Monday, 23 October 2017

Three Zimbabwean Poets, 1: Musaemura Bonas Zimunya

I was appalled to hear this week of the decision of the UN World Health Organization to list Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as a Goodwill Ambassador.  When I worked in healthcare, many of my colleagues were from Zimbabwe, and over the years of working on the wards of psychiatric hospitals I got to know many Zimbabweans.  In later years I have also worked with Zimbabweans, and all had one thing in common - a detestation of Mugabe, and I was unsurprised when, following this week's ludicrous news, opposition spokesman Obert Gutu,told reporters The Zimbabwe health delivery system is in a shambolic state. It is an insult.  Mugabe trashed our health delivery system. He and his family go outside of the country for treatment after he allowed our hospitals to collapse.
Thankfully, Mugabe's ambassadorship, dreamed up by the WHO's Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was short lived.  Following condemnation from global health groups, and WHO staff, the clownish Ghebreyesus, announced that he had "listened" to the criticisms, and after just three days the appointment was revoked.  Ghebreyesus remains in post - presumably because, even by their current standards, the UN have been unable to find anyone sufficiently stupid to replace him.

Reflecting on this situation, though, had one positive outcome for me.  It reminded me of former colleagues, and the discussions we would have about the culture and literature of their country. Zimbabwean poetry in translation has long been an interest of mine, and I want to look at a trio of poets in particular who have influenced me personally, and to which I most instinctively relate.

I have a special affection for Musaemura Bonas Zimunya, on three counts.  First, those of us whose surnames begin with Z are few - even in countries whose names also start with Z - and among poets, especially so - ensuring a certain loyalty from the off.   More seriously, Zimunya's work ponders one of the profoundest ethical questions facing humanity - our relations with the non-human world - and was one of the single biggest inspirations behind my decision to write Little Creatures, my poetry collection celebrating insects, small mammals and micro-organisms.

Born in eastern Zimbabwe in 1949, Zimunya left Zimbabwe in the 1970's to study at the University of Kent at Canterbury, returning in 1980, and becoming a Professor of English. A scholarship to study in New York followed, and Zimunya has also been secretary general of the Zimbabwean Writers' Union, as well as now teaching Black Studies at Virginia Tech.  But, despite his wide travels, the land of his birth remains a vital presence in Zimunya's work, such as his descriptions of the native mountains:

Arched solidly he remains
Like a pangolin during a mating season
And the green carpet white he stains
Until mystery dissolves him.

and in the more panoramic, long poem I Like Them:

 I like the northern mountain of my home
crouching like a monstrous lion –
with a brown bald head

I like the Chevrolet western mountains
lying still below the vivid blue of the sky –
with wheels of boulders
and axles of earth
and windows of stone –
tearing its way towards the south.

How I like the Eastern mountains
leaning closely together  like collapsing waves
threatening to drown the northern
and splash upon us too. 

His early poetry explores the beauty of nature, later work articulates the alienation of his generation under Colonialism, and eventually Zumunya was to condense these two themes in books like Country Towns and City Lights (1985), where he laments the disillusioning realities of both rural and urban life.  In a 1998 interview, Zimunya described his own motivations for this side of his writing:

Having been raised in rural areas and suffered culture shock of city life myself, it was only natural that I would benefit creatively from the conflict and tension of that experience. My first impressions of the city and city life were actually very divided, being attraction to the bright lights and being repelled by the immorality and the ugliness of racism. As for growth points, I see them as a shaky bridge between the rural and the urban, combining the worst forms of cultural assimilation.
We have fled from witches and wizards
on along long road to the city
but behind the halo of tower lights
I hear the cry for human blood
and wicked bones rattling around me

The inescapability of the past may taint the memory of lives left behind, but sense of impending threat seems to hang over Zimunya's depiction of the urban future:

 We moved into the lights
but from the dark periphery behind
an almighty hand reaches for our shirts. 

Regretting what he saw as the country's cultural malaise, Zimunya despaired of Zimababwe in the 1970's, and prior to his years in exile would mourn the passing of ancestral traditions.

We have no ancestors
no shrine to pester with our prayers
no sacred cave where to drum our drums
svikiro to evoke the gods of rain
so we live on
without rain, without harvest 

Later blending the corporeal into metaphor:

No whistle of a bird,
no flutter nor flap
amid the brown fingers of trees
without leaves
when spring’s lushness
should be wiping my tired eyes
and dipping gleams of sunshine
into the young leaves.

Where shall we find the way back?
opaque darkness guards our exit
we have groped and groped until
our eyes were almost blind and
it was hard to rediscover.

The threat of violence seems ever present in the lines above, and the poem Tarantula published in 1982, recounts an interaction which, for me, exposes the root cause of so much of human violence: fear.  

Emerging red-claw raised between my pillows, the eponymous tarantula has surprised Zimunya by appearing in his home, to ambush my nerves.  and the poet then describes a disoriented search for implements to kill the creature: 

I lost my decision awhile as the space
I knew so well diminished in the search
for weapons - books, combs, chairs.

The spider's fate is clear, as its expiring limbs bend to your face / with the pain of the spray-bursts held so long / like a fire extinguisher, but its human killer then indulges in a bout of Anthropocentric philosophizing:

 How are you dead
when my ankles and my hind-arm
still echo my fears with aching burning?

In other words, how - when the significance of your presence is still so evident in me, can I accept the sudden lack of it? What I like about Zimunya is his honesty, and when I first read