Neil Coppen

writings/ plays/ poetry/musings/travel journals and newspaper columns

The pleasures of falling and flight.


For Vaughn on his 27th Birthday

You gave me a palace in clouds, a JHB skyline dressed in mist and moonlight, dust-storms and thunder showers. You hung me in a room seventeen stories above the agitated hum of the city, taxis congesting the arteries of the streets below. A metropolis hemorrhaging with hooting.

Those afternoons wrapped in sheets and each-other finding a strange peace in the noises of other people’s lives being lived furiously down below, a navigated chaos which from up here seemed worlds away. Calming to hear it and more so for not having to participate in it. Us the fortunate ones, the ones who could observe when we liked… looking down for perspective and up for respite.

We could look down to see the dance of pedestrians and their shadows. A favourite past time of mine, when in the late afternoon light ants became giants with disproportionate limbs straining under the weight of grocery bags. Down to watch men, in the dead of night, pulling towers of refuse: snails with scrap-heaps for backs. Down across the patchwork quilt of street traders, the rubiks cubes of vegetable sellers tables’: red squares of tomatoes, green of kale and yellow of banana.

If you were a building you might resemble this one, towering and unpretentious, magnificent and old world yet re-purposed (and all the more idiosyncratic for it) to suit the needs and requirements of a contemporary African city. I cannot separate you nor my thoughts of you from this flat and what you taught me here. The magic of the space, the kitchen jars with assortments of berries and nuts and teas. The clanking rusted pipes that sung sad subterranean songs whenever I submerged my ears in the bath. The cacophony of the building, orchestrations of decay which punctuated our every routine, whether it was a death defying lift-ride to the ground floor or malfunctioning fire-alarms that kept us up until the early hours. I cannot think of you and not connect these thoughts to the poetry of the space.

Those poor ornamental ducks lodged on your bedroom wall, pinned in perpetual migration, observing daily the flight of ibises into another apocalyptic highveld sunset and wishing with all their might that their wings worked the same. The chipped, frayed, rusted corners of things. A summer storm tossing us out to sea, making an Art-Deco galleon of this high rise. The winds that wreaked havoc on our laundry and deposited our underpants in yards in Soweto. Winds that howled with the collective laments of old white lady ghosts who many eons ago used to take high-tea in the same building and shop at the Anstey’s department store for fur trimmed coats and pheasant feathered hats. The wide-eyed toddlers who gazed up at us in the lift with a mixture of curiosity and terror.

You made me stop running in the city at night. I used to dash from the parking lot to the lobby door. You helped undo the conditioning of a suburban upbringing and a paranoia that only the privileged are privileged enough to indulge in. You did this till I was more at home here than anywhere else in the world and realised I would never feel more engaged and alive and connected to this county and its people as I did when arriving at the corner of Jeppe and Joubert.

So the other evening when I felt angry at having to sit in a sterile Rosebank food-court it was only because all I felt like doing was soaking in a candle-lit bath with you, watching your forehead crumple in deep contemplation, lying as we so often did in an awkward tangle of limbs, the cold steel of the tap pushing into your neck, lying here until our hands wrinkled, the water cooled and the candle flickered out.

I ached for that balcony at the end of the world, a platform that allowed me to imagine and speculate (in equal parts) the pleasures of falling and flight. I felt sad at only having a concrete cast of your hands when not long ago ones of flesh used to omfort the palm of my back.

There are many things I miss and will continue to, even more that I will come to understand and celebrate. These are just some but certainly not all

Inventory of a South Coast town.


Inventory of a South Coast town.

Aryan kids sipping on over sized strawberry milkshakes
arcades rotting avocados
bananas box-wine bikinis
bouffants bakkies 
crocodile skinned Christians
cold slaw
Complimentary blow-job shooters that come with the bill
cigarettes, country-music
chlorine casinos C and sand real estate
fish-guts fiberglass glass-blown dolphins
dream-catchers driftwood curios dodgem cars
damp leather
Jesus saves Kurt Darren knee-high-socks
kegs karaoke lighthouses
leopard print liquor-stores locksmiths lust
Neil Diamond
neon poodles perms prostitutes
panel beaters
permed panel-beaten prostitutes
rope lights
sweat seafood suntan lotion second-hand sex-shop snake-parks
sea-shell ashtrays
sweet Caroline uh…uh…oh
salt teal timeshare
tannies who knit in public
Oom Willies Road house

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Absence makes the vine grow longer


You left me with…

1.) A green piggy bank (in the shape of an elephant). Loot from one of your car-boot sale trawls.  A relic from some Afrikaans bank promotion in the 70’s.

