Pansy Maurer-Alvarez, as contributing editor, introduced Tears in the Fence readers to Rethabile Masilo’s poetry. Masilo, born in Lesotho, a small landlocked country encircled by South Africa, where the majority of the population subsists on farming, fled the war torn country in 1981. He lived in South Africa, Kenya and the United States before settling in Paris, France. Being in exile offers Masilo the opportunity of locating his family’s history, culture and country in sharp focus. He is a poet of observation, belief and testimony. Much of Waslap is imbued with grief and loss from the killings of the civil war, which began in 1970, and has a great sanctity for life, the natural world and family life. The narrator’s parents and grandfather, near to and after their death, emerge as central figures.
‘Mountain II’ recalls his grandfather’s hands, formed by making tools made before and used after the war for breaking stone, shaving wood and creating space to live as part of reconstruction. Here the narrator is silently led at four a.m. up the mountain and his grandfather ‘like Moses inside Mount Horeb’ breaks the silence to speak ‘to a presence in the mist.’ The extended family hold hands ‘like the last people on earth’ as he speaks to the rocks ‘halfway to heaven’ and they breathe vapour in and out standing ‘with death.’ It is a powerful image with the grandfather who ‘dreaded no one’ a modern Moses shepherding his flock ‘from the caves / staring at us with empty sockets.’
The family live in a room, ‘sunk into the earth’, in a house on a hill, ‘like a grave expecting someone’ until disturbed by guerrilla intruders ‘upsetting their prayers, and three square meals a day.’ Life expectancy in Lesotho is currently 49 years. Masilo leaves his poems open refusing any easy closure. ‘Going through my father’s things’ finds the narrator mute in the face of the documents his father left behind. He picks up
the copy of a Reformed Church
Nicene Creed he once copied in long hand, and framed,
And remain in that dark room, seeking his meaning.
The poems possess a reverence for simple things, such as the narrator’s father’s waslap (wash cloth) and his clothes, matter of factly described in ‘The waslap of my father’:
I wet the waslap and dabbed his brow,
Before scrubbing him well from
Sternum and chest down to the legs.
The poems move somewhat chaotically between an African past and Parisian present, where rebel music, the jazz of Abdullah Ibrahim and MC Solaar rapping in French contributes to the sense of a secret Africa and the narrator stays ‘strongest when I’m with prostitutes, letting their tempest admit mine.’
Waslap, illustrated throughout by Matthew Staunton, shows a deep of Lesotho, which gained independence from Britain in 1966. It is without chronological or geographical sections, and the randomness produces a meandering, African quality. Some powerful poems, such as, ‘If needs be’, prefaced with part of Nelson Mandela’s 1964 Rivonia trial speech end line “If needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”, are poorly positioned and seemingly appear out of context. ‘If needs be’ with its modulated rhythms and simple rhymes is a call for self-sacrifice to political and Christian freedom from terror, prison and death, and ends:
I cannot succumb – slay me,
slay too the baby in its sleep
as you scamper to keep
from harm no one whose loins
hold a further future: take,
take my life please right now
and let’s be done with it.
David Caddy 27th June 2015