Analysis of “Letter to Martha” (7 & 8) by Dennis Brutus

Written by: Ogunojuwo O. Damilola


It reads refreshingly to me knowing that poets like Dennis did not only explore the fullness of Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as “the spontaneous flow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquillity”, he brings it to the forefront of spiking a sort of revolution which today is one of the reasons he is still relevant.

It is noted that Dennis isn’t just a poet who scoops imagination into universal renditions, he is seen as an experiential poet who according to history was imprisoned for his radical contributions. It is in this prison that he started to write most the letters to his assumed girlfriend who some scholars later conclude to be Martha. Therefore, “Letter to Martha”, is a collection of Dennis’ experiences in the prison during the South African apartheid era.

In “Letter to Martha 7”, we noticed Dennis talk from an omniscient point-of-view about the realities of inmates in the South African prisons.

It is also essential to state that the focus or metaphors for inmates in the prison are attached to the black prisoners. The blacks at this period were not privileged to equal rights, unlike the white in South African. The white therefore was the superior citizens as the black remains their inferior counterparts.

For the poet, a conversational tone is what passes the message the most and as such, he employs the use of a simple diction to expose his readers to how the subject of intergender sexual denials eat deep into the black inmates and in turn, make them lose their rationality.

Analysis of Letter to Martha 7:

The poem begins with a monologic persona trying to uncover which group of inmates are to be regarded as the most subdued — that is, which of them is to be seen as the most traumatized?

And according to persona, the most degraded of them all “are those who beg for it/who beg for sexual assault”. What a verbal irony this is. The question Dennis tries to pin into his readers’ consciousness is “why should someone desire to be assaulted? What might lead anybody to this debased state of mind?

To further clarify this, the poet undergoes some introspection and this is made obvious in his use of copious rhetorics in the second stanza. The poet continues by foregrounding the depth of pain these set of inmates endure; pains which stem from the many tortures these people seem to have gone through. Up to the stage where pain becomes a most needed relief. They have lost their core humanity, in fact, they are no longer living as rational beings as seen in the poet’s conclusion that “…this which they have resisted,/should seem to them preferable even desirable”. This means that most of these men have so much tried their best not to engage in this act of gayism but since they have no other channel to discharge their sexual urge, they pick on one another and this, in the long run, have helped them nurture some form of sanity.

In essence, what we find here is the corrosive influence of the apartheid system on the black man. We will realize that the medium of brutality is not physical as pertains to the system instead what is made physical is the result this psychological influence robs on the black man. And Dennis, being literate, emphasized that this brand of psychological denial is the worst type of subjugation that can ever be placed on a human being.

According to him, this is “the depth of absolute and ludicrous submission”. Yes, they crave that has now eaten up these inmates is the clearest evidence that they have been subdued by the system — apartheid. He further says that this sexual denial is the “most rendingly pathetic of all a prisoner’s predicaments”.

We must also take time to uncover the psychological undertone of the use of plural in the phrase “prisoner’s predicaments”. This shows that these inmates are not just faced with this “most terrible” act but have a cloud of other vices being employed against them(the blacks).

The Language of Letter to Martha 7

It is very obvious that the language and style employed in this poem is a simple and everyday discursive motif. So, we will mince no word when we say that this poet makes use of a prosaic rendition or monologue to explore the brutality of sexual denial underneath the apartheid system in SA.

We notice that an overriding figure of speech seen in this poem is nothing but a condensed use of irony (which ranges from verbal to situational as applicable to context). From the subtleness of the irony, one can easily see how Dennis detest the effect of this denial as seen in his conclusive statement turned verse where he says: “it is regarded as the depths/ of absolute and ludicrous submission.”

Yes, I might be quick to say that Dennis was only being formal with his detestation as seen in other African works like Camera Laye’s The African Child.

The poet seems too engrossed with this detestation that he has to evaluate the degrees of pain afflicted on the blacks in SA and realizes that of them all, intergender sexual denial is the “most terrible”. This, therefore, leaves readers charged up for a sort of revolution (as seen in the many incidents of the fight for independence later recorded in other African countries and most of the Pan-African movement.

I also think we should talk about the copious use of anaphoric pronouns like: “those, they, them, and it” to represent the black inmates and the apartheid system.

We see the poet make use of repetition such as: “who beg for it…/who beg for”, they have…”, most terrible” to emphasize the demoting state of the inmates as contrastive to that of the (unseen whites) upholders of the apartheid system.

The poet also makes use of negatively polarized lexicons and phrases like: terrible, beg, desperate, limits, driven, fierce agonies, resisted, depths, absolute, ludicrous submission, rendingly pathetic, and predicaments to capture what the fate of a black is in a coloured barring society. A society where men(blacks) are stripped off their humanity and rationality only to be left with nothing but ruins in the form of alternative pleasure absorber which gayism provides.

