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Rustum Kozain Introduces Kelwyn Sole at the Launch of Absent Tongues

Rustum Kozain Introduces Kelwyn Sole at the Launch of Absent Tongues

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Published by: Books LIVE on May 02, 2012
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Launch of Kelwyn Sole's Absent Tongues (26 April 2012) – Rustum Kozain It is a great pleasure and honour to introduce Kelwyn

Sole’s new and sixth volume of poetry, Absent Tongues, published by Modjaji’s Hands-On Books. I’d like to keep my introduction short so that Kelwyn can spend the time reading poetry and showcasing the book. I think it was only in 1991 that someone recommended Kelwyn’s poetry to me. I was fresh into my Master’s degree (with Kelwyn as supervisor), and had previously done an honours course with him ("Contemporary Black South African Literature") and attended his famous (or infamous, depending on your politics) lectures on Milton’s Paradise Lost. Kelwyn’s debut, The Blood of Our Silence (1987), was then already 4 years old, and his second, Projections in the Past Tense, was forthcoming in 1992. I read that first book with growing astonishment and I am still astonished when I re-read poems from it, and also poems from Projections in the Past Tense, as well as poems from his other books: Love that is night (1998), Mirror and Water Gazing (2001), and his previous to latest, Land Dreaming (2006). Several things then astonished me about his poetry, and keep on astonishing me, including the poetry in his new book, Absent Tongues. In the main, though, in his poetry there is a quiet, and quietly insistent, voice that continually asks the difficult questions of South African life in an art that from the start put paid to any easy caricaturing of political art as one-dimensional or any sense that South African literature of the 1980s and early 1990s was one-dimensional. Many of us will remember South Africa’s own sort of ‘culture wars’ of the late 1980s, with the Marxists and formalists at each other, the one camp insisting on politics as a necessary, even the only valid, topic of SA art, the other side dismissing as propaganda any text that had a hint of politics as theme. Both Kelwyn’s thematic range and his treatment of politics as theme undercut arguments on both sides. And, as these issues make their cyclical return, I would recommend readers to look at all his books, from his new one being launched tonight, right back to The Blood of Our Silence. (I’m hoping that sooner rather than later, someone will publish a nice, big fat Selected Poetry?) As both poet and a critic of South African culture, Kelwyn has for many years been ahead of the curve. While contemporary writers and reviewers are now getting pop-eyed over erotic fiction by South African authors, sex and erotics have been recurrent themes in his poetry (and nothing that his lectures on Milton had prepared me for.) I tell you, read his love poetry and be forever changed. But it’s not all sex and politics. For me, one of his most evocative poems is “Mankuku”, a short poem in celebration of the Cape Town saxophonist, Winston Ngozi Mankinku (d. 2009), and which keys in to SA progressive culture and which itself spurred me, green horn that I was then, to find music by Mankunku: “Mankunku” Dark golden boat on a sea far away, rock with me rock with me: deep-throated bird gentle me home past the mud-lined street

where thoughts stick fast and children pick rubbish hungrily the night flakes notes from the scalp of my sorrow hide in my pillow and cry for me (from The Blood of Our Silence, 1987) As a critic, too, Kelwyn was ahead. In the early 1980s, in a seminal long essay, “Culture, Politics and the Black Writer: A Critical Look at Prevailing Assumptions” (English in Africa 10.1), he warned against the critical dangers of considering black SA culture and literature through the singular lens of race, cautioning that writers and critics wrote as if all South Africa’s problems would disappear at the demise of apartheid. It is an essay that present-day critics and culture journalists would be welladvised to read or re-visit as commentators now seem dumbfounded and surprised to ‘discover’ that black South Africa does not constitute one unified social or economic class. It is this kind of critical intelligence – a constant consideration of the complexities of life, whether it be in sex, in our relationship with the natural landscape or with urban spaces, or in how we understand our various political moments – that makes Kelwyn’s poetry always refreshing and always renewed; it is a critical intelligence which refuses to fall back on easy assumptions, the latter of course the worst form of cognitive and poetic cliché. Many years ago, I remember, Denis Hirson remarked to me that no one looks at a dog like Kelwyn does. The dog in question appears in “Poem from Botswana”, also from The Blood of Our Silence: The dogs here are a miserable crowd: Lean, incapable, bones pointing like fingers through the yellow grass of their skin, turning over hundreds of dustbins in search of a face. They scream when kicked and cringe and beg for food but do nothing ever useful. No person in my village otherwise notices them, which is what the dogs want most of all. I have watched them die in ditches. Three hundred yards from my house one decays day after day, quietly. His fur is a grey stain on the changing season: the children grimace and hold their noses going past, but that does not stop him being death. They know, much better than we, how much their flesh lives in a world of murder. I listen at night to their anxious calling, how they will not let the righteous sleep. Their bodies turn in the volcano sky bright as the stars to which they lift their heads.

I wait for the apotheosis of the dogs, for the time they will exist, calloused and unrepentant, when the holy and the damned have gone. That gaze, hard as it is in its analysis, is at once also empathetic, without losing its hard analysis. And this is the constant in Kelwyn’s poetry, a hallmark of Absent Tongues as well: a look that sees into the matrix, as it were, of South Africa, but a hard analysis that is driven or spurred on by empathy. Whether the theme is the end of a relationship or the murder of immigrants, there is the calm look of analysis, a voice, like a conscience, that threatens to disturb the reader’s complacency, but a voice simultaneously gentle with empathy and sincerity. These are the tonal qualities, I believe, which makes Kelwyn’s poetry and which makes me read his work again and again. As I say in my blurb on the book, in poetry, he is our national conscience. And one should always recommend such.

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