Wednesday, February 26, 2003

 

Try this poem out with an American ear – or, for that matter, with whatever variant of English you happen to have:

 

moni

 

& so the new blackses arrive
all scent & drape to their clamour

head & heart the liquid odour

of roads that defy oceans

 

from the fiery splash of pool

  pits they preach us redamp

    shun from the dust

        of the old ways

 

their kisses bite

like the deep bellies of conputers

the gravy of their songs

smells like the slow piss of culculatahs

 

& so

the new blackses arrive

& promise us life beyond the bleed

of the common yell

they promise us new spring

for the slow limp

of our heads

 

meanwhile

the ladder finds the sky at last

heart or herd slinks to the waters

mbira grows into a synthesizer

the songs ask for more sugar

& my salt sets sail for babylon

 

If I hadn’t known the context of this poem in the latest tripwire, I would not have recognized it as African until the word mbira, the Shona variant of the thumb piano, an instrument I associate with the music of Zimbabwe. Not surprisingly, then, the poet Seitlhamo Motsapi comes from the South African province of Limpopo, the northernmost part of the country, bordering Zimbabwe & nearly 1,000 miles north of Cape Town.

 

I don’t, it’s worth noting, know enough about orchids to recognize the poem’s curious variant spelling of the Latin term for the South African witch orchid, disperis cucullata, and in fact that name is also found in the Latin term for a South African bird, the bronze-winged mannikin, so I can’t even be sure that it’s the humidity I associate with orchids in general that is the image schema underlying the “slow piss” at the end of the third stanza.

 

One of the great challenges of reading poetry from another culture, let alone language, is to be able to grasp some portion of the references & allusions without importing too many of your own. Reading the very first line of this text, I have to suppress the idea that (1) the opening phrase might be an allusion to Pound’s Cantos & (2) the even more perverse echo I get of Tolkien’s character Gollum pluralizing blacks as blackses. Conversely, there are so many possible meanings to the title moni – it’s everything from the first name of a popular pan-African singer to a resort in Windhoek to the surname of an early Italian settler in South Africa to the stock ticker for Marconi Communications on the South African Stock Exchange – that I simply have to let it go. To the degree that this name tells a native reader the subject of this poem, I have no access to what it might indicate.

 

But I don’t need to know this in order to recognize that “moni” is an unquestionably wonderful poem. It’s use of imagery & rhythms jump right off the page. The prosody has an elegance that translates beyond dialect & a deliberate “misspelling” (e.g. conputer) positions the text into a voice-based tradition that Heriberto Yepez’ Mexican poetics would acknowledge as different from their own.

 

Over one third of the new tripwire is devoted to new writing from Southern Africa, a good portion just as riveting as Motsapi’s poem. Overall, however, I found myself frustrated that the brief introduction – a single page, unsigned -- & Robert Berold’s interview with Lesego Rampolokeng & Ike Mboneni Muila don’t offer more than the merest of glimpses at the broader contexts in which this poetry is being written. The brief reference to isicamtho doesn’t make it clear, for example, that this is a form of township slang that enables speakers of South Africa’s multiple languages to negotiate daily life. Muila’s own poem “In No Time” literally offers glosses to the right of the text body.

 

The question of context certainly has implications for how a work is received. Consider this section of a longer poem by Jeremy Cronin:

 

Sometime after the revolution, Soviet libraries adopted the Dewey Decimal System

 

With one rectification – the two hundreds: Religion

 

All the way from 201, 202, skip a few, 214 Theodicy, 216 Good & Evil, 229 Apocrypha & pseudo-epigraphs, down to 299 Other religion – this great textual body of human wisdom, confusion, folly and aspiration was reduced by the Soviets to a bald:

 

Dewey Decimal 200: Atheism

 

This was not (not by far) the worst sin of Stalinism

 

But it was its most typical

 

This should be remembered of the 20th century

 

This deadpan recitation, a rough approximation of which might occur on any given day in the United States on the programs of Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan or the 700 Club, seems curious in this collection. That Cronin is the Deputy Secretary General of the South African Communist Party doesn’t so much position the statement as it does testify to the degree to which someone from the U.S. has an immense bridge to cross in order to gain any sense of grounding when reading contemporary South African poetry.

 

Writing of how many “nation language” poets have arguments not dissimilar from those associated with langpo for arriving at a non-standard approach to English language, Juliana Spahr wrote in this blog last November that “They are different arguments but they meet in various ways. And yet the poets so rarely meet in journals, in readings, at parties. What a lost opportunity.” tripwire is certainly ensuring that such radically different poetries meet in the pages of its journal, but I wish that somebody had done for South Africa what Heriberto Yepez did for Mexico & offered a map.





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