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Rethabile Masilo’s Waslap (The Onslaught Press, 2015)

Rethabile Masilo’s Waslap (The Onslaught Press, 2015)

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

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Pansy Maurer-Alvarez’s In A Form Of Suspension

Pansy Maurer-Alvarez’s In A Form Of Suspension

Tears in the Fence contributing editor, Pansy Maurer-Alvarez’s new poetry collection, In A Form Of Suspension (Corrupt Press, 2014), which is being launched at Carr’s pub, 1 rue du Mont Thabor, Paris on Friday, 28th March, explores sexual impulse through a series of lush and throbbing sound patterns.

 

My altitude wavers so rasping, it slips a ring raining onto hands

and hisses words between two spongy blue tides

Like daily loose grammar despite radiance, I soar

and improvise on paper a rapid page pressed to hinge;

sliding open a rusted gap, I sway and pitch my limbs

averting rows of loss that diminish the rewritten labyrinthine chill

 

Maurer-Alvarez’s poetry combines succulent musicality within a full poetic line and avoids the pitfalls of over-determining the line. She is the mistress of the measured longer poetic line, of the line break, and of being able to manage lines of differing lengths in one stanza. She excels in this collection. It is quite a different skill to say the likes of Rae Armantrout or Shannon Tharp, who excel with the short line and have great depth through brevity. Here the poet is more divergent and produces a beguiling journey for the reader. It is utterly pleasurable taking the reader to unusual places and thoughts, demanding repeated readings. I am reminded of the famous Dr. Niles Crane line, ‘An exquisite meal with one tiny flaw we can pick on all night’ in that there was, at times, insufficient modulation in relation to abstraction. Others may disagree. There are a wide range of sub-texts and language play that bite and that one can chew on for some time. In some cases, I was in awe and at others annoyed. Such are the many pleasures of the poems.

 

– the history of rainstorm is a naked door

– the waiter will be back, scuffed and literary, granting the acceptable

– a knife recalls blue humidity as a family instrument

– mimosa is composed of Seville

– the ingenious often chant arm in arm with tentative cymbals

– sincerity is equally rated with chamber activity

– the oboe is the flamenco’s counterattack

 

This section from ’39 Fragments On A Pebble Beach’ illustrates some of the rich diversity in this collection and her neo-aphorisms.

 

At the book’s core is a clear narrative voice gleefully indulging in gestures and speech acts:

 

I firmly think that unless this luster of excitement is not withdrawn

from the breast cavity, the jutting out acceleration of surprise will

indicate a double hollow of indulgence. I may collapse. Or a

beautiful avant-garde discourse might ensue and pulsate joy

beyond belief.

 

The book’s title is apt as a number of meanings of suspension come into play throughout. There are at times discord and dissonance as well as the sense of something being discontinued, the condition of being suspended, and a chemical mixing and the state of being dispersed. It is a collection where the sub-texts, often unsaid, outweigh the main theme albeit anchored by an incisive physicality and reverberation. It is an undoubted strength and part of the book’s abiding pleasure.

 

David Caddy 27th March 2014

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