Two new poems by Mbali Vilakazi

The Johannesburg Review of Books is proud to present previously unpublished poetry by Mbali Vilakazi.

The Broken Dreams

Then they came to Elim, where there were
twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees,
and they encamped there by the water.
—Exodus 15.27

This is no place for sentimentality.
Death is not far here. It is not the future.

It has already happened. And it will happen again
And again. Sweat intermixed with tears.

Strangers with their belongings held in the
Drooping bags under their shifty eyes.

Shoes without soles, coins for tampons,
Cheap cigarettes and stolen musk perfume.

Canyons of desperation hidden inside guarded
Mouths. No language and no gifts.

This is a place for lost things, things no one wants.
Broken everything: broken veins, broken furniture,

Broken hearts. The contradictions: having no home
But not homeless, and having a home but homeless.

They call us the broken dreams.


You cannot listen attentively enough
To what is not being said. You cannot
Speak much of it, either. But you can smell it

                                The way it hangs there
                                In the air. A trail. Like Earth.
                                Like rain.

(It implies a sense of being lost)

He smells like he’s trying too hard,
The acrid stench of contrived action.
Trying too hard smells abrasive.

Parched lips speckled with the many lies they have told:

          –       This is not a place where you tell your story

          –       This is a place where you tell stories

He might have been a boxer. Or a bouncer. Or a bully.
A pirate. A soldier in the South African Army.

He is homeless,
                                                    like the rest of us.

He doesn’t belong.

He is a slick, silver ponytail. Shoulders strong enough to form clouds around.
Sitting at the white plastic swimming pool table dealing cards.

There is no swimming pool here.

He tells you about his tattoos,
How he got them, where he got them,
But he will never show you.

A cliché—
                          He is brandy ridden breath
                          Conscription and braaied limbs            frenzied laughter
And wide-eyed at 4 a.m. He is lack of full disclosure and amnesty.

(I told you, he smells like omission)
He doesn’t drink.

His crutches: badge, banner and burden.

He is the oranje blanje blou flag. He might even have two passports. He recounts his ancestry with pride. His father was from England. His mother, Scottish, twice removed on her father’s side. He has the Netherlands in him. Don’t tell him he’s not African, though—even if he doesn’t count it. It doesn’t matter what he has lost, he is Empire. Volk. Die Republiek.

He says: ‘The things I’ve seen, my girlie …’

I wish I knew.

I wish I didn’t.


Previously unpublished, © Mbali Vilakazi

  • Mbali Vilakazi is a South African poet, performer, speaker and facilitator. Her work deals with issues of personal and social transformation, and sustainability and social justice. Intentionally experimental, her practice is concerned with exploring a socially engaged, multi-disciplinary performance poetry aesthetic. Her awards include a Silver Medal for South Africa at the 2009 Delphic Games, a Gold Medal at the 2012 NPR poetry games and a 2015 Mbokodo Award for Poetry.
Image: Cody Schroeder/Unsplash

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