Elliot Ziwira @the Bookstore
One of nature’s finest gifts to Man is music, which makes it possible for him to relate to his fellow men and the environs around him. Music is a powerful tool in a miasmic world where everything seems to be in abeyance, and the might jolt the feeble from their dreams. It is an elixir to those whose aspirations are trampled on; so soothing and ennobling. Tsitsi Jaji’s “Carnaval” (2014), published by Slapering Hol Press, explores the poetic allure of music on the soul as the individual struggles to locate his/her biography on the national discourse.
The anthology is a resplendent musical repertoire of a yearning heart that finds solace in poetic expression. The fracturing of sense boundaries through adept use of imagery and symbolism and disregard of traditional poetic conventions for an idiosyncratic experimental form, gives the collection a refreshing outlook and takes the reader in through its musical appeal.
The musicality of Jaji’s poetry, which however, seems obscure to a lay-reader, is steeped in the poet’s early contact with Classical music, as well as her long absence from home. The poems were inspired by the German composer, Robert Alexander Schumann, who lived in the 19th Century and famed for his 21-piece piano solo, “Carnaval” (1834-1835).
The 21 pieces in the composition are symbolic of masked revellers at a Carnival, a festival before Lent. The symbolism in the pieces articulates the reverence of the Carnival season, and it is this significance that Jaji taps into in her poetry. Most of the titles in the anthology are borrowed from Schumann’s “Carnaval” as they represent the pieces that shaped the composer’s life through dramatic musical expression.
The composer and the poet, though appearing in different eons, are linked through the universality of music and the transcendent nature of suffering and hope. It was through her study of Classical music that Jaji found the cord that links poetry and music; a cord so discernible that it cannot be ignored. She realised then that everyone can play the piano, but not all are composers, and that all and sundry can sing, but very few are musicians.
Playing the piano is not just about hitting the keys in a discordant way. It is rather about creating music through a combination of keys in the same way that great poetry is created not merely by words, but by adeptly using every day conversational words in a unique and refreshing way.
Although her poetry has appeared in “Bitter Oleander”, “Runes Review” and “InTensions”, Jaji’s musical trill reaches a crescendo in “Carnaval” (2014). The evocative, sizzling and transcendental offering is divided into two sections; Family Trees and Carnaval.
“Family Trees” is a stitch-up of personal episodes, which interact and merge into familial, communal and national discourses. The poet’s artistic disregard of the capital letter and contrived poetic forms gives the poems a musical appeal that consumes the reader as he/she becomes involved in the fictional experience articulated.
The rich use of imagery, symbolism and metaphors captures the African story of suffering, expectation and hope in such a way that leaves the reader aghast, as she/he cannot help wondering how his/her existence could be told so aptly.
Simple words like, mother, father, uncle, grandmother and grandfather, are given a metaphorical meaning that traces the history of the family unit, which reflects not only on the community, but the Motherland. The prominence of the figures that make up the family is explored through natural images; trees, animals and fruits. Through the collapsing of sense boundaries, the poet is able to capture the different moods that pervade human existence.
In the first stanza, given to the prominent tree; mother, the poet juxtaposes pain and exuberance through the use of the metaphors of the mango fruit, mother and moonlight, as is illuminated in the opening lines: “mother was a mango transplanted by moon-light, she glowed like spilt cream.”
The fruit here is symbolic of the life-giving larger than life nature of motherhood, without which humanity is doomed. The moon-light is symbolic of her happiness, resilience and enlightenment, which make it possible for her to skirt her suffering. She is able to “glow” in spite of the “bruises” and “tears” that threaten to weigh her down. Like a fruit, she sweetens inside, yet Time threatens her through its vagaries as is epitomised by the extended family that places a burden on the marital base. She sweetens and simmers at the same time until age exhausts her. As a “bruised fruit” she suffers at the hands of society and its expectations.
The paradoxical nature of existence, which “sweetens” and “bruises” women cuts across race and ethnicity. Once the woman is bruised and over-used everyone recedes to the background, and on her part her fears are compounded as she frets “of going blind.” Blindness is symbolic of death as contrasted with the moonlight.
The brother, “a flamboyant tree” that “arrived like flint” embodies the middle class go-getter that everyone fights for and has hope in. Although he is the family’s hope and indeed the nation’s torch bearer, he is conceited and hard-hearted; a flint. He is capable of causing both joy and pain; giving and taking at the same time, which contrasts with mother’s depiction. Over reliance on this class may be the nation’s bane.
Father is an exponent of wisdom and resilience (acacia). Like mother, he is not easily broken. He has gone through a lot in life to be weighed down by suffering. Like mother he is past sacrifice (immolation) and finds solace in laughter with his grandchildren. However, the “thornwire barbed under his skin” and the “largess” of his proverbs suggest the oppressive nature of culture and patriarch as is reflected in brother’s “steel”.
The sister is unfathomable as she is a “locked bowl of bee’s gold”, both “silent” and “flammable”. As a woman she suffers mother’s fate because she is unable to let out the victory cry. Like mother, her sweetness is bottled because society decides to see what it wants.
The aunt, who is described as a fatherwoman, epitomises the patriarchal woman; strong, foreboding and hardworking. She is the hardwood, whose role is complicated because she has to play mother and father at the same time, as she “plucks away at her bearded chaos” and feed the entire family. Her portrayal can also connote the struggle against colonial subjugation and Western hegemony.
The poet also explores the growth of puppetry in African politics through the “cousin-brothers” and “uncles”. The allusion to the alien “uncles” is both denotative and connotative. The juxtaposition of hunger and freedom, blood and water, highlights the precarious perch that the nation finds itself on. Jaji philosophically examines oppressive satiation and hunger in freedom. The poet advocates co-existence for progress’ sake, although she is aware that freedom is sweeter than oppression, no matter what it brings on the flip side.
The poems in “Carnaval” have titles in French and German as they follow Robert Schumann’s personal experiences. The poems, “Preambule”, “Pierrot”, “Arlequin” , “Eusebius”, “Paganini”, “Chiriana”, “Estrella”, “Panatalon et Colombine” and “Aveu” follow the poet’s own experiences as reflected in the composer’s. Relationships, love and hope are all given dramatic musical expression.
“Chiarina”, which is a depiction of Clara Schumann, the composer’s wife, is a dedication to the writer Yvonne Vera, which explores the nature of silent suffering in the incessant search for the self.
The poem “Promenade” pokes fun at the baneful nature of individualism, profiteering and corruption in the fight against the ravages of nature, which reduce the feeble and vulnerable to perennial scavengers and elevate the well-heeled to deities.
Jaji’s “Carnaval” (2014), much like David Mungoshi’s “Live Like An Artist” (2017), is a real carnival that brings glee to the reader as individual experiences are merged into a national discourse of hope. It is indeed a captivating read.