LASt week my columnist-neighbor, John Kapesa, who was reviewing a week-long gathering of theatre enthusiasts and other budding artists held about three weeks previously at Mansa Teacher’s Training College in Mansa, Luapula, made an interesting comment. In response to what he thinks are avoidable flaws in poetry ‘recitals,’ he urged teachers and pupils to take keen interest in what I have been writing about the genre which has been utterly abused.
Perhaps—and I presume so—the error lies in what we normally refer to as ‘recitals’ which term invokes an idea of performance, concert and even narration which could, of course, mean all of these words but downright ill-conceived. Maybe we should introduce reading of poetry rather than reciting.
Ever heard of reading poetry with a calm voice and necessary intonation subject to the mood of the poem? I may not belabor this point again because I did justice to it in last week’s column.
The point, however, is that our teachers and pupils or students must read this column and books of poetry for learning since as far as I know there is no place for it in our curriculum in the formative years of a learner in any of our institutions.
Several years ago at an open day for parents at a certain school I watched my son, John Mark Lukonde, about five years-old then go through a tortured recital of a ‘verse’ on hunger which his gullible teacher had prepared for him. The poor little boy did the best he could to appeal to all on this abstract matter of life- and- death subject for mankind; it went something like this:
Hunger, O! Hunger!
You make me weak
You hunger, O! Hunger
You make me weak
I cannot read, study
O, Hunger, you make
Me weak, I cannot…
Your guess is as good as mine as to what happened; he was applauded and almost received a standing ovation. But since I knew it all, I went through an excruciating pain that day. It was not so much the feel of pain for an innocent tortured soul as for the shared ignorance with great potential of a decimated posterity. I do not blame the ill-informed teacher but request that such teachers should take heed of Kapesa’s timely advice.
As I was thinking of the approach to this week’s discussion, I received a short but revealing message from my friend, Alfred Mukanaka, whose verse received a stinging attack last week. He described the column as spot-on and went on to acknowledge that his “Things Never Change” verse was poor indeed; I exclusively commend his maturity, humility and a great sense of a teachable spirit. In fact, this serves as a spring board for this week’s column as we draw lessons once again from Oswald Joseph Mtshali’s lyrics in his nineteen-seventy one published collection of poetry, “Sounds of a Cowhide Drum.”
Supposedly simple works of art but they carry heavy burdens in the poet’s mind in apartheid South Africa of his day. As was the case last week, I wish to intentionally draw the reader’s attention to style and themes; put in another way, to artistic manner as well as the matter. In my view the two are intertwined in Mtshali’s verse and the reader ought to examine the works at these two levels: the enjoyment of the seemingly simple manner or style as he/she scratches deeper for the matter, scraping layer after layer in search of deeper meaning. Let us see how this works out in, “Portrait of a Loaf of Bread:”
Look back to the rolling fields
Waving golden-topped wheat stalks
Mowed by the reaper’s scythe,
Bundled into sheaves
Carted to the mill
And ground into flour.
Kneaded into mountains of dough
To be churned by rollers
And spat into pans as red hot
As Satan’s cauldron.
Brought to the café,
Warmly wrapped in cellophane,
By “East Fresh Bread” bakery van;
For the waiting cook to slice and toast
To butter and to marmalade
For the food-bedecked breakfast table
Whilst the laborer
With fingers caked with
Wet cement of a builder’s scaffold
Mauls a hunk and cold drink
And licks his lips and laughs
“Man can live on bread a lone.”
I crave the indulgence of my reader for a full-blown verse for a thorough apperception of the poem. There is a clear narration in the poem because it starts somewhere and rides through to the end with a moral tagged at the end. In this poem Mtshali is in a way a people’s poet, a voice for vulnerable members of his society.
The persona is at the level of struggling masses, the proletariat that drive the wheel of the economy to sustain the bourgeoisie. It is the former who farm the ‘gold-topped wheat’ fields, knead the mountains of dough and sees it off finally to the rich man’s table where it is coated with marmalade and butter on a food-bedecked breakfast table.
The reader will notice the irony here of a table lain not only with bread because it is ‘bedecked’ with all else. Then comes the boomerang when the worker sits down for his meal with caked fingers picked from wet cement drawn from the builder’s scaffold. He does not dine on a table but with his dirty hands he mauls a chunk and a cold drink as he licks his lips with an ironic laughter. The irony is clear, how can a laborer who sells his labor as he does end so miserably. The irony is firmer still when there is a twist of the Lord Jesus’ words to the devil in the wilderness as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. In here, man can after all live by bread alone and what a way to live!—on a piece of bread and a cold drink after all the hard labor.
It is a mockery of life and the poet makes it so by a choice of words and expressions: maul, hunk, laughter, caked fingers and a licking tongue. The reader will need to compare all this with the ‘rolling fields and waving gold-topped wheat stalks’ for an extended metaphor of an oppressed black race.
I intimated last week how Mtshali chooses not to pull punches with guns blazing to hit out at an oppressed regime but is rather stylistically soft yet brutal in his ironic and metaphoric treatment of themes. Here is another poem addressed to his mother-in-law, “The Washerwoman’s Prayer:”
Look at her hands
Raw, knobbly and calloused.
Look at her face
Like a bean skin soaked in brine.
For countless years she has toiled
To wash her master’s clothes
Soiled by a lord’s luxuries.
In frost-freckled mornings,
In sun-scorched afternoons,
She has drudged murmerless.
One day she fell and fainted
Her mouth a foaming spout
“Good Lord! Dear Lord! She shouted
“Why am I so tormented?
How long have I lamented?
Tell me Lord.”
‘My child! Dear child,” she heard,
“Suffer for those who live in gilded sin,
Toil for those who swim in a bowl of pink gin.”
“Thank you Lord! Thank you Lord.
Never again will I ask
Why must I carry this task.”
Here is a woman whose psyche is irreparably damaged systematically by years of hard labor for a pittance. The Cameroonian writer Ferdinand Oyono has depicted similar characters in his two works of fiction ‘House Boy,’ and ‘The Old Man and the Medal,’ who in one way or another have had to wash ‘soiled luxuries’ of their white masters in a colonial set up. The infrastructure on which this poem rests is a woman, an epitome of a deplorable system of injustice.
The poet uses various devices to get the verse going as is noticeable in the use of conversation, rhyme as in sin and gin, ask and task, tormented and lamented and son on. He also employs assonance and alliteration and similes.
Ultimately, the woman faints after years of toil and foams at the mouth and as in a “Boy on a Swing”, she is confused and utters gibberish: Why am I tormented?/How long have I lamented? But the answer from the Lord (another bitter irony) is that she is suffering for the cause of those who luxuriously sip pink gin and live in gilded sin! This being the case she should not worry and surprisingly she consents and swears never to ask the question again!
The reader will need to get through to the matter since the manner of saying it is a little clearer. There are so many questions that beg answers. Take a look at the two poems and search for meaning and the craft of these eloquent creations.