Spina Bifida Poems: The Foot

Spina bifida poems: a single foot touches the surface of a lake at dawn as the sunrises behind.

Within the lines of these spina bifida poems, a body becomes both canvas and storyteller, weaving tales of resilience and redefinition. | Photo Credit: Branden / Adobe Stock

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Spina Bifida Poems: The Foot

Navigating the terrain of spina bifida through poetry

In 2008, during a profound residency at the Caversham Centre for Writers and Artists in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, I found myself engrossed in a unique creative venture. It was a solitary late afternoon that birthed a cycle of six spina bifida poems, each intimately connected to various parts of my body. These verses — "The Hand," "The Foot," "The Foot (the other one)," "The Shoulder," "The Foot Re-visited," and "The Wrist" — marked a pivotal milestone, not just in my literary journey, but in how I confronted and expressed my own disabled body, particularly its significant, affected parts. It was my body defined in medical terminology as having a congenital spina bifida present from birth from L5 down to S5.

These six sections signaled a transformation, reshaping my language, my subject matter, and even my poetic form. For the first time, I found myself openly addressing, speaking directly from, the landscape of my disabled body. These poems about my spina bifida, eventually published in my 2010 collection "Light and After," transcended the page — they stood as a declaration, asserting the validity of the disabled body as a subject of artistic representation. In their verses, I proposed not just a shift from the periphery to the center for disability, but also posed a daring challenge to societal norms, a challenge that reverberated with themes of inclusion and social justice.

Within the tapestry of metaphoric language about spina bifida, I wove intricate threads that allowed readers to step into my atypical embodiment. These spina bifida poems, a unique interplay of metaphor and reality, granted imaginative access to experiences that might be foreign to them — the realm of disability, the nuances of my narrative, and the emotions woven into them.

In "The Foot," an evocative metaphor takes shape, depicting "a hole" that's "made by a shard / of memory." This image extends beyond the physicality of an unhealed ulcer on my left foot, revealing a profound connection to absence and loss, emotions that resonate universally.

The poem "There is something about his right hand," found in my 2013 collection "Left Over," delves into the aftermath of an intricate surgery that addressed an Arnold-Chiari Malformation associated with spina bifida. This personal journey, punctuated by surgery during my university years, reverberates through the lines. Recovery may have granted strength to my right arm and hand, yet vestiges of imperfection remain — tasks remain impossible, and the right side of my body remains devoid of sensation. These verses reflect my journey of resilience and adaptation, underscored by the use of a cane.

These poems are undoubtedly a reflection of my lived reality, yet they extend beyond the confines of personal narration. They are not mere reports of my spina bifida medical conditions; they are invitations to traverse the realms of experience, beckoning readers to journey beyond their expectations of the confessional, to grapple with the complexity of understanding an 'other' life — a distinct existence within a body and a world.

As these verses unfold, the relationship between the textual subject and myself as the author grows intricate and fluid. Through this dynamic, these spina bifida poems beckon readers to explore the intricacies not just of the verses themselves but of the wider realm of social justice and understanding.

I present three poems that echo the essence of my transformative journey with spina bifida. These verses are like mirrors reflecting the many facets of embodiment, sparking dialogues that extend far beyond the borders of these pages. Just as my journey is ongoing, these poems are a testament to the enduring conversation between language, experience, and the human heart.

The Foot

The foot is a hole.
A stone.
A black stone.
A hole made by the stone
before the hole was made.
A hole that the stone cannot get out of,
no matter how black, and blacker still,
its skin goes –
until its skin begins to crack, and
pieces flake off.
Pieces of rock falling into
the black hole that the foot grows
beneath its shadow.


The foot is a stone.
Underneath the stone is a hole
that spreads and shrinks and
spreads again as the wind blows.


The hole smells like words left a long time
in the crevice between two teeth.
Like words that have been closed up
too long in the dark pit of the mouth.
Sweating all night. And sleepless
in the day.


