11 February 1996
Granite broods immune to optic laws—
Dulled light and memory sink into its lows
And play its crusted deeps to sterner grey
Leaving remnant gloom to ever grow
Through such despair marked near infinity
By legion souls whose every vanity
Of hope or justice crumbled under boot.
Mandela walks with Brundtland all about
The cavern, shrinking from the rock and steel
And blazing light that leaves no pools to stale
Where prisoners can draw sere sustenance.
But even walls he visits to renounce
Seem to reflect Mandela’s striding form
As if the threat from thriving hope held firm
Through years of dark Kimmerians would loathe
Stuns stubborn rock to forfeiture of Lethe.
Her hushed escort is not mere courtesy,
Not mocking of Mandela’s ecstasy,
But showing proper diametric mood
To boisterous life her hearty people made—
For this is utter south to her far north.
Ever since her fathers moored, at zenith
Of their mastery, their loud and divagating
Past, her noble folk have scorned to gut
A colony for their own opulence,
But didn’t scorn to lend a pike to lance
The festering boil of Apartheid, and flank
An antipodal martyr on his tour to link
A future to the past he’d most forget.
He asked to see those jailed of no bigot
Law: this sudden, unexpected visit
To thugs and thieves through whom the penal site
Would not have earned such world-wide infamy
Is mandated by canon sense no more
Than Brundtland’s presence; both goodwill coups
Show duty’s boundlessness in human cause.
When this horror turns museum, only
Brutus words left to remind how manly
Defiance crumbles to a childlike lust
For sight of stars or surf, or life at least,
Only films of quarry labor telling
How lime dust dims the keenest eyes, and toiling
Arms lose strength for pumped-fist salutes;
When gently cordoned distance insulates
Cement grey floors and walls, and days, and time
From ruddy tourists, will history entomb
This brave and silent pilgrimage? Or will
The granite bear in clear relief what while
The bristling arms Umkhonto we Sizwe
Lanced into slow crimson guerrilla war
Through teeming hosts that made the slums their tent
(Inspired romance of Justice militant),
Robben Island was gestating the stroke
That broke her twenty-seven years. Thus struck
In its very spine, the craven order
Buckled, leaving stunned victors the harder
Task—the greater yet challenge of freedom…
Note: Umkhonto we Sizwe: (“Spear of the Nation”) the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), co-founded by Nelson Mandela, which fought against the South African government.
Uche Ogbuji (@uogbuji) was born in Calabar, Nigeria. He lived, among other places, in Egypt and England before settling near Boulder, Colorado. A computer engineer and entrepreneur by trade, his collection of poetry, Ndewo, Colorado is forthcoming in 2013 from Kelsay Books. His poems, fusing Igbo culture, European Classicism, U.S. Mountain West setting, and Hip-Hop influences, have appeared widely, most recently in IthacaLit, String Poet, The Raintown Review, Featherlit, Qarrtsiluni, Leveler, Atavic, and Shot Glass. He is editor at Kin Poetry Journal and The Nervous breakdown, founder and curator at the @ColoradoPoetry Twitter project.