Musawenkosi Khanyile, All the Places: Poems, Cape Town: Uhlanga, 2019
This intense, assured and rewarding collection of poems moves in a triad sequence from “Rural” to “Township” to “Urban”, and so both, diachronically, tells an individual story and, synchronically, gives a vivid “State of the Nation” picture of South Africa today.
Musawenkosi Khanyile’s life story has taken him geographically across the map of his homeland and his humane imagination enables him to reach out to all his fellow South Africans. That this powerful work started life as part of a thesis for a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of the Western Cape under Professor Kobus Moolman is testimony to the continuity of the South African imagination and the potential liveliness of academia.
The combination of assurance and ironic hope continues through the first section of the collection. The poet is observant about the complexities of rural life. When the wind blows, run outside rather than in. (“Some build houses to escape from”).
The settlement is remote but the sense of community is strong: “Huts seem so small in the distance but you never feel alone”. (“Ndundulu”) The poet and his friends learned particular skills, from collecting honey to herding cattle. (“Some memories”) In the “Township” poems, Musawhenkosi Khanyile’s ironic sense of humour continues to make light of deprivation without denying its reality. (“Known holes”) Even though “there isn’t much truth/in the township” the poet is set to “Find the truth” and he finds it in “Mother” and “First visit from a girl”.
The story of All the Places starts in medias res, with “A school visit” in which the mature poet is “introduced, class by class, as an important guest”. The speaker is returning to his difficult roots, but when he asks a little girl who has “a beautiful smile with a missing tooth” what she wants to be when she grows up, she answers “Doctor”, looking forward to the assured and rewarding future the poet has achieved.
A number of poems celebrate the inventiveness of township life in the face of poverty and lack. (“The outside toilet”, “Routines”, “Improvisations”) Violence robs the poet of a friend (“What the township did to us”) but he must be wary of the temptations of “This tavern”. The poet now lives in Cape Town, and the “Urban” poems are partly an account of his settlement there. This section opens with “Outside KFC” which is remembered not for the food it offers but for the hungry boy begging outside: “Please, bhuti, please”. Here the poet is making his way in a new and challenging environment: he worries about “his English which runs out like airtime while he speaks” (“Emptiness”), about his degree from a rural university, but he settles down, finding a flat in “Mowbray” taking up a job as a clinical psychologist, but never forgetting his roots and the road he has travelled. He’s “on this side of the rainbow now” (“The world opens up”) but ever cautious and appreciative. The last poem “When you finally make it to the boardroom” ends on a sombrely ironic note that speaks to South Africa now:
Think of street corners where bodies lay bloodied and cold.
Be the first one to say: None of that matters anymore.
Gobble down a glass of water.
Move onto another topic.
A close that will make readers look forward to Musawenkosi Khanyile’s next volume. These poems in open forms are beautifully crafted around the sentence and the breathable line. Once again Uhlanga has produced a fine book.