Feminist Encounters: A Journal of Critical Studies in Culture and Politics
Research Article
2024, 8(1), Article No: 19

An Illuminated Darkness

Published in Volume 8 Issue 1: 01 Mar 2024
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An Illuminated Darkness

Over the past decade or so I have been working towards an anthology of poems, eventually published during hard lockdown in 2020 as An Illuminated Darkness (Coetzee, 2020).

On one level the metaphor embodied in this title refers to blindness, to the process of learning to inhabit the world as a blind man and to write from that place. The anthology’s reception confirmed and even celebrated this reading. Such an interpretive strategy placed the poems squarely on the side of life, of resilience.

But there is at least one other context in which the anthology can be read, and that is what I want to explore here.

Throughout the years it took me to write these poems, I was romantically involved with someone more than thirty years older than myself. The partnership was also a creative one, producing albums of songs as well as a shared book of love poems, called The Love Sheet. But from the start we both knew, perhaps more intimately than most couples, that time was limited. The poems and songs we wrote together, and certainly many of the poems I wrote for this collection, therefore became an attempt to curate the slow process of saying goodbye.

For most of that time, writing poems and songs provided the glue that bound our lives together. Later, as our needs slowly diverged, the poems and songs became attempts to frame particular moments of shared experience; gravity-defying rituals aimed at slowing time down.

Of course all such attempts are ultimately doomed to failure, certainly as far as the body is concerned. So the slow intimacy of celebrating closeness becomes, in the poems, the slow intimacy of letting go what cannot be preserved or held onto.

Deep Listening

It happened again yesterday:

in the middle of a fine conversation

about sublime and lofty things,

something inside me detached

and pulled softly at the pit of my stomach

as you stepped away for a moment

to pour wine for an honoured guest.


I could still hear the separate music

in our four voices, but the words,

the words had gone out of range.

The only detailed information then

came from the song of my blood –

subterranean, preverbal –

calling for your touch across the table.


There are no words for such music,

not in company, not when we’re alone.

All I could say for certain then

to myself, under my breath,

was that all lofty things,

raised up in defiance of gravity –

all the immortal words, and all great music –


seemed to be reconfigured there;

rooted again in the fire

that sings and sings, unheard,

in our hidden blood. (Coetzee, 2020)


Transparent Things

(after the diagnosis)


Today all things are

transparent – out of time; beyond language.

Even this face I have chosen

as I walk into your red room – I know

your eyes will see through

to the emptiness behind it.


Bereft of speech, I sit down

next to you; take both your hands.

We have entered a world where each word

must be weighed – calibrated, interrogated

for any signs of untruth; imprecision.


I would not dare to intrude here

armed with magical thinking. Already

we are being distilled, you and I,

refined until each fibre, each breath,

each slow, deliberate sentence

rings out, never to be repeated.


Come, take these hands; feel

their brittleness, now and to come:

this moment, this narrow

space, is all there is. (Coetzee, 2020)


From: Table of Elements

Today my beloved and I sit under the open sky

on an almost empty beach.

We’ve come to say goodbye; to celebrate you

as you set out on your very last journey.


We’ve brought a simple boat, made out of shell;

a stick for a mast; a paper sail,

emblazoned with your praise for the ocean,

where your blood turned into foam for a moment.


There are clear shards of sound from the waves

as they advance and retreat; from the cries of gulls

that fly overhead, not caring about us

who have nothing to give them.


(There are shards of light also, but

I will say nothing about them.

A cellphone camera is recording

what may be shared of this moment afterwards.)


We wait for the waves to take your vessel,

and – I believe, for a moment – you with it.

We wait a long time before it happens,

so that I am ready when it does:


when first the sail goes, and then the mast,

and finally it is only the two of us sitting here,

acknowledging the space you occupied

when we could reach across and hold you.


I could sing you the song the waves sung to us,

sung as if to say that what we’d lost would always return.

I could speak of the circle of small shells around yours,

the opening that suggested we might learn to let go. (Coetzee, 2020)


Morning After

Half past five in the morning: he comes awake

slowly; turns over on his back, floating up from sleep.


A long and lovely shudder runs through his body:

were they really together like that again, last night?


Then, between relief and bafflement,

he reaches his hands down the whole length of him,


of a body he knows he must learn to love again

as his. Then, only then, his left hand very slowly reaches across,


and gently (so as not to wake her)

finds her there, in the bed next to him. (Coetzee, 2020)


Always Again

You unlock the shutters, and the world

floods back into the room, as always. Then,

wanting even more world, we step out into it;

sit out of doors, under the autumn sky.


The first and last discipline, you say,

is to be empty enough to pay attention.

What do you hear now, right now,

in the silence the hadedas leave

in the wake of their beautiful, harsh calls?


Do you feel the coarse grain of the bread between your teeth?


Do you hear the song of your own blood?


Do you feel my mouth, warm, close to your mouth?



I take the warm bread from your hands,

a portion of the bread of the whole world;

I imagine myself at the corners of your mouth now,

which I have kissed, and will kiss again.

A hinge, a shutter opens in me, then

I disappear into everything else.