2.) A fridge full of inedible leaves. Watercress wasted on me—my resourcefulness with salad stuff extends to boiled eggs and iceberg lettuce- what does one do with watercress?

3.)A wobbly vintage bed side lamp, fond of conking me on the head during late night reading sessions.

4.)An ID photo, carefully placed amongst our shelf of Chinese wind-up toys, solemn eyes to keep a tin army in check.

5.) A Jasmine vine on the balcony which, in the absence of your patient fingers, now competes with fellow tendrils to topple the TV Ariel and strangle me in my sleep.

6.)A sculpture you made in second year: A concrete cast of your upturned hands, left outside to cup the evening rain.

Each morning I wake and empty two generous palms-full.

Will Brecht’s Donkey Understand? : Notes on a Conference


All this talk of beauty

Brecht’s stuffed donkey

Actors in falsetto

flailing about in three interminable acts of crisis.

Artistic arsonists

Setting mountains on fire

So they may weep

and in turn inspire

Modalities, meta-text, sub-text, intertext–tual, Sexual, Meta-sexual


(There’s one for the PHD)

Collaboration… interrogation… provocation

Self….. sacrifice….mutilation…congratulation

Hypothetic… thermic…academics

And if not scraping the century old mould from the kitchen sink

Then off plundering the mythic imaginary.

That endlessly recyclable realm of post-modernist-modernisms.

So removed and obscure that you dare risk meeting any part of yourself  inside of it.

Hoary tales made heady with whimsy

Unfamiliar with cliché


Too depressing…recent…..relentless.


Glen miller records on a scratchy gramophone.

Surreal fairy-lit French circuses, butcheries and freak shows.

A mass of rock cuts off the rest of the continent

As onwards the Southern tip wafts

in an un-complex cosmos.

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A body undone


On a hospital slab. Insides out, body parts in plastic bags, cotton wool taped over eyes. The anaesthetist reaches over and touches a braid of his dying patient’s hair.

Admiring the simple tapestry, he meditates on the day when devoted fingers (whose?) combed and collected each thread of fine hair. Each tightly woven braid the product of what? A mother’s love? Aunt’s persistence? Daughter’s reluctance? Hairdressers indifference?

He will never know though he likes to imagine she laughed at least once during the sitting. Laughter in between shrieks of hair wrenched at the root, laughter delirious on some stoep out in the August sunshine.

As he detaches his machine and watches her body  wheeled unceremoniously from the theatre, he focuses again on this head of knitted hair. Zigzagging contours rising from the neckline.

Each braid: three rapids, tributaries tumbling and tied inseparably into one. Unity, he thinks, unity when everything else has unravelled. Unity in a body come so irrevocably undone.

August Apocalypse


Beauty in my review mirror

Squinting nonchalant into the sun


5 o’clock traffic

Head cocked in half thought

Lips shaping the lyrics to some song


Beauty but a bumper away

Shifting lanes

Parts the pestilential smog

Drifts indifferent

through scorned swarms

  Read the rest of this entry »

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Tin Foil Wreck


Slide open my bathroom window framing a far- off freeway.

Clear sleep from crusty eyes.

Three am.

Suburbs still

except for the sound of just woken hounds

machinery sawing metal

moans from the interior of mangled cars.

Medics and firemen

all hands on deck

Sirens respectfully on silent

still winking blue and red

proceeding with the procedure

cutting limb from carnage

life from crumpled tin- foil wreck.

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If I could eradicate the myth

What might that leave you with?

I have my own

less prohibitive

but they are myths all the same

Means to balance our precarious realities

Unrealities to make precarious our means



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Second Hand Sentiments


 Give me

step ladders and terminaly ill light bulbs

Blinking to the painful end

Give me

the silenced song of my grandmother’s singer sewing machine

Your afflictions with the found and forgotten

Objects— do not bleed

Though may break or rust


far more inconsistent

prone to collapse and lust

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That it should come


Four years you sat in mom’s closet.
Behind the birthday soaps, hand creams and Christmas-card packs.

In a closet
In a packet
In a box with plastic engraving on the outside.

So tightly sealed that when it came to the hour
of your belated release
you would not budge. Read the rest of this entry »

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