In all, the poem which is an epistolary of Dennis Brutus in verse is not just a tool for romantic perusal for Martha (the poet’s supposed girlfriend) instead, it is a revolutionary piece just like Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech titled “I Have a Dream” to put an end to the apartheid system of South Africa which has chopped off the sanity of the blacks therein.

Analysis of Letter to Martha 8

Having explored the brutal influence sexual denial has on the black inmates in SA during the apartheid system, Dennis furthers his revelation of what and what is obtainable in a black prisoner’s life. He then picks on the metaphoric character of “Blue champagne” and reveals what the ruins of sexual denial are and does to the African man.

The first thing we notice is the outright verbal and situational ironies the voice of the journalistic reporter normalizes in terms of gender displacement. That is, “the most popular “girl” in the place” when in reality, the gender in view is a man and the place is no other place but a prison.

At this point, what the poet tries to tell his readers is that the system has so redefined evil to become good that the essence of good becomes vain to the black man who before this subjugating experiences (with reference to his culture and traditions) is guided by dense moralistic uprightness.

Note, Dennis refuses to pick on old characters to emphasize that this idea of ruin the apartheid system brings is targeted at both old and young as seen in: “so exciting perhaps, or satisfying;/Young certainly with youthful curves”.

This psychologically implies that the system is cruel enough to collapse the positive potentials inside the black man. They are more committed to having these sets of persons displaced mentally, physically, and psychologically which in the end will help the brutalizing system attain the superior status they already have and further diminish the humanity and rationality of the black inmates.

In the second stanza, Dennis transcends from the plane of merely identifying “blue champagne” to digging deeper into the peculiarity of “her” daily routines which is: “…would sleep with several/each night”.

I agree with you to some extent if you have a doubt about the setting being somewhere apart from the prison but if we take a stroll via the time setting of the poem, we will realize that the publication of all these letters was around a familiar year (which I cannot remember now). And if this is true, then the setting of Letter 7 is the best physical setting Letter 8 can ever have.

In fact, we will not have understood the reality of “blue champagne” if Letter 7 never existed. And if you look at the continuity of idea with a specific focus on the first two stanzas in Letter 8 you will agree with me that no better physical setting aligns best. I think it is mostly impossible to separate the setting of these letters written by Dennis from the first to the last.

Still, on the second stanza, we see the poet unveiling a mild justification for one of the conclusions he earlier made in Letter 7 where he said: “that this which they have resisted,/should seem to them preferable/Even desirable”. Here, we also find the metaphoric character of “Blue champagne” as one tolling this line as he becomes the best and most sorted guy. This corruption has eaten deep within “Blue champagne” that he’s made a name for himself within it.

In the last stanza, Dennis opens his readers to the reality of his freedom from the prison alongside his connectedness to it. It was this connectedness that brings him back to see the decay that has been wroth on “Blue champagne” at old age as made known by George (another of the persona’s friend in the poem).

Like most inmates, Dennis exposes the ruin that intergender sexual denial has cost the black generations in SA. Instead of the black people engaging in positive and developmental activities, they ruin themselves with callous penetrations of their manhood on their typical sex.

Going further, the poet mentions that “Blue champagne” has “become that most perverse among/The perverted”…. The basic interpretation of this metaphoric expression is that even amidst the ruined black inmates, there are still gradations as seen in the reality of Letter 7 wherein the poet, was able to assert that “sexual assault” is the “most terrible” of all the brutal measures employed by the apartheid system.

As much as “Blue champagne” was the “most perverse among/The perverted”, Dennis also agrees that sexual assault as seen in “but it has seemed to me/one of the most terrible/most rendingly pathetic/of all a prisoner’s predicaments” remain the worst.

Now we can compare the system and the reality of the system as been evil altogether. We can say that the system and the brutalities that it adopts trades the black man’s morality with immorality, rationality with irrationality, humanity with inhumanity and in the end, the black becomes debased more than his imagination of debasement as captured in Dennis’ surprise when he sees “Blue champagne” and what had become of him.

In conclusion, the purpose of art should not just rest on the pivot of “art for art sake” rather, the creative composition of art should bring to the reader a consciousness that he or she belongs to the struggle of survival for sanity. This, as much as it is, forms the core of Dennis’ poems and also puts before the African poets a question of _ “to what extent have we been subjugated psychologically?” because presently, the rate of visible suppression is diminishing rapidly. Yes, the apartheid system in SA was a blow to the humanity of blacks and will forever be a scar in the history of the black continent.

Originally published at on April 4, 2019.

Committed to changing the narrative behind tall walls & beautiful challenges.