Lethokuhle Msimang is a South African poet and writer, born in Durban KwaZulu-Natal. She graduated with a B.A. in Literary Studies and Creative Arts at the American University of Paris, and her poems have appeared in New Coin Poetry (Rhodes University, South Africa), Hanging Loose and The Paris/Atlantic. She is the founder of the South African Oral History Project, presently focused on the documentation of the Delville Wood Memorial and the role of South African Native Labour Corps. She is currently completing a book of linked short stories Tales of the Orange Time of Day.
Nights like those were seldom at my age. As I strolled along the coast of Tegal Besar, the black sand sliding off my feet as if coated with marble I thought, Somewhere in my infirmity and disbelief I must have forgotten the comfort of beauty. So I sat on the cold beach sand on a spot where the moon left a generous light as it fiddled with the tides and for a moment, I could stand to be senile.
“Peaceful huh? You chose the best spot,” cried a voice, her presence as disrupting as a scream. She sat beside me, her long golden legs stretched out on the sand. And there were not yet any formal introductions, instead, she flipped her sunlike hair onto one shoulder unveiling a face with lips the colour of blackberry, eyes shining. She looked good in the mood light.
“My name is Esme, and you are?”
“Walter,” I replied, a little more at ease; she had the tranquility of old age, a respect for silence as she sat beside 'me' then- only half a man. But these youths were too quick to trust an old face, and had I gathered the strength to have my way with her, the ocean would have drowned the sound of her resistance. But who was I kidding, lately, the pecker hardly rises to the occasion and though life had made a soldier of my body I remained gentle at heart. I was never hardened by the war nor could I rise past the ranks of a cadet. I was simply gifted with rhetoric and the face of a trust worthy man. A gift I used to burn through my youth and squander my old age. Though at that moment, I suppose, all she saw was a placid old man frail enough to sit beside the sun without burning with insatiable desire.
“Walter,” she said softly, and in her kind attempt to break the silence she says “I didn't sit here because it was peaceful, I sat here because you were.” I laugh and tell her, “peace was something imposed on me which I protested it with all my youth.” She was now intrigued, but I wasn't all that surprised – the ego is so easily persuaded by words. In her curiosity, she asked if I had any children. I told her “none that know of.” See, I never remained in one place long enough to see its deterioration.
Though I’ve often wondered why strange subjects like her never found me in my prime. Perhaps, they sat on coast lines under the moonlight in solitude while I was out chasing the wind. Still her ripe, vibrant hand befriended my cold flaking fist. She had the heart to make an old man happy even if only for a moment.
I, seventy-nine years old then, had butterflies in my stomach.
1. A PRAYER
I walked through a park with an old respectable man. He talked about the breeze, about the tiny droplets of rain. “Shall we sit a while,” he asked, convinced I’d feel the same, that I’d linger in the damp and cold in his old romantic way. We sat a while as suggested, saw the sun set behind the tree’s. The old man sighed then tried to sing as I plucked the petals off the weeds. He stretched his arm out behind me, and I placed a book between our legs. “Ah! What a calming breeze,” he said, while I wrapped a scarf around my neck. Then the light changed with the fading day and our silhouettes remained. We were nothing then but forms which seemed neither old nor young. In such moments the old man found the courage to pull me closer. But I stood to walk before he could, frightened by the prospect of being near him. So many times he’s tried to pull me near, and so many times I’ve walked away. He says “things are beautiful at this hour, it is the hardest time to be alone,” and I should agree, but when one talks this way I feel as though I’m dying. “Why marvel at the setting sun,” I said, “it is a sign the day is over,” and what was worse, I thought, was knowing it would happen again and again.
But suppose I am as lonely as this old man, suppose I am as lonely and uneasy to love. I’d still walk with him time and again. I think I do it as a of kind prayer.
2. ANOTHER WALK
The old man and I walked side by side, respectably— slow as discipline. How long had he been alone? I thought, adjusting my pace, annoyed my face, annoyed that his age should steady pace. For an instant I felt beyond my years, I thanked the lord that I was able. Supposing then I ought to be generous with my youth, I wondered, should I lend the old man my shoulder? I took a moment, paused, considered and yawned. I feared his hand falling close to my breasts. I lingered on the thought of his hands on my chest...when last had my breasts been caressed?
