Monday, 23 October 2017

Three Zimbabwean Poets, 2: Hopewell Seyaseya

Little appears to be known about Hopewell Seyaseya, other than that he began writing poetry while living in New Zealand, was first published in a1980's anthology of African poetry,and used to edit the Zimbabwean literary journal Counterpoint, along with fellow poet Albert Chimedza, from the country's capital, Harare.  I discovered Seyaseya in The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry (1984), and was struck at the lyrical solemnity of his writing:

Silvery in the moonlit night
the river of my mind flows
to the nightsong of the truly great
entombed in the caves of history.




















But also present was a penetrative sincerity, in which a sense of personal loss was intertwined with a kind of valedictory spiritualism:

My brother's unmarked grave
only takes me to a dream and I will get no closer to him
than in my first death, and homeward I turn
to the whims of life and the certain death of man.



Seyaseya writes of death and graves in a softly flowing English, in which the gravity of the subject coalesces with a tempered exactitude of rhythm, setting out the images like macabre images in a slideshow, somehow simultaneously distinct, and seamless:

The serenity of the graves, the air,
the stones, the engraved names and dates;
the stillness of the cemented atmosphere
imprison the dead in the forest of death

And yet, the keyword in this montage of moratlity is "serenity", for he follows the funereal description by explaining And there I long to retire / for the burden is too heavy.  

Seyaseya has been described his contemporaries as a poet writing of the struggles of the underdog, of the troubled times he lived in, and of the burdens of the Zimbabwean poor.  This is evident in his poem about an urban prostitute, whose poverty has rendered her, in Seyaseya's eyes, Neither black or white, but simply defined by her role as Emilda of the flats, who  Lives lonely, not alone.

Thirty years ago, the University of Zimbabwe praised Seyasaya for articulating the predicament of the whole of Zimbabwean society in his often despairing poems, but as a writer he was interested not only in the problems of humanity, but also those affecting the natural world.  In 1978, while working at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, he published the academic text River Reserves: a policy for the conservation of waterways and their adjacent lands in New Zealand, lending to his legacy an uncanny relevance to my own experience, reading his work as I do amid the watery environment of the Calder Valley, an area largely dominated by waterways, canals, reservoirs, and of course by its eponymous River Calder.  When Seyaseya writes Silvery in the moonlit night / the river of my mind flows, I picture him perched on the bridge by the Calder, a stone's throw from my window, listening to the nightsong of our owls, and the hooting of the geese ploughing en-masse through a star-speckled midnight sky, the music crescending through the valley with the faint whir of the recycling plant, the echoes of long-gone industries, their sad histories imprinted on our skyline in decaying husks of chimneys, factories and mills.


But it is a wholly different history of which Seyaseya speaks - one of ghost towns and stabbed villages, of the memories of war which scar his country's past.  His poem Nightsong, published in 1984 when the Mugabe regime was less than half a decade old and had not yet developed - or digressed - into the full-blown tyranny it would become, may seem to hint at a brighter tomorrow for Zimbabwe, but there is no doubt that the poet's veneration is reserved not for any modern day policy makers, ideologues or revolutionaries, but for fallen heroes of yesteryear, who perished in forging the freedoms still denied to their successors, entombed in the caves of history,but whose example will come down to settle on our hearts / like dew on leaves, enshrining the poet's hopes for a better future for his country.  Tragically, more than three  decades after it was written, the dream envisaged by this profoundly allegorical, deceptively short, beautiful poem, continues to elude the troubled country of Zimbabwe.

Nightsong

Silvery in the moonlit night
the river of my mind flows
to the nightsong of the truly great
entombed in the caves of history
at heroes' acre. The music
crescending through the valley
of ghost towns and stabbed villages
will come down to settle on our hearts
like dew on leaves, tears for those
who surrendered their lives at the altar
leaving in us an eternal flame.


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