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Passacaglia in D minor

For M-R



“The donkey bag of life is full of scraps.”

—Nasreddin Hodja


The first, not counting baby snaps,

depicts me holding a suitcase,

adventure on my toddler's face,

As though I were setting out, perhaps,

to quit my birthplace: Caledon Baths

Hotel; it burned down in 1945,

but that was after, switching paths,

my father joined the SAAF.


From there on, there’s a large schism,

nine years redacted, or more, old

Nobodaddy’s counterpointed rhythm

disrupting memory’s dusty store:

I’m off in the veld, then, far away

under the Great Karoo's big sky,

with boys potting platannas in a vlei.

It was the nineteen fifties! Should I cry?


Climbing a koppie to a raptor’s perch

my brother and I got two nestlings

and raised them on the kitchen porch.

No need for mom's controlling things,

once grown, our "falconets" flew free,

weaving their web of goshawk ways

and dining in a town hall tree

on municipal pigeons many days.


They were a metaphor;  I winged away,

opportunity knocking, and being now

sixteen, to take a job with the GPO/HPK

. . . in Kimberley. O sybaritic city! How

anticlimactic your Big Hole’s puddle!

In an unguarded  adolescent muddle,

I splashed out on a new jacket at John Orr’s.

I’d seldom seen such fancy stores!


Twenty pounds less ten bob,

a month I got, that's to the shilling,

working in the old Mint Building.

My modus vivendi was scarcely snob:

I settled for starters at Huis Albertyn

(a government hostel), then shifted

to a nearby family's, called Colyn,

—of whom my memory's drifted.


With Charlie’s Hudson Hornet handy

we drove in search of ginger squares

(think ginger wine plus ginger brandy)

and flirted riskily with girls in pairs,

visiting rugby players' intended prey;

the sportsmen drank the night away.

She won me with “Who’s Sorry Now?”

And we faked a tango, God knows how!


At the Psychical Society, I didn’t hypnotize,

and in the Liberal Party couldn’t dent

my country‘s brass-and-iron firmament.

Luck’s best, they say, and mine was fine,

so I should no doubt admit content,

and there are neither lies in that nor blame

and we are all bamboozled in our time

and none but miss some fancied finish line.


Driving back from (synecdoche’s allure)

Virginia via the Hottentots-Holland Range

in a chatty Zimbabwean’s Uber Subaru,

I was, Wikipedia jibed, the local cynosure;

characters who’d never given me much due

would no doubt have found it strange

that such as I should one day be—

faut de mieux—a Caledon celebrity.


The mayor (if one there be), we teased

should hold a welcoming ceremony

and offer me the town’s gilt key!

S/he didn’t, naturally. We were displeased

too: in the old Caledon Baths Hotel's refound

site, the springs still gushed their trickle,

but a Reno-style casino grabbed the ground

now--and games of chance are . . . fickle.


Done my resurrected natal sphere,

we ended up that sunny summer’s day

on the casino’s stoep, with Windhoek beer,

reluctant to explore more, or perhaps fear

-ing some new fake memory’s false sway,

then dined at the handy local Wimpy:

the cheeseburger special for you, ma mie,

baked hake with tartar sauce for me.




Notes: SAAF = South African Air Force. The platannas shot by the boys were clawed frogs or toads, Xenopus laevis. A koppie is a small hill, and the young birds the poet and his brother stole were likely Pale Chanting Goshawks, Melierax canorus. GPO/HPK = General Post Office / Hoofposkantoor. In South Africa, a stoep is a verandah.

       Built in 1897 to take advantage of the seven hot and cold ferruginous springs there, Caledon Baths, depicted above, was in its way a world-class spa hotel: the Prince of Wales and the famous English music hall song-and-dance man Sir George Robey, known in his day as the “Prime Minister of Mirth,” were among its guests. The hotel had its own dairy and piggery; masseurs and masseuses were in attendance. In 1940, room and full board, with use of the mineral baths and other facilities, cost between £4 and £5 a week (roughly U.S.$16 to $20 then). Sorrel, daffodils, and star-of-Bethlehem studded the edges of the wheat fields; “every bit of uncultivated ground is a miniature flower garden” (“The Caledon Baths: A Visitor’s Impressions,” South African Medical Journal, November 23, 1940, 443). The writer's father, Basil Dreyer, was its manager before he went off to fight the Deutsche Afrika Korps in the Libyan desert--the youngest hotel manager in South Africa, he liked to say.


The Caledon Baths Hotel in its heyday


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