The foot is a hole made by a shard
of memory.
It walked through black mud
one morning on the edge of a brown lake,
where the birds waded deep up to their cries,
up to their blue wings.
It walked through the black mud and
into the lake.
And the water was not cold,
the foot said.
Come in, the foot said. The water is warm.
And it bent and scooped up the old skin
from off the surface of the lake and
threw it up into the air.


And the flakes of water flew.


And the flakes of water fell.
And the foot came up out of the water
and it was red.
It was red where the flakes of water
had fallen upon it and cut it –
called out to it its new name.


Its new name was loss.
And rot.


The foot remembers the brown lake
always, and longs to return
to the warm water, to the impenetrable depths,
lurking with the voices of fishes.


The foot remembers the brown lake
with its long waving hair and its green eyes,
and the foot wants to laugh again, loudly,
the way the long grass does.
It wants to laugh again.
But there is a hole.
There is the hole made by the red stone
that does not heal. Ever.
The hole that never closes over.
Even when it seems to.


I hold the foot in my hand every night,
spit onto it.
I spit into its red hole and
mix the spit with sand and honey,
and pack it full. I pack the hole full
every night, and when I go to sleep
I dream that the hole is growing a skin over it.
That a wide bridge is falling out of the sky,
and that it lands on the foot,
and that it covers the deep distance
between the edges of the red hole.


The foot pretends that it has something to say.
That the fishes in the brown lake and
the birds in the air and the stones, too,
in the black desert
want to hear what it has to say.


But to be honest,
it has all been said before.


Published in Light and After (deep south, 2010)

The Foot (the other one)

The other foot is stupid.
And small.
And not worth talking about.


Published in Light and After (deep south, 2010)

Surgery List



Subtitled: The beginning.


At the base of his spine.
Snake-like. No other description.
After 50 years
it is still sensitive to the touch.


Right leg, below the knee,
vertical, 10cms with
6 cross-stitches. To keep him
on the straight and narrow.


Right foot, outside ankle,
crescent-moon, approximately 12cms,
faded stitches, impossible to count.
In order to stop him
going over.


SubtitledThe practice.

Right wrist, circular, jagged,
4cms with no stitches.
Windows are actually meant
for looking through.


Left foot, outside ankle,
crescent-moon, approximately 12cms,
with 8 cross-stitches.
Because this one was going
the same way as the other.


Same foot, top of ankle,
vertical, 10cms with
6 cross-stitches. Because
he had to be pulled back
with force.


Same again, inside ankle,
1.5cms, no stitches. Just
a nick from an electric saw with
rotating blade used to remove
old plaster cast.


SubtitledThe scare.


Back of the neck, from
just below the shoulders to
the top of the spine, straight
as a ruler, 15cms with 10 cross-stitches.
In order to insert a silicone shunt.
In order to prevent him losing
the rest of his feelings.


Right hand, palm and
fingers, calluses
and corns, various,


due largely
to walking


on uneven air.


Everything else
comes and goes.

Amazon: Tilling the Hard Soil: Poetry, Prose and Art by South African Writers with Disabilities

Tilling the Hard Soil takes readers on a journey out of their comfort zones and into the lives of ordinary people living with extraordinary challenges. These are people with disabilities who hail from a wide diversity of backgrounds and life experiences. Some were born disabled; some became disabled in later life. All of them share one desire: to be recognized as human beings first and disabled people second. In this frank, provocative, humorous, and moving collection, they give voice to their difference in a variety of creative ways.” Kobus Moolman

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"Spina Bifida Poems: The Foot" is adapted from “The Foot: Three Poems," originally published in BMJ. It is republished here under a CC-BY-NC licence.

Article by
Kobus Moolman

Kobus Moolman, the author of "Spina Bifida Poems: The Foot," is an award-winning writer and Professor of Creative Writing and English Literature in the Department of English Studies at the University of the Western Cape.