View Entire Literary Sampler     

Literary Sampler

New York, 12 September 2001 (2001)

Author Information
Writer: Breyten Breytenbach (1939 - )
Writer's Country: South Africa
Original Language: English
Genre: Poetry
Event: September 11

will the hand endure moving over the paper
will any poem have enough weight
to leave a flightline over a desolate landscape
ever enough face to lift against death's dark silence
who will tell today?

the huge anthill of people remains quiet
somber and shrill, bright and obscure
as if brown effluvium of sputtering towers
still sweeps the skyline with a filthy flag
who will tell today?

today images wail for voice behind the eyes
planes as bombs stuffed with shrapnel of soft bodies
then the fire inferno flame-flowers from skyscrapers
human flares like falling angels from the highest floor
down, down all along shimmering buildings of glass and
weightless and willowy and flame-winged streamlined
reflections fleeting in the fugitive language of forgetting
the hellhound of destruction has a red tongue of laughter

who will tell?
gouged eyes do not understand that the sky is blue
through the dismal and chilly nuclear winter
people stumble people shuffle
stumble-people shuffle-people worm-white-people
where are the faces
old before their ending or their wedding
greyed in ashes from head to toe
as if clothed in the coast of the snowing knowing of ages beneath rummage and debris rosy corpses move and
and in the East River confidential files and folders float
with shreds and feathers lacerated human meat
scorched confetti for the dog's feast

who will tell tomorrow tomorrow
where are the faces
will the tongue still think
still pulse its dark lair
with the flaming memory of bliss
will any poem some day ever carry sufficient weight
to leave the script of scraps recalling fall and forgetting
will death remain quivering in the paper.

Credit: "September 12, 2001" by Breyten Breytenbach was first published in 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11,New York University Press, Copyright © 2002.


Breyten Breytenbach was born in September 1939 in Bonnievale. He matriculated at the Hoërskool Hugenoot in Wellington in 1957, and later at the University of Cape Town. Breytenbach moved to Paris when apartheid policies invaded the university. When Breytenbach applied for a visa in 1965 to return to South Africa to receive a literary prize, he was warned that he could be arrested under the Immorality act for his interracial marriage to Yolande Ngo Thi Hoang Lien of Vietnamese origin. Breytenbach subsequently became more deeply involved in anti-apartheid activities and co-founded Okehela (the Spark in Zulu) whose ultimate goal was to build anti-apartheid infrastructures in white South African communities. Back in South Africa on a false passport to set up contacts for his organization, Breyten Breytenbach was imprisoned in 1975 for seven years, spending two of those in solitary confinement. Breytenbach now teaches part of the year at New York University as a Distinguished Global Professor and is also the executive director of the Gorée Institute in the Bay of Dakar. Breytenbach has written a prison memoir and multiple volumes of poetry and prose as well as holding art exhibitions in a number of countries, including France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany. His 1994 exhibitions in Cape Town and Pretoria were his first in South Africa however, coming more than three decades after his debut in Edinburgh in 1962. A large number of articles, essays, academic dissertations, doctoral theses and books have been written and published -- in Afrikaans, English, French, Dutch, German, Russian, Chinese and Arabic, among others -- on Breytenbach's literary and visual work. Several documentaries have been made about his life and work, including the 1998 film, Vision from the Edge: Breyten Breytenbach Painting the Lines.


Lady One: Of love and Other Poems, New York: Harcourt Brace, 2002. 

Dog Heart, Harcourt Brace, 1999.

The Memory of Birds in Trees in Times of Revolution, New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1996.

Return to Paradise, New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1993.

Memory of Snow and of Dust, New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1989.

A Visit to Paradise, New York: Persea Books, 1980.

"When one is faced by absolute horror and the inexplicability of it, one instinctively reaches into areas of the self that probably only really find, at that particular moment, adequate expression in certain rhythms and in certain images. I think it's an area that one writes from that is curious because it is not a clearly defined partisan one. There is obviously a lot of anger, but probably more distress and an existential perplexity faced with the event. It's nearly as if one senses instinctively that if you were to try and suggest in the writing that this is right and this is wrong, it would weaken it. It goes beyond the famous good and evil and opens the curtain on a human potential that we don't want to know, but that we have in some form, in some deeply embedded knowledge. I'm not saying that we are capable of that horror, but the knowledge of it is probably something that is very deeply part of all of us." From a Legacy Project Interview with Breyten Breytenbach, December 13, 2004