Songs of Eretz Poetry Review is pleased to present “Robben Island, 2016” by Barbara Wolvovitz, a retired civil rights attorney turned poet. Wolvovitz began participating in Carlow University’s Madwomen in the Attic writing workshops in 2013. The Women’s Bar Association of Western Pennsylvania honored her with its Susan B. Anthony Award in 2008.
Wolvovitz’s poems have appeared previously in Songs of Eretz Poetry Review, and she was a finalist in the 2017 Songs of Eretz Poetry Award Contest. Her poetry has also appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh City Paper/ Chapter and Verse, Voices from the Attic, and Rune Literary Journal 2014.
Robben Island, 2016
The boat docks at this infamous island,
the harbor’s waters dark and placid.
There’s a tourist shop on the pier.
Different from when thousands came here before
-- lepers, political prisoners, convicted criminals –
Herded onto buses, we begin our tour.
Remains of shipwrecks along
the rocky shoreline are visible,
wildlife returning from near extinction,
result of overhunting.
The tour guide points out a block of large empty cages,
in an isolated area. The howling
of the ghost prison dogs can still be heard.
The prison’s white walls come into view.
Our tour guide, a former political prisoner
here, not finding other work
after his release, was given this job.
He takes us to
Mandela’s tiny cell.
his chamber pot,
the woven mat he slept on,
the small square of grass he walked on,
for 18 years.
Everything sterilized, spic and span,
even the large cells, that once held
forty, fifty prisoners.
The jailors’ tools of torture
all cleaned up.
Piles of broken rocks remain, a tribute
to the futile labor of the prisoners
in the hot sun,
neatly arranged for the tourists.
Back on the ferry, the quiet is
replaced by the tumultuous waves,
then, Capetown harbor’s luxury mall.
Poet’s Notes: In 2016, I visited South Africa and toured the country, which is incredibly beautiful. The extravagant and luxurious sections, in contrast to the impoverishment of other areas, struck me. There were shacks without windows or water or toilets or sanitation pick-up. Clearly, the dream of ending apartheid did not result in economic equality for most Black South Africans.
The infamous Number Four Prison in Johannesburg retained its blood-stained walls, haunted passageways, and signs in the courtyard with calorie requirements of prisoners distinguished by race – European, Mixed, and Black. The Apartheid Museum, although in a new and beautiful building, exhibited the vestiges of apartheid in all their horror.
However, Robben Island surprised me. Although the prison and prison yard were grim reminders of apartheid, they appeared sanitized. Even the rug in Mandela’s cell looked clean. Everything was scrubbed of its history. I found that most disconcerting.
Editor’s Note: The crucial line here is the 7th, which ties the events of this poem to the Nazi Holocaust. The double meanings of "sterilized" and "all cleaned up" later in the poem are devastating. The juxtaposition of the final line with the narrative preceding it is stunningly breathtaking, an excellent metaphor for how we humans tend to forget and sanitize our past instances of inhumanity.