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Chris Mann

In praise of the shades

More challenging questions!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 4 March 2014
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The poet, while hitching a ride, gets to talking with the driver who tells him how he often speaks to the shades -- the spirits of his ancestors -- and how they help him.

The poet is then left to ponder the shades. What is their role in life? How should one honour them?


Chris Mann was born in Port Elizabeth in 1948. He spent many years in rural and semi-rural KwaZulu Natal engaged in development work, during which time he became imbued with the spirit of rural South Africa.

In the mid-1990s he moved to Grahamstown where he became associated with the Grahamstown Foundation and Rhodes University.

Mann is a multi-faceted poet whose major concern is the increasing exclusivity and inaccessibility of poetry. His work is therefore not only for the printed page but also for multimedia performances.

Much of his work is in association with Julia Skeen who produces graphic images for many of his poems.

In this way he could perhaps be compared to William Blake whose poetry should also often be viewed in a wider graphic forum and not merely in the isolation of the printed page.

"In praise of the shades" looks at what has been described as "an indigenous knowledge system" that flourishes among many people in Southern Africa.

Mistakenly called "ancestor worship", its nearest Western equivalent is possibly the Catholic Church's veneration of the saints which offers the life and works of the holy people of the past for our enrichment and inspiration.

Since these ancestors still exist in the afterlife where, because of their proven holiness, they carry considerable power of intercession with God, the Church offers their veneration as another dimension to our contact with the world of the spirit.

"In praise of the shades" explores in a simple yet graphic way the vital role of the shades in guiding our complex lives in a modern scientific and urban society.

Both the wording and vision of the poem is strongly South African. Indeed, the poem explores a vital force within this multi-dimensional community.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

Before you even begin to answer these questions, why don't you take time off to get in touch with your own shades? Do they tell you anything?

[Need help?]

I met a man with rolled-up khakhi sleeves,
who told me his faults, and then his beliefs.
  • Comment on the visual effect that is contained in the words, "who told me his faults, and then his beliefs". (4)

[Need help?]

His bakkie rattled a lot on the ruts,
so I'm not exactly sure what he said.
  • Examine the poetic devices found in the words "his bakkie rattled a lot on the ruts". (4)

[Need help?]

He lowered his voice, and spoke about his shades.
This meant respect, I think, not secrecy.
  • Why does the poet need to talk about "respect" and "secrecy"? (4)

[Need help?]

He'd always asked them to guide him.
  • In what way, according to the poet, would the shades be able to guide the driver's life? (4)

[Need help?]

He seemed to me a gentle balanced man.
  • Why does the poet feel it necessary to say that? (4)

[Need help?]

The first three stanzas are very conversational.
  • Why is this so? How does the poet achieve this effect? (4)

[Need help?]

What messages do the shades leave us? (4)

[Need help?]

The poet makes it clear that the shades cannot be equated with gods.
  • How does he make this clear? (4)

[Need help?]

When all I ever hear about these days
is violence, injustice, and despair,
or worse than that, humourless theories
to rescue us all from our human plight.
  • Why should the "humourless theories" be worse than "violence, injustice, and despair"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What does the poet mean by the term "humourless theories"? (4)

[Need help?]

Those moments in a bakkie on a plain
make sunflowers from a waterless world.
  • Explain carefully what the poet means when he concludes the poem in this way. (4)

[Need help?]

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