The Foot: Three Poems

by Kobus Moolman

In 2008, while on a residency at the Caversham Centre for Writers and Artists in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, I wrote, in a single sitting late one afternoon, a cycle of six poems about various parts of my body. There was ‘The Hand’, ‘The Foot’, ‘The Foot (the other one)’, ‘The Shoulder’, ‘The Foot Re-visited’, and ‘The Wrist’.

The six sections represent a watershed for me; in language, in subject matter, and in form. They were the first time that I had spoken directly in my writing about, by speaking directly from, my own disabled body, and its affected, significant parts. It was my body defined in medical terminology as having a congenital spina bifida present from birth from L5 down to S5.

By drawing attention in an unqualified and direct manner to the disabled body as a valid subject of aesthetic representation, the poems (published in my 2010 collection Light and After) propose not only a movement of disability from marginalisation to the centre, but moreover demonstrate a radical challenge to notions of the normative and speak thus directly to issues of inclusion and social justice in our society.

The poems enact a figurative use of language that makes possible a rigorous confrontation with the uniqueness of my sense of my own atypical embodiment. In these poems, I succeeded, I believe, in fashioning a complex interweaving of metaphoric language that was able to transmute the closed specificity of individual lived experience into a set of evocative codes which allowed a reader imaginative access to that experience even though they might a) not ever have shared it, such as disability, or b) might not even be sure precisely what is being described.

In ‘The Foot’ reference is made to ‘a hole’: “The foot is a hole made by a shard / of memory”. On one level this is a direct reference to an unhealed ulcer on the ball of my left foot (which I have had for more than thirty years as a result of poor circulation), but crucially the image also operates beyond that specific knowledge: it speaks to any experience of absence, of loss, buried in the past.

Furthermore, in the poem ‘There is something about his right hand’ (published in Left Over, 2013), we encounter the consequences of radical surgery to correct an Arnold-Chiari Malformation. This is a structural defect in the cerebellum and spinal cord frequently associated with spina bifida, and most often occurring during foetal development. Mine, however, decided to wait until I was in my fourth year at university. I was treated, and fortunately recovered much of the strength in my right arm and hand which had been seriously affected. But there are some functions that my hand still cannot perform (clicking my fingers for example), and the right side of my body is without any sensation. Moreover, the invasive surgery (which had to cut deep into my right shoulder to install a PVC shunt at the top of my spine) was only aggravated by the fact that since my early thirties I have had to use a cane.

This biographical actuality provides the departure point for these poems, but I strongly resist reducing them to simple reportage on a medical condition. I am less interested in the literal content or meaning of particular references, and more interested in what happens at that point where the reader is forced to abandon their expectation of the confessional and the demand for veracity, and in so doing is encouraged to enter into the ‘other’ life that the language of my poems set up – a particular experience of being in the world and being in the body, an experience attested to in the last three lines of ‘There is something about his right hand’, where the register shifts from reportage to allusion. This shift problematises the assumed resemblance between the textual subject and myself as author. In so doing, possibilities are opened in the text, not just for alternate ways of reading and understanding, but for more complex and deeper ways of understanding social justice.


The Foot

The foot is a hole.
A stone.
A black stone.
A hole made by the stone
before the hole was made.
A hole that the stone cannot get out of,
no matter how black, and blacker still,
its skin goes –
until its skin begins to crack, and
pieces flake off.
Pieces of rock falling into
the black hole that the foot grows
beneath its shadow.

The foot is a stone.
Underneath the stone is a hole
that spreads and shrinks and
spreads again as the wind blows.

The hole smells like words left a long time
in the crevice between two teeth.
Like words that have been closed up
too long in the dark pit of the mouth.
Sweating all night. And sleepless
in the day.

The foot is a hole made by a shard
of memory.
It walked through black mud
one morning on the edge of a brown lake,
where the birds waded deep up to their cries,
up to their blue wings.
It walked through the black mud and
into the lake.
And the water was not cold,
the foot said.
Come in, the foot said. The water is warm.
And it bent and scooped up the old skin
from off the surface of the lake and
threw it up into the air.

And the flakes of water flew.

And the flakes of water fell.
And the foot came up out of the water
and it was red.
It was red where the flakes of water
had fallen upon it and cut it –
called out to it its new name.

Its new name was loss.
And rot.

The foot remembers the brown lake
always, and longs to return
to the warm water, to the impenetrable depths,
lurking with the voices of fishes.

The foot remembers the brown lake
with its long waving hair and its green eyes,
and the foot wants to laugh again, loudly,
the way the long grass does.
It wants to laugh again.
But there is a hole.
There is the hole made by the red stone
that does not heal. Ever.
The hole that never closes over.
Even when it seems to.

I hold the foot in my hand every night,
spit onto it.
I spit into its red hole and
mix the spit with sand and honey,
and pack it full. I pack the hole full
every night, and when I go to sleep
I dream that the hole is growing a skin over it.
That a wide bridge is falling out of the sky,
and that it lands on the foot,
and that it covers the deep distance
between the edges of the red hole.

The foot pretends that it has something to say.
That the fishes in the brown lake and
the birds in the air and the stones, too,
in the black desert
want to hear what it has to say.

But to be honest,
it has all been said before.

Published in Light and After (deep south, 2010)


The Foot (the other one)

The other foot is stupid.
And small.
And not worth talking about.

Published in Light and After (deep south, 2010)



Surgery List


Subtitled: The beginning.

At the base of his spine.
Snake-like. No other description.
After 50 years
it is still sensitive to the touch.

Right leg, below the knee,
vertical, 10cms with
6 cross-stitches. To keep him
on the straight and narrow.

Right foot, outside ankle,
crescent-moon, approximately 12cms,
faded stitches, impossible to count.
In order to stop him
going over.

SubtitledThe practice.

Right wrist, circular, jagged,
4cms with no stitches.
Windows are actually meant
for looking through.

Left foot, outside ankle,
crescent-moon, approximately 12cms,
with 8 cross-stitches.
Because this one was going
the same way as the other.

Same foot, top of ankle,
vertical, 10cms with
6 cross-stitches. Because
he had to be pulled back
with force.

Same again, inside ankle,
1.5cms, no stitches. Just
a nick from an electric saw with
rotating blade used to remove
old plaster cast.

SubtitledThe scare.

Back of the neck, from
just below the shoulders to
the top of the spine, straight
as a ruler, 15cms with 10 cross-stitches.
In order to insert a silicone shunt.
In order to prevent him losing
the rest of his feelings.

Right hand, palm and
fingers, calluses
and corns, various,

due largely
to walking

on uneven air.

Everything else
comes and goes.

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