The Marble Eye, a poem by Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali

A few months ago I attended the 2021 WordCrafter New Beginnings Virtual Writing Conference. One of the sessions I participated in was a Poetry Panel session with some wonderful poets.

Erin Robertson asked me about South African poets and while I do read some South African poetry, I am not very good at remembering the names of the poets. I felt rather embarrassed that I wasn’t able to remember any names and felt I’d missed an opportunity to showcase some of South Africa’s talent.

I reflected on this conversation and decided that I would share a few South African poets and their poems on my blog.

The first poem I am sharing is The Marble Eye by Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali. A short, but powerful, poem.

The Marble Eye

The marble eye
is an ornament
coldly carved by a craftsman
to fill an empty socket
as a corpse fills a coffin.

It sheds no tear,
it warms to no love,
it glowers with no anger,
it burns with no hate.

Blind it is to all colours.
Around it there is no evil
to be whisked away
with the tail of a horse
like a pestering fly.

Oh! the marble eye –
if only my eyes
were made of marble!

The extended metaphor used by the poet to portray his desire for “a marble eye” to help him escape the harsh reality of his life has stayed with me ever since I first read this poem.

The poet is caught in a world of pain, anger, prejudice, and hatred from which he is unable to escape, even though he wishes to “whisk” away the evil he sees around him.

The final stanza and the exclamation Oh! emphasis the fact that the poet is unable to escape as he does not have a marble eye but rather real eyes that see everything all to clearly.

You can listen to my short recording of this poem here:

About Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali

Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali was born in Kwabhanya (Vryheid), KwaZulu-Natal in 1940. After completing secondary school in he went to Soweto hoping to study social work. Apartheid legislation prevented his enrolment but he studied via correspondence, obtaining a diploma with Premier School of Journalism and Authorship, affiliated to London University. He worked as a messenger in Johannesburg, drawing on his observations of the city to write the poems that became his first collection, Sounds of a Cowhide Drum. Published by Lionel Abrahams of Renoster in 1971, with a foreword written by Nadine Gordimer, this book went on to become the best-selling poetry book in South African history.

Read more about Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali here: Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali | South African History Online (sahistory.org.za)

42 thoughts on “The Marble Eye, a poem by Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali

  1. Sad and powerful…Oswald’s story is encouraging in many ways it portrays that he led his life his way and achieved his dreams against the odds…my heart tells me he shouldn’t have had to…x

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Robbie, that is a marvelous poem that tugged at my heart, and you showcased it so well. I understand how you felt, though. I had that happen during a job interview once when one of the questions was, what are your favorite books and what have you been reading recently. I couldn’t tell them a thing. After that I started keeping a list in my journal of all the books I read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Marsha, I’m delighted you enjoyed this poem. There is a lot of talent in South Africa. Books and poems by SA writers are not always easy to find. I have a collection of vintage books I have acquired over the years. I know review all the books I read on Goodreads and that is my list. It really is handy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That is handy. I wish it had been there a million years ago when I was starting my career. I don’t do too much on good reads. I was reviewing a lot on my blog, but they took me so much time for very little readership, I mostly review on Amazon when I review.

        Like

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