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This poem is taken from PN Review 94, Volume 20 Number 2, November - December 1993.

Seven/ Xam Poems from the Bleek Records Stephen Watson

These versions are based on the Bleek Records, the more than 12,000 pages of oral records which the German linguist, W.H. Bleek, transcribed in Cape Town in the 1870S and which are now on deposit in the archives of the University of Cape Town. Bleek's informants were three men from the /Xam, a word used to designate the linguistic group more commonly known as the Cape Bushmen. These men were arrested in the 1860s for alleged crimes like stock-theft after their ancestral lands in the northern Cape were steadily encroached upon by white settlers. All three were working as convicts in Cape Town harbour when their existence came to Bleek's attention. He prevailed upon the then-governor of the Cape Colony to have them passed into his service and spent the remaining years of his life (he died in 1875) learning their language and devising a system of notation in order to record their stories, chants, myths and legends.

Not only was this a remarkable intellectual feat in itself, but both Bleek and his informants were all too aware that the culture of the /Xam people was on the verge of disintegration, as their way of life. was first disrupted and then destroyed by white farmers and surrounding black tribes. The /Xam were almost completely exterminated by the end of the nineteenth century. Many of their stories are imbued with the tragic awareness of a cultural past which had increasingly grown remote and a future which promised nothing but their own disappearance from the earth. The fate of the /Xam provides us with a concentrated, and therefore even more terrible, instance of kind of devastation that has marked South African history over the past three centuries.

In these versions I have retained those phonetic symbols (/, = , // and so forth) which indicate the extremely complex system of 'click' used in /Xam speech. It would be unrealistic to expect the Western reader to have any idea how to pronounce them, but they are included here for the visually estranging effect that they create - as a remainder, perhaps, of the remoteness of the Bushman world from our own.

Prayer to the New Moon
Moon now risen, returning new,
take my face, this life, with you,
give me back the young face, yours,
the living face, new-made, rising:

O moon, give me the face
with which you, having died, return.


Moon forever lost to me,
and never lost, returning;
be for me as you once were
that I may be as you:

Give me the face, o moon,
which you, having died, make new.


Moon, when new, you tell us
that that which dies returns;
your face returning says to me
that my face, dead, shall live:

O moon, give me the face
which you, your death, makes new!


The Rain-Sorcerer
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