One of the prime objectives of this column from inception was to create space for debate and literary discourses among academics, writers, students and poets. Several months down the road, the written responses generally have been few and far between but quite good by word of mouth in particular; only the other day I received a commendation call from a reader as far flung as Chipili in Mansa about one of the pieces he had read. I do understand, however, we are largely a nation of verbalized communicators and less engaged conversationalists of written documents.
For, example, anyone who travels the length and breadth of our country on public transport from Lusaka to Livingstone or Kasama up north will observe a not-so-unfamiliar phenomenon: a lack of reading even of the basic material like a morning’s freshly- minted newspaper.
Those who may possess a slight instinct to the written script may quickly look up the pages and sooner than later post it out on the back- rest for a drowsy head or cushion for a brittle seat or mere folder for roasted cassava and peanuts at bus stops: and then all the way it is either talking or sleeping.
The latest discovery has made the situation worse: we are fast becoming a nation of sms- message transmitters and receivers and literally nothing else to write home about. I only hope our children do not get used to the newly acquired abbreviated communicative ability, if ability it indeed is, and apply it in their English compositions at school.
It was no surprise a few years ago when a woman became awfully stunned to learn that Saddam Hussein of Iraqi had died—to the amusement of her hearers— in fact, the event was no longer news even for an average Zambian: that is how serious the situation can turn out to be sometimes. It was so exciting then to receive a few poems and comments from my friend, Alfred Mukanaka, although in a rather humorous way because despite our development in technology his works reached me, by post complete with all the envelop stamps officially endorsed. It may be a case of old habits which, as the cliché holds, die pretty hard; I must admit though it is a commendable option. Here is part of his lyrics, ‘Crossroads:’
Flash back to 1999
Y2K kept us on tenterhooks
We waited like one in theatre for surgery
Petrified; what if computers crash?
What if 2000 is the proverbial ‘coming back’?
Will my betrothed be there?
Fast forward fifteen years
Into the twenty-first century
We are on knife-edge
Like we were back then, when …
Today cars are like kapenta
Traded by the roadside
Winked at status symbol
Bosses buy, build bungalows
Fenced off from ghetto-brethren
Whose buzzword is ‘monthendless’
Endless blue—collar pauperization!
I should be presenting to the reader another verse from Mukanaka but let me turn to the notes accompanying the verse. The notes are not obviously his, but that is not a worrying matter. The sum total of the argument in the notes is that a budding poet starts by learning, like all apprentices, from established poets (and this is very true) but that as time goes by he or she assumes a personal voice, manner, character and style. In other words, a personal individuality emerges by which the poet is known forever after. The implicit moral from my friend to me who has been his critic for some time is something like, “Wait a minute, I have now found my voice, having lived a life of an imitator for a while.” And this is all very good, who would quarrel with that anyway? Next, here is his other new found voice, ‘Monthendless.’
Linguists love language
The way the Tonga, Masai love cattle
A Tonga, Masai can tell you by name
Five hundred plus look-alike animals;
Linguists know latest lingua franca:
Bootylicious, boozylicious, monthendless!
‘Monthendless’ means month without end
Like bottomless pit
Workers work without a known pay-day
After all Jesus is coming soon
Have faith, don’t worry, be happy
You’ll be paid soon!
Suppose, and let us only suppose, that my friend has found a voice which is possibly a graft of another: the question before us is simply this: whose original shoot is this voice? Could we summon a Wordsworth, a Whitman, an Okigbo, a Soyinka an Mtshali, a Clark or perhaps a Keats or an Eliot to stand in the dock to testify for our local poet? I know these men and many others; none would opt to face an embarrassment before the jury during a cross-examination by the learned counsel. Without much ado, let me make reference to a fine Malawian poet, Jack Mapanje, a writer of a collection of poems called ‘Of Chameleons and Gods’ and only pick one, ‘The first Train to Liverpool’ written as a letter to Angela (his wife perhaps):
No last minute haggling about prices
Of curry-chicken first at Balaka
No stinking Afro-wigs into your mouths
No leaping from bags of peanuts into
Baskets of tomato, cheerfully quarreling
Nor finally sitting on half a buttock
Euston station contacts and dialogues
Through wires and innumerable papers
Only comfort welcomes aboard a sudden silence
That soon reigns, our eyes weighing and
Quickly avoiding each other between
The beverages and local papers.
Runcorn station welcomes aboard a haunting
Quiet where men obviously build more paper
Walls against other men. No curios, no mats
No herbs sell through the windows. No mothers
Suckle their crying babies. No jokes about
The rains held up by your charms this year!
At Lime Street itself, not even a drunk staggers
Out perhaps announcing his newly acquired
Cornerstone. Only recorded voices bid you
Come again before the engulfing impenetrable
Crowds. But the maddening quiet soon recedes
Locating a bright tarnished face once known.
If any of the poets already mentioned were to appear before the jury in defense of Mapanje there would be a great number to answer the call. In fact, in this poem, J.P Clark can easily trace his footprints. The thing is this: a poet who has found his or her individual voice writes with confidence and artistic excellence. One of Mukanaka’s lyrics takes us back to the advent of the second millennium and the apprehension that came with it but quickly tones down to the cars and houses that the elite in the land purchase and build compared to the ghetto-dwellers and it ends there. The second is meant to be a lampoon on linguists and their use of language and zeroes down to work related disillusionment. Perhaps the verse is too lean to carry the purported theme. But to the poet’s credit, there is an attempt to make use of similes in a few lines: ‘like one in theater,’ ‘cars are like kapenta,’ ‘like bottomless pit,’ but the similes are too weak to evoke any powerful emotional stimuli; the imagery is a trifle uninspiring too.
On the other hand, the poem by Mapanje is a fine piece. The poet is writing from London on his first trip to Liverpool and covers three stations: Eustone, Runcorn and Lime Street and records all that he sees and uses it to compare with his in-country trips back in Malawi. And it is the way he does this that makes the poem interesting. There is the extremity in both situations of course; for example, back home the bus is full of jovial people talking about almost anything from failing rains to charms.
Almost all the senses are brought to bear on the reader’s mind smell, sight, touch, hearing and taste; it is the whole gamut of life. Then on the other hand, there is Britain’s cold, private and individualistic kind of life enhanced by modern gadgets for communication; a really display of egocentricity as when the nationals bury heads in newspapers oblivious of the neighbor next to them.
Notice also the use of enjambment in Mapanje’s descriptive poetry. As we close, here is another verse by Vonani Bila, short but interesting:
I checked his shoes—
Rough and wild
And the nails—
Long and dirty
That’s how I notice a pig
Even in parliament
He even kills the piglets
This week’s discussion, as has been the case previously, is meant to share the rudiments of poetry. It is also meant to stimulate debate with the readers and request for more works of art for literary criticism. It may just take a little more courage.