Did you know that the esteemed Afrikaans poet D.J. Opperman (1914 – 1985) lived and worked in Stellenbosch? One of his daughters attended Denneoord primary school (which was later to become Stellenbosch Primary) for which he wrote a school anthem, a lovely, playful children’s song (read it here). Opperman was an independent thinker and in many ways opposed to the regime of Hendrik Verwoerd, something revealed primarily in his literature.
His poetry is sometimes satirical and sometimes melancholy, but Opperman also wrote children’s poetry and lyrical poems about nature. For some readers the language might seem a bit old-fashioned, but its nuances are beautiful.
The following poem is about Winter in Stellenbosch. Take note of all the descriptive smells, sounds and sensations he uses:
Die Pieke skuil in mis of wit kapok
bo lensie-, ertjie-, spek-en-boontjiesop
wat damp teen vensters en wit gewelmure.
Bottels rooiwyn warm aan voor kaggelvure
en in houtbakke volgens die seisoen
staan koejawels opgestapel en soetlemoene.
Ons sal soms met intiemer tongval praat;
kerriekos eet, varkrib en bruin wildsbraad, (‘roast‘)
souskluitjies met kaneel, gesproete pannekoek.
Wanneer jou kop sy reglê op die kussing soek,
raas die Eersterivier harder en vol,
en in jou word die klippe ronder omgerol.
From: Grondstowwe by die siklus van seisoene
Did you know that the Eerste River, mentioned here, once had an island in it? Read our blog here to find out what happened to it.
Between 1960 and 1979 D.J. Opperman worked as professor of Afrikaans at the University of Stellenbosch. During his career he won four Hertzog prizes (in 1947, 1956, 1969 and 1980), four Hofmeyer prizes (in 1954, 1956, 1966 and 1980), as well as many other awards.
At the end of 1975 D.J. Opperman’s health suddenly deteriorated due to liver failure. He went into a coma and was bedridden for months, kept under supervision of the Stellenbosch hospital. Despite the fact that doctors on 5 occasions believed he would die, Opperman recovered miraculously. It was after this experience that he later wrote Komas uit ’n bamboesstok (1979). The poem ‘Winter’ from “Grondstowwe by die siklus van seisoene” is from this collection.
An earlier poem, lamenting the death of his grandfather, was translated beautifully in English by William and Jean Branford in 1962. Here is the first stanza of that poem. Note again his use of imagery to conjure up a specific atmosphere.
Watching by the Old Man
The wind blows where a sleek, wet otter leaves
the pool, and in the tussocks sniffs and grieves;
out of night’s caves, an even, whistling breeze
circles the house among the wattle trees.
Under the roof-beams, by the ashen wall,
a single candle-flame burns still and small,
over his body paralysed: a moon
above a reef with bones of schooners strewn,
where stirring ocean currents carry far
from windswept cape the shattered rib and spar.
(Grové and Harvey 1962: 229)
For more on D.J. Opperman’s life and work, find his biography on Litnet.
Also: to read the story of where the name ‘Koloniesland’ came from, click here.
‘nDromer is a young Stellenbosser who loves writing about the everyday things that often go unnoticed. She likes dusty books and seeing how the past isn’t always what it seems. She has written about Stellenbosch, it’s heritage and it’s people almost every week since 2015.
Article and photo: Y Coetsee 2017
Grové, A.P. and C.J.D Harvey (eds.). 1962. Afrikaans poems with English translations. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.