Kelwyn Sole is a poet and critic, well known for his work on black South African poetics. He teaches in the Department of English at the University of Cape Town. Among his work are the collections, Projections in the Past Tense (Ravan Press), Love that is Night (Gecko Poetry), and The Blood of Our Silence (Ravan Press).
The Dream of the Blind Child
born in the wrong body
to festivals of light
this can't be all, i thought -
my father is a lurching noise,
a horizon strangling in;
the chapped promptings
of two calloused hands
that designate my skin
a muffled space
curled around the belly
of her loss, a deweyed baby
not like me
imagined deep within
my mother fries i am not sated
rain pours my head is always chilled
the door sticks i learn an entrance
a person in the street screams i
am no hiding place
for i am an island of lonely
washed on all sides by brothers and sisters
as they bicker as they laugh
if i drown
i try to escape this shadow me
incessant pressing : to talk to someone
of zinc or mud or plastic : not born inside a shack
inwards at my palms : tell me do you exist
to look for a maybe is it a voice
i can call my face towards
the things you try to name
can you prove
there is a world that will stay still
so I may know What's Here
that for me can't last but slips
off the tip of finger
are you another anyone
do you taste of colours
how far must i come forward
to touch you
He runs everywhere everywhere along the planes of identity
as they shift, each
realm of darkness chasing its Other:
has flitted over rocks, past caves,
through fields of endless screeds
bristling their sprigs of intention
... he reads, his eye follows, his eye is a moon
lurching towards what is outside
of what's been written
- this text, he says, illuminates
* * *
composed in some study
on our behalf
moulting nightly onto his desk
an unsprightly parakeet
while the beauties of a New England Fall
pursues the trace of a breath
left by the harsh-throated wolf of meaning
panting its stink always
just slightly out of reach
trails its ever-receding spoor
across pages of delightfully
* * *
once or twice
he has allowed us (by good grace of himself)
by less harmless
than his own
where equality and justice
have their inkling
though always (in the last instance) he
can't help it, he, regretfully
arrogates the power
to scratch the incitement truth
off our graves our flags
it were a swearword
* * *
there will always be new boundaries
to be imagined
but for us
there are only these boundaries
marking us the edges of
our goat-destroyed landscapes
of our expungable skins
of touch all we have
to give in love
beyond which we
because of which we
the provincial unglamour of
our lives, these deaths
heaving hazy with heat out of the morning
jumpy as fleas in relentless sun
are if you get nearer
only a green gullet
of gum trees and belling birds
that swallows ferns, roads,
a snake or two, gang-gang cockatoos
blackened tree stumps as well
as children's burnt-out toys
from last year's
fire. Behind tangling wire fences
with rusted gates awry
creak the lorn fates of houses.
Here, late summer rumples the suburbs into a doze
that defies all efforts
to pinpoint ardour for a task
larger than hospitality
or making babies, to find a way
to choose or understand.
The cumulus that sails above these hills
inexorably east to west also pends its promise
above my mother's backyard
clouds of rain or clouds of washing.
She is slackened by the weight of nine decades
that seem to her in retrospect
The area is mistakable - it could be anywhere
architects and builders conspire
through a gagging of dust and effort
to make walls that will keep
us out, or in -
but my mother is displaced. Her South African
gutturals sharpen more completely into tiny stones
each year, inflect upwards into her nose with a tang
of fire and eucalyptus
she can't control, and
no longer even ascertain.
Cinched in a green belt under signposts
to Elm Crescent and Dominion Avenue
she waits to die. Her descendants
have all gone native, except
the unruly son who stayed behind where
she was born to contest against her - his -
race. Alone, she watches
the wattle birds in pairs
twirl upside down and prod
inside the banksias, irate clowns.
I don't know but these days
I think there are parts of me
not properly connected to the world.
She dreads the obstinacy
of aging joints, her fading
sight, the thought that she
may someday need my charity.
Women with big hams cheeriness
and sympathy who bring her
charcoaled chips 'n chicken
are all the human warmth
she finds. And what if
she should falter? Where
on earth would I be?
In a basement apartment in
erects fetid green sepals
insistent as cheese.
to sleep, but the curtains are
too short, and a chaos of legs
toting disembodied laughter pass
procure a night of sleeplessness
- what does it do for you to say
such shitawful things to me?
- Charlie, don't be like that!
- where's that ugly-assed mother?
- been to The Mummy? It's great! -
Man, I'm telling you ...- por Dios!
- that's the biggest rat I've ever seen!
