‘Up in Arms’ against despair, greed

Elliot Ziwira The Book Store
AS  Heroes Day commemorations approach, it is imperative to reflect on what those sons and daughters of an oppressed and disparaged peasantry were up in arms against, as they sacrificed life and limb with the hope of bettering their lot.As they peacefully lie under the free sod of soil that they fought for, would they not be tempted to stir in ire as some seem to kill the spirit of the revolution in the wake of gravy trains?

Suffering knows no boundaries, and pain; though God’s response to Man’s foibles and a test of faith; is sometimes so acute that it destroys that semblance of hope that one may want to shelter in. Perchance pain and suffering are not of God’s making after all, but a product of Man’s machinations as he positions himself in ambush against his fellow men in pursuit of deification?

Which is the reason why wars, which create death merchants among us have become so common and bloodied peace pacts that issue in their wake, the in thing, as macho mediators in their affluent robes settle gory matters of death and poverty over glasses of whiskey.

As the voice of the voiceless, Chenjerai Hove in “Up in Arms” (1982) compellingly tells the story of pain, suffering, hopelessness, greed and hypocrisy using imagery; visual, aural, olfactory, gustatory and tactile, as well as metaphors strewn all over the Zimbabwean’s landscape of pain and toil.

He captures the mundane and sordid nature of suffering during colonial times which has led to a protracted war that reduces everyone to a victim and its aftermaths. He is also up in arms with the colonial baggage of civilisation which gives birth to oppression, greed and individualism.

As a teacher, he is able to merge the past with the present to shape a future pregnant with hope, if only everyone desists from playing others’ flutes and claiming ownership of the tune. The anthology is divided into four sections; Bleeding wounds, Tributes, Industrial Blades and Country Tears, which makes it easier for the reader to follow the thematic concerns raised in the poems.

The people’s poet, Hove yearns for a better tomorrow for a society whose yesterday and today have brought nothing but gory images of over-burdened souls whose hope seems to lie in death. There is nothing romantic about suffering, so reasons the poet; thus he uses realistic and nihilistic traits of modernism.

The images of death that pervade the anthology create a sense of hopelessness, as the individual seeks to locate himself in a miasmic sphere that pays no heed to his toils as he trudges on along the thorny and tumultuous path of his existence. Death, which “is a necessary end” and “comes to all at last” as William Shakespeare aptly says, is used as a form of escapism.

Such is the extent of the disintegration at the centre of the family unit, community and nation that the poet takes a swipe at. Though the collection was first published in 1982, it is timeless and does not follow a particular setting which makes it open to a plethora of interpretations depending on one’s situation.

Serve for the rather idiosyncratic imagery used, Hove’s language is simple and conversational and appeals to the reader’s heart to take heed. He also does not burden the reader with contrived diction and other traditional conventions which make the reading of poetry cumbersome.

In the poem “1965, On Looking Back (Revaluation), which is the first one under the section “Bleeding Wounds”, the poet highlights, though implicitly, the bane of Ian Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence from Britain which led to the imposition of sanctions on Rhodesia culminating in untold suffering on the black masses who had to “drink blood for coffee/and eat (their) bleeding fingers for sausages.”

This is as a result of tolerance as “we have allowed horses to ride us,/and the weight tells/the misery underneath. He also examines how the liberation struggle creates victims in the poems “A War-torn Wife” and “A War-time Wife”. In the former the wife laments the absence of her husband whom she has “lost” to the war as he is always “guarding the home or on call up.”

The husband who is presumably one of Smith’s soldiers is also “tired of a wife who never dies/so (he) could stop guarding.” The later captures the paradoxical nature of war to a pregnant woman who is left by her husband who has responded to the higher calling to liberate the Motherland.

Here her waiting to deliver is juxtaposed with the waiting for independence that would bring back her husband. In both instances the pain and anxiety is punctuated by pleasure and hope. However, as the war intensifies both inside her womb and outside, hope seems to be receding into “thatched graves . . ./Down slippery times/and swallowed by history’s gorgons.”

The resilient and patient woman left pregnant with hope in “A War-time Wife” is confined to the periphery of history, like the granny in “The Way We Fed” who epitomises the masses responsible for feeding the guerillas on pain of death should they be caught. The brutality of war and its creation of victims and monsters out of men are explored in “The Armed Man” and “Death of a Soldier”.

In the later Hove soulfully chronicles both the literal and metaphorical death of a loved during the war.

The physical death merges with that of faith, belief and hope to evoke an aura of disillusionment, despondence and hopelessness. The poet laments: “He died, my brother/thorn-beaten/Homeless, a glorious rover . . . Nothing romantic: I saw him/flooded with christened hate/and fouled with justice and dread/sinking into piggish death,/as at the butcher’s . . . Sure he died, no doubt/Graveless, ditched, he went/but full of grave pure hate.”

Chenjerai Hove is also contemptuous of the so called civilisation which has brought nothing but pain, hypocrisy, greed and oppression. He confronts the contentious issue of oppression at the workplace in “To Father On Retirement” and most of the poems in the section; Industrial Blades, as man is harnessed to his station through pittances called wages which is meant to be fodder that keeps him working until he is sapped of all his energy and retires to die in his rural home which is described as a teary one as there is nothing to sustain him in his old age.

For all the years of toil, he receives a pat on the back “plus a tickling clock for (his) withering wrist”, and his “offspring inherit/only an ancestral name.” With the prevailing economic quagmire threatening to strangle us all, as lifetime savings invested in labour or otherwise are depleted, Hove’s poetry is spot on as it timelessly exposes the nature of Man.

Men are taking home nothing to their families as some among us are taking advantage of the situation to impoverish their kin and kith either by closing shop or with-holding wages or pensions. It is this deliberate slaughter of workers through “industrial blades” that irks the poet and makes him take up arms.

The poem “Hospital Times” pokes at the paradoxical nature of life and the unselective nature of death, as two patients are hospitalised; one is dying of malnourishment and the other of overfeeding.

In the poems “Imported Differences” and “Letters to Ezekiel”, the poet questions the validity of Christianity on the African as it seems to alienate him from his culture and his people.

Ezekiel abandons his parents and siblings because he is born again and yet the scriptures which he purports to know so well clearly advocates the need for one to love, respect and look after one’s parents, especially in their old age.

The tragedy of western education premised on set syllabuses is also given space in the collection as it gives birth to individuals who know so much and yet so little.

If they fail to get jobs in the ever receding job market, they become redundant, as they are never taught any real life   skills.

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