Dennis Brutus campaigned for freedom in apartheid South Africa and as was normal, he was persecuted by the apartheid government. He tried to flee from detention after being handed to the South African authorities by the Mozambiquan authorities and was shot in the back at close range. On partial healing, he was sent to the notorious Robben Island where he was kept in the cell next to Nelson Mandela’s. According to the apartheid code, he was considered a coloured person.
Dennis Vincent Brutus was a South African activist, educator, journalist and poet best known for his campaign to have apartheid South Africa banned from the Olympic Games. He lived between 28th November 1924 and 26th December 2009. He was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and had ancestry of mixed French, Italian and South African.
His activist life likens him to a crusader for his country. A knight on duty for a mistress; and this has so often appeared in his poetry. He loved South Africa deeply and did everything to win its freedom. In this poem, “It Is the Constant Image of Your Face”, he closes the first stanza by saying “my land takes precedence of all my loves”. This was his passion. While he was in prison, news broke that South Africa had been banned from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as he had campaigned for.
IT IS THE CONSTANT IMAGE OF YOUR FACE
It is the constant image of your face
framed in my hands as you knelt before my chair
the grave attention of your eyes
surveying me amid my world of knives
that stays with me, perennially accuses
and convicts me of heart’s-treachery;
and neither you nor I can plead excuses
for you , you know, can claim no loyalty –
my land takes precedence of all my loves.
Yet I beg mitigation, pleading guilty
for you, my dear, accomplice of my heart
made, without words, such blackmail with your beauty
and proffered me such dear protectiveness
that I confess without remorse or shame,
my still-fresh treason to my country
and I hope that she, my other, dearest love
will pardon freely, not attaching blame
being your mistress (or your match) in tenderness
This poem is a typical Dennis Brutus poem. As is characteristic, he compares his love for South Africa, to the love he has for some other person. Maybe, a woman!
He opens the poem by saying ‘the constant image’ (line 1) of his woman’s face and the ‘grave attention’ (line 3) of her eyes which survey him amid his ‘world of knives’ (line 4), accuse him perennially. This is all coming to him as a memory because in line 2, he makes the allusion to a period gone when his love was knelt before him with the frame of her face in his hands. His ‘world of knives’ can mean so many things at once. It could mean that Brutus was surrounded by apartheid South Africa with its numerous brutalities. It could also mean that he was conflicted inside him, in a way that struck him like many knives piercing at once. Again, he could be talking about the conflict between his two loves as the poem tells us as we read on. And we are yet to know what she accuses him for, but Brutus doesn’t make us wonder long. She accuses him of heart’s-treachery (line 6). No, not even accuses but convicts! He has accepted that he has been treacherous to his woman, going on to probably share his love with another. But he does not apologise for it. He tells her that none of the two of them can ‘plead excuses’ (line 7) for his seeming infidelity because apparently, he cannot stop his love for his land and she can also ‘claim no loyalty’ (line 8). I want to risk saying that he is saying that he’s not bound to be loyal to her because ‘my land takes precedence of all my loves’ (line 9). He loves his land more than all his other loves. His land is his woman’s rival.
The second stanza is an attempt to pacify the heart of his woman who has been brought to the saddening realisation that she cannot have her lover all to herself. He begs mitigation (line 10), meaning that he admits that he has done wrong but is ready to give reasons for it. He calls her lover an ‘accomplice of my heart’ (line 11). That is like saying that she is equally guilty of his betrayal of his greater love. The woman is so beautiful that she has blackmailed him with her beauty (line 12) and made him a backslidden lover when it comes to his land. He has given his heart to another one outside his precedent love. In fact, her love for him has been so sweet and protective that he finds no shame in confessing his denial of his country. He calls it a ‘still-fresh treason’ (line 15). But in this confused place, a world of knives, he pleads, hopes (line 16) that his dearest love (line 16), South Africa, will pardon him freely (line 17) and not blame his woman. He ends by revealing more of his confusion, saying that South Africa, his first love, is his woman’s ‘mistress (or your match)’ (line 18), not knowing which to say is more tender. He loves one, he loves the other. One was able to conspire with his heart and steal his affection from the other, and now he does not even know whether the two are matched or one is dearer to his heart.
The greater emotion here is Brutus’ guilt of diluting the apartheid struggle with other cares. His love of his land is shown here overwhelmingly. This poem is another beauty that has added a little more tonnage to my love for this most romantic of poets coming from Africa.