It was by chance that I read Musawenkosi Khanyile’s debut poetry collection on a rainy morning, still tucked up in my bed. But it was no coincidence that the juxtaposition of the comfort of my bedroom and the realities described in the volume repeatedly moved me to tears. Unapologetically autobiographical, the poems included in the book trace the author’s journey from childhood to adulthood, from his rural family home, through the township, to the city. A journey undertaken by many, but not often evoked in poetry with such distinct tenderness that it takes your breath away.
All the Places offers you a glimpse into the heart of what it means to grow up with the odds staked against you, but does so without an ounce of self-pity and, perhaps more strikingly, without gratuitous exposure. The subtlety and restraint with which Khanyile approaches his subject matter is remarkable. He captures lifetimes into a few lines and makes you feel, acutely – not so much the difference between the stories he tells and those of privilege, but the common humanity of all our dreams: “In the class without a door, I took the exercise book of a little girl / who smelled of paraffin and looked at the tree she had drawn – / a leafless tree with no bird in it” (A School Visit). When asked what she wanted to be one day, the girl tells him: doctor.
Khanyile himself is a clinical psychologist with another degree in creative writing. But coming from Nseleni, he recalls the gaps in his family home’s walls, the constantly leaking roof, the demeaning trips to the outside toilet, and that in order “to survive the streets that gush out blood / and open into graves” you had to know how to “outrun the rain”. All the Places is dedicated to Khanyile’s brother Zamo: “I left you the dining room floor / and graduated to a bed / after our sister left for varsity” (Find the Truth).
As the collection’s title suggests, many of the poems focus on specific geographical spaces. In Nseleni, Khanyile states “that the goal is to make it out alive.” But even if you do escape and beat the odds, negotiating hard-earned privileges comes with its own challenges. In The World Opens Up, he asks: “What are the side effects of surviving the township?” The titular poem opens with the lines: “All the places he goes to / remind him of where he comes from.” And in Bantry Bay, a man at a guesthouse cries at the sight of the sea: “Why all this sentimentality about what’s not his? / The sea is not his. This balcony is not his. / All that he has is himself – / when does he cry about that?”
A great gift to its readers, All the Places allows you to look at the world with fresh eyes, with compassion.
by Musawenkosi Khanyile
Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 16 August 2019.