Seven Lessons on Phosphorescence

An abstract painting with frond like fields of muted color against a light green background
Dereje Demissie (Ethiopia), Psychscape (2009)

This poem is written in response to a news story in Spotlight (South Africa), headlined as follows: “What the Charlotte Maxeke fire tells us about health and safety in Gauteng hospitals, 13th May 2021.”



Remember all you have been taught about fire:
ceremonial bonfire, Dante’s Inferno, Hades,
the Burn Wounds practical in the skills lab.



Remind yourself that this is not an airplane:
There will be no oxygen mask descending
from above, no option to stabilize yourself.



Run to the Pediatrics Ward. Think about what
you learnt in physics: energy transfer, speed.

Hold children in your arms. Cry when alone.
Hold smoke in your mouth. Cough when alone.



Make your mandatory check-in phone call.
Say to your partner, Honey I’ll be home late.
Don’t wait up.
Say nothing about the flames.

Remember that this fire is not unlike you;
fluorescent and phosphorescent; burning
beyond the call of duty. The scabs remain.



Watch the fire die down. No more combustion.
No more perceptible heat. The scabs remain.
Some evidence is indestructible. Speak.



Tell your lover what the fire did to you.
Count on your fingers the ones it took.
Stop holding smoke in your mouth. Heal.



Tend to what remains in the aftermath;
reestablish the scaffolding of your body,
brittle but relearning the beauty of water.

Nkateko Masinga is a South African doctor and writer. She is a 2019 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency, a 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow, and a Golden Key Scholar. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2018. Her most recent chapbook, psalm for chrysanthemums, was selected by the African Poetry Book Fund and Akashic Books for publication in the 2020 New-Generation African Poets box set.