INTWASA POETRY [anthology of 15 Zimbabwean poets] edited by Jane Morris
(amaBooks, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, 2008)
A Good Mix of Poetry
This little book, almost the size of a thin poetry journal, contains some of the most captivating poetry published in Zimbabwe. The collection was published as a companion work to the annual Intwasa Poetry Festival held in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. Intwasa is the SiNdebele word for spring, so despite its size, here is a burst of diverse poetry, springing forth out of troubled Zimbabwe.
The poets here performed their works at the festival, and most of these are performance poets: Albert Nyathi, the ultimate Zimbabwean performance poet (imbongi) and Chirikure Chirikure, a trendsetter in Shona performance poetry; Ignatius Mabasa, who was part of the 2009 San Francisco International Poetry Festival where he spellbound audiences with his electrifying performances; John Eppel, who is the master of satire; and others from outside of Zimbabwe, like Owen Sheers, whose poetry add diversity to the works in this volume.
It is important to emphasize performance in talking about this collection, which was born on the stage, but more so because to me Bulawayo has always been the city of performance, equipped with dozens of traditional dance and acapella groups and such fine artistic establishments as Amakhosi and Black Umfolosi.
Most of these are poems about contemporary Zimbabwe. The message of social justice is present throughout and the poets are voicing concerns about the ills of society, even where the work may seem introspective. In Julias Chingono’s poetry there is lamentation and a blessing through words. We are called upon not only to listen carefully to “slippery words” but also to handle them with care. They are slippery through their delicacy and because of this, their message may easily be missed. Marginalized by society’s large concerns of survival, the poet is once again married to words and does not give up in his effort to remind us of what matters, which can only be documented through words “falling / when mouths open”.
I have been reading Julias Chingono since high school and he has never failed in his role as a voice of social justice. One of his poems in this volume, “They Are Picked”, which is about Zimbabweans’ struggles as they cross borders in search of opportunities, was selected by Amnesty International for inclusion in Fire in the Soul: 100 Poems for Human Rights (published by New Internationalist with Amnesty International). This is a collection of ‘the best' 100 human rights poems from across the world over the last 100 years. The pronoun “they” at the beginning of the poem refers to people that can be from any country and their search for survival is a universal quest. They are from “troubled nations” and as they cross rivers to freedom, “they are picked by crocodiles” or they are “maimed by mines”, and worse, they are picked in “foreign lands” whose politicians “cannot accommodate them anymore.”
Chirikure Chirikure’s Shona titled poem, “Mutserendende” deals with a new Zimbabwe where the people are taking great risks to survive, resilient citizens “leading life fast and furious / Landing with tattered, bleeding souls.” In Chirikure’s pieces the personal and the political merge, but the struggle for personal fulfillment triumphs over the dangerous, unproductive game of politics. We see this in “Time to Move on”, although an earlier poem, “Dancing Mother” hints at this resilience in the image of a mother dancing even where her own rhythm is no longer in sync with the dizzying demands of the times.
Another important poet in the collection is John Eppel, famous for his satirical stings at corrupt governance. His pieces follow the voice of the voiceless mode in poems like “Border Jumping”, “My Home Town”, and “Waiting”. What stands out in this installment is how the mundane is lifted to mythical and cosmic proportions. “Waiting” even ends with a note of pessimism: “I’m / afraid that change will never come,” but that such a concern has been voiced shines a light towards a possible future of change; it’s the poet’s reminder to society that the status quo is failing the people, hence the need for change.
In Ignatius Mabasa’s poetry, the metaphors and language use are a reader’s reward. His poems here are short, packaged dynamites. In “Epitaph” the message clear and as sharp as a blade:
We used to have a life
And an economy
Running on dollars and sense.
The lamentation rises to a funeral dirge in which the poet tells us that “ravens disemboweled corpses/Singing a harsh type of dirge” characterized by the absence of dignity, rites, tears. This harsh image of death is replicated in “Ghetto Lights”, and in “Poetry”, Mabasa depicts the confusion caused by rapid socio-political change.
There are other great poems by Albert Nyathi, whose piece “My Daughter” is a warning and a word of advice from a father to a daughter. Here the poet focuses on building hope, as we see in “Struggles”, where the persona talks about how those in power crush the spirit of the people, “but still dawn will break.” This has been Nyathi’s message since the early 90’s, and he continues to project the image of poet as prophet, entertainer, and voice of social consciousness.
I enjoyed Pathisa Nyathi’s “Upon Mzilikazi Bridge” with its strong sense of place. The images used are vivid, the details are concrete, and I couldn’t help imagining myself in Bulawayo again. The poet depicts disintegrating infrastructure in the township, but there is still a sense of pride in the poet’s focus on an indefatigable sense of belonging. This message is amplified in Mthabisi Phili’s “Sunset in Mzilikazi”, which paints a picture of a beautiful sunset in sharp contrast to the chaos depicted in Nyathi’s poem. Even with different concentrations, both poets show a love for their landscape.
This poetry collection from amaBooks is a rich sampling of contemporary Zimbabwean poetry, rewarding reading for anyone who cares about international poetry.
Emmanuel Sigauke, co-editor of the anthology African Roar, is a Zimbabwean writer based in Sacramento, California where he teaches English and Creative Writing at Cosumnes River College. He has published poetry and fiction in various magazines. He co-edits the following print and online journals: Cosumnes River Journal, Tule Review, and Munyori Literary Journal. He has published a poetry collection entitled Forever Let Me Go, and some of his poems appeared in State of the Nation: Contemporary Zimbabwean Poetry. He is working on a collection of his short stories.