5 June 2020

The stranger next to me, a poem by Rethabile Masilo

He sat next to me on a bench in the dark park and said,
you must live.” The wail of a saxophone told me again
why I was here tonight, far from the buzz of the city.
I stole a glance at him; his silhouette was smouldering,
the nose, the thick lips of someone who has lived, the ears,
he was ablaze but not ready to be put out, his smoke swirling
around familiar objects, his visage like a piece of coal from an inferno
that is not going to die. My mind clouded with a thought:
when time loses meaning, one avoids memories,
people's eyes; I didn’t need to look into his to know
the reason for his presence here tonight. You turn from history
and build your own, from a subdued life that can blow
a job and a marriage into pieces, reflected in people’s eyes
when they don’t know you are watching them.
“Do you have eyes?” I asked, and he laughed with his belly.
When distance disappears, it’s time to create more of it to stay alive.
“Yes,” he said, “That’s why I’m here.” He spoke to no one in particular,
looking ahead like he knew there was something behind the trees
and beyond them the bustle of a city blinking in the night.
I thought of the chortle of a woman I knew, her throat marred by liquor,
who laughed aloud every time I came. I hear myself in her head,
my empty grunts on top of her; she taught me how to move away.
My guest turns to look at me with the holes on either side
of his nose, his face sizzling on his head. Then he stands up
and is gone, the way a silhouette penetrates truth. And I stand up
and walk carefully toward the lights of the city, calm now
after an evening of glaring at armoured men, happy to be alive
because of someone with no eyes whose name I do not know.
He had gone back to the inferno where he had come from, as I
must go back home to mine, to rise again tomorrow and face
the forces of the military wing of the United States of America.

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