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Letter to Country

Poems by

Rethabile Masilo

Copyright © 2016 by Rethabile Masilo

Virginia Smith Rice, Editor

Cover design by Georges Stratan

Cover art © Bram Janssens

Canopic Publishing

389 Lincoln Ave

Woodstock, IL 60098

For mother, sisters, country


I. Places & People

A park in Clocolan

The journeying poem

Paris to Maryville


Following the sun

Morning song

Wherever I will be

Once together

On reading ‘Elegy for Ferguson’

Our road


In my village

A poem starting with a line by Tim Pfau

Para todos los gatos negros

The fall people



Our father, who art in heaven

The room of books

II. Struggles & Home

After the unrest

The trouble with country

The face of the world

On the eve of the last day of life,


Kingdom of weeds



The size of a heart

The flow of water

Legs of mangrove trees

Going home

Christmas in Maseru

Leaving home

Stopping at Japan’s place

Dinner in the garden

Family reunion

Life is family

Feeding the ground

III. Nature & Death

Against windows of our heart


The rose

Sea hunger


Walking Woman

What this is

World at night

Weather report


Preparing the body

One of my memories is that you returned

A door that refuses to open


Reasons for killing a child in his sleep

For Kananelo

My sister’s boy

The consequence of life

The martyr


The question of Mokema


About the Author


A park in Clocolan

My grandfather also liked to tell the story

of a baobab that pushed away asphalt

and grew, though they kept cutting it

and covering its stump with tar.

And each time it would grow stronger

and push with more passion. Seven times

they sawed it, poured plant poison on it

and shovelled tar onto its fresh wound.

But it was saved by providence and guts,

and it came back again and again, against

their bricks and their mortar, dug in now

and getting angrier each time. In the end

the government had to make that street

swerve around her, like a private ring road.

When she was old enough and tired

of breathing the fumes of civilisation,

they grew grass around her, put a painted

bench there and installed a water fountain

that had a sign that said blankes on it.

The journeying poem

for Pamela Mordecai

Every time words fall into the crystal of my poem

I’m startled, what once was a wish to set down

a part of life, and the course of it, an encounter

with the devil, faces of politicians in smug

empires, turns to reality. I move with chimes

that come from a humble morning hi, and again

with the neighbour’s own version of it when it comes

floating back. I sail on the subway and stop

where the wind is dying, and a sign shouts STOP

to the startled dark. I know when words have fallen

into place because the seam is gone between you

and life, my voice, my fear of failing; and because

time must unhang each of the bodies dangling

from the branch; they have done their time; let

the poem spread over the valley and sing to the sun

the song of remedy, till I harness it and tell it

not to think so much. Ad-lib, I tell it. Fall like snow

in the Kalahari, rise like water up the ’Maletsunyane falls,

jump above life like Thabana Ntlenyana. But the poem

is getting tired, and closes an eye, like a child

being read to at bedtime, and finally, another eye.

Paris to Maryville

The trains of Paris pull out, pull in

all the time, and because I’m on a platform with a bag

I exist everywhere. People look at me and wonder

what kind of destination is written on my face.

Many of them run by in a flurry

even before the siren rings. I could chase them

if I wanted to, but I’m an old cat

and in no hurry at all. I’ll stand here

like a person waiting for some passenger,

studying the face of every passer-by.

If you look at me once I’ll always remember

having seen your eyes before, after all

don’t good things come to those who wait?

If the station-master hadn’t made eyes at me

I could have sworn he had

his own lady back home. Alors … merci, mec,

pour une telle attention. But I'm here waiting

for a train to carry me across the Atlantic

through Canada, and maybe Chicago, to go

see my woman down in Tennessee.


We sit on the porch; sleepers, gnats, surround our air,

we are from where there is no past, everyone’s

long been away; only you and I remain behind;

when we go to church we sit on opposite ends

of the altar, to see blood take form from each side;

our pastor says there’s life after this, says it’s good

we’ll soon be with god. But I have misgivings, now.

I think nothing of it; I no longer fiddle with time.

