I am not an activist. At least, I don’t think I am.

I’m a poet.

You know what they say about poets, don’t you? Well, here is what a selection of writers – all of them poets themselves – have said:

• All people talk to themselves. Some are overheard and they are the poets. (R.S. Thomas)

• I don’t know if I can analyse why poets are bad news; but in theory I think it would be much better to stick to accountants and solicitors. (Wendy Cope)

• Ever since Stephen Dedalus, poets have tended to look at themselves as if they were angels on loan from heaven, instead of scruffy old bolloxes going around the place looking for a bit of inspiration. (Brendan Kennelly)

• Poets are almost human. (Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin)

Even amongst themselves, then, there is an occasional tendency to assume that what poets do is somehow not worth a great deal, a bit of a joke, that they don’t really have much to do with ‘the real world’.

Instead they’re more like little clones of that tragic romantic genius, John Keats, who (as we all know from school) scribbled off a few Odes – To Melancholy, To Psyche, Autumn and On a Grecian Urn – before promptly departing for Italy where, at the age of just 26, he died in a tiny room of (what else?) consumption.

That’s the stereotype, isn’t it? Poets are mournful, self-absorbed saddos sitting around waiting for the Muse to visit. They don’t actually DO anything.

Now, I don’t believe this. Had you challenged me I would have said my attitude is much closer to this:

• Poetry is an attempt to rescue what matters of one’s life. (Alan Ross)

Or this:

• Poetry is a way of talking about things that frighten you. (Mick Imlah)

And finally:

• If one is not brave enough to speak one’s mind, one should not be a poet. (Tony Harrison)

But it was not until 2012 that my opinion was put to the test.

In early March 2012 I decided to attend, with some reluctance it must be confessed, a lecture given here at Rhodes University in Grahamstown by someone I had heard of but never met: Dr William Fowlds, a veterinary surgeon known for his work with wild animals.
My attendance was reluctant because I knew what Dr Fowlds would be talking about – the recent spate of vicious attacks on rhinos at a local game reserve, Kariega, to which he had been called to treat the cold-bloodedly and cruelly mutilated victims. I was almost certain that he would be showing images of the aftermath of these horrendous acts, and I was right. The rhinos had been attacked in the night by a criminal gang of cowards – I won’t dignify them with the name of ‘poachers’ – who had first immobilised the animals with drugs and then mercilessly hacked the horns from their faces with axes and pangas (machetes) and left them to bleed slowly and agonisingly to death.

Dr Fowlds described vividly the scene of carnage he was called to, where one rhino, a bull, was already dead of its wounds and another two were apparently mortally injured and in great distress. Worse even than his description, though, was the video footage that showed the animals desperately struggling to their feet then staggering about blindly in a forlorn effort to escape their tormentors. It was all I could do to force myself to watch.

One of the surviving animals, a male named Themba (‘Hope’ in isiXhosa), had to be treated both for dreadful facial wounds and for injuries sustained to his legs during his catastrophic immobilisation by the drugs. Another, a female called Thandi (‘Love’), was facially mutilated for her horns. Both animals were traumatised beyond belief, and Themba, having shown signs of responding to treatment to the wounds on his face, lasted three weeks before drowning in a waterhole. The injuries to his legs meant he could not climb out after having gone into the water to ease the pain.

Thandi, as many of you will know, has made a heroic and miraculous recovery. She is still alive three years after the attack and even become a mother earlier this year.

But no one could even contemplate such a possibility in 2012.

At the end of the presentation I approached Dr Fowlds to thank him both for his medical expertise and for the true humanity and care that he had extended to these animals – but I could barely speak for emotion. And I left feeling wholly useless.

I am a poet after all, and what good was poetry in the face of such atrocity?

That night I lay in bed unable to sleep. The gruesome images of these magnificent animals so mercilessly attacked haunted my every thought. It truly was nightmarish.

Will Fowlds’ deep concern for these stricken animals touched me deeply and I felt an urge to offer whatever help I could. Indeed, a big part of his message was that every small thing done by the tens of thousands of people who have been moved by the plight of the rhinos translates into a much, much bigger thing – and Facebook is one important way of showing this support.

But what more could I do? Yes, I could push the ‘Share’ button on Facebook to spread the word, but it wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough. To say I felt powerless was a huge understatement.

And then it occurred to me.

