Poet Tsitsi Jaji in class of her own

Beaven Tapureta Bookshelf
The year-end ‘torrent’ of new books of different genres by established and first-time Zimbabwean writers has begun to hit the Bookshelf. Last week, it was “Mukufunga”, a Shona short stories anthology by Samuel Makawa and this week, poet Tsitsi Ella Jaji invites us to further stretch our minds and experience her different type of poetry!

Jaji’s brand new volume of English poetry titled “Beating the Graves” (2017, African Poetry Book Series) is in a class of its own, showing a true African poet’s ‘paintbrush’ at work. It is part avant-garde and part traditional in both its formulaic and thematic exploits. The collection is split into three parts, “Ankestral’, ‘Botanical’ and ‘Carnaval’. In this organic cosmos you read on despite confronting some foreign languages like French and German which the poet says was inspired by German composer Robert Schumann. It is a world of stirring images and a variety of themes.

The poet celebrates African ancestry seen as rooted in a particular womanhood (e.g. The Book of VaNyemba) and at the same time acknowledges the modern heroines and heroes who have stood up against forces of patriarchy and injustice. ‘The Book of VaNyemba’ is a very long poem in different patterns and freely fuses Shona and English languages to capture essential detail. The poem is just one of various others in the anthology which, to quote the blurb, “pay particular homage to the powerful women and gender-queer ancestors of the poet’s lineage and thought”.

Cover of ‘Beating the Graves’

Cover of ‘Beating the Graves’

On the other hand, in the poem “Dust to Dust” the poet shows the drought of love suffered by the woman domesticised in the home. The extreme hopelessness of contemporary women ‘who have no rage left in their wrists’, of women who have been turned into mechanical beings by irresponsible men is deeply felt.

After reading the anthology, Bookshelf can reckon that the title itself is the poet’s ingenious way of welcoming the reader into a ceremony that shows a certain refusal of death. If we literally translate the title into Shona it then reads as ‘kurova makuva’ (and makuva is the plural term for guva/grave). Kurova guva actually is a culturally established ceremony held for the dead, to celebrate and bring them back ‘home’, so to speak. At such a ceremony, praise poetry and elegies are common. In a sense, Jaji has turned that into her own brand of ‘ceremony of poetry’ which you have to attend intellectually to the end. While some poems are dedications and praise for the beloved departed, others are concerned with current socio-economic issues affecting the living, like in the poem “Promenade” in which the persona expresses worry over a society gone evil and loose:

“And we watched, stunned at neighbours

Turning hunger into coinage.

Rude profit soiled everyone’s hands.

There was less clasping.”

Jaji’s musical and emphatic turn of phrase, technical skill combined with an occasional mixture of simple and complex ‘activist’ emotion sometimes evokes memories of legendary African American female poets we have ever known such as Maya Angelou and Gwendolyn Brooks. In her own individual style she is liberal with language and yet at times radical in emotion as, for instance, in the poem “To bless the Memory of Tamir Rice” in which even the name Rice is turned into real rice and

“dey weep over de war, an de water, an de fresh, an de forgotten

an dey cook dat rice ‘til is yellow and sticky…”

The poem “Sphynxes” (dedicated to Cecil Taylor) is a burst of strong emotion which finds expression through a certain incomprehensible arrangement of sonic letters. It is a difficult emotive expression as shown in the following few lines taken from the poem:

“tssssssssssssssss.

Szzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Shshshshshshshshshshshshshshsh

Zhzh zhzh zh zh zh zhzh zhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. (Hissssssssssss.)…”

We could be witnessing the birth of a particular innovative spirit in our literature. Some of the poems in this anthology first appeared in various print and online international journals and magazines. Collecting the poems together with the new ones has indeed proved Jaji an impressive poet. Tsitsi Ella Jaji is an associate professor of African and African American studies at Duke University. She is also the author of “Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity”.

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