- BLACK VOICES SERIES
SIHLE NTULI | Two Poems
a scene on an episode of Narcos depicts the effects of cocaine on the human mind
through a lab rat choosing the drug forgoing food & water
& along these same lines is the moment
when the Covidpreneurs were looting from the State coffers,
because there can be no other logical explanation,
a hijacking of pleasure centres the self-gratifying
an undertaking driven by desire to choose self
over the livelihoods of abantu baseMzansi
after arid soil & moral drought comes the final nail deep down
into the heart of small businesses, the arts everything on the verge of dying
the words from their mouths their looting like spitting in the face
of every South African
white-collar sophisticated jargon to convince us
that in reality it was all in fact a blessing
the rains coming down from the heavens above
I wrung my tongue out on the sink
just before a reading of my pan-African postcolonial poems,
it was all for the sake of my voice
to have some semblance of neutrality,
I borrowed this accent from the white woman
who taught me phonics at primary school
I will only use it just to get through the reading.
& perhaps I may still be under her spell,
her hand could still be on my back moving my mouth
because my own tongue is still fragile
from all the wringing, stumbling over bombastic polysyllabic words
that clog at the back of my throat
affecting my reading voice.
when the words finally emerge, the audience complains
that I speak too softly , that they cannot hear me at the back
that I am not clear enough.
where is the tongue that my grandmother planted
gently inside my young mouth
that could by now have been a large tree
& with this language I have not yet gone past the roots.
I have always known of an expectation for the poet to be profound
to bury themselves under avante-garde glitter for polite audience applause.
these are the moments that I remember that I will never speak honestly
a sense of comfort is missing in me,
it may well be the old guard tradition
I cannot know for sure
but in the hopes that you may begin to understand my culture
I have invited you to be present for a ritual cleansing ceremony
involving the slaughter of a spotless white goat.
A few good words with Sihle
BVS: “The Tradition” brought up so much richness for me—the way Black folks are socialized to take up less space, the way that so many of us adopt the borrowed accents of whiteness to mitigate imposter syndrome, how our ancestors are calling us to use our own real voices (in the literal and metaphorical). Talk to us a little bit about what called you to this poem.
SN: Thank you, Naima. Jericho Brown’s Pulitzer winning collection of the same name inspired the title. Sometimes I feel like the influences of my mother and my grandmother are always at odds inside of me. My mother made history as the first black female chief engineer in Africa, though because of her time away at sea (around a white crew) she is also the one that introduced my twin & I to very western ways of living. My late grandmother on the other hand was all about tradition. She believed in consulting with the ancestors through the burning of imphepho (or African sage) and the observance of ritual ceremonies. The poem contextualises my identity as a black Zulu poet writing in English and the problems that arise from this. A key component being the threat of being alienated from my own cultural group and at the same time the dominant group that are the architects behind South African literary traditions. The duality of these identities is what has called me to compose this poem.
BVS: Who are your favorite South African creatives (writers, artists, culture makers)? Who should be on our radar, but maybe aren’t?
SN: Maneo Mohale is doing important work for black South Africans in poetry and queer identifying poets including winning the 2020 Glenna Luschei prize for African poetry for their collection ‘Everything is a Deathly Flower’. I am really learning a lot from their journey, more especially the attentiveness of their poetic craft.
I also respect the multi-disciplinary approach of Lidudumalingani, who exists not only as a writer but also as a photographer and soon-to-be filmmaker. He writes for the Johannesburg Review of Books and has contributed to notable prose anthologies like Joburg Noir and Our Ghosts Were Once People, he is most notable for winning the Caine Prize in 2016.
Niamh Walsh-Vorster is someone who I’ve personally trusted with taking my photograph (as someone who doesn’t particularly like being photographed). Niamh has also written for significant South African platforms and has proven to be quite versatile in her capabilities. The fact that she is also a Durban creative is more reason for me to make noise about Niamh and her work.
BVS: I’ve been thinking about tangible, physical embodiments of happiness—what’s an object in your life that brings you joy?
SN: Most recently for me it’s been water. I’ve had some recent health concerns that require me to drink quite enormous amounts of water on the daily and I’ve found myself feeling enjoying it more. It’s a case of having watched way too many YouTube videos of Bruce Lee talking about water during this time, but I have found myself resonating with his sentiments on its versatility. We often tend to forget about not only the body’s composition but also the composition of land and water. It has bought me immense pleasure as thirst quencher, a replenisher and a cleanser.
Sihle Ntuli is a poet and classicist from Durban. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Classical Civilisations and has lectured previously at the University of the Free State. He is the author of Rumblin (uHlanga 2020) and has had work published in notable publications such as Lolwe & The Rumpus. His poetry was shortlisted for the DALRO Poetry Prize in 2017. He currently lives in Durban.