Masabelaneni: The Book Arts Archive of the Caversham Press and Centre for Artists and Writers

Ghostly Figures: Books as Memorial at The Caversham Centre for Artists and Writers

Dr. Bronwyn Law-Viljoen, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, University of Adelaide, Australia and Director and Editor of Fourthwall Books

Each thing that goes away returns and nothing in the end is lost.
– Ayi Kwei Armah2

They’re, really, just folded pieces of paper.
– Malcolm Christian3

Four books stand out for me in the important collection of artists’ books from The Caversham Centre for Artists and Writers (CCAW). What makes them distinct from the other fine books in the collection is the delicate thread that connects them to each other.


The first of these is a tall, slender book (29.5 cm x 10.5 cm) by Lynwoodt B. Jenkins, an American poet who came to the CCAW in 2007 as part of a collaboration with the Fulton County Arts Council in Atlanta, Georgia. The book is nineteen pages long and thread-sewn. On the cover is the title in black, in an unadorned sans serif font – The Father the Son and the Gift of Noble Silence (Fig. 25).

Figure 25, Lynwoodt B. Jenkins, The Father, the Son and the Gift of Noble Silence (2007)

Below this is a small linocut by the late Caversham printmaker Gabisile Nkosi: the white trunk and branches of a tree against a black background. The frontispiece is transparent Mylar onto which has been digitally printed a black-and-white photograph of a young man in army fatigues. The style of the soldier’s cloth hat and the vintage of the photograph suggest that he is an American and that it is the 1960s, both of which are confirmed by the inscription below the image: the soldier is Frank Edward Davis, Private First Class in the 1st Logistical Command Unit. His tour of duty began on 27 June 1968 and ended three months later, on 29 September, at Bình Ḏinh in South Vietnam. We are told also that his name appears on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. He is represented on panel 42W, line 39.

What cannot be told here is that the 1st Logistical Command Unit was responsible for processing and maintaining nearly all ordinands and equipment entering Vietnam for the U.S. war effort (over 700,000 tons a month), that by 1968, this unit numbered 50,000 members, and that there were, by then, half a million American soldiers in Vietnam.

That this was the deadliest and most expensive year of the war. That thirteen days before the death of Private First Class Frank Edward Davis, aged twenty years and twenty-three days, the U.N. Secretary General, U Thant, had called for ‘an unconditional halt in the American bombing of North Vietnam.’4

Figure 25, Lynwoodt B. Jenkins, The Father, the Son and the Gift of Noble Silence (2007)

The book contains three poems (Fig. 26). The first is for the father, who was taken ‘a breath after I was born’; the second for the son, who has ‘collected’, ‘repressed’, ‘arrested’, ‘hermetically sealed’, ‘vaporised’ and ‘frozen’, ‘kidnapped’ and ‘held hostage’ his tears that nonetheless ‘endure … while I casually sweat the sea.’ The third is an exhortatory poem, a call to return to a silence before all action, before all loss, before fights and guilt, before meals and lust and the putting out of lights. Here the poet resolves the impasse of the first two poems: the absence of the father (who is never known, is only a grainy photograph of a young Black man crouched in uniform before the camera, right arm draped casually over his knee) and the repressed tears of the son who cannot properly mourn, are given meaning through the exhortation simply to listen.

Malcolm Christian tells me in our telephone interview that the artist enacted a quiet ritual down at the river that involved the other participants in the residency, and in which everyone was enjoined to throw a small stone into the water to signify letting go of something that had brought trouble or pain. Jenkins’ book, as an extension of the performance, is a confrontation with grief, a working through of a loss whose source can barely be located (the father most likely had no knowledge of the existence of this son), but the effects of which are keenly felt into the adulthood of the poet. This small book, therefore, not only records the death of a young man who could hardly have understood his own life, let alone the vast and obscene conflict into which he had been thrust, but also represents a process in which the son of this man finds relief, and perhaps an end to his long and unresolved mourning.


