Everything Has Changed (Except Graves) by Mzi Mahola is a single-stanza poem of 34 lines, written entirely in the first-person narrative. Mahola is talking about how his school, which contains so many memories, has changed completely. The only thing that remains the same as he remembers is the little graveyard a short distance from the ruins of the building.
Everything Has Changed (Except Graves) | Summary
The poet begins by describing his location- he is standing in front of the ruins of his old school, the place that shaped him into who he is today. It is covered with plants and vines, and the scene paralyzes his soul- the doors and windows had completely changed. He wonders if these lonely walls which cannot speak would still be able to recognize him. Everything has changed, from the grounds where he used to run to the playground where he once got into a physical fight with another student. It is now filled with wattle, which conceals the shame he feels at the memory.
A little distance from the ruins of the school, there is a renovated Church surrounded by a small cemetery- the dividing wall has vanished. The cemetery contains stories of the past, though it is so covered with plants and creepers that it has practically vanished underneath it. On the tombstones are engraved the names of white people who had once made huge contributions to the community. Sometimes the whites visit the cemetery to clean the tombstones of their family members and put flowers on their graves. A voice then whispers next to the poet, but like everything else, he cannot recognize it. His old school and home place, Lushington, has completely changed, and the only thing that remains constant is the little graveyard.
Everything Has Changed (Except Graves) | Analysis
Everything Has Changed (Except Graves) is a free-verse poem, and there is no specific rhyme scheme. Though it begins as though the poet is narrating his experience, the rhetorical questions give the impression that he is also addressing the reader. Along with this, he also provides small pieces of information about the surroundings- for example, about the church and the dividing fence. This adds to the feeling that he is speaking to the reader, as though he would like them to know the context of his feelings. The rhetorical questions also create a sense of helplessness and sadness– he knows that there are no real answers. This mood is underlying throughout the poem, along with a hint of melancholy and reflection.
Each line is short, which increases its impact. Mahola employs imagery, enjambment, allegory, alliterations and symbolism. There are also brief instances of personification. As this poem is a single stanza, it flows continuously without any breaks. This adds a slight edge of defeated desperation and implies the whirling of the poet’s mind as he takes in the sight- his thoughts are all over the place as he tries to make sense of what he sees. There is no moment for breaks or pauses. The main themes of Everything Has Changed (Except Graves) are loss, change, life and death, time, and memories.
Everything Has Changed (Except Graves) | Analysis, Lines 1-3
“I stood at the ruins
of my former school
where I was patiently moulded;”
Mahola begins with explaining his location- he is in front of his former school. The word “former” suggests that he has returned as an adult, and the word “ruins” implies that the school has either been wrecked or abandoned. It is clear that the school meant a lot to him, as we can see from, “where I was patiently moulded;”- he credits the school for his growth and present character. This attachment makes it all the more difficult for him to accept what it has become. The ruins of the school symbolize the shattered memories of his childhood. Mahola uses enjambment in the first two lines, creating a feeling of anticipation and curiosity.
Everything Has Changed (Except Graves) | Analysis, Lines 3-9
“wild plants own every space now;
my soul was paralyzed.
What happened to the roofs
the doors and windows?
Can these dumb lonely walls
still recognise me?”
Mahola further creates a ruined image of his old school, describing the creepers which cover it. It is interesting to note that he says his “soul was paralysed”, rather than his mind or body. This shows the depth of his shock- it has affected more than his system, but his very core. We also see two rhetorical questions here, which draw a connection with the readers. “What happened to the roofs, the doors and windows?” is used to hint the poor condition of the overall building, and to imply all that has changed. On the other hand, “Can these dumb lonely walls still recognise me?” holds a deeper meaning, as it reiterates the feeling of helpless disbelief. Mahola uses personification here, giving the walls the ability to recognize and remember. This line signifies that the school has changed so much that even the walls- the school’s very foundation– are unrecognizable to the poet. So much has changed that it is like the personified walls are now a different person. Here, we see the theme of change over time.
Everything Has Changed (Except Graves) | Analysis, Lines 10-15
“Everything has changed;
the ground where we ran and laughed
and the corner of the playground
where I pummelled a schoolmate almost to pulp
are scarfed with wattle
to conceal my shame.”
The poet finally puts his buzzing thoughts into direct words- everything has changed. We then see the theme of memories. The poet recalls moments he spent on the school grounds- both happy times and shameful ones. He remembers the joy with which he ran and played- the word “we” signifies that he must have had quite a few friends, as well. He also remembers the less joyful moments, such as when he beat up another student at the corner of the playground. Those grounds are now scarfed with wattle, which is a rooster-like bird. The poet implies that he feels guilty about the physical altercation in his childhood, by saying that the wattle covered not only the grounds but also the shame of his actions. The fact that Mahola reminisces both happy moments and shameful ones symbolizes the unavoidable elements of life and childhood- there is both good and bad, and the poet recognizing this highlights the impact the school had on him.
Everything Has Changed (Except Graves) | Analysis, Lines 16-23)
“A short distance away
stands a renovated Church
(a Dutch Reformed formerly,
embraced by a mute little cemetery
that claims the past
(the dividing fence has vanished)
though growth strangles it to near extinction;”
The poet then notices the Church a little distance from the school. He also provides some information about it- “(a Dutch Reformed formerly, now Methodist)”- which shows just how much he knows and remembers about this location. It also creates the feeling of him communicating with the readers. He uses personification to describe the way the graveyard surrounds the church, with the word “embraced”. Once again, we see just how clear his memory is when he mentions that the dividing fence is no longer there. We see imagery in “though growth strangles it to near extinction;”- the picture painted is a graveyard completely covered with creepers and vines to the point where it is almost buried underneath it. Giving the growth the humanistic quality of “strangling” and the graveyard the quality of extinction is also personification. The mention of the graveyard is the introduction to the theme of life and death. The poem started with discussions about schools and childhood, which is the very symbolism of life. Now, we move on to the nearby graveyard, which symbolises death and the past. The close proximity in which they lie highlights the inevitable life cycle.
Everything Has Changed (Except Graves) | Analysis, Lines 24-27
“cold names of departed whites
who were part of this community
and made monumental contributions
are etched on the headstones.”
On the gravestones are engraved the names of white people who have long since passed, all of whom had made huge contributions to their society. The usage of the phrase “cold names” gives the feeling of death. Further, we see that the poet specifically mentions “whites”, rather than people in general. Mahola is South African. His specificity may imply that the graveyard is only for the white people of the community, which suggests racial divide.
Everything Has Changed (Except Graves) | Analysis, Lines 28-34
“Sometimes whites come here
to clean and put flowers
on their family graves;
a voice whispers next to me
but I do not recognise its face
because Lushington has changed
except the graveyard.”
The poet also mentions that the family of the departed whites continue to visit the graveyard and look after the tombstones. Then, he hears a voice whisper to him. We are not given a clue as to who or what the voice is- is it a person? Is it a voice from the graveyard? Or is it the poet’s imagination? The purpose of this line is to wholly establish that the poet no longer recognizes the place he grew up in- Lushington. The only thing that remains constant is the graveyard, which represents death. In fact, we may even view the school as ‘dead’, for it is in ruins. This symbolizes the fact that the only sure thing in life is death- just like the graveyard remained unchanged next to the now-unrecognizable school, the definiteness of death is a constant of life.