For a long time I have wanted to place some of Rethabile Masilo’s poems at Groundwork. It’s taken too long, but here now are six poems by him.
Originally from Lesotho, Masilo lives in France. I was first introduced to his blog in 2007 when he requested permission to use one of my own poems at Poéfrika. Since then, and via correspondence (alas, as these go, not frequently enough), we have discussed things literary and other shared fondnesses, reggae especially.
I like his poetry mainly for its tone: there’s a world-weariness in it, but it is never without hope. I hope that soon we’ll see a volume by him.
Poem for Troy Davis*
The sun that is rising
comes into view at last;
how stunning, the way it leans
like a moon above marshes
that fleeing slaves –
yelped at by dogs and sought
by glimmering lamp –
must have tramped!
Sometimes I just walk
across town and back again,
considering it: your mother
has come here each morning
to tend to her plot, like,
through the years all along
she’s known how this
should not have happened.
And each day she takes
a look in the mirror at
the hole the sun left when
it rose, as without a word
the world turns and turns.
She took herself
Like a coat from
behind a door
she took herself,
past dawn half asleep
she walked away
past neon lights
that wink at streets.
And now below his
window whores laugh
as if they know
that she’s gone,
whores all of them,
as he lies there
next to himself.
And when sleep does
claim him at last,
he withdraws into
a separate shell,
the hard chamber
where he and all
his alcohol do well.
White canes bend at two places, like fingers
Cities through fingertips inebriate me.
Everywhere I travel lies this pavement
defining the town with a kerb that may
or may not curve to where I go. Patient,
I like to try and see it with my cane,
slightly slanted in the hand. Not a stick,
a pen I use to trace my life again
as I walk and tap or touch stone or brick
or granite at my feet. No need to prove
God or splendour. If you don’t listen well
to night you may miss the bat that moves
with rubber wing, and flickers round walls
in a feeding frenzy. For the glory
of everything belongs truly to the night,
which holds day as dead retinas carry
light, to watch life with previous sight.
(first published in Orbis 143, Spring 2008)
for Nelson Mandela
As you took up arms, ntate,
we stood by and admired your guns
and your uniform, while you prepared
to mount the country to kill railways
and post-offices, we nodded agreement,
we acknowledged how the continent
was a pistol facing earthward, with the trigger
right at Nigeria’s oily wars of religion between
once-peaceful regions, the left hand now hacking
and being hacked by the right.
From out in the cold you made sense
of lives the way a bullet never can,
our poetry on the shore, washed up on the rocks;
doves came and sat on the eaves.
We thought it was a mistake – I am prepared to die,
but it was in your voice, carried to our door
by the choice of words, joined by others
from village to village, where cold and hot
scuffle for the light of dawn, east and west,
the chill of night when the wind is still
and stars are out. Somalia’s hammer
is just now falling into place on land and sea
where ghosts whimper your name, on the island
where no one is, save webbed gulls and dolphins
that know your tribe, and seek us among
painful rocks. From then on the smell
of gun-powder would be with the world. Yes,
and we rubbed the struggle into our hair,
our jeans, our black mining boots, walked
to the freedom of our lives, leaving a thin curl
of smoke rising from South-Africa’s
muzzle, into crisp, morning air.
The Prophet Seekers
Today I know we’re going to unbury the dead
to get this over with before it engulfs us.
We’ll wake Motuba up, Fischer,
rouse Biko and Lumumba, Hani,
put their hands on a stack of bibles or not,
and let the questions begin. To hell, then,
if we can’t bring the child to the tree
on which their bodies were hanged,
arcs stopped dead like broken pendulums,
the mechanism smashed, time strangled.
Here is my body to light the night;
as the flame goes higher and higher,
take please my name off your certificates,
you can display my culture in glass cases,
libraries, to learn how to build a pyramid;
through the season of our discontent
our children have always faced their history,
as all children must, one day or another,
nineteen sixty, nineteen seventy-six.
And this century is only at its start.
We’ll take our kids to the prophet’s tomb
whose engravings and marks scar our face
as hieroglyphs are necessarily Egyptian,
and we’ll sprout roots, shoots, stronger limbs,
standing here on this path to the minster,
swinging fists at the heavens to question
their political stance in the face of all this,
like Dennis Brutus when death stopped him,
ready to get at last to the bottom of it. We
are gonna have to see this thing through.
The Grotto of Chehrabad**
There’s a point between water and fire
where lies my dream, where a woman without fear
navigates the continent on her way
to the sea, a sparkle in the eye as she goes,
a tempest caught in her dress,
driving her into voyages across time.
I’m a salt man, and I watch her stoop
as with the grace of a goddess she scoops water
and lifts her cup of love,
raising the chalice that keeps us alive,
that contains all the fire and water,
all of it, and the rage of our winter,
knowing that my siblings and I live in
this hollowed out cavern we call heaven.
(first published in The Mom Egg, #7, 2009)