Rethabile Masilo is a Mosotho poet. He was born in 1961 in Lesotho and left his country with his parents and siblings to go into exile in 1980. He moved through the Republic of South Africa (a very short stay, on account of the weight of Apartheid), Kenya and the United States of America before settling in France in 1987. He lives with his wife and two children and works as a language teacher. He is co-editor of the literary magazine Canopic Jar and blogs at Poéfrika. Things That Are Silent (Pindrop Press, 2012) is his first poetry collection.
“In his debut collection, Things That Are Silent, Rethabile Masilo has crafted poems that bear witness to seemingly unnoticed events. Whether it’s a tribute to Sharpeville or an indictment of apartheid from a lover’s tongue, Masilo’s lyrical voice attests the fervent need to preserve memory from the quotidian crush of collective amnesia.”
– Geoffrey Philp
“This debut presents the assured voice of a writer who is also never complacent with certainty. It is as if Masilo moves across darkened territory – of the self and of society – with a flashlight and is surprised by what becomes illuminated. The art of the poetry lies in how this surprise is a mutual illumination for writer and reader. Or, the poems enact the writer’s surprise, making it available to the reader. Ranging from love lyrics to landscape poems to elegies, the poems constantly light upon central human dilemmas. In ‘Birds of Ill’ there is the sense that death is an integral tragedy that makes our humanity – a tragedy, but part of us; our humanity, but a tragic part of it. The poetry never shies away from the kind of shadowland of our existence and it illuminates with a subtle metaphoric and symbolic intelligence. In that sense, there is light throughout, but the book never loses its gravitas. It is also an enigmatic intelligence moving behind these poems, which ensures that the reader returns, again and again.”
– Rustum Kozain
“Rethabile Masilo is a soulful citizen of the world whose poetry flows beyond the bounds of generations and continents. At once ancient and contemporary, Things That Are Silent is a marvellously crafted poetic offering for the ages.”
– Phil Rice
Letter To Country
1. Climb atop the rock and look,
The grass of your escarpment
Awaiting plough and gait of cattle,
Land of fertility and slope,
Of hilly mountains on their backs,
A land of men dying to till it.
2. Through tool and implement
We seek the electricity of hammer
Versus anvil, spark a world
With toil and labour because
They are hope’s only key
And we its only gate.
3. Spring is the offering, the core
Of brightness. From the door
We watch it come into the house
With breakfast in its cereal hands.
Oats, wheat, barley – and seeds
In all its pockets.
4. Our ancestors came, holding
The sun in their right hand
Like an object of worship,
Crossed Mohokare into the foothills,
Bags full of hops, paint sticks,
Venom in phials, dry meat in leaves;
And they hung the sun
On a rope above the Senqu river.
5. Bowls clanging like ghost vessels,
In the blankness of the hour
When all else has deserted us,
Beneath an oven sky we wait
For the black bird’s final arrival.
When you get there, the horses of dawn
before you, the furious wheels of drawn carts,
each distance hard-won with sweated salt,
the road flat between miles; tense; only hoof
and sound of wheel loud above the air,
proof that this is not just a bad dream,
who can say what’s best to do for our calm?
You sit like sculpted ivory among jaded colours,
something in the face you wear, hung like a mask
on walls of inner rooms, something in the sound
whose echo names you, the morning of which
rose out of the gold of you, flaring nostrils
at the world. How can we say who is to blame?
Halfway into destiny, the sun lost all hope,
and shone into itself above the great Smokies.
A slow descent home. The accurate death
of the first words ever spoken: let there be light!
What do we know about the meanings
of things that work against that kind of light?
My Father’s Killers
They take to the road at midnight, and turn
Toward land that by right we plough and turn.
Their dark convoy passes white-washed houses.
A brake light: the bakkies slow down, then turn.
They park at right angles to the street
To light the yard – it’s daddy’s day and turn.
They have come on a crisp September night
To blight us, make our season change and turn.
The moon shimmers its flashlight on a blade
As, from a height, the planets spin and turn.
Eve & Adam
This is a reading of this poem
because this poem yearns to be read.
Read me, it says to girls passing with clay-pots
on their heads, bangles on wrists. Monica
read it to Bill, pausing between lines for this poem
to sink in, the way Camilla kissed Charles
with her tongue when this poem revealed itself
to her. And so this poem is barred from Poems
on the Underground. This poem
is read by women whose husbands
haven fallen to cancer, voices trailing the lines
like sound behind light, or mechanical waves
chasing photons, or the sound of an aeroplane
you can no longer see. Our neighbour
kept reciting this poem every day
till the moon of her mind moved
into her window, and she lay in the arms
of a gentleman’s kindness again. Strauss-Kahn
missed the point of the whole thing, but Eve
read it to Adam on the eve of their sin.
Suddenly aware of the lock and key design
of genitals, he said this poem back to her,
spat in his hand and rubbed her crotch.
We arrived after dark, the place already full,
and looked for spaces to pitch our tents;
then sat down and contemplated the stars,
pointing out those we knew by name that are
to children a familiar connect-the-dots
at the playground; we drew them exactly
as they appeared to our eyes, tracing lines
with our fingers in the air – before meeting
the man Jesus. I cannot recall whether
later we played shax, but the night was rife
and a fire flung sparks into the darkness.
He was near, praying in the park somewhere.
You could almost smell him.
And perhaps we played shax but who
can remember such a thing? No one
was going to escape the moment, taken from
scrolls and tablets with tombstone faces,
and brought before us like a sacrificial lamb.
He was kneeling near the silence of the grove
and we knew his sun was going to rise on Judea,
a kingdom spread from here to the sea, knew
prayer would stop when cries of pilgrims
came from afar as they realised what was
about to pass, and the time was right
from the carpenter to bring out his cross,
chiselled, smoothed over with a plane, oiled,
and women had mixed salt-water with herbs
for the bathing of feet. The black man Simon
was just setting off for the synagogue, biltong
and dried fruit in a pouch at his waist, along
a road where hordes lined the sides, waiting
with boards of shax folded under their arms.
Heavy with sap, this year’s crop
hangs from a branch over the terraced edge
where the hillside heaves into it,
propped up by boulders
like bricks below the ledge
where mother linespotted flowers
to help her think of spring.
A boy at the foot of the mountain looks up,
his fingers red with ochre.
The mountain is a haven for Edens
among whose trees lovers walk at night.
The pomegranate is a fruit of ancestors
who have seen to it that plates are heavy with its flesh.
Cut to the purple berries inside,
scoop them into the mouth and crush,
moving the tongue along the top of the palate
to squeeze the wine, follicle of kings,
folly to the world,
flesh the cave-man ate
when the world was young.
wants you to give earth her grains back
before the autumn drizzle,
in order to start preparing for another birth.
from Things That Are Silent (Pindrop Press, 2012).
Order Things That Are Silent.