- you lost?
come up to the sidewalk
owl-blinking in a morning light
that glares and treacles
through fire escapes
of etched ebony
cabs in the streets
swerve and drone
unscalable cliffs of commerce
the sun fulfils its moment,
is gone. Swarms
of faces on the street interweave
jokes and imprecations
servants of the Web -
that galaxy of disconnected facts
that's centred here but nowhere,
the lure to shop and never stop
spidering across the globe.
Along the East River
the fantasy of equal kinship
among all nations maunders
in an insoluble brisk wind
as pages from torn-up speeches
careen across the plaza. Flags
nod their heads, then lunge
out in impotence ...
1st May. Dear Robert: I have come home,
but not without a troubled heart.
Their cities are much like ours, but strive
to be bigger and more daunting.
They claim to have rubbed out lack and anger
but I saw white packets circulate in alleys
and people cry out with no hope at all
in the early morning streets of their pain.
Still, they have one or two endearing habits -
e.g. they pretend to listen when you speak.
But they grow nonchalant with a glut of choices.
Believe to carry guns everywhere helps them
find a liberty. And worse, still kill (not as we,
fear blade-borne and with recklessness of hunger)
but by injecting their pariahs with toxin
then pretending they are just asleep.
I meandered. And - call this ridiculous -
in all places I heard ghostplaints hang
in the concrete nooks and crannies
of their spring:
May Day. Mayday.
As for me, returned
a day without largesse -
the sun's declining power
alone gives to me,
in my own country,
a tourist's scrimped
interlude of happiness,
the mountain splintering
into lines of pure form.
Sunday brings a chilled wind
gesticulating towards autumn:
a cold front heaps at the horizon
sheared off into cobalt on its top
as if by a lathe. But we've waited
all week for this, hulking down
in offices in homes on wastelands
of gaunt inner-city desolation
balanced on the tightrope humdrum
of construction sites or
it's come - a half-day of shopping
followed by empty hours
when there's no need to ponder
or to move
somewhere close by
a stone takes out the eye
of a taxi driver riding past
at the wrong place and time
steel proves the truism
once again that it is
more durable than flesh
and the stench of the refinery
sinks its claws repeatedly
into the sinuses of children
but the brewery fumes also
a sweet piss smell of languor;
there is a repeated drowsy click
as bat belabours ball through which
I dream away the afternoon
wake up once more
into a disgrace of motives
coming to seed coming to blight,
the talking heads of those
once mistaken as my comrades
now academics consultants bankers
clowns who juggle interest rates
spindoctors of The Market -
the bumbling chimeras of our age
excusers of the growing debt
we owe to foreign systems
who twinkle now on now off
of the persistent screens
of allurement in our homes,
and regulate our harvests.
Tomorrow a diligence of noise
will rivet the air.
small house next door
seeks its shape
accreting bricks each day
- saws and hammers
in unison -
at work probing
for new beginnings
someone may come to call
of good neighbours
we'll hope one day
to feel secure
Feel your tongue
with the strain to articulate -
years that crackle like tinder -
the furious songs
with our deeds.
No one should be content
merely to declaim
that the worst poverty
is a lack of reference,
a looking always
but it is
Melbourne - New York - Cape Town
This Is Not Autumn
This is not autumn:
the skies are doused
in aching blue
nights are colder
there is little cloud
to entice us
in flocks like
each farm drowses
after its harvest,
and quiet descends
on a veld surrendered
to a seared brown
to crackling scurf
and the slow musk
of wood fires.
on shining roads
to know the lives
of our compatriots,
But our own thoughts
change. There is
panic and eagerness loose in the world. Last night's hotel tv was pregnant
with praise singers. You fell asleep, during education comes through sport,
and I had no strength to touch the dial to release me from my vigil
alone with shy mice and the maudlin sound of tyres in love with tar.
There was a hint of lightning, a trance of rain, briefly, to the east:
then from the west a sifting in the dewless sand, grain on lonely grain:
from the south a dirge came for the lost herds of Cochoquas:
from the north a tintinnabulation of trumpets and applauding jewelry
as ancient powerful men wagged thick forefingers in admonition
just like those before them.
In Hillbrow the streets are shattered glass.
In Pretoria they mint reflecting coins to spy any threat approaching.
In Orange Farm and Khayelitsha, a furtive noise of bailing buckets.
In Richmond there is no one who dare recognise a neighbour.
Tomorrow we will forfeit ourselves again to the soothings
of clerics, their fantasies of blame and of redemption tricked out
in rainbow colours. Will drive past billboards crooning the idiom
of Herdbuoys and Azaguys. See more of bureaucrats
- a glacial indifference -
young people grown slickly self-important
vocal with assurances they cannot hope to keep
who find time to redeem their own mortgages
with down-payments of our patience.
Yet for now
a woman passes us and waves and can't stop grinning
with the promise of a house - at last - within her eyes.
