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Old man, Dreams, Writing: Poems by Tendai R. Mwanaka


We had had some words with the old man,
in the afternoons. He stays in Felicia Street, number 9,
and I stay in Douglas road, number 9, so our places are opposite
each other, opposing each other like polar points, dissonance, like synchrony.
It’s an upper middle class suburb; Birchleigh North, in Kempton Park, Johannesburg.
This old man I am writing about, in my dreams, is a prickle old thing, complaining at the slightest
raise of any volume. He sits on his veranda that overlooks our backyard, where we are supposed to play,
but we can’t make noise. Its midday, and he has tea, a big cup, clay cup and a plate of biscuits, I think,
store bought ones…and he is happy. A beam of sunlight hits the top of his bald head, like a
penlight flicking on. I am writing; I stare at what I have written about him. Did I show
you, so far, that I don’t like him? I am not saying I don’t like him. But I am writing
that I don’t like him. Are they the same? Let me check the page. I stare at
the page , at most precisely, the space an inch to the left of my ball
point pen, an Eversharp pen- looking for a word, a phrase, a
thought, that is trying to jump out of the sentences,
that is trying to make you have sympathy on this old man.
Some things don’t just change…I have been using an Eversharp pen
for over thirty years, since my grade school, and there was a Bic pen. Bic died,
did it, and Eversharp stayed Eversharp and I am still using an Eversharp pen. And if I am
ever sharp I can prod spatial pleasure from the texture, textiness of this text, whilst the intellect
in you is confounded. I gaze as if these words might feel my gaze, like a slight breeze, and behave well. I
want this writing to be the rope I will follow from this dark forest slip of dreams, in these severe and
relentless thunderstones, to the Ellesey suburb, so that I might feed with all the others there.
I want the old man to behave, as well. But would you tell someone that old to do that.
Not him. Unless if you want to write it, his answers, a column of ten…soldiers
arranged for an invasion, battle of Normandy for you.
…You, and he will continue calling you…you. You
would almost think, it’s now your name, as he goes inside
to the phone, to call the police. I stayed with my brother at this place,
so he was having a party for his little kid who had turned 1, and he had invited
his friends over. I didn’t know how others were doing, but I, personally I was getting tanked.
It was George, his vulgar friend who matched this old man. Replying every of his… you with an equally
fucked up… you of his own. And the whole party crowd joined in, calling the old man…you,
you, old faggot… You, everything became… you, the party was… you, Douglas road became …. you,
Birchleigh north… you, I never really liked the place. It was too white. We were the only black
family in that street. And fucking enclosed with electrified barricades, and only one gate
out of it. If you wanted to go to two streets down us, which was outside the barricades,
you would have to go up 8 streets to the exit point, and then take Straydom road,
down 11 streets to Pangolin drive, which is just two streets from Douglas road.
The place was an island, curved out for the protection of one race. The
neighbors, who were white, also entered in, calling us… you.
The police came and called everyone at the party… you. This situation
was feeding backwards and forwards, running ahead of myself, and then rolling
off this pen. Like the barking of dogs, I have just gone out of our gate, and suddenly;
it is dogs, dogs, dogs, as I go up to the gates. It’s the noise of dogs barking. It’s the white’s dogs
that are the vessels of the white man’s dislike of a black person; even black dogs don’t like my colour.
But some are black, like me. I see a white guy coming up ahead of me, and there is silence his side of the
road, and when I pass him, the side of the road I have left is now silent, and his, which I now plod in, is
dogs, dogs, dogs. Like these dogs, the policemen, mostly black policemen, took everyone at the
party to the police station. We fucked up in the police cells that night. We had to bribe
them off, for them to let us the… out of the cells. The old man didn’t get out
of his house for a fucking long time, though. Scarred like shit. And,
he became fucking polite afterwards, sometimes joining us
in our fucking noise. We dealt with a lot of fucking curses from
our neighbors. We fucking didn’t care. It’s supposed to be a fucking
free country. Oh, it’s because I had taken my sight off from the writing that
I have been swearing, to stare at the clouds outside the window, to the north, around
Ellesey Park, just off Pangolin River, just off Pangolin road. I liked this area. It coloured well
The clouds looks like burnt clay, were besieging the black, burnt out walls of the northern sky’s
fringes, as if the clouds were descending to rebuild this sky. I had been watching that sky, hardly noticing
the swear words I had been writing, hardly noticing the change of light around me, as night was
becoming morning. I think to look at my words again. It is a superhuman effort to make
my eyes focus on the pen again. It is a dream hare on quicksilver feet, the way
my pen is creating mountains and conquering them in its writings,
creating oceans and swimming across shark infested oceans,
typhoons, hurricanes, tsunamis…all that. I look again at the sky, where
they might have been this view; lost space, lost words, long into the woods.
And then the face of that old man slipped back through the window I had forgotten
to unlock when I was watching the northern skies, and he tells me, or possibly, I think he tells
me. That, it was him, that old man who lives at the house across ours. I know that! That was the old
man who was waiting for his beard, purplish whitish as a branch of rowanberries, to grow down into the
ground, and root himself to the dead. I tell him that…or he tells me that. Someone must have told him
that in the fight, that night of partying. My gaze focuses on the words I have just written. It never
strays from the spot at which the pen has just moved away, the complete line finished,
the stanza, perhaps a poem. Although the old man was as solitary as a finger,
a dream deep inside him warmed him. His head is a skull; one could see
the shapes of the bones. I want to know his name. I ask him
what his name was, is. He keeps silent, but he is looking
at me with a look that is a name, which is his name. I see it in
his eyes, and I know it is in my eyes, too. With my hand still holding
the pen, I strain to hear the old man. My pen is firmly on the paper, on that
page, the old man’s voice is in the sound and smell of the pen’s ink, the scratchy
sounds the pen is making as it scribbles on the paper, like whispers on paper, like sheet music,
like a ghost. He is dead; it’s actually his skull I am seeing. He has been dead for two years now, he tells
me. I had left Kempton Park 5 years ago for another city in Johannesburg, and later for home.
That’s where I am, home, in Chitungwiza, writing about this old man. And I had been
thinking he was still alive, but no. He has been dead for over two years.
I ask him where his families are. He tells me he was the only son,
the parents were long since dead when I met him, and he had
never married. My mind agrees with him. All the months
I stayed in Douglas road, I never saw anyone,
family; coming to see him. Then, I thought he just doesn’t
go with crowds, but now I realize the truth. I ask him again what
his name was. I hear my voice in his replies. He answers me in my own voice
He is me. A strange chain of associations sweeps me into a crowded maze of recollections,
and then, prompted by a faded memory lodged in there, leads me to an irresistible curiosity, but
then, my words sets me free… He is me. I am staring at the sharp serrated stones of my life story
I wail
I howl
I mourn
I cry
How nice to notice myself amid this half-conscious offer!
I take my skull which is on his shoulders, and put it on the head
that was not mine. It fits, and then I am walking off… I don’t know where to.
The morning star hangs over the Birchleigh north area, like a drop of blood. Giving
out so much darkness, yet producing startling light. I am going to the home of an elderly lady
who was my first girlfriend, who had hurt me all those long years ago. I reach Glenmarias cemetery
at the hour of witches, three AM. I find her place on the soil. I hug it, I cry out the waters. She now lays
on this ground, as lonely as I am now.