Figure 27, Kobus Moolman and Witty Nyide, Anatomy (2008)

At a residency in 2008, Kobus Moolman and Witty Nonhlanhla Nyide, assisted by Gabisile Nkosi, completed Anatomy (21.3 x 14.7 cm, 31 pages plus endpapers) (Fig. 27). Coincidentally, where Lynwoodt Jenkins ends his book with the word ‘listen’ followed by ellipses, Moolman’s first poem, ‘The Hand’, asks several times if anyone is listening. This is not a call to contemplative silence, as in the Jenkins poem, but the expression of a sense of isolation heightened by the disembodying of the hand that ‘burns at night’ and ‘must suffer for justifying me’. All through the book, the poet looks despairingly at parts of his body (hand, feet, shoulder, wrist), which he seems unable to assimilate. The foot ‘is a hole made by a shard/ of memory’ into which the poet spits at night. It ‘imagines that it has/ something to say’, but ‘To be honest, it has all been said/ before.’ The other foot is ‘not worth talking about’. The shoulder is ‘fire’, ‘ice’, ‘a blade/ like a butcher’s, a hammer/ a chisel’. The wrist is ‘rust’ and a ‘blunt moon’, but also ‘all/ that holds me up./ Keeps me perpendicular to the/ black grave’(Fig. 28).

Figure 28, Kobus Moolman and Witty Nyide, Anatomy (2008)

Moolman’s incisive and insistent analysis of the shortcomings of the body in the poems is accompanied by the impressionistic linocuts by Witty Nyide. The human figures and synecdochic pieces of the body in these images appear alongside or inside a vortex of swirling lines, suggesting that the existential fear of being swallowed, sucked into nothingness, is indistinguishable from physical discomfort and pain. At the centre of the experience of disembodiment brought about by disability is an inescapable black hole into which the speaker is compelled to gaze.

Anatomy is a reckoning, a way of processing what is lost but cannot be properly mourned. The book-as-object, however, offers recompense of a kind, albeit humble. Its creamy, embossed cover, hand-torn edges and thread-sewn spine suggest respite, a soft nesting of the drama that plays out in the six poems within, as though, despite his anguish at what the bodily struggle extorts, the poet cannot but love its various recalcitrant parts.


The embossment on the front and back of the book Justice (21.7 x 11 cm) feels quite different to Moolman and Nyide’s grassy tendrils of white-on-white embossed on the cover of Anatomy. Here, the image is impressed into black ink, its branching lines echoed in the horns of the Nguni cow on the book’s yellow belly band: three small cows in a row on the front cover, and three on the back (Fig. 29).

Figure 29, Amy West, Justice (2009)

The cow appears again, as though stamped in negative (white lines on black), opposite the colophon in the back of the book. This small lino has a distinct (and now uncanny) forbear in the image of the tree by the same artist on the cover of the Jenkins book.

Amy West’s publication has multiple origins and was constructed not as a single, coherent project, but over time from several pieces. In its final form – a small, rectangular book of ten pages – it is a document of mourning and remembering. The shape of the cover is echoed on the title page in a black rectangle into which the word ‘JUSTICE’ is printed across the bottom in a plain sans serif. It is followed by West’s eulogy to Gabisile Nkosi, the artist and printmaker who had worked at Caversham since 2002, and who also established an arts centre for children at the Jabula Combined School in the nearby community of Lidgetton. Nkosi’s name appears as a collaborator on this and many other of the artists’ books in the collection, including Moolman and Nyide’s, and Jenkins’. Alongside Christian (who characteristically downplays his central role in these projects), Nkosi contributes drawings and prints, design ideas and book conceptualisation, and assists in printing and production. Her presence is palpable in the collection, and most clearly in this book, made in response to her murder, which took place at midnight on 26 May 2008. She was thirty-four and the mother of a young child.

In West’s eulogy, dated 6 June 2008, ‘listen’ appears once again, but this time in response to a question that West remembers Nkosi asking: ‘“Wabuz’ ibhas’ libhaliwe?” which means “Why are you asking an unnecessary question?” Sometimes, dear soul, we do not need to understand. We just need to listen.’

The poem that follows this text was composed some years before Nkosi’s death as part of a collaboration between Nkosi, West and the Spanish composer Montserrat Torras. Nkosi developed four prints that she sent to West in the U.S., who then wrote several poems in response. West sent the prints and poems to Torras in Barcelona who in turn composed a chamber music work. When these pieces of the collaboration were sent back to Nkosi, she shared them with the children at Jabula to demonstrate how it was possible for one artwork to flow from another. This seems to me emblematic of much of the work at CCAW.

