The JRB presents four poems from Kelwyn Sole’s eighth volume, Skin Rafts, which has just been published by Hands-On Books.
Hands-On Books, 2022
Over and over the surfers
enter the surf, but these days
just one side of the beach – raise
middle fingers at the suppers, try
to make them enter on the other
as far away as possible… .
Glared at by both sides, by
enforcers of the rival codes,
a girl supper and boy
surfer share a spliff,
reclining on a dune
still hot with what sand’s not
yet been attended to by dogs.
Backwards, forwards, to and
fro they inhale, then exhale,
grunting with satisfaction;
to them it doesn’t matter
if their peer groups peer,
or grumble about ‘wave etiquette’ –
or demand a ban on hydrofoils –
or curse each others’ false sang froid –.
Their wetsuits glisten with
shucked water as if they
had just emerged from
their mothers’ wombs,
throbbing with discovery
a new Romeo and Juliet
setting out in earnest
to map the riptides of flesh
(and be dumped in its backwash).
* * *
An aging surfer
lifts one foot,
then one leg
then the other …
an ungainly crane
about to re-enter
its native sea
with some assurance:
… or something else …
from the black lagoon?
* * *
Meditating in a wet suit
a young woman in the lotus position
the nurdle-laden sea.
The ‘white left’
Don’t tell them it was guesswork:
that we were abstracted from the start,
children who’d played on manicured
squares of lawn with servants poised
at the edge of their vision, secateurs
ready to do the adults’ every bidding,
who – because we were children –
could pick up the unspoken miasma
of anger more swiftly than our parents.
Don’t tell them that we, grown painfully
up, spoke to the common man in riddles,
expected rain from the dry seasons’ sky;
that we persevered past the end of kindness,
judged our friends as much as our enemies,
kept watching dust motes whirl around that
single tree striving to fruit within the yard
of the suburban commune our so temporary
from which we ventured, given time,
to find the Other, a place of refuge
from ourselves to which we thought we
could be faithful. But then, of course,
we heard the screams that followed,
and only the bravest could persist,
those with enough bluster in them
to tone down all the doubts muttering
and join a different kind of Party,
ululating from apprenticed tonsils:
part of a melting pot that was destined
over time to falter and then melt … .
For now we know the soul rips apart
under siege, tips under from the continued
squalor of watching brutality and squalor
that’s still set unabashed all around us.
We’ve grown old on inherited stoeps,
gazing out over stubborn landscapes
of beauty made toxic by the histories
they’ve enacted, and keep on enacting.
It’s impossible to get rid of the past:
to dig the bodies up, the limbs sundered
by cruelty and by grief; to reconstitute
ashes lost into wind, urns in cupboards,
the memories we’re now forced to share
with monuments and suited dignitaries.
Does one calibrate between governments,
trust corrupt rulers who’ve supplanted
those much worse? Should anyone rejoice?
There is no way to find what’s stored in us
so violent and so damaged; to recognise
we have only got more tired, cicatriced
by wariness and age, feet uncertain on
the good earth we helped fight for: yet
still stranded on four centuries of landfall
– and still, too often, just left white.
What needs to be said
I don’t belong in demographics.
– Phillippa Yaa de Villiers
Many years ago two entered a home
but at this precise moment only one
of us can be asleep.
The grizzle of curls on your forehead
licks the sky. Is licked in turn with light,
flecks of heaven.
The trade of love
small gestures, to barter every day:
you on the couch, breathing
your dancer’s toes upturned skewed
bent towards the sun.
To know a wife who hums to herself
around the house, tiring as days can be,
and gazes with equanimity on tea cups
or the raging ocean in the distance
its plates together
and only says:
it’s your turn to wash the dishes!
Words are just skin;
the body is the belovèd.
my paper to the screech of race, I
open my inbox to the screech of race,
momentary faces of those apostles
of their own skins who caper
across the screen, self
then turn – is it fatigue
at their choir of sameness? –
you, the love of my life –
our skins we give weight
though never final weight to
sublimated in a trust of thirty years,
a trust not built on colour.
As the adventure
of old age begins and we raft towards
quieter waters, your hand always
calming as a kiss reaches out
the lines of head and heart along
your palm creased into wisdom: you,
traveller, dancer across time’s seasons, your
life that gives its generosity to the world:
the slow murmur of your heart engaged
as usual, whatever you may be doing …
and mine, blessed because beside yours.
And they ask me:
why do you make poems to confuse us?
And I answer: I make poems simply
from those vocables which have fallen out
with their fellows
so far as to defend
others than myself against judgment,
against spite, I raise hackles into words
a mirror for reflections
not yet come,
the darkened glimmer
of the psyche,
the chimera of you
I clutch to make desire
more palpable, then
a sudden blazing of release
that lifts its globe-like fingers
in the untrustworthy light of
streetlamps – their shadows –
to knuckle on every door.
Spider poems hanging from your ceiling
in that place your broom can’t sweep clean,
that only come out at night to eat your flesh
in small, incremental bites –
the envenomed image: stung,
your search desperate for
an antidote finds only
the next word, and the next,
never to be assuaged:
a comma looking for its silence,
a curled snake at the portal
The blonde boy whose blue eyes
filled with sorrow until he died
from useless empathy and was transformed,
to become unsightly –
even as a child in a house
under a sky of cages
that white was not a colour
until inflected by every other
and another voice still stirs within
that is not ashamed of its skin
nor enclosed by it; but seeks out
the valence of others, their lives
and deaths, for no reason other than
it is the human thing to do.
Who are you, to write
as if you knew my life?
How can anyone write the poor?
Whatever the case …
truth has a middle finger,
lifts it often.
I made the trip from thirst-stricken life to water.
My feet are muddy.
But if you walk towards the river,
I will walk away.
- 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 eight volumes of poetry, the previous, Walking, Falling (Deep South, 2017), winning a South African Literary Award in 2018.