About Kelwyn Sole
Kelwyn Sole is a South African poet, born in Johannesburg in 1951. After studying English at the University of Witwatersrand, and taking an MA from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, he began a career teaching English and History in Botswana. He would later take a PhD from Witwatersrand on the subject of the South African Black Consciousness Movement of the 1970s. Sole is the author of six collections of poetry—including The Blood of Our Silence (Raven, 1988) and Absent Tongues (Hands-On Books, 2012)—for which he has received several awards, including the Olive Schreiner Prize and the Thomas Pringle Award for Poetry. As well as a poet, he is also a prolific and acclaimed critic, and is currently a Professor of English at the University of Cape Town.
Sole's poetry is compelling for its combination of an acute political consciousness with a fluent, precise lyrical voice. He began writing while an activist during the final years of apartheid, and it is perhaps partly because of this historical context that his poetry continually seeks to register and illuminate the political realities of the present. As he has remarked in an interview, Sole believes that poets can still function as “interpreters – or lightning conductors, if you like – of social change”. The poem “Gardening Tips”, for example, is a mordant satire in which a radio discussion regarding the names—whether local or colonial—of plants and place-names allows for an exploration of the relations between language and power in “The New South Africa”. While the political dimension of Sole's work is crucial, it is enabled and sustained by a precise and lyrical registration of internal life, and of the bewildering beauty of the surrounding world. A poem like “Stormsriver Mouth” demonstrates Sole's determination to “discover anew” the sensual world in each poem, a challenge he responds to with images of extraordinary clarity and power, all sustained by an exquisite, idiosyncratic music:
Every waking daybreak
to discover anew the dank, furry stench of the forest
dabbling its paws
into the ocean’s gut-deep yawn of released winds
but only once
past an incoming tide concussed by rock knuckles convulsing
into mottles of foam
in the eyeblink a breaker takes to rear up and totter
before its fall
a school of surfing dolphins reveal themselves
as if embalmed in clear, green glass
Sole is remarkable for his ability to operate equally well in short, enjambed lines which recall the work of Robert Creeley, and languid, dilatory prose-poems, such as those included in Land Dreaming. The strange, dreamlike narratives which comprise this collection provide oblique insights into the violent histories which have led to the present moment the poem represents: “You have left me with this inheritance: innuendoes of chains, of prayers, of broken promises, of child servants ripped from their families, of wages for the hangman, of bellowed orders to reload.” The landscapes evoked by these poems are maps of political and emotional trauma, where inscrutable dramas—which in their subjects and diction seem both ancient and contemporary—continue to play out:
His face is not a sun to rise each day above my sleeping. His hands were two chickens pecking at the hard seed on my breasts. I told him to leave my mouth alone.
He said he had a condom. He said
O mother: I never meant to cross the river.
The care and restraint with which Sole delivers his poems serves to emphasise the gravity of their subjects, and the admirable precision and scrupulousness with which they were constructed.