When the milkman comes we know it’s Monday;

while he gives the fridge milk we stay stout like cadavers,

though he makes screen doors scream at the hinge;

but it’s soon time to go to sleep—or to the bathroom—

we rise like grey people.

Neighbours come sometimes

with packets of chips, whose salt flakes we hold

in the mouth to soften with saliva, then pour

gin tots behind. On a day like this, when

even the gnats have gone back to their houses

and the odd cock crows in the middle of a morning,

we’ll sit here till we have to get back in. Sleep comes

rushing with the scream of an approaching train.

Following the sun

Late in an afternoon whose sun was balanced

on the balustrade of evening, I walked with you

through the city toward it, as iron curtains

clanged at our heels. You held my hand

and led me through each street toward the west,

down that escarpment to the train station,

and beyond it to the Mohokare river, from where

we could see the last yellow fragments of a sun

going to South Africa—just like people

we have been losing to the mines; like diamonds;

like water that slopes down Senqu and its tributaries

carrying the black soil of our hills and the blood

of our mountains; like the conquered territories

across the border up to Mangaung, atop Thabure;

like brains which have been draining across the bridge

thinking of another life. You say nothing, but walk

behind the trail as a hunter follows

a wounded beast, as if by doing so time itself

could be effaced, and we would suddenly be

before all these happenings, with Moshoeshoe

still there, before history, before you and me,

and annexations, Seheri, Motuba and Motlatsi,

but chiefly, before the events of nineteen seventy.

Morning song

Suddenly I felt awkward, and walked off, left heaven

and its Messiah lectures and that flock of sheep,

went down along old rail-tracks past neon signs

whose ‘Welcome’ flickers at the world,

beyond platforms reserved for new arrivals,

breathing the night air, toward my brother’s—

his door was locked, and no reggae was playing;

then to my sister’s: too quiet, no smell of food.

I headed to mum’s but dared not get her out of bed,

for the hour was ungodly. So I called our dog

and made him chase his tail until morning,

whereupon a sun opened the eyes of all the plants

and started to untie their hands with its light,

each reaching for the nearest trumpet flower.

They played with the birds a song so soft,

your heart bloomed. My siblings came out to hear,

and upon seeing me, threw their hands in the air,

wondering how on earth I had made it back

from the life I had been living, so far from home.

‘The folks there were taking my soul away,’ I said.

‘And that is why I came back from the dead’.

Wherever I will be

When I am sick and dying, gripped by death’s hand

and dreading the colour of each day and each night,

a road will open up to take me away,

and I will be happy on it, content that something

as bleak as itself was concerned for my relief,

happy as finding a mother’s hands at birth.

There can be no fear of hell on my part,

for no man dreads unicorns and dragons,

it is my children who are the hell of my heart,

because, after the ceremonies, when the women

have retired to go prepare the meals, and men

in song are filling up the grave, wherever I will be

at that time, I shall burn for them. I drink the soup

I am given because there is nothing to yearn for;

gone are the days of wonder when I walked

up and down my city with hope in each step;

spring lived in my limbs then, and green

were the colours of my thoughts, many of which

I harbour still, but which have now turned dour.

I’ll keep the memory of time on earth with them,

in the eternity I face, following my last hour.

Once together

for Julie

The Appalachian autumn of trees stretches out

to where the eye is unable to see, its mélange

of red and yellow the valley’s cauldron of hearts

whose blood spatters into nearby, adjacent fields.

Two foals used to roam here, but it’s empty

now, save for the forest’s fundamental loss. Soon

the blanched ash of winter will overwhelm them,

and death over life will be but momentary again.

A seed waits in the underlying soil, breathing in

and breathing out through the nose, wondering

if it will soon be time to chance a glance outside

and look for the other seed. They had always

been together to graze and gallop up and down

these mountains. Far away, a colt with spread-out

limbs lands on tar and looks around, neighs her name,

calls her many times, like his mother seeking him

when she thought him lost at a show in Knoxville,

knows inexorably that he will find his friend again.

He scratches the asphalt with his hoof and snorts.

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