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Breyten Breytenbach

1939–

Breyten Breytenbach was born on September 16, 1939, in Bonnievale, South Africa. He studied at the University of Cape Town but left to travel Europe at age 20, settling in Paris in 1961.

In 1964, Breytenbach published his first poetry collection, Die ysterkoei moet sweet, in Afrikaans. He went on to publish over a dozen books of poetry in Afrikaans and English, including Windcatcher: New and Selected Poems, 1964–2006 (Harcourt, 2007), Lady One: Of Love and Other Poems (Harcourt, 2002), In Africa Even the Flies are Happy: Selected Poems, 1964–1977 (J. Calder, 1978).

A human rights activist, Breytenbach established an apartheid resistance group and was held as a political prisoner in South Africa for seven years. He is the author of several works of nonfiction, including a four-volume cycle chronicling his experiences in South Africa.

In The New York Review of Books, J. M. Coetzee writes, “An immensely gifted writer, able to descend effortlessly into the Africa of the poetic unconscious and return with the rhythm and the words, the words in the rhythm, that give life.”

Breytenbach has received numerous honors and awards, including the Ansfield-Wolf Book Award, the Allen Paton Award for Literature, and the Mahmoud Darwish Award for Creativity. He has taught at the University of Natal, Princeton University, and New York University. He lives in Paris and New York.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry
Windcatcher: New and Selected Poems, 1964–2006 (Harcourt, 2007)
Lady One: Of Love and Other Poems (Harcourt, 2002)
In Africa Even the Flies are Happy: Selected Poems, 1964–1977 (J. Calder, 1978)

Prose
Return to Paradise (Harcourt Brace, 1993)
Memory of Snow and Dust (Faber and Faber, 1989)
End Papers: Essays, Letters, Articles of Faith, Workbook Notes (Faber, 1986)
The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (McGraw-Hill, 1983)
A Season in Paradise (Persea Books, 1980)

Breyten Breytenbach
Photo credit: Dutch National Archives

By This Poet

1

Today I Went Down

today I went down on your body 
while windows were thick white eyes 
and hearkened the clogged cavities
in the small darkroom of your chest, 
hedging an eternity over the aching voice 
from your gorgeous throat, 
agony and exaltation flow in one divide 
if I may make so bold, 
your thighs are a loveword your hair 
night's glittering lining of secret disport:
I aimed for the innermost moon 
and rent, moved by the syntax and the slow 
of sadness and of joy, so
I love you, love you so

when the blinding comes, 
the discomposure of silence, 
it must be high up the hills 
where hundreds of poor 
stamp their feet in the dust, and drums
and woman voices like this ululating skyline 
gag the final ecstasy