This is where we lose ourselves; this

is the clearing where the world is made anew.

Only be still now. Nothing has happened yet. (Coetzee, 2020)

I want to end with four poems that do not form a part of this collection, that inhabit a space that has perhaps not yet been illuminated. They circle the awareness that the process of letting go is ultimately chaotic, messy, open-ended, often apparently inaccessible to logic.

After the Bombardment

As long as I live, I’ll never forget

the heavy blanket of silence that descended

over our room that morning. You’d just told me

the city had been utterly destroyed

from the air. I looked for words

of comfort for you, but

I could feel you were

in that place beyond consolation

where not even I can reach you.


And if I’d spoken, what would I have said?

That the city is not here, not ours to lose,

not this day, not this time? Ah, that would be no use.

What happens somewhere can happen anywhere.


‘I’ll make the bed,’ I said, willing it

to be an adequate response:

doing the most ordinary things

slowly, deliberately, because we know again

that everything’s at stake at every moment.


Halfway out the door to my office,

though it’s only fifteen steps away from you, I turned back

to repeat the same old words of love

as before. When I turned again,

the news still playing behind me as I went,

my arms were still open, empty as now,

hungry to console.


Pushing and Pulling Time

Dearest, these are the days of maintenance,

of keeping strict tempo. You always loved me

for being flexible about time, for making it

slow down or speed up. But now


the clocks of our bodies tell me

it’s high time to tighten up technique.

Listening to Chet Baker drift his way through

Almost Blue yesterday, I had to focus

past his lazy voice, the dirty trumpet sound

he got from having his teeth knocked out by an angry dealer,

to the tightness of the band behind him:

the piano and drums carrying that drift

and anchoring it. You could say


it’s time to pull out the metronome,

to synchronise my two hands over the keys.

Or that gravity is against us now, and there’s no-one

else who will lift us up

and frame us carefully in the moment. These words of mine,

these gestures—they must learn

to listen to rhythms not their own,

to be small, precise and terrifyingly sober

before they can push and pull time again.



All these years I sat at your beautiful feet.

You were the singing-master, all that time.

And all we did was in service

of learning to be simple, standing

in the present moment.


Only now I can see them,

there in the shadows: the four-year-old child,

abandoned among strangers; the blind boy

vowing to sit at the top table of life,

where the wild things cracked open champagne bottles

like there was no tomorrow.


I never thought how much food they demanded;

never saw the patterns in the carpet

that were there long before we entered this room,

long before (latecomer that I am)

I accepted warm bread from your open hand.


In Search of the Wild Things

(for Maurice Sendak)


Even as a boy, you found a way

through to the next world: across the corridor

from your quiet, stoic family

to the tables of those Sicilian boys,

their parents drinking wine and raucous,

their lives still untouched by reports of holocaust.


Much later you showed us the way there, building escape routes

for the unlit, starving children in all of us,

cooking up a storm in the midnight

kitchens of our imagination.


But I love you best as an old man

tearful and joyous, only months before death,

coming from the ends of the earth to say:

‘I am in love with the world’—

knowing that’s the most dangerous emotion,

still able to cut through any system,

through any constricting form

to get to the raucous table, the flushed faces

on the other side of the world.


Once, on YouTube, I found an immense recording

(for gay choirs only) of that interview:

the crescendo building to a single note,

your final message to us: ‘Live your life. Live

your life. Live your life.’

  • Coetzee, J. (2020). An Illuminated Darkness. Durban, South Africa: uHlanga Press.
AMA 10th edition
In-text citation: (1), (2), (3), etc.
Reference: Coetzee J. An Illuminated Darkness. Feminist Encounters: A Journal of Critical Studies in Culture and Politics. 2024;8(1), 19. https://doi.org/10.20897/femenc/14230
APA 6th edition
In-text citation: (Coetzee, 2024)
Reference: Coetzee, J. (2024). An Illuminated Darkness. Feminist Encounters: A Journal of Critical Studies in Culture and Politics, 8(1), 19. https://doi.org/10.20897/femenc/14230
In-text citation: (Coetzee, 2024)
Reference: Coetzee, Jacques. "An Illuminated Darkness". Feminist Encounters: A Journal of Critical Studies in Culture and Politics 2024 8 no. 1 (2024): 19. https://doi.org/10.20897/femenc/14230
In-text citation: (Coetzee, 2024)
Reference: Coetzee, J. (2024). An Illuminated Darkness. Feminist Encounters: A Journal of Critical Studies in Culture and Politics, 8(1), 19. https://doi.org/10.20897/femenc/14230
In-text citation: (Coetzee, 2024)
Reference: Coetzee, Jacques "An Illuminated Darkness". Feminist Encounters: A Journal of Critical Studies in Culture and Politics, vol. 8, no. 1, 2024, 19. https://doi.org/10.20897/femenc/14230
In-text citation: (1), (2), (3), etc.
Reference: Coetzee J. An Illuminated Darkness. Feminist Encounters: A Journal of Critical Studies in Culture and Politics. 2024;8(1):19. https://doi.org/10.20897/femenc/14230
Related Subjects
Gender Studies, Social Sciences
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