Mnemosyne I

Mnemosyne I

Comes through the bright green leaves
of the row of oak trees
in late November,

the whitewashed wall of the school.

The matric exam done,
we’ve come to return our textbooks
and now stand in the shade

under the big oak by the school hall
to say farewell
to a favourite teacher

who looks on us
with the care some always had,
our teachers,

but that we recognise
always only too late,
in memory

when we’re looking elsewhere
for something else, like now,

when I look elsewhere
for something else,
you come to me unbidden

under that tree,


in a short white dress
with small red flowers
or are they strawberries?

Your bare brown arms,
your athlete’s calves
firm in tan sandal-straps,

your eyes also brown,
your hair, brown;

nut-brown hair
that will brush across my face
and all the stories before

and after, of how it begins
or ends
its tracery

fine as the veins on a bright green leaf
in a Boland summer
before we turn to the world:

you to study music
me to fail mathematics and turn
to the algorithms of heartbreak

and study its poetry instead,
its failed theorems
which, when one looks, lead back

to this sylvan scene
where you were the first woman I loved.
Though still I don’t know what it means,

I loved you deeply,
in all its infinite innocence,
deep enough

it hurt me into poetry
like a country would
like a country does;

into the poetry
that brings me back
to the barbs and pull of memory.


Who cares now
that these lines are sentimental,
when it’s not done

to sing of love in youth
to apostrophise
some big Romantic Absence

to be instead self-aware
of the sin of emotion.

But here they are,
lines I wish I could have written
when I was another,

lines other
than those cribbed
from pop songs and embroidered hangings,

before I studied heartbreak.


It’s no more done
that men should cry thus in public
or anyone

should talk of hurt
unfixed by chemicals
or by money to buy things.

But here it is:

That cut below the heart,
the one that never heals
the one we won’t admit

for fear of seeming weak
but also
to guard its privacy,

the hurt we wish forgotten,
that hurt lasts
and lasts as long

as a word like ‘slave’ survives.

Look at us,
still hurt

or into a scatter of lone rituals
buying up redemption
in malls across the world.

A public hurt, Apartheid hurt us
somewhere outside history
beyond statistics

or the careful prose of glossed reports;
hurt us
beyond the weal of reparations,

a pittance from some pig-fat,
over-lording bureaucrat
or the cheap spectacles of sport and reconciliation.

It hurt us where it only multiplies
I now declare
in the private heart

because our hurt is still our sin

and wished forgotten
like a date of battle
or some other minor detail

a part of speech
beyond our parsing.

And so we carry on, hurting.


3 Responses to Mnemosyne I

  1. Nadia Davids says:

    Wonderful Rustum, as ever…

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