with caution
no bullets through churches
open sesame is good enough
because wood like trees still understands
words softly spoken
the magic of a word of doubt
without ax or chisel.


traveling by house toward death

as the orchestra apparently continued to play,
it is fitting I share with Mozart the moment
when the house suddenly raises anchor
and pulls away from the rock

the chains break
birds fly off indignantly
worms go tumbling through clumps of earth
and carefully the house points its bow past
     shed and rock garden

through the portholes I can see the old karee
     willow meekly fluttering its eyelashes
at our once-in-a-lifetime maiden voyage.

Translations from the Afrikaans

Read Peter Constantine’s interview with Ilse van Staden.

Ilse van Staden is a writer, artist, and veterinarian. Though most of her published work (poetry, short stories, and a novel) is in her home language, Afrikaans, she has now also published two novels in English.

Peter Constantine’s recent translations include works by Augustine, Rousseau, Machiavelli, and Tolstoy; he is a Guggenheim Fellow and was awarded the PEN Translation Prize for Six Early Stories, by Thomas Mann, and the National Translation Award for The Undiscovered Chekhov. He is Professor of Translation Studies at the University of Connecticut.