I read these poems and I have seen a man scoop a country clean from its socket. With Nkosi Nkululeko, there’s music to be sure but it’s the silences, the open spaces in between that make music itself. Nkululeko has constructed for us a series of rooms here and the acoustics are magnificent. Sometimes, we are welcomed into these rooms as Nkululeko does with "Sonneticalities" after his forebear and contemporary, Terrance Hayes. But the poem, and especially the sonnet, is sometimes also a cage. I’m intrigued by this space where music becomes a bond or bondage in Nkululeko’s hands as naturally as a guitar might mimic the music of the tree that was put to death to make it itself.
It feels reductive to say that these poems sing, more accurate to say they echo the questions of space that is the constant navigation of the Black body in the American context. When I say Nkululeko has scooped a country clean from its socket I mean he has claimed all the gristle of history in a series of notes and in the space left behind anything could echo in its place.“Why disturb silentAir with a Prince’s hum, heir
To slaves whom were the heirs toKings, whom were slaves to something.”
I want to think here about succession, as necessary in music as it is anything else. The above line speaks to what some in my people call “The Void” this space across the ocean and beneath the Atlantic, space of no music, the terrible silence that precedes us. What were the kings slaves to? It’s a missing note, a gap in the music that is throbbing and barren. Here, a melody of one extreme, let Nkululeko show you another in "Twenty Seven W/ Crossroads":
“it’s so goddamn hot you mistake water for sand. you dive in the inside of it, each grainfinding its way to your mouth’s pink-roofed prison.what good is the cage if it’s filled? the wholepoint is the space remaining. if you die like this; filled, what’s death when a coffin is inside a coffin?”
If we can die from the absence of music, so too can we die from a cage that is filled. As always then, Nkululeko maneuvers the middle with a precision all his own, inventing a form that plays with his influences as easily as instruments, hiding the notes where the keen eye might find them, hiding them where they might exit the cage but echo for decades. Pay special attention to the left hand margin of "Twenty Seven W/ Voodoo Child" the E-A-D-G-B-E progression mimicking Hendrix’s incomparable gifts. These are poems that do not merely document the echo, they march right alongside it. It is, as I said, reductive to say these poems Sing, hear me reader, these poems can Sang! Nkululeko is right to title each of these poems in the Twenty Seven form “Twenty Seven W/_________” for these are not merely covers of songs but Nkululeko playing right alongside the greats. Like the poem so instrumental to Nkululeko’s growth, “Cocktails with Orpheus”, one takeaway is that so long as there is an echo, a note to be played, we have the proof that we are never fully alone.
He concludes the suite that began as a room with "Sonnet of Doom"; and here the poet in full command of his gifts, seizes control with a simple rhyme made more complex by history:“I make the bars I put you behind, here.I tend my own prisons and disappear.”
I have read these poems and will again and again many times over. Nkululeko tends the prisons in which he keeps his singular music, the volta of this sonnet, where I might sit in these poems waiting for a slight return. Hear me, reader, I can see all the notes Nkululeko walks alongside, glistening and obsidian, a jam he has composed from the ghosts and the living, these little songs, sung this way, couldn’t be anybody but his.
- Julian Randall