Fighting on the shores of the soul, memories, Beingness
Trying to escape angular poverty, empty books, brooks, shelves, she lives in
In subordination levels, hammering into the soul, such soul sinking oppression
The poet in her, she stinks to the moon and back
Floating her dreams in the vast deep
At her own beck and call

Poetry being her only religion, playing a dirge, the dirge a sacrament
More than wine changed into water or water into wine
Or the fish swallows Jonah, Jonah swallows the fish.
It’s a jungle of minds, her insides
Walking dead on streets, empty streets too dead for dreaming

Her eyes can see nothing anymore, only the wind
Unhurricaned wind, wild
The “too” soon of tearing, the wind parting the drapes of her mind
The wind, air’s chthonic suction, plenary in volume, in voice
Black, tickling leaves, muslin

She is a life painted by chaos
Her future is painted in a lead colour
Painting asking for a second, seconding, opinion
Screaming in the storm
Like lost beauty, the beauty she had, screaming
Bottles and pills screaming for freedom from her

Her brain matter is suffocating the space within the walls
In the prisons of her mind
Heartache flows inside her, beaten thick with despair
So sweet the despair, so good like stolen food would taste
Drowned in the depths of a cesspool
That she has created, liturgical lock nobody will unlock for her
This ocean of despair is all too consuming

It’s kind of a zone
Blood zone, life zone, knowledge zone, grinding zone
Danger zone, separate zones, gaps sewed together
With strings zones
Life’s pendulum swinging between the two zones
Life and death’s zones

Death, to be stoned, it’s a charming death for her
Let the poet in her be stoned, she tells them in her acidic liturgy
The needle is always so close to my eyes
And my mind is frozen, soaked in fearful, tearful memories
I am a mind-damaged casualty
Recollections only, of feelings
As I journey into the blended earth.

(c) Tendai R. Mwanaka

Image: Jain Basil Aliyas via Flickr

Tendai R. Mwanaka
Tendai R. Mwanaka
I was born in Zimbabwe, in the remote eastern highlands district of Nyanga, in Mapfurira village. I left Nyanga for Chitungwiza city in 1994, and I started exploring writing that year when I was barely twenty. My first book, Voices from Exile, a collection of poetry on Zimbabwe's political situation and exile in South Africa, was published by Lapwing publications, Ireland, in 2010. KEYS IN THE RIVER: Notes from a Modern Chimurenga, a novel of interlinked stories that deal with life in modern day Zimbabwe was published by Savant books and publications, USA, in 2012. ( A book of creative non-fiction pieces, THE BLAME GAME, will be published by Langaa RPCIG (Cameroon, 2013). A collection of love poems will come out from DIPPRESS, USA, in June 2013. A novel entitled A DARK ENERGY will be published by Aignos publishing company (USA). I was nominated for the Pushcart twice, 2008, 2010, and commended for the Dalro prize in 2008. I was nominated for and attended the Caine African writing workshop in 2012. My work has been translated into Spanish and French. I have published over 250 pieces of short stories, essays, memoirs, poems and visual art in over 150 magazines, journals, and anthologies in the following countries: the USA, UK, Canada, South Africa, Zimbabwe, India, Mexico, Kenya, Cameroon, Italy, Ghana, Uganda, France, Zambia, Nigeria, Spain, Romania, Cyprus, Australia and New Zealand.

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