New poetry by Kelwyn Sole: ‘The empty space we call Mandela’

The Johannesburg Review of Books presents previously unpublished poetry by Kelwyn Sole.


The empty space we call Mandela

On the Waterfront
four statues of Nobel Laureates
stand in a line, a platoon:
their proportions slightly wrong, they
seem not quite human, unsettling
the eye of everyone
                                      not tourists.

Above wavecrests, in freshening
spray and wind, if you turn
the other way
                          Robben Island still
winks like a blinded eye in the socket
of the Bay.

                    Disembodied not by death,
but long before: dismayed, dismaying,
floating above our moral carnage:
a name everyone invokes,
a stance no one can credit.

The empty space called Mandela.
Our empty spaces call Mandela.

In London a poet launches
his self-promoting barque of ignorance
with incantations to your legacy;
in Durban a performing Fallist
castigating the privileges
of everyone except
her own
                    shits on your name,
in a different kind of posturing.

In a sense, I suppose, it was your fault:
Who were you, Mandela?

Impunity’s the icon, these days,
that hides behind our icons,

your Party become a bacillus
that sickens everyone it touches.

In the cities, among the bustle
of commerce and bargained gossip,
the buildings are a sad ear longing
for your name.
                            Could you ever,
can you tell us now just what to do,
now that the resentments of race
spittle the lips of everyone,
now hatred scabs on every skin?

Streams flow past mile on mile of shacks
bearing poison from the mines, leaked sewage,
children playing in a rubbish of diversity:
a rainbow nation of spilled oil—

our dreams dribbling out to sea with them

and all we find
are tongues that lick round every hunger,
creating new ones to be unhinged by

all we hear
are politicians whiffling, and the only
cheap things are their shots
                                                    though every one
still knows how to find the time
to mandela their features into a smile

all we see
are prophets preaching charms
                                        to the colour of their skin,
who search for empty vessels
                                        to dump their bile inside

a land divided—
a race right to the finish—

each night for hours your light
quails at all our windows, too meagre
too confusing to resolve
into new morning.

                              Were you ever here,


Previously unpublished, © Kelwyn Sole, 2018

  • Kelwyn Sole is Professor Emeritus at the University of Cape Town, having taught in the Department of English there from 1987 to 2016, retiring as De Beers Chair of English Literature. He has published seven volumes of poetry, the latest of which is Walking, Falling (Deep South, 2017).

The JRB Poetry Editor is Rustum Kozain

Header image: Oliver Needham/Unsplash

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