Time, Mandela and me

December 20th, 2013

On top of all the public news coverage of Nelson Mandela’s death—the jetloads of political leaders converging, the grief and celebration for his life, the debates and high-profile spats—there are also myriad small, private connections.

For me, it was the memory of that day after his release from prison in February, 1990. A day of fat, fluffy snow clumps falling slowly in northern Alberta. I was watching the international coverage of his first public speech and also watching out my window. We were separated by half a planet. Here, a winter morning; there, the hot red sunset of Cape Town’s summer. Here, a quiet garden; there, tens of thousands of people cramming the streets.

And it struck me intensely at the time: how could such different experiences both be called the same “now”? It made me think about time, how we call it a “dimension” which is intimately linked with space. But what kind of dimension is time? It partakes of all the spatial ones—the singleness of point, the rolling border-line of change, the three-dimensional artifact left behind.

This all led me to a long poem, Words Selected and Imposed on Time, which like any other artifact got left behind as time moved on. But the other day I got it out to re-read, and was quite stunned to realize something we all know but always forget: we just don’t know how it will all turn out.

When I wrote the poem a decade and a half ago, we did not know that South Africa would abandon apartheid, that the man on the podium would be elected president of the country five years later. We didn’t know whether the country would collapse into complete chaos or slide easily to a happy conclusion, or—what we might have guessed but really didn’t—go through great struggles to find its way. We only knew we were on the cusp of change, that there was a huge energy gathered.

Looking back, we forget that, at any moment, we didn’t know what would happen in the future. We impose a kind of certainty on the past. (Surely, at some level, everyone knew the Allies would win the Second World War. And wasn’t the internet obvious?)

Poets know no better “how it will all turn out” than anyone else does. In this sense, poems are not at all timeless—they are indeed an artifact of a moment. They tell us how we felt when…

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