A child muses, longing for a friend to share his prickling intellect.
An old man reclaims his land, ploughs the soil with the joyful
calloused foresight of all who carry seed. Bricks
seek mortar then resolve to transform themselves to buildings.
Girls in makgabis are sinuous hankering for one day love
as we stop in the exact centre of this journey,
a chrome and steel button
among mealiefields stubbling in all directions
with no map to tell us where to go
- seek anywhere
a language of candour a signpost but are awake only
to the sad shunting of a train, somewhere in the distance;
or try to read a script of looping ants
devouring a sandwich.
There are riddles
that possess us
that we fear to name, enraptured
with optimism, yet weighted down with our forefathers'
genetic tombstones still clogged inside our brains.
A plague of eloquence beguiles this world to posturing,
a misplaced sanctimoniousness of spring.
The air stinks of trouble. And myths proliferate.
- You see my house.
You see my wife,
my children, my mealies
and my dogs? Yes, over there -
They say I am hiding in this forest.
They say I have gone back
to drinking with the animals.
But in the location I would be
no one. I would just be
that thing that they call unemployed.
White State Black State
the thing turns out always the same
pledge your being to their looking-glass
what's left outside the frame?
the local or the global
it couldn't matter less
to consultants on our poverty
who depend for their success
on bedazzling every one of us
each Gita Mpho or Roy
in our unity of greed
for one more shiny useless toy
we speak no longer heart to heart
media clichés cloak our solitude
we're just sleek graduate tourists now
from their schools of software and fast food
global gangsters cast no shadow
their country's nothing but their style
use up the planet with panache and leave
us each resulting fresh shit pile
they say this bedazzlement can't be broken
that's the fable they want heard
but it can, by partisan activity directed at
- you find the next, the magic, word.
Your Smile is a Sudden Bird
Your smile is a sudden bird
alighting on your face. Bushes shake:
my eyes open: the usual morning
blears into its existence
of car alarms and smog,
and then, you are.
There. With me
decisive as a heron
dipping one leg with forethought
into troubled shallows, seeking -
or a warbler's cry unknown
within thick sedge,
shy inside its tiny frame
but confident in song -
in a manner of speaking only
- for you soon grow tired
of the fumbled maleness
of all metaphor
huh! I'm this natural world
of birds `n shit no more
than you are, buddy!
- but as my universe
is stirred from sleep
how can I
how can I explain
the joy upwelling in my mind
anticipating your presence
except as a prospect
of bustling birds I
wait each day to see?
Can you remember once
under a towering african holly
spread out dense around us
next to a river easing slow
between two krantzes a forest
inverted in its reluctant mirror
we sat, expecting nothing,
talked of what was important
only to us
a sound of creaking doors
a kok, kok, kok an everywhere
of rustling of cavorting
as eight - nine! - louries
came prancing all at once
up and down the branches
of our chosen tree
ignoring us, and we
a crown of green and red,
birdtree upon our love, a motion
of fugitive life immeasurable
and endless, benison
because we were surprised?
So words can be made possible
both to them, and you
woman of flesh and blood;
it is my luck
to live beneath a wind-filled sky
with death a freight of clouds that looms
merely to etch your gestures, voice,
my face uprisen
as you call our love to flight -
knowing you have within your palms
perpetually new birds.
The Betrayal of Narrative
And my friends die, one by one,
each caught in accidental amber
like a fly
within the gelled memory
of a various summer I have concocted.
The first fell from heaven
a flaming comet
quenched. His ribcage now
is lighter than the sky he loved,
lies deeper than all knowledge -
tides gently back and forth
in which small fish can sleep secure.
The second flopped and bled from the mouth
on a pavement unyielding as surprise
in front of the door he'd thought was home
before fourteen holes to lung and stomach
and an assassin's footsteps fading
taught him another
more urgent destination.
Here my poem trips on stone.
My poem must stop short.
It has a swollen ankle.
The third spoke at the end in whispers
despite the voice I'd loved
conversing through noon forests
which could blast birds from their nests
or dangle the pompous from its utterance.
He became in time less
discernible than grass,
organs prodded to new shapes
by the tumour of each day passing
and vomit his chief mode of speech
until he longed for death,
to stride alongside him
and say nothing.
My poem trips on stone.
It can't move forward, or start back,
but loathes this standing still.
It gives nothing to the hole in the air
waiting here right next to me
each friend has learnt to be.
It is a trifle to condescend
to a corpse that's not one's own
with words. Which is in turn
impossible. I write this, then,
to staunch my coming silence
before it cannot matter; trail
the unruly tips to my fingers
through the ink
of this grudging autumn morning
dried hot now on my face alone
beyond this poem cawing with sorrow,
as a crow inside me.