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"The stranger next to me," a poem by Rethabile Masilo


The stranger next to me

He sat next to me on a bench in the dark park and said,

‘You must live.’ The wail of a saxophone told me again

Why I was here tonight, far from the fuss of the city.

I stole a glance at him: his silhouette was smouldering,

The nose, the thick lips of someone who has lived, ears,

He was ablaze but not ready to be put out, his smoke swirling

Around familiar objects, his gaze pieces of coal

From an inferno that refuses to die. My mind clouded with a thought…

When time loses meaning, one avoids the memory

Of people's eyes: I didn’t need to look in his to know

The reason for his presence here. You twist from history

And construct your own, from a subdued life that can turn

A job, a marriage, into shambles, reflected in people

When they don’t know you are watching them.

‘Do you have eyes?’ I asked, and he laughed with his belly.

When distance disappears, it’s time to create more of it to stay alive.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘Else I wouldn’t be here.’ He spoke to no one in particular,

Looking ahead like he knew there was something behind the trees

And beyond them the bustle of a city blinking in the night.

I thought of the chortle of a woman I knew, her throat marred by wine,

Laughing aloud every time I came. I still hear myself in her head,

My empty grunts on top of her; she taught me how to move along.

My guest turned to look at me with the holes on either side

Of his nose. His face sizzled at mine. Then he stood up

And left, the way a silhouette swirls into fog. I stood up

And walked carefully toward the lights of the city, calm now

After an evening of thinking about deceit, happy to be alive

Because of someone with no eyes whose name I do not know,

And who had gone back to the inferno where he had come from.


Rethabile Masilo is a Mosotho poet who lives in France. He has published four books of poetry and edited two anthologies, and has more publications on the horizon. His work first appeared in Canopic Jar in 1986. For more info please visit Poems Rethabile Likes (PRL) and his Canopic author page.

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