POET’S PROFILE – DENNIS BRUTUS
Brutus-Poetry and Protest
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 his 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.
A TROUBADOUR I TRAVERSE…
A troubadour, I traverse all my land
exploring all her wide flung parts with zest
probing in motion sweeter far than rest
her secret thickets with an amorous hand:
5 and I have laughed disdaining those who banned
enquiry and movement, delighting in the test
of wills when doomed by Saracened arrest,
choosing, like unarmed thumb, simply to stand.
Thus, quixoting till a cast-off of my land
10 I sing and fare, person to loved-one pressed
braced for this pressure and the captor’s hand
that snaps off service like a weathered strand:
– no mistress-favor has adorned my breast
only the shadow of an arrow-brand.
“A troubadour I traverse…” is a poem written on chivalrous themes. It is a Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet, made of a full octave (rhyming abbaabba) and a sestet (rhyming abaaba). First off, a troubadour is a medieval European poet-knight whose duty it was to ride alongside and defend a mistress. Until the troubadour retires from service, his duty is to die defending her. And he often praised her high unattainable love in his lyrics.
But Brutus is a troubadour for his homeland, seeing South Africa as a mistress for whom he must live and die. In the title and first four lines, Brutus talks about his romantic traverse (or travel – line 1) across the land, exploring its wide-flung, spread-out or exposed parts in a movement that is sweeter than any other that he knows. He does so with zeal and with his “amorous hand” (line 4). And in this ecstasy, he has laughed at all those who have sought to stop or question him even though he knew that a crusade in the name of love for South Africa under apartheid meant that he will die protecting her or be doomed to Saracened arrest (line 7). Saracens were Muslim Arabs against whom Christian knights fought the wars of the Crusade. Significantly, South African police armoured cars were also called Saracens. And in the face of this threat of arrest, he chose only “simply to stand” (line8) unarmed.
So he continues the protest, enjoying the romance with his land while tempting the apartheid regime for an arrest, quixoting till he is cast-off from his land (infer line 9). Don Quixote was the protagonist of the Spanish novelist Cervantes’ book and he spent his life fighting imaginary monsters and enemies, earning him a laughable reputation. So Brutus makes himself a quixotic fool for his homeland by a love that presses him (line 10) and which makes him prepare for an imminent arrest (captor’s hand – line 11) till he is snapped off service (line 12 – killed for his mistress South Africa or made incapable by detention). No mistress-favour or emblem of service adorns his breast as is usual for a troubadour but only the shadow of an arrow-brand (lines 13 and 14). The arrow-brand is the standard British symbol for a convict and Brutus’ reference to an arrow-brand could be the scar he keeps on his back from a gunshot for trying to flee from detention.
It is amazing how romance, the story of a man’s life and apartheid themes can be merged into this one poem of fourteen lines. Brutus is an African hero for giving us a chronicle of the fight against apartheid through the eyes of an African poet.