Stanely Mushava Literature Today
Authors: John Eppel & Togara Muzanenhamo
Publishers: amaBooks (2014)
When the muses refuse to smile on a poet, he runs out of inspiration but when a woman refuses to smile on him, a creative current carries him along. If not for this irony of deprivation, Dante, John Keats and Thomas Hardy may never have attained half their stature, and poetry would have been poorer for the equilibrium. John Eppel’s impassioned reminisces for lost love in “Textures” make for a Zimbabwean version of the deprivation theory.
“Textures”, the dual effort by highly regarded poets Togara Muzanenhamo and John Eppel is a league apart for its classical forms, musical cadences and cosmopolitan depth of field.
Zimbabwean poetry, often politically themed, thrives on immediacy, rejects classical forms, branding them synonymous with colonial tradition, utilises the canon of cultural decolonisation and is almost uniformly set to free verse.
Muzanenhamo and Eppel’s joint anthology is an apparent revolt against the post-colonial canon and fares exceptionally as a new aesthetic school.
As if to confirm John Keats’s wager: “The poetry of the earth is never dead,” “Textures” won the National Arts Merit Award (Nama)’s main literary accolade this year, the second consecutive time a poetry collection has landed the honour.
With poetic thoroughbreds like David Mungoshi and Emmanuel Sigauke hunched over their keyboards this year, poetry may be bound for a third consecutive honour in the previously prose-dominated category.
Eppel’s Bulawayo sequence is set to sonnets, odes, sestinas, villanelles and Romantic references, while Muzanenhamo employs modernist frame and a cosmopolitan depth of field.
Irony of history, loss of love, sense of mortality, appreciation of beauty, invocation of forgotten feats line and the debilitating trail of war line the thematic taskbar of the two poets for the most part.
The trouble with the anthology, however, is the poems are often densely pixilated and cryptic to a fault.
While both poets ably set forth their scenes and provide the musical ambience, their ideas are sometimes buried in the aesthetics.
On first reading, the meaning flies over your head, on second attempt the jigsaws seem to come together, third time you want to be sure you got it right, and so forth.
If this is a flaw, though, then it has its side benefits. It makes the anthology more durable than the immediate ones which the reader stacks away after reading them once because there is nothing deeper.
With this anthology, after gleaning the alluvial nuggets in the beautifully structured stanzas, you have a conviction that what you see is not all they is to know and you keep coming back for more.
The esoteric tendencies of Muzanenhamo and Eppel are perhaps the occupational hazard of being too style-conscious.
In an interview with Drew Shaw, then a lecturer at NUST, Eppel explains the paradox faced by lyric poets “where they actually want to get rid of words, but the only way they can get rid of words is by using words. So there’s this movement from sense to dominating to sound dominating.”
That could explain how the reader can resonate with the flow and the scenery but still not come away wiser for the exercise.
Sometimes, especially in Muzanenhamo’s case, you feel that imagist economy could have worked neater but potency of diction eventually carries the day.
Texture is generally defined as the feel, appearance, or constancy of a surface or a substance but has different renderings in music, visual art and textiles.
“Both poets considered musical metaphors for the title of this collection but chose the more visual name ‘Textures’, which is appropriate, Eppel said, ‘because the word text is from the Latin texere, which basically means to weave hence the word textile… and the idea of the woof and the warp is appropriate for poets who are interweaving their texts in one book’,” Shaw relates.
Some of Eppel’s poems are double-layered where you have a visual sequence preceding a personal emotion.
And because “none throws away the apple for the core”, as John Bunyan said, each layer is meticulously attended sensory stimuli retaining appeal to the point of emotional disclosure.
The opening poem, for example, sets out a suburban setting, lonely but for the routine ambience of nature, in the first stanza. The second stanza, switched to another rhyme scheme, seems to recall lost love and the departed companion is imagined “smiling at him the way you smiled at me”.
“Only Jacarandas” seems to give a nod to the resilience of natural beauty; whereas displays are set for other forms to shine, “jacarandas/ can take their reflection/ from the dull sky of tarmac”.
The elderly poet is at it again in his sonnet sequence, “The Hillside Dams in Bulawayo,” reminiscing about lost love with more “you sections”.
One recalls Hardy (I gather some place that he is Eppel’s favourite poet) in his futile quest for Emma and the beautiful poetry occasioned, among listless sceneries, by his recollections of the “woman much-missed”.
The third entry in “Four Villanelles” and third poem, “Looking for You”, also seems to recall his Beatrice, Emma or Fanny, although the poet’s esoteric tendency does not allow for solid grounds.
The first villanelle on man’s conquest of woman has a political drift. “Davids are Goliaths in waiting/the corrupting effect of power/it’s a maxim worth restating”, the poet observes.
“In Beauty is Truth, Truth Death”, the poet reflects of the brevity of beauty, its subservience to the cycle of seasons, and in that thread, invokes a sense of mortality.
“Appropriating the Land”, a colonial reconstruction satirises a minority dispensation closer to nature than to the people, hence “bossy warnings/with words like ‘forbidden’ / and ‘only…’”
Suburban Eppel only ever gets out of Bulawayo with the poem “Dorothy Recollects”, a reconstruction of the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge.
By contrast, young Muzanenhamo is cosmopolitan, globalist and modernist. His settings are as varied as USA, UK, Norway, France, Peru, Mozambique, Somalia and Zimbabwe, almost as an afterthought.
Muzanenhamo articulates the universality of human experience and the transcendence of literature, a view also espoused by Dambudzo Marechera and Wole Soyinka.
“It fascinates how similar people are,” Muzanenhamo says in an interview with Dr Shaw. “You go to any country and find that we all possess the same emotions; we speak different languages, and there’s a different landscape, but the baseline of all humanity strums at the same rhythm.”
“Gondershe”, a poem about a child soldier surrounded by his dead comrades on a Somalian beach, himself waiting to die is a forceful indictment on war.
“Having never fired a gun before, he held the rifle/as though the weapon were a dying child about to say something/ only they could share… Come dawn there would be no escape/He would die. Even the sea would burn,” Muzanenhamo relates.
“Zvita”, an anatomy of death, is singularly unsettling. Whereas December is the cropping season, synonymous with new life, Muzanenhamo appropriates the last month as a symbol of the end of life.
In “Mercantile Rain”, Muzanenhamo reconstructs the vagaries of war. Through a war that came with “loud with every death, dark with every monstrous fear”, a surviving soldier will never get over the loss his wife and family.
Unfortunately, Muzanenhamo occasionally comes across as gross, sometimes too enigmatic. But he has already staked his claim as one of the most sophisticated Zimbabwean poets writing today.