I know many other poets in South Africa and around the world who must, I thought, feel as strongly as I did about this. How many of them, I wondered, would be willing to offer some of their work for consideration for inclusion in an anthology dedicated to helping to save the rhino? Many, I hoped and believed.

And I was right. The response when I sent out a message asking if anyone would like to help, was immediate and overwhelming: “Yes! Count me in!”

So I wrote again:

Call for Submissions: Poetry for the Rhino

Following an overwhelming response from poets around the world eager to support efforts to combat the sickening trade in rhino horn that threatens the imminent extinction of this wonderful and ancient animal, poems are now invited for a proposed anthology called For Rhino in a Shrinking World.

It is hoped to publish later this year a book of superb poetry about or inspired by rhinos and their habitat, all the proceeds of which will be used to support the fight against rhino poaching in Southern Africa.

Guidelines:

Poems, which may have been previously published, do not have to be specifically about the rhinoceros’s current plight. Excellent poems that celebrate this magnificent animal and its habitat, or that are concerned more generally with the natural world (especially but not exclusively African), or that reflect upon the role of humans in the natural world, will be welcomed and considered. In short, feel free to interpret the theme broadly and creatively.

There is no preferred style or form – the poetry may be as diverse as the natural world that inspires it – and no stipulation as to length, although it may not be possible, for reasons of space, to accommodate extremely long poems. I anticipate that almost all poems will be in English but if you write in another language please include a suitable translation.

Deadline for submissions: Friday 15th June 2012 – but please submit earlier if possible.

Almost at once the poems started to arrive – literally hundreds and hundreds of them. People all over the world, some very young or inexperienced as writers, others well known and widely published, clearly were deeply touched by the plight of the rhinos and as sickened and horrified as I had been by Will Fowlds’ eyewitness account, film of which (by Paul Mills) was also made widely available on the Internet.

By the deadline date it had become clear to me that compiling and editing an anthology from so many generous pieces of writing would be a gargantuan task. Many submissions could not, by sheer weight of numbers as much as anything else, find their way into the book – but I wish to put on record my sincere gratitude to all those who wrote and submitted work supporting the rhinos’ cause. Without them this book would not have been possible.

But I needed assistance, and I received it.

My task of reading, considering and selecting was made more manageable by the help that I received from my friend and fellow poet John Forbis who gave up his one day off each week for many weeks to check, re-read, comment and advise. Without his kindness and liberality of spirit we might have sunk without trace.

One Saturday morning as my wife and I queued at the little outdoor farmers’ market in Grahamstown, acclaimed South African artist Sally Scott approached me to ask whether I might, if she began producing a series of rhino drawings to illustrate the book, be interested in including them. ‘Might’? I almost snapped her hand off in my eagerness to accept. Her beautifully realised illustrations add a wonderfully fresh and vibrant dimension both to the pages of the anthology and as a fabulous cover image.

Another stalwart was Roddy Fox, whose idea it was to put together a blog that would trace the anthology’s progress to publication and beyond, keeping contributors and other interested persons up to date with the latest news. Roddy then made the idea a reality by designing and creating what I think is a fantastic site that has done a sterling job in promoting the book. Take a look for yourself at https://rhinoanthology.wordpress.com

There were many others, such as contributing poet Andrew Martin from NELM, who helped enormously with practical matters, but the sheer brilliance and passion of the writing of poets from all over the world – for rhinos, yes, but for all animals and their diminishing wild habitat – makes this a superb book.

Since its publication in 2013, For Rhino in a Shrinking World has proved a considerable force in raising awareness of the rhinos’ plight. It has received glowing reviews and tributes from places as far afield as Australia, Europe and South Africa; it has featured on PBS radio in the USA and Canada; it is in the hands and on the bookshelves of Prince William, Duke of ….. as well as Liverpool FC legend Steven Gerrard – and it has received the personal endorsement of no less an eminence than Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose words you can read on the anthology website.

So poets are useless? They don’t actually DO anything?

Judge for yourselves now as you listen to some of the poems, read by the poets themselves.

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Rhinos are certainly not the only African animals whose very existence is threatened by poaching and unregulated hunting. African elephants continue to be slaughtered for their ivory, much of which is in commercial demand abroad.

Here, in another fine poem from the rhino anthology, UK poet Alison Lock reminds us of our own responsibility to help preserve these fabulous creatures. ‘Don’t buy ivory!’ is the powerful and essential message.

