dennisbrutusAbout a quarter of a century ago — when I was a young, impressionable Northwestern student wondering what I wanted to do with my life — I signed up for an upper-level seminar called “Writing Poetry.”

It turned out that I was somewhat adept at deconstructing poems — and just plain awful at writing them. The person who helped me figure that out, and who gently urged me to apply what I’d learned in class to endeavors outside of poetry, was my professor — an extraordinary poet named Dennis Brutus. He died today at the age of 85.

Brutus cut an imposing figure in the seminar room. He had a rich voice, a sprawling beard, and a thick mane of hair. But what gave him a stature that I’d never encountered, as well as a certain ethereal quality, was his story. He had come to the U.S. as a political refugee after having been one of South Africa’s leading anti-apartheid activists. He pioneered the idea of using sports as political lever to persuade the all-white government. And for his writing and rabble-rousing, he spent a couple of years at Robben Island with Nelson Mandela.

One of Brutus’s poems, “Somehow We Survive,” is among the few poems that remain stuck in my head after all these years. I offer this long snippet in his memory.

Somehow we survive
and tenderness, frustrated, does not wither.

Investigating searchlights rake
our naked unprotected contours. . . .
boots club the peeling door.

But somehow we survive
severance, deprivation, loss.

Patrols uncoil along the asphalt dark
hissing their menace to our lives,

most cruel, all our land is scarred with terror,
rendered unlovely and unlovable;
sundered ar
e we and all our passionate surrender

but somehow tenderness survives.

9 Responses to “Dennis Brutus (1924 – 2009)”

  1. Doug Shaw says:

    Dan – what a touching piece, and sorry for your loss.

    The poem snippet is very powerful indeed, and wonderfully human. I lost a hero of mine in December 2002, just before Christmas and just before the birth of my daughter Keira Joe. The man’s name was John Mellor, known more widely as Joe Strummer. Just like Brutus, Strummer cut an imposing figure though concert halls were preferred to lecture halls.

    Before he died, Strummer recorded a few very powerful words, I guess you could call it a poem. Whatever it is called Without People You’re Nothing – and you can listen to it here.

    Hope you like it, I think your professor would have done.


  2. George says:

    Dan, thanks for the post. I can think of a few professors and teachers who really had an impact on my life. I like to remember them and think about how we have grown and learned from them.

    Teaching is one of the most powerful, helpful and wonderful endeavors in our society. But wonderful teachers are few and far between. I hope we can have more outstanding teachers in the future.

    It seems that Brutus had a powerful effect on you, and even help set you on the path of being a writer. It’s funny how things work out. That one professor, that chance occurrence, sometimes it’s just a strange thought that enters our mind…and one day you wake up and there’s a copy of a book that you wrote just sitting there.

    I guess we can never be exactly sure why things turned out the way they are. We can only be happy they did. And look back at the people and events that helped make it happen…

  3. Caroline says:


    In the fall of 1991, I had the privilege of participating in the Semester at Sea program. Our voyage was the first to arrive in China post sanctions via the port of Shanghai and then on the same very trip the first large group of American Students to arrive in South Africa via Cape Town. One of the hidden secrets of Semester at Sea are the interport lecturers who come aboard and lecture to us and our voyage was no different.

    Dennis Brutus and his wife joined our trip prior to our stop in India. He would lecture for our Core class, his booming voice stopping us in our tracks he held just a few mesmerizing open door poetry readings. I attended every one of these and remember listening as if each word held the meaning I didn’t know I’d been searching for.

    Extraordinarily, our group was witness to Dennis’s return to South Africa. He was unsure whether he’d be arrested when we docked, and many of us were concerned. I remember vividly rising at 4AM on our port arrival day, and joining Dennis and his wife on the top deck as the sun rose and we steamed right past Robben island. No words were spoken, though tears flowed– mine– and the ship docked at the harbor, and he and his wife were welcomed. My next memory is of Dennis at the University of Western Cape– with a broad smile upon his face– standing next to the team who had drawn the interim constitution. I may even have a photo or two.

    Profound assumed new meaning, and thanks to DB I’d journeyed a bit further. Learning of his loss reminds me once again to set a course based on our deepest passions.

    I’m not with my journals written at the time, but I do know that he wrote a poem for us


  4. thought you & your readers might be interested in a new documentary, Fair Play, which tells the story of the anti-apartheid movement sports boycotts Brutus played such a key role in. Here’s a trailer:

  5. Danny Chetty says:

    silence in my voice speaks loudly about the conscience Denis Brutus stirred and still does . Yes he has passed on but his booming voice will be heard ringing through every grain of sand to those who seek to hear him.
    Rev Danny Chetty, South Africa

    as friends of DB , we gathered in Durban at a friends home recently and celebrated his life and again his voice boomed loudly admidst our tears and reflections.

  6. John Nagenda says:

    I only saw Dennis Brutus’ obituary today in UK’s Daily Telegraph. I met him in ’62 at my Alma Mater, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda. A group of African & other Black writers were assembled, the first time; among them: Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Zik Mphahlele, etc. Also Langston Hughes from the US.
    Much was made of Brutus’ having been shot in the back by South African police. Also Soyinka holding up a radio station with a gun to make a statement heard. (Although this have been a later occasion?) The conference was on Writing. I stood up, “What are writers to do who have not had the opportunity to be shot in the dark?” Murmurs, some of them loud, greeted my poor-in-taste remark. Up stood Dennis Brutus: “I agree with Mr Nagenda. But I did not seek to be shot in the back!” His wonderful line “…But somehow tenderness survives” has always reverbrated in my head, now nearly 50 years on. Rest well, Tender Soldier!

  7. lyndah alice says:

    Some details of the poem have been left out. please check and include that stanza or we will have missed out on so much of what Brutus intended…..

  8. Dan Pink says:

    @Lyndah — Thanks for the post. I edited for space — and indicated that in the post. The stanza I didn’t includes was the following, which appears after the word “contours”:

    over our heads the monolithic decalogue
    of fascist prohibition glowers
    and teeters for a catastrophic fall;

    Reader can the read the entirety here:

  9. Samuel says:

    Was required to study Dennis Brutus poems as part of my A Level Literature studies in Ghana in 1986.
    His writings made a strong impact on me. Especially Letters to Martha.Thanks

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