The thing with poetry is that it either works for you or it doesn’t. I do not know many people who read it for pleasure. Nowadays, poetry certainly seems to be an acquired taste. I often abstain myself, prose being my staple food. But every now and then a poem or, if I am lucky, an entire volume comes along that makes my heart swell with gladness. Sihle Ntuli’s Stranger is one of those gems. The author asked me to review his debut poetry collection. I do not know why, but I am delighted, and honoured, that he did.
Divided into six parts, Stranger offers a glimpse into contemporary South Africa from the perspective of a keen observer with a distinct, edgy voice. Ntuli might be only in his mid-twenties, but his sense of perception is sharp beyond his years. From the first poem to the last, the reader is drawn into the kaleidoscope of his world and its vivid patterns. In “kwa mashu f section bus stop”, commuters’ souls are whisked away to places where they attempt to make a living, “as billboards block the sun”, feeding their impossible dreams. The distinction between the crushing greyness of daily existence and the possibility of a golden life of opportunity features in other poems, such as “friday”. Here the moving opening lines:
in between creases on foreheads
living has folded thoughts
into blankets and sheets
unfolded in dreams
to lie down to pillow talk
to walk behind grey matters
to watch brain revolving around desires unfulfilled
my grey life upon eyes
the all-seeing eye
the sun losing colour when it dies
the aggressive night
black blood protrudes
moon blows cold wind on wounds
the heart weighing tons upon tons
living life like it’s golden is expensive
it costs a lot to be virtuous and true
Ntuli writes about the reality of the South African township and being a young man in contemporary South Africa, but his vision goes beyond. He captures universal moments of hardship, the kind of poverty which does not only manifest in material lack, but also in the soul, which longs for beauty and is confronted with despair instead. “monday” chronicles the exhaustion and hopelessness of the everyday which is hard to overcome: “the phrase ‘things change’ / speaks only to those who expect to get returns” and the “spoon through your chest” brings out both “blood and beauty / as you love and feel pain in the same colour”.
Violence and loss are linked, the brutality and pulse of street life exposed. Occasionally, to cope you hope for escape, take some pill or other substance: “mind coming to age / life and bland taste / less trouble”. That substance can be love; no matter, as long as it alters your consciousness and your ability to feel. The mind wants to flee the desolate, hostile world. The wish to tell it like it is, though, is clearly there – the need to separate illusion from truth. Ntuli reads the world, its delusions and dreams, and tries to navigate the difference.
At the same time, he offers moments of unbearable tenderness, as in a phrase like “silence in your eyelids”, or my favourite poem of the collection, “the walls”:
should not seep
through the walls
it is behind these walls
that truth undresses
Grief is palpable in many poems, captured most poignantly in a few lines in the last stanza of “late”: “early morning / dressed in black / the sun rose / our flowers on top of caskets / the late as candles”. His images are striking, definitely not easily forgotten, thus his words do not die on the page but continue a life of their own through the associations they awaken in the mind of each and every reader who immerses herself in them.
The title of the collection resonates throughout, but is most strongly captured in “the stranger”: “towards him / they throw adjectives / the suffocating symphony / the injustice / words slant to one side / lying”. Race, skin colour, otherness, and contrasts between ordinary lives lived in obscurity and silver linings shining on the horizons whether in words or sunsets bring with them a palette of visual impressions which Ntuli makes us reconsider. Nothing is just a colour: “i sit on the side silently / living life like it’s silver / as the lining is blocked by the roof”.
Recurring in the collection are references to music. It is in the rhythm of every poem, “between jazzy notes without words”. Like music, the lines are meditative, haunting, thought-provoking. They help us negotiate the world, “moved by thoughts that have no rhythm”. But unlike one of his narrator’s contemporaries who seem to be more interested in being DJs rather than poets, as many in the struggle were (“gospel gold”), Ntuli carves out his creative space in words. His is a new struggle: for his own voice, for the recognition of his reality and vision.
Stranger by Sihle Ntuli
Aerial Publishing, 2015
Review by Karina Magdalena Szczurek