The Trunk

She gave me a string

of rosebuds, cream,

scented with almonds

 

inherited from an uncle

who’d stalked

the plains of Africa.

 

Too heavy

for my sapling neck

they adorned my doll

 

Angelina, and when

the threading

cord had broken

 

I placed them in a trunk

where they lay

for years until the day

 

when a man on the TV

pointed to a carcass

captured, de-tusked

 

discarded by poachers.

Tipping over the trunk

I let the ivory beads run free.

Alison Lock

As with Harry Owen’s previous collections, The Cull: new and resurrected poems reflects his lifelong fascination with, and growing concern for, the natural world, especially in relation to damaging human interactions with it.

Our encroachment upon formerly pristine wildlife habitat has given rise to an enormous increase in cries for the ‘culling’ (i.e. organised slaughter) of animals deemed to be problematic. Elephant ivory, rhino horn, lion bones and the body parts of innumerable other animals are much in demand so that these and many other magnificent creatures are under real threat of extinction. Poaching and trophy hunting (and the despicable business of ‘canned hunting’) add to the pressure.

So culling is at best a questionable practice. This collection attempts to ask some of those hard questions while at the same time celebrating the grandeur of what we still have.

The Cull: new and resurrected poems is scheduled for publication in the first part of 2017.

Travelling between Port Elizabeth and Cradock? A great place to stop for a rest and a meal is at Daggaboer Farm Stall – 48km from Cradock on the N10.

And the great news is that, as well as an array of superb Karoo books and fresh local produce, you can now purchase For Rhino in a Shrinking World there for only R150 – a superb opportunity in a fabulous little place. Take a look at their website:

Daggaboer Farm Stall

 

I have been quietly perusing again the wonderful poetry in For Rhino in a Shrinking World. I think I may share one or two poems from time to time. This one stays with me this evening: it tells its painful truths with an honest delicacy.

Vexed

 

It isn’t sexy, slaughtering the rhino.

Grinding the horn will not make you hard.

Softness does that. Whisper a sweet word.

 

The rest of you pretenders, oil execs, bankers, fiddlers

Bigots, control freaks, honkies; you happiness poachers,

Liars, pretenders – will you be roused?

 

Let the moose and the salmon and the rhino run wild.

Let bombs be knitted by old ladies and growing

Boys. Gouge the clay, pat it into usefulness. Leap from Mars

 

To Inisbofin. Paint your expression purple, your wagon yellow.

Grow a kumquat. Let the rhinos be too sexy for each other.

Let us see every big-footed wrinkle. Softly. Whisper.

 

Mary Mullen

 

Every two weeks the respected South African weekly newspaper Grocott’s Mail publishes a poetry column that I write. It is called Poetic Licence. Here is the latest:

Last weekend I listened to some truly outstanding people who are making a real difference. For this they rightly received Honorary Doctorates from Rhodes University.

It’s easy to forget, when the news is filled with stories of corruption, scandal, greed and crime that the world also contains individuals of exceptional talent and integrity.

Part of this week’s ghastly news was of renewed attacks upon local rhino. Two white rhinos were found dead and mutilated for their horns at Sibuya Game Reserve and another, which had been viciously disfigured and blinded, died shortly afterwards.

Then, near the Great Fish River, two black rhinos (only 5000 of which still exist) were found slaughtered – a mother and her calf. A third was gravely injured.

This is serious. Such gratuitous horror shames us all. We are overseeing the literal destruction of our world. And too many otherwise good people shrug, utter a platitude or two and assume there’s nothing to be done.

But the lesson of those receiving awards last week is that we can do something – indeed, that we must. Whether in promoting human rights or education, advancing social justice, aiding places devastated by war and natural disasters, or helping to preserve the natural world, if we do nothing we are complicit in our own ultimate ruin.

Three years ago, following the repulsive slaughter of rhinos at Kariega Game Reserve, the anthology For Rhino in a Shrinking World was published. Little enough, perhaps, but something to raise awareness and to support the heroic efforts of those on the front line of the fight to save these iconic creatures.

This poem – actually a song by American singer-songwriter David Mallett – was included. It’s about the importance of wild things everywhere and our relationship with them.

