South African poetry – Touch by Hugh Lewin

Hugh Lewin was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa. I recommend you read his biography below before reading this poem.

Touch

When I get out
I’m going to ask someone
to touch me
very gently please
and slowly,
touch me
I want
to learn again
how life feels.

I’ve not been touched
for seven years
for seven years
I’ve been untouched
out of touch
and I’ve learnt
to know now
the meaning of
untouchable.

Untouched – not quite
I can count the tings
that have touched me

One: fists
At the beginning
fierce mad fists
beating beating
till I remember
screaming
Don’t touch me
please don’t touch me.

Two: paws
The first four years of paws
every day
patting paws, searching
– arms up, shoes off
legs apart –
prodding paws, systematic
heavy, indifferent
probing away
all privacy.

I don’t want fists and paws
I want
to want to be touched
again
and to touch,
I want to feel alive
again
I want to say
when I get out

Here I am
please touch me.

What is the poem Touch about?

Extracted from: http://www.knowledge4africa.co.za/english/poetry/touch-a.jsp

The poem “Touch” is an attempt to capture his feelings during those horrific years in gaol. Upon being released from prison in 1971, Lewin chose to leave the country on what was known as a “permanent departure permit”. In other words, he could never return to the place of his birth.

About Hugh Lewin

Anti-apartheid author Hugh Lewin dies
Hugh Lewin

Hugh Lewin grew up during South Africa’s apartheid years. Upon leaving school, he became a journalist, working for Pietermaritzburg’s Natal WitnessDrum and Golden City Post.

His observation of the repressive South African regime eventually became too much for him and he resorted to fighting vehemently to bring about its downfall. In 1965 he was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for sabotage. The poem “Touch” is an attempt to capture his feelings during those horrific years in gaol.

Upon being released from prison in 1971, Lewin chose to leave the country on what was known as a “permanent departure permit”. In other words, he could never return to the place of his birth. He would spend ten years in exile in London, followed by a further ten years in Zimbabwe.

He returned to South Africa in 1992 upon the cessation of the apartheid system and thereupon became the Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg. Today he is a freelance media trainer.

Lewin has written several books and poems, and he has been the recipient of several literary awards.

The poet says the following of this poem: “It’s very emotional because the poem reminds me of so many aspects of what it was like being in prison: the violence, cruelty and brutality. Reading it remains an intense experience for me because the memories it evokes are still very strong.”

“Prison remains a touchstone for me,” he says, “and is still very much part of my life, even though I was released in 1971. I still refer back to the experience, whether I want to or not. It was a terribly cataclysmic but important part of my life.”

Lewin wishes that readers of this poem would arrive at a deeper understanding of their own emotions and the world in which they live, as well as an appreciation for the power of poetry, and how useful and important it can be when it comes to describing emotions and feelings.

“If the poem also helps them to appreciate what was happening in this country before they were born,” he says, “and the sacrifices made in the run up to the 1994 elections, I’d be very pleased.”

“Of course, it would also be great,” he added, “if the poem encourages students to write poems themselves and to explore the role of literature in society.”

Note: Excerpts from an interview of the poet are taken from:
The English Experience

61 thoughts on “South African poetry – Touch by Hugh Lewin

  1. Robbie, this is sad but lovely too.

    Hugh’s story and poem brought a tear to my eyes. SA history so sad. It is so good he was able to return.

    His poem, gosh, I can’t imagine. Freedom is to be cherished. Free speech- to be honoured.

    Tears. Thank God for a happy ending. But being in prison gosh.

    Liked by 2 people

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