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Guest Review: Harlow on Four Zimbabwean Poets

Morgan Harlow reviews
edited by Menna Elfyn

Carolyn Forché has written about the poetry of witness in her ground-breaking "El Salvador: An Aide Mémoire," (American Poetry Review, 1981) and most recently in “Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art,” (Poetry magazine, May 2011): 
“In the poetry of witness, the poem makes present to us the experience of the other, the poem is the experience, rather than a symbolic representation. When we read the poem as witness, we are marked by it and become ourselves witnesses to what it has made present before us. Language incises the page, wounding it with testimonial presence, and the reader is marked by encounter with that presence.”

To read poems by Ethel Irene Kabwato, Fungai Rufaro Machirori, Joice Shereni and Blessing Musariri in Sunflowers in Your Eyes: Four Zimbabwean Poets is to encounter a poetry of witness originating out of present day Zimbabwe, a country going on three decades under draconian autocratic rule and one of the world’s poorest nations. Sunflowers in Your Eyes is also a celebration of empowerment for both poet and reader through discovering, carrying, and voicing an intensely experiential poetry that is direct and at the same time transforming.    

Poems by Ethel Irene Kabwato move towards defining and finding answers to what may have been sure in the past but now seems abstraction. What is freedom and what do happy children look like? How can love be saved when hate, as in the poem ‘Hate’, is “like uncontrolled / veld fire”; where find the truth and how resolve the contradictions and the betrayals, overcome the fear, the hypocrisy and the lies? Kabwato neatly juxtaposes the evidence, exposing ironies that allow us to draw our own conclusions, as in the poem ‘National Hero Status’:
they conferred
hero status
on a man
they all swore
they never knew
or met
at Mgagao, Chimoio
or Nyadzonia.

(‘National Hero Status’)

Fungai Rufaro Machirori is a satirist whose witty and imaginative use of metaphor, beginning with the central concerns of self and telescoping to include themes of society, world, soul and even eternity, at moments recalls Emily Dickinson’s poetry: 

You are more than Spirit or Soul,
flesh or form –
You are the jasmine blooming in my garden of thought,
The lavender seeping through my skin,
And the tiger lily singeing the dark corners of my heart;
and I carry you
like a treasure


As with Dickinson’s poetry these are not small domestic poems, rather they are large brave poems of pronounced feminist outlook and a keen sense of justice that, to borrow from Walt Whitman, “contain multitudes.” One such poem is Machirori’s ‘Tears will not Cure’ which moves from “mourning / the death of yesterday” to “I must package my sorrows / and fall back into line / with a band of soldiers” in the fight for freedom.

The path to the future and to freedom is walked with others, and the poems of Joice Shereni speak of the gulf that can sometimes unexpectedly open up between individuals, reminding that the way forward must be negotiated and has costs in personal loss and alienation.
Such is the case for the speaker in the poem ‘Matrimony’ where “the gap between us / threatens the hope” of what could be accomplished together for the future, the children.

In Shereni’s poems, lines addressed to the loved one reveal themes of disappointment and searching, acceptance and discovery. An understanding that the world is brutal is met with a desire to find inner strength, as in the poem ‘Destiny’:  “in accepting your reality / I’m losing control” and in ‘Pity’: “Open me, / see what I am made of ”.

To be seen, not only by others but by the self, is empowering, allows healing and hope for the future. This empowerment of the poet is the most immediate consequence of the poem. Whether spoken into the empty air or to receptive audience, the poet in first voicing the poem does not know if contact will be made. Poetry is not only a stake in the present and perspective on the past, it is a beginning at making a world and a future.
A few years ago, in conversation, a young anthropologist who had recently come to the United States from Africa introduced me to the African expression, “slowly, slowly,” explaining it this way: No matter how long the road, or however many obstacles, progress can be made with slow and steady perseverance. That day we nodded at the relevance of the saying to the topic at hand, a grant application process that had become lengthy and tedious. But over time I have turned the saying over in my mind in terms of what it means to Africa, where “slowly, slowly,” implies an important emphasis on the enduring relationship between the people, the land, and time. Patience and cooperation are valued over competition on a continent of frequent drought, food shortages and wars, where hurry and carelessness could mean catastrophic mistakes, waste, and suffering.

There is wisdom in the saying, there is also a dichotomy and a dissonance. Now more than ever, time seems to be running out. Blessing Musariri’s poem ‘Holding On’ begins with admonishment: “Everyone has moved on. / What were you doing standing still / in a shrinking city, dreaming of Christiana” and closes with slim hope, suggesting the challenges ahead:

But everyone has moved on,
you won’t listen to what I say even though experience
has shown you the truth I speak, as hope fools time
and rhymes again. You clutch fistfuls of fancy --
smile and say --  Hold on sister, just keep holding on.

(‘Holding On’)

Yet there is optimism in “as hope fools time / and rhymes again” and in “holding on”. Perhaps it is the beginning of a new and better world, one these four poets will have helped make.

Morgan Harlow is an American poet who reviews regularly for Eyewear.
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