Poetic words of a whitey that slice through rhetoric

ABSENT TONGUES by Kelwyn Sole (Hands-on Books)

Who am I to pass judgment on white people who write poems? Who am I to say what they should write poems about? Writing poems, as they say, is mostly harmless. But, nonetheless, I have been experiencing a rising sense of discomfort when white folk wax lyrical about the horrors of life in South Africa today. These views are usually linked to their nonself-reflexive critiques of the excesses of the black nouveau riche, à la Brett Bailey.

Now, because I am a white girl who has been known to write poetry about the suffering masses, you might well argue I have no grounds from which to speak. This may be why I have quit writing poems.

Grounds or no grounds, these questions nag at me: How many more necklacings will we turn into poems? Who will be the first to pen an epic in response to the Marikana massacre? Perhaps someone can make a site-specific opera and include some of the mineworkers in the chorus.

But this is to be unfair to Kelwyn Sole, who is a rare white, English-speaking South African writer who seeks to situate his own work in conversation with that of the black South Africans whose work he actually reads. And he does this without any kind of arrogance in the gesture. His critical overview of poetry after apartheid can be found online in the Marxist literary journal Mediations, and he won the Thomas Pringle Award for his poem Cape Town™ earlier this year. In large measure the poems in Absent Tongues, Sole’s sixth collection, are an exploration of the relation between the personal and the political as set out in the short poem titled New Country: “In the soft part of our palms,/in the clasp of our own hands,/hidden between the calluses and scars,/that’s where we’ll find our country.”

And Absent Tongues also achieves quite a surprising thing. Sole’s poem Outsiders begins with the name of the Mozambican man who was set on fire and burned to death during the xenophobic violence that swept through the country in 2008: Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave. But the poem is not dedicated to Nhamuave — “Keening is for the dead;/I’ll not trouble them”, Sole writes. “This poem is not for you […]/No. This poem is for myself.”

In refusing to turn Nhamuave’s charred corpse into an elegy, Sole denies us the easy consolations of feigned mourning. “What I want/I want my country to pardon me/for trying to possess it,” he declaims, before writing himself into the group of murderers: “Enough. Where Ernesto/begged us/stop!/there is now/just a burnt-out stick,/a scorched half-brick,/a patch of blackening ground …” And the poem concludes: “Compatriot, friend, stranger/born with me upon this land/ — as long as we do not face/what lies here on this street, /it is our only street.” Through his unflinching self-condemnation, Sole makes you think you could do worse than to be a writer of poems.

The day after the Marikana massacre, President Jacob Zuma insisted that “today is not an occasion for blame, finger-pointing or recrimination … It is a day for us to mourn together as a nation.” But the question of what would make collective mourning possible in the most economically unequal and socially divided country in the world remains.

After violence and trauma finds you in this country, you must “learn to mourn in secret”, Sole astutely observes, “for whatever happens/the rich must still want to/wash up on these beaches,/clacking their pincers of money”. And I think this is what poetry is for: slicing through rhetoric with a good, true word.


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