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Translator's Note: The Broken String



Diakwain was a |xam (san) hunter in the northern Cape Colony, at a time of conflict with encroaching white settlers. He was jailed for killing a farmer (boer) who had threatened to murder his entire family. While in prison, Diakwain and a few other |xam were transferred into the custody of Dr. W.H.I. Bleek, who wished to study their language. Bleek and his collaborator, Lucy Lloyd, discovered the prisoners were the repository of a vast amount of oral lore, which the two scholars transcribed and translated between 1870 and 1880. They remembered Diakwain as "a soft-hearted mortal" who wept when his puppy got distemper, and sometimes escorted visiting ladies home to protect them from hoodlums.

The mindset of the |xam is almost inaccessible to people today. They lived in a world where the boundaries between humans, animals, and stars were porous. One could participate in the being of another. Things could be simultaneously "here" and "there." A "tapping" in a particular part of one's body could signal that a relative who had been wounded in that exact spot was on his way to visit. An antelope in a rock painting could share in the life of the real creature, grazing out of sight on the savannah. Some paintings may have provided a portal for the shaman to dive into the spirit realm.

Xaa-ting, Diakwain's father, was the pupil of a shaman, Nuingkuiten, who taught him such skills as how to lead the Rain Bull across the sky and how to make his enemies sick. Xaa-ting would hear his teacher calling him by plucking the strings of his bow, but with the teacher's death the string of shamanic succession ended.

Diakwain's own life ended soon after he was released in 1876. He was murdered by supporters of the farmer he had killed, and the killings did not stop. By the end of the century, the |xam had been virtually annihilated. Nothing was left of them but their stories.

The source text, which is partly prose, has been compressed, rearranged, and reworded to bring out its innate poetry.—HF


This poem originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2009

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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