In the context of this book, however, and in the bitter wake of Nkosi’s death, the poem ‘Justice’ resonates in a new way, as an impassioned response to an incident of domestic violence in which the beloved friend is the victim for whom justice is sought, but not achieved. The words now seem uncannily and terrifyingly to prefigure the violence: ‘, Faulkner wrote,/ A female corpse fated to the hands of men.’ To which the poet responds by asking, ‘Are we nothing more than what we kill or carry?/ To survive the unforgiving currents must you be/ a fish –/ Floundering or swimming –/ And, does it matter which?’

The poem in its original context might have been read as having a strong political purpose. Now, it points to a more intimate form of bereavement, though nonetheless resonating beyond the immediately personal: ‘Ashes to ashes, dust, more dust;/ Empires, urns, and homo sapien –/ Nothing lasts but What Is.’

Figure 30, Amy West, Justice (2009)

A linocut by Nkosi is placed in the centre of a double gatefold in the middle of the book (Fig. 30), with the poem on either side. It shows a figure rising from the ground and apparently bound by rope or wire. Strange objects float at the top of the image, including the head of a man on a pedestal to the right. The Nguni cow appears again here as a totemic motif placed over the feet, the belly, and the heart of the figure.

It was Malcolm Christian who, with his unerring sense of tension and balance, found a way to make the disparate elements into a coherent document of the grief and loss felt by all who had worked with Nkosi. Justice was published less than a month after her death.


The last book in this small quartet is Mxolisi Nyezwa’s Walking the Earth. It is, like West’s and Jenkins’ books, a tall, slender rectangle (29.5 x 10.5 cm), and resembles a building, perhaps a block of flats or a township hostel. The cover image in pale grey by Bongumusa Hlongwa is presented as a gatefold opening onto the title page and shows double windows rising up the façade of the building. The windows are repeated across all 12 pages underneath the lines of five poems (Fig. 31).

Figure 31, Mxolisi Nyezwa, Walking the Earth (2009)

In the opening poem, Walking the Earth, the poet tries to make sense of his life against the backdrop of a country that is ‘a sulphurous compound/ a black room with two gigantic stars/ thoroughly in silence like corpses’. The repeated question at the end of this poem, ‘what did i see?/ what did i really see?’ is echoed in the second poem, ‘The Road Ahead’, in the lines, ‘what has become of us?/ what has become of us?’ The poet, who is ‘walking the earth like a naked ship’ in the first poem, wonders here whether he is ‘in a hurry for something’.

Figure 32, Mxolisi Nyezwa, Walking the Earth (2009)

The two middle poems, Songs from the Earth (Fig. 32) and Lidgetton, bring Nyezwa’s home of New Brighton in the Eastern Cape into proximity with Lidgetton in KZN. In New Brighton, ‘a heavy stone/ thunders in my forehead/ and from every tree/ and every branch/ dismal songs from the earth/ cries of tormented deaths’. In ‘Lidgetton’, the poet laments that he ‘could not think of any other country/ so sad/ the houses were raucous with drunken men/ the tall lazy streets/ clinging to drowsy figures’. This sense of hopelessness at the poverty around the speaker permeates the entire collection but gives way somewhat to the possibility of respite in the last poem, ‘Woman of Hills’. But this relief is tenuous: even in a moment of intimacy, ‘the shape/ of your neck’ is ‘touched lightly/ by a weeping/ hail’. As in his other collections, Nyezwa finds such moments of transcendence to be fleeting, always overwhelmed by the sadness and anxiety that are the gifts of a violent and troubled country. While this book does not make direct reference to Nkosi, the poems were written at Caversham in the year after her death and are saturated with the loss that Nyezwa would have confronted there in her absence. The poem ‘Lidgetton’ in particular, vibrates with images of hopelessness and violence. In this township, the place of Nkosi’s death, the poet sees ‘limping birds/ with grey wings’ and he will carry with him these images when he returns to his home, ‘to graves/ and black gardens/ to stunned silences/ and violent/ rivers.’


Malcolm Christian’s reflection that these are ‘just … folded pieces of paper’ is an expression of wonder at the surprising power of these small objects that he helped to bring to fruition. It signals a recognition that while these four delicately made artists’ books represent, on the face of it, private rituals of grief and mourning, they bring private loss into the space of communal grieving.


  1. From the line ‘the sky was a ghostly figure’ in Mxolisi Nyezwa’s poem, ‘Woman of Hills’, in Walking the Hills. KZN: Caversham Press, 2009.
  2. Ayi Kwei Armah, Fragments. Oxford: Heinemann, 1969.
  3. Telephone interview, August 2023.
  4. New York Times, September 17, 1968.

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