National Poetry Prize winners 2021

First Prize

Suitcases by Sisanda Kubeka

Before the family road trip, a father lays out the emergency kit
in front of his children like a map of precious secrets.
He explains, coolly and precisely,
how each item is just as crucial as the next.
A box of matches and a few pints of room temperature water.
A list of emergency numbers, scribed in barely legible handwriting.
The morning paper.
A cooler box, filled to the point of suffocation with chilled drinks
no one will be bothered to finish.

A Bible.
No one will read it but having it within arms’ length is imperative.
A pair of pliers, tweezers, and screwdrivers.
The full names of each of his children, both present and absent.
A tiny flask of whiskey for when it all goes wrong.
A book of spells, hidden.
For when the whiskey runs out.

Every peculiar thing is accounted for in the memory-
every corner covered with caution and care.
then added to the coveted list.
The kids don’t have to think about the emergencies,
he says, but he does.
The children just show up, coddled by the safe assumption that
someone has thought of a backup plan.
Father- bearer of backup plans and ill-fitting
nuts and bolts for the in case.

His only hope is that they don’t recognise the activity behind his eyes-
the worrying, the fortune-telling, the preparation.
It sinks into the cornea like black tar- it leaks across the white marble
like a runny stain on porcelain tiles.
The dad jokes are buried somewhere beneath the mess.
The reassuring gaze battles its way through.
He loads the car, and by noon the kids are in the backseat, asleep.

The mother sits in the passenger seat, unconvinced that the work is done.
She has a list of her own tucked under the tongue.
Behind her eyes is the eternal replay of every sermon she has ever attended.
Like God’s unsung secretary, she combs through His word
with so much precision she may as well have written them herself.
She finds a verse fit for this moment and turns it into a prayer.

The kids would say the family stopped going to church years ago
but that would be a lie.
Church never left; it evolved into something she can carry with her.
Nowadays she’s had to learn to find the pastor in every mundane thing,
like the silver-haired American news anchor
whose voice warms up the living room as if it were an ongoing prayer.
Afterall, what is church if not the sole reminder that we are on God’s time.
CNN delivers God’s word like a death sentence.

The conflict in the Middle East persists, Trump’s America is burning,
and the rest of the world is the unfinished sentence that dissolves tragically
into a commercial break.
There are enough flies for every video of starving children in Africa
because God put each one of them there.
The flies are His children too, their wafer-thin wings beat through the
atmosphere on His time.

Millions hover in front of the TV like famished worshippers on Sundays.
And the mother has perfect attendance.
Each headline is yet another emergency she must be ready for
in case the rest of the family is not (and they won’t be).
If faith is simply fear personified, then her love is like vengeance.
The father looks at the GPS as if he doesn’t know the way already.
The mother looks ahead, into the depths of her own prophecies.

Second Prize

Silence in Church by Zizipho Bam

It has been raining all week. The rain does not pour anywhere as much as it does in my village. The bridge spread across the river even goes under. People seek refuge in their houses away from the very rain they prayed for. The rain takes everything, from the trees above the concrete to heaps of land all moving with the mass of water.
There is a Moravian Mission in the village of Tinana in the Eastern Cape. The church is at the end of the village near the bridge. The church bell sings into the Sunday dress slit and hem of the praying women. Out of hiding, the sun comes out and the village marches down to the mission.
My grandmother says not to talk, fiddle with my clothes, or run around in the house of the Lord. The white benches are filled with everyone I know from the village within a few minutes. The choir begins to sing a song from the Hymnbook and I watch as the ceiling stretches open like my grandmother’s voice. Water clashes, breaking branches and voices, the sermon is ushered softly into the river.
There is a presence of silence that I have come to know inside these walls buzzing with “How great thou Art”. When the river is empty it echoes the song of the church. When the church is full it swallows me up and I watch myself wanting to speak, wanting to sing, wanting to clap my hands but I am paralyzed by the silence.
We cannot hear each other underwater, only the praise songs God has orchestrated for the day vibrating in our throats. The pulpit is a container of prayers flowing over the riverbanks. Eroding at the alter, a whisper grows into a voice chanting praises. A cry cracks the back of the church. Then silence becomes a song humming itself between the gasps of breath.
I watch as the ceiling blasts open from the heavy load of holy noises and I want to become the ground shaking from the explosion, I want to become the furniture rising from the ground, or at least the water bursting in from all sides, swinging the doors and windows open. But I can feel my grandmother’s stare on my back and my lips do not move.
I wonder if I am ever going to be anything but silent here, perhaps free. Anything but this silence I feel creep in like a stutter as it numbs my entire body. When the storm subsides and the rain returns to the sky, my spirit is kneeling at the alter oozing a kind of peace my body has never encountered. It has also filled the pulpit with a prayer pulled out from the bottom of my belly.
And yet my lips have not moved. The pleats on my dress are still and straight. I am seated upright on the bench.
Listening to God.

Third Prize

Koesisters by Jerome Coetzee

Sunday afternoon,
the day of rest,
the time of day when the world
and the atmosphere
is filled with a craving,
a tradition
and we go on the hunt,
if the pockets allow it,
but we sometimes las together
to find the antie
who has the sign painted
in bright colours
that says:
Koesisters freshly baked

And our Sunday that honours
rests and everything holy
calls on the different names of our
ancestors, the different recipes
passed down as instructions:
Should you feel lost,
an outcast,
a 2nd class citizen

It is in this moment that we
feel the need to order more,
if the pockets allow it,
but we sometimes las together
and pass on gratitude
for those hands
that survived to make a koesister,
and we gather around
that which makes us holy,
the too light and too dark koesister.
Honoured for its resilience,
With or without klapper

With full stomachs
we know we are
allowed to rest,
allowed to be grateful
on the day we eat koesisters