You Say That the Battle Is Over

You say that the battle is over
You say that the war is all done
Well go tell it to those with the wind in their nose
Who run from the sound of a gun.
And write it on the sides of the great whaling ships
Or on the ice flows where conscience is tossed
With the wild in their eyes
It is they who must die
And it’s we who must measure the loss.

You say that the battle is over
And finally the world is at peace
You mean no one is dying and mothers don’t weep
Or it’s not in the papers at least.
There are those who would deal in the dark side of life
There are those who would tear down the sun
And most men are ruthless but some men will weep
When the gifts we are given are gone.

Now the blame cannot fall on the heads of a few
It’s become such a part of the race
It’s eternally tragic that that which is magic
Be killed at the end of the glorious chase.
From young seals to great whales,
From waters to wood,
They will fall just like leaves in the wind.
But we’ve fur coats and perfumes and trophies on walls
What a hell of race to call men.

You say that the battle is over
You say that the war is all done
Well go tell it to those with the wind in their nose
Who run from the sound of a gun.
And write it on the sides of the great whaling ships
Or on the ice flows where conscience is tossed
With the wild in their eyes
It is they who must die
And it’s we who must measure the loss.
With the wild in their eyes
It is they who must die
And it’s we who must measure the loss.

(Music and words by David Mallet: Cherry Lane Music Pub. Co. Inc)

Thandi2

This is Thandi, the heroic rhino to whom For Rhino in a Shrinking World is dedicated. Her horn was, of course, hacked from her face by poachers.

Since then, I have had both the honour and the despair of watching a rhino darted and de-horned in order to make it less attractive to poachers. Here is my response to that experience.

I wish all rhinos long life, safety and the dignity of living as they are meant to: in the wild and free of human interference.

Chainsaw

I have always hated that sound: it means
death for something, it means devastation,
the hollow shriek of human intrusion.

Now here he is, crumpled on his haunches,
a white rhino bull, too strong, too proud, too
much himself, despite the darts, to go down.

But he’s drugged, masked, pinned: this to save his world.

And clearly he has been through the nightmare
before, though his stunted horn has re-grown.
Now the indignity repeats itself.

Our work’s against the clock, the sedative,
the history; his life depends on us.
So, plenty of cool water – and a chainsaw.

The helicopter’s pilot lounges, smoking,
in his cab as blizzards of horn shavings
surge from the blade like flakes of pale soap,

like the weeping wings of termites or ants,
like butterflies consecrating the grass
beneath the sun’s fire and the chainsaw’s hell.

This is what we’re reduced to: presiding
over the face of our world, cosmetic
surgery or death, improving nothing.

Harry Owen

The Edna Fourie Gallery was the delightful venue for a special presentation of For Rhino in a Shrinking World at the McGregor Poetry Festival in South Africa’s Western Cape on Sunday 30th August 2015.

Six South African contributors to the anthology introduced and read their wonderful poems to a rapt and fascinated audience.

Norman Morrissey: ‘Lord of Life’

Silke Heiss: ‘Awaking’

Geoffrey Haresnape: ‘Praise Song’

Kerry Hammerton: ‘The Last Humiliation’

Ian McCallum: ‘The Elephant Tree’

Harry Owen: ‘Eyona Indala’

The event concluded, fittingly and movingly, with a recording of John Denver singing ‘You Say That The Battle Is Over’ by David Mallett.

All of these pieces and many, many more, along with the magnificent artwork of Sally Scott, were freely contributed so that every cent raised from sales of the anthology can go to the Chipembere Rhino Foundation to support their tremendous work on behalf of these glorious creatures.

The annual McGregor Poetry Festival takes place in the beautiful village of McGregor in South Africa’s Western Cape. This year it will be from 27th to 30th August – a late winter treat indeed.

Harry Owen will be performing twice: on Saturday 29th August when he will read his own poetry in an event called ‘Searching – With Dogs!’ and then on Sunday 30th when the focus will be on ‘For Rhino in a Shrinking World’.

Harry will talk about how the international rhino anthology came about and what effect it is having in the battle against rhino poaching. And he will, of course, be reading a selection of the superb poems in the book.

Please come along if you can.

http://mcgregorpoetryfestival.blogspot.com/p/2015-edition.html

Edward Bibbey of De//Cultured was inspired by the rhino anthology to create these powerful artworks using a modern urban, graffiti-style. He has kindly sent us these six images to distribute for non-commercial, non-profit, educational and charitable use.