BY DAN WYLIE
Textures must be one of the most unusual, even ironic, poetry collaborations to have come out of Zimbabwe in recent years. Zimbabwe’s publishing industry being in a state of near-total collapse now, amaBooks in Bulawayo represents a rare light of literary trust and hope – and this is a particularly brave publication.
One limb of this attractive double-hander is John Eppel, probably now the country’s most long-standing resident poet and satirical novelist. He is vilified in government-controlled rags such as The Patriot, partly just for being white, inconveniently and persistently present, partly because his satiric tone and self-deprecating demeanour are routinely missed or misunderstood. He has now published a number of poetry volumes, beginning with Spoils of War (1988), and a swathe of satirical novellas and short-story collections. These have become a little more serious of late, approaching the seriousness of the poetry in this volume (except, to be sure, the poem “Dorothy Recollects”, in which he sends up his own ‘colonial’ Wordsworthian Romantic inheritance).
The second limb is less well-known, a younger and almost preternaturally talented newcomer, Togara Muzanenhamo. Unlike Eppel, who as far as I know has never been published in volume form overseas, Muzanenhamo has already been picked up by Carcanet Press in the UK. These two poets’ contributions (some 30 poems apiece) are arranged in interlocking groups, setting one another off in intriguing ways.
It is both ironic and heart-warming to see the white and the black, the established and the upcoming, in counterpoint and communion. Ironic also because – contrary to stereotype – it is Eppel (though South African-born) who appears the rooted local, Muzanenhamo the globally-travelled intellectual. Eppel writes about the local flora, fauna (especially birds, here), and landscapes, and of highly personalised feelings; Muzanenhamo writes mostly of anywhere but Zimbabwe – Peru, the USA, Norway, Mozambique – alongside apparently wholly unlocatable, almost fantasial scenarios.
The volume is prefaced with a perceptive introduction by Drew Shaw, then lecturer at Zimbabwe’s National University of Science and Technology. He quotes a revealing and poignant comment by Eppel:
[A]s you get older you have a much more powerful sense of mortality, so you don’t take being alive for granted anymore. But you don’t see life and death in nature; you just see one form of energy changing into another form of energy, in nature time is cyclical. And somehow I think there’s consolation for ageing poets to spend more time observing the minutest details out there.
Those details, however, are always turned to inner psychological capital, with mythic resonances, as in one of the several bird poems, “Brown-Hooded Kingfisher”:
You have been immobilized
by instinct, by a chronic state of bliss.
You once fished in waters above the sky,
in the firmament of death and desire.
… Impossible beak,
orange legs, reddish feet glued to a tree;
Dickensian eyebrows, unnerving shriek
shadowed by a gentling, ‘pity for me’.
This exemplifies a number of characteristic features of Eppel’s poetry: the intimate, almost scientific detail, the precise rhythms and stanzaic rhymes, and a certain intrusive note of the maudlin. Also, the hint at his wide reading in the allusion to Dickens; such referencing – a trait he shares with his companion poet – gets quite dense on occasion:
Can’t get that dangling girl out of my mind,
nor the jealousy that provoked it. Why
are pampered Olympians so unkind
to mortals who challenge them, vivify
them in the first place? Athene, mistress
of weaving, versus the Lydian wench,
Arachne, who dares to make Olympus
say yes to human pain. How do the French
put it: la Terre détruit le Ciel?
It’s a story Sartre might want to tell. (“Golden Orb Spider”)
A jocular tone wrestles with nostalgia for the entanglements of thwarted or lost love – perhaps his presently most common theme – and the colloquial ironically counterbalances the careful form. The hyper-local is viewed with affectionate wryness through the lens of world literatures. These are subtleties typical of Eppel at his best. He works persistently with ‘traditional’ European forms – four-line stanzas, villanelles, and especially sonnets, as in the sequence here of five sonnets exploring the environs and sentimental meanings of Bulawayo’s Hillside Dams. Here, childhood memories, lost loves and everyday textures mingle in intimately realised scents and sounds.
Muzanenhamo, by contrast, tends to utilise the limber and fragmented forms characteristic of late Modernism: he combines, one might say, the intellectual prism of an Auden with the vivacity of a Neruda. Like Eppel, though, Muzanenhamo reveals an extraordinary range of reading, often glimpsed in his poems’ epigraphs, which come from unlikely sources, ranging from a cricketer and a Tour de France cyclist to quotation from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A lot of his reading, and so his subject-matter, is historical: so he manages to derive strangely universal meaning from locales ranging from a car mechanic’s workshop to a sailboat to a cemetery in Lexington, USA. In almost every case the technical terms are wielded with complete confidence. Yet most remains visceral and vivid: a poem about a typically abstruse subject, the 1665 Battle of Vågen in Bergen, Norway, includes this segment:
Cannon fire thundered with the heavy vibrato of war.
From his vantage point he could see the crafts
shivering after bouts of light hung
long then rang with distant noise.
In his mind, the thought
of men dying could not be reconciled
with what he viewed. Rain coursed down his face
salted with tears he could not hold back…
Muzenanhamo has an enviable ability to imagine himself into such an historical situation. Other of his poems also seem to displace the ‘personal’ emotional life at one remove into imagined scenarios; some read like snatches from South American magic-realist novels. “Peruvian Sunsets” opens thus:
Xalvadora stumbled back after Alvaro removed his boots. It wasn’t that Alvaro’s foot was metallic, nor was it the foot’s cold mercurial glow that caused her to panic and suddenly retreat with fear; no – it wasn’t that at all. When Xalvadora looked down again at Alvaro’s bloodless ankle, she saw her own face staring back…
It’s all rather mysterious yet, within its own world, weirdly persuasive. Muzenanhamo’s final twenty-poem sequence, “Game of 12 Moons” – an extended collection to balance Eppel’s Hillside Dams series – is more poetically lyrical but equally cryptic, like overheard segments from lost folktales:
She had been playing the game
with her shadow,
the game of twelve moons –
lifting floorboards in the kitchen,
whispering hurriedly to herself.
The sun would rise soon,
the smell of the air would change,
as would everything else
in the forest.
This is airy and simple, compared to most of his poetry, which incorporates a rare and cerebral sophistication. Nothing could be further from the run-of-the-mill Zimbabwean fare which deals obsessively and dully on common themes, reducing poetry to obvious proverbial mantras and demonstrating a tentative grasp on linguistic accuracies. Eppel writes more accessibly, perhaps, though the loops of his thought, self-consciously yet conversationally threaded through careful patterns of rhyme and syllabics, present enough density to reward many re-readings.
In a way, the two poets are united by so high a degree of craft that almost every poem – they are not all equally weighty or felicitous – serves as a kind of meta-meditation upon poetry itself. As Eppel writes in the poem “Tortoise”:
[T]hose who commemorate sight and sound –
poets, composers, and picture-makers –
will complete the work of undertakers,
and begin the work of he ‘who with his finger wrote on the ground.’
Textures is published by amaBooks.
Dan Wylie is professor of English at Rhodes University.