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Folk Dancing for Beginners

By Karen Press


(He sets the tone)

In my country the president


from a bed of red carnations


and then the children

sit down

each with a goldfish on their desk.


Their task is to teach it to


better than it does already.


At the end of the year they’ll

have to have to have to

show what it can do


and the president will


with gifts of sandwiches and white flags.


So where were you

when I needed you?


I know, you were right here,

staring at me from the doorstep

saying get a grip, your needs are a joke


and of course you were right,

they were, I did.


Now you’ve come all the way in

and you’re turning this way and that

in front of the mirror, offering me


a whole wardrobe of postures to record

breathlessly, and I’m trying not to yawn.


Show me something that makes me

want to dress up to match,

show me the germ of a good time, show me

something silkier than I can spin myself


and I’m all yours,

me and my fine adjectives,

all yours.


The laws of physics are inviolable

Now I realise

I just assumed

you’d be willing to share my lunch,

lend me your books, borrow mine.


Now I realise

you’d look at me and think

‘you’re of no interest’.

You’d never need a lift from me,

I’d never dream of asking you for one.


Parallel phone lines stretched

pole to pole along the national road.

Or an underpass and a flyover.


Both unending, and if I can look at you so nakedly

it’s because not even my shadow exists in your world.

It’s a plastic bag blown against a fence,

you pass it with your shades on, turning the volume up.


I wish I could tease you and pour you a drink,

I wish you’d laugh sometimes

and wonder what I’m thinking.


I can’t keep scowling, it’s bad for my heart

yet that’s the only way I can stop you

flattening me with your clown-size mirror,

your nothing there but policy documents

bursting out of your pockets,

your voice like a jumbo all-the-trimmings hot dog.


Take your places

A scarf is the opposite of a piece of ground

and what is the opposite of a nickel blade?


A street corner is the opposite of a nectarine.

Where do a trestle table and a hundred lemons meet?


To skip takes a certain history of bare toes.

There are no reflections in a lift shaft.


Where fingertips have married marble

centuries have passed in a blaze of silk


and all the wooden residue turns to amethyst

that whispers gold-veined secrets as the lights go out.


Where to from here?

You learn a lot of tricks along the way

that don’t seem like tricks at the time

until you realise you’re doing them in your sleep,

all those heartfelt gestures and complex rhythms.


I’ve been reading prophecies written thirty years ago

that tell exactly how the grand betrayal would happen

twenty years later, and I think about the man who wrote them

sitting in a malaria-infested camp in a foreign country,

hidden guest of sympathetic enemies,

thinking about how he could defend himself

against his dangerous comrades when they summoned him

to account for his claims that they were running businesses with donor funds,

running legs of lamb with gun money begged from starving supporters,

setting up bursary funds for their own children with the soldiers’ shoe allowance,

thinking about how he would have to pretend to like legs of lamb and briefcases

to get out of there alive.


Where to from here?

He died as soon as he got out.

Let’s sit still a while and watch

earthworms explaining things to eggshells.


The coastline seems endless

Everyone returns after a while,


the one you loved comes back

as a youtube clip and you understand

why he left without you,


the one who loved you

comes back as the president

of a club your parents joined

at the time you ran away,


the one you were

wakes up one night

inside you


begging for mercy

in a voice you hoped

never to hear again.


But here they all are,

none of them looking at you

and all you can do is wait

for them to find you

ghosting their nights and days

and reach out, ready to try again.


Dance to this

First come the loud boys leaping sideways

thinner than my heart.


The girls say come, come, come

and the boys leap, and the wind blows,

its small kitten paws smacking the day

slightly skew and rosy.


They are throwing their arms around you.

Oh! how warm they feel!

They are throwing their arms around you.

Oh! be careful!


The men in dark suits cross the stage in formation.

They are very tired.

They will have a drink standing up.

They will head for their cars without seeming to hurry.

There are hairbrushes somewhere, waiting for them.


At the entrance to the country

the women beat drums

outside their front doors. They are so angry, their jerseys

stretch and snap in the wind.

Then they go inside without a word.




Oh sad and skinny boys I can’t get past you,

you’re like fence staves across my road,

knobbly branches broken off and made to stand sentry

without a crossbar or knitted arteries of wire

to hold you steady, your bony smiles reassure no one.


You have ten ways to stave off hunger,

none of them good, and if I tried to hug you

you’d be shy and brutal in response, awkwardly

you’d stab me and run, and rightly so,

you have a gift for leaping through alleys to find shelter

from the wind that scours the last flesh

from your dreams, the wind in eyes like mine,

you fuck and smoke and sleep the hours into a brave

history around the thinness of your heart,

its eager smile, you know you could do something,

if it were only possible.


You are here

A bin

a concrete table

half a pigeon wing

a eucalyptus tree.


Standing at the edge of the gravel

I look into a valley.

It floats and folds like the cloak of a story.


Words wander through it

harvesting the air – rustling ants, furrowing worms,

just, just audible.


I put in petrol,

get the windscreen cleaned, give R5.


You overtake me wildly,

I hug the yellow safety lane.


Thank you, your hazards flash

and my brights flash, you’re welcome.


Only here, only here

in an enormous country

love is a small and private thing

running freely between cars, across valleys,

up and down the Shoprite aisles

finding its missing parts in the wire bins

with the Special Offer crowns.



This story is in print as part of Chimurenga Vol. 15: The Curriculum is Everything (available here).

Presented in the form of a textbook, Chimurenga 15 asks what could the curriculum be – if it was designed by the people who dropped out of school so that they could breathe?



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