A New Basement Page: Three For Mr. Mandela

Whether it was for show or
commentary, we are not to know–
but as a march of tourists walks
down from the old Malay territory,
there is a man shooing his
toddler son off of the street into
the weedy field that slopes on down
until the town itself turns flatside out.
“Go into the Bush, boy!”
his hoarse voice echoes in the
quiet dusk “you are an
African Boy! You are come
from the Bush, you belong there!
Mr. Mandela would put you in the middle
of the city or on top of the rainbow,
but you are to go into the bush!

Some of the tourists catch sight
of the child’s mother unfolding
a cardboard box
for the night’s lullabies.
A few of them exchange belly-full
glances, not sure of what to make
of this new spectacle, but they all go on
marching on, and whether they march down
the hill toward the Rainbow Nation
in the shining light of God or
whether they simply march for show
and for commentary, we are not to know.

At the very point where Milton
crosses Arnold, I am peering
into a house window, trying to decide
if 63 Milton is just across the street
from 62 and 64 when a man behind me
says, “Hello?” I turn and he tips
his hat–a grey Brer’ Rabbit looking thing,
all dusty–to me. We shake hands and he
gives his name, which I immediately forget.
He gestures to the haggard old man a few
steps behind him–an uncle, whose name
I forget almost as quickly. “I see you
drive a fine car, sir,’ he says, mistaking
the yard I’m trespassing on for my own.
When I try to explain that it is not my yard,
he only asks if I speak Afrikaans, but since
I do not, he struggles on in English, telling
me that he and his Uncle have nothing, but they
are very hungry. Before he even finishes his
next question, I am again aware that we are
on private property and quickly hand him
the few Rand I have in my pocket.
“Oh, thank you sir, thank you, baas!
he says in his best I’m-sorry-Apartheid-is-over-
voice, and just as I turn
my head away, ready to forget him for good, he
continues with, “Thank you, master!
I turn back, more quickly than I mean to, and look
at his Brer Rabbit hat, his Tar-Baby grin, but can’t
bring myself to look deep enough into his eyes
to read what sort of hate or canniness for the sake
of survival might be there. His smile widens, widens
and he leaves. Minutes later, I follow, as soon as
the woman behind the house’s gated door tells me that
I am on the wrong end of the street and that she is
sorry, but she cannot help me any further.

Just before I turn onto Rye Road,
an old woman approaches me, dressed
all in blue, sweats and a bandana on the
hottest day in weeks. Her hair is matted and
nappy, her lips bloodied, chapped, her eyes
nearly blank. I am carrying a bottle of water, still quite
thirsty. She begins to talk, but it is either in Afrikaans
or her accent is too thick or I simply do not want to listen.
All I make out is her first word–“Master.” It makes me sick
to my stomach, as it always does. I pull out the fifty-seven
cents in my pocket–change from purchasing my water. When I give
it to her, she stares me too-straight in the face and says, “No,
Master, Water.” I consider for a second. I look at
her chapped, bloodied lips, probably infected. I take the
cap off of my bottle, use it as a tiny cup, fill it twice, watch
her slurp it down each time, then go on her way.
Then I fumble with the empty cap, thinking
Sickness! Infection! Germs! Blood!
then a new thought:


I think of pristine white water fountains
considered too clean for Tennessee Negro lips
and Alabama Colored tongues. And I look at
the bottle I wanted to keep clean for my own lips
on such a hot day. And I think of George Wallace
and F.W. DeKlerk, of the time I rode a city bus
in Lexington with Jim McDaniel, the shop teacher
who remarked that the last time he had ridden a bus
was at the height of segregation. I think for a second
When I was thirsty, you gave me a drink. I consider my
bottle, the lilies, and the difference between a drink and
two slurps. I think of a letter to Mr. Mandela, just a few months
retired, about who I am and where I am and how can anyone even
keep track of the too-many names, much less each hair on each head.
And I think about grace and giving and sin and self and good and God
and again, I consider the lilies, though for the life of me,
there is not one in sight.

I wrote this poem, previously published in Ceteris Paribus, an E-zine co-edited by Jim Carls, while serving as an intern at the Quaker Peace Centre in Cape Town, South Africa. I like reading stuff written by a much younger version of myself–I’d probably write this in a very different way today, but decided, unlike a few of the revised poems I’ve included in this blog, to make minor changes. In many ways, this is a poem about a twenty-something kid going to school in the heart of the south (Nashville) and making the connections between the American South and South Africa, historically, sociologically, and psychologically (and Literarily–I read so many South African novels while I was there and kept thinking about Tennessee Willams and Faulkner). There is more naivete, clumsiness, insensitivity on display than there is insightfulness, though looking back at the piece, I do have to say there are technical mirrors/parallels in the first two sections that made me proud as a writer.


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