A little girl in a blue dress scurried past on a scooter, her left leg propelling, she blew the dust into our eyes. “They should put her in the bin,” I said, “kids these days are like litter.” And a woman with a red rake dragged the dead leaves under the tree’s until a soft breeze threatened to re-scatter them. She rolled up her sleeves, she quickly gathered all the leaves like they were litter from the trees — could hide a litter underneath. Her giggling hips moved side to side, the men cried “June July!” Then wetting thin lips the old man smiled, “the little girl rammed her head into an oak tree”. I pondered on his thin lips moist with laughter, I thought upon the fullness of my own. Suppose I were generous with my youth I wondered, if we kissed, would our lips lock or would I smother him? The old man calmly put his arm around my shoulder, his null hand dangled over my chest. Short breaths, little steps, guard a nipple from a finger. There was a weight above my shoulder, there was a hand over my chest.
It’s fascinating, the things we do to keep ourselves amused. I had a Russian man take my photograph. I touched my body and arched my back. I tore off my clothes and danced for him. It felt as though I had no soul. “I was once beautiful” I let him know. I was once calm and kind and meek. I once silenced a room with a question. Once the men fell under my feet. Once, I said, I wrote poetry and I did my work each day. But those who’d seen my mind couldn’t imagine my body when I am made of flesh and bone. “You’re beautiful,” he said, “Thanks,” I agreed, “but what on earth for?” I still hear the children laughing, I still fear a young man’s tone. So I walk through a park with an old respectable man. He talks about the breeze, where I could freeze, I shouldn’t be here. Still, I’ll linger in the damp and cold in his old romantic way. We’ll marvel at the setting sun, as one day, he says, he’ll pass away. And one day I’ll have no secrets and I’ll wonder when I’m cold — Where do all these fickle men go? When do they go? Where do they settle? Why must wind always blow?
4. THE OSTEOPATH
The osteopath tells me my intestines are in knots because I miss my father, because there is a hole in my heart. It has crippled the right side of my body she says, and I laugh as she speaks. She is quaint and petite, she looks like a black bird with the spirit of June.
Except I’m thinking about my lecturer, about my basketball coach, about that croaked old man with his watch and his toys. She’s wrong, I tell myself, I haven’t seen my father in years. It’s like that where I’m from, not a bone in my body aches.
-How’s your balance? she asks
-I always trip on my right foot, It’s like that in my family, my mother does the same.
She fiddles with my hip bone, with my head and my toes. When she’s done she says I stand better, that both my feet are steady on the ground. I suppose she saw my heart when she was looking at my posture. She said my back hurt from a pain in my womb, that our lives are inscribed on the surface of our minds. But does she know I killed my child, or of the time I almost died when I couldn’t see the traffic cause the sun was in my eyes. Does she know I tried to write? in a small attempt at flight, before my mentor said I ought to feel the ground beneath my feet...get a note pad, he said document concrete expressions...then write some more, and I wrote some more just as I was told.
I think his hairline was receding. I noticed that then, when I thought to rip his heart from his wife and from his child.
DE: In “The Night is an Old Friend” you have this old man and a more youthful woman, they’re sitting together on the beach and there seems to be some sexual tension between them. And you write it from the perspective of the old man, which I thought was an interesting way to approach it. Because you’re not an old man.
LM: I wrote it quite a long time ago. I was 21. I found that it was a lot easier to write in a fluid and creative way when I stepped out of myself. I was literally transporting myself into another character. A lot of my poems are about older men though; that’s something I’ve noticed. But this was actually the first time I wrote from the perspective of someone who’s old as opposed to looking at an old man from a distance.
DE: In a couple of the pieces there’s this older man and a younger woman that are together with some kind of tension between them. Almost a sense of being alone together, a theme of loneliness.
LM: I don’t know. I once wrote something about this. It’s kind of a vanity, which is that as a young woman you feel most appreciated when you’re contrasted by someone old.It's as if they’re not only admiring you for your beauty but they’re also admiring you for your youth. Almost as if you never quite see the value in your youth until you’re around an old person.
LM: It’s like vines on a dilapidated wall, that type of beauty.
DE: But in “Another Walk” the female is also on guard.
LM: “Another Walk” I wrote much later. In Another Walk you’redealing with a woman who is much more disenchanted with being objectified. And just that kind of loneliness. Did you mean “Another Walk” or “A Prayer”? They go together.
DE: I was thinking of “Another Walk” because of the line “…short breaths, little steps, guard a nipple from a finger.”
LM: Okay, I’d say “A Prayer” is someone who’s disenchanted, but “Another Walk” is someone who is annoyed and disgusted.
DE : She’s representing youth, but she’s also disgusted with children that are younger than her. She thinks these kids are like litter or something.
LM: Yes, kids are quite menacing though. And I think it does say something that she’s walking with an old person.She’s not very tolerant with meddle-some kids or anything messy, you know. I think she just craves grace but she also doesn’t have the patience for it.
DE: She also considers kissing the old man. I wondered why?
LM: In the beginning, she says, “I lingered on the thought of his hands on my chest. When had my breasts last been caressed?”
DE: Just from utter loneliness?
LM: Yes. She’s very frustrated and maybe this is the only person who's really given her that type of attention in a long time. I can’t speak for all woman, but in my experience there is something disgruntling about the indifference of youth, young men to be precise. It is unsettling and yet perfectly understandable. They have the luxury of time. So much so that they, though not on purpose, have a tendency to disregard moments and underestimate the temporality of beauty. In that sense it is small wonder that she should consider kissing the old man, but only so as to feel sheltered from youth and its cruel indifference.
DE: You don’t have to answer if you don’t want, but is there an autobiographical component to these?
LM: My first experience with love was with someone a lot older than me. I suppose I never realized just how much that affected me untilI looked back on all my work. Aside from all the negative aspects of that sort of experience, it's reassuring to learn that it was a genuine inspiration for me.
LM: I think all writing has an autobiographical component. But “Another Walk” and “A Prayer” are quite fabricated in the sense that I borrowed from my own emotions but it's not from my actual life.
DE: “The Night is an Old Friend” is it set in Tegal Besar. It’s in Indonesia? I had to look it up.
LM: It’s my favorite place in the world. It’s a beach in Indonesia, but I found it by accident. I rode an elephant and I finished my budget. So we ended up in this village, and it had black sand and gray water. We found someone who was prepared to let us stay with them. It was probably one of my favorite experiences traveling. So yea, I love that place. It’s like a haven for me.
DE: What draws you to the prose poem as a format?
LM: Actually, it’s a recent thing. I used to write very, very short poems and then when I tried writing short stories they would be a little bit too long. It would be more of a novella but too short for a novella and too long for a short story and I wouldn’t know how to categorize them.And people complained about my short stories, that they were too poetic.
DE: That’s quite a complaint—it’s too poetic.
LM: There were problems with the dialogue. You know people don’t talk like this. Life doesn’t occur like this. And I realized poetry could condense these experiences into something more believable, but I wanted to tell a story. So prose poetry became a really perfect blend between the two components. It allowed me to write poetically but also be precise. It’s basically for me a longer poem. And it’s just short enough not to try your patience.
DE: I’m always curious about writers’ habits. When you write. Where you write. Is there a certain place you have to write? Do you write on paper? Do you write on the computer? That kind of thing.
LM: Oh, that’s a good question. I’ve never been very precious about writing, although I don’t like to write by hand. Anything I’ve written by hand I don’t take seriously.
LM: The minute I’ve typed it, I think okay, this is a legitimate piece of writing.
DE: That makes it official?
LM: It makes it official. If it’s just handwritten it almost always gets discarded. But I’ve recently started going back and looking at things I’ve taken notes about and thought about putting something together.
DE: How long have you been writing?
LM: Actually, the first time I ever finished a book I was 19. I used to want to be a writer, but I never read any books. And then I finished this book and I just kept reading. I always knew I wanted to write but it was after reading this book that something just clicked.It was like, I got it. And I’d say then, that I actually started writing, when I was 20.
DE: Which book was it?
LM: The first book I read was Gertrudeby Herman Hesse, but the book which triggered something, that I guess woke something up in me was Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent. And ironically the book was about an old woman. I loved it.
LM：赫尔曼·黑塞 的《格特鲁德》，但真正唤醒我，给予我灵感的应该是薇塔·萨克维尔·韦斯特的作品《AllPassion Spent》。令人讽刺的是，这是本关于老女人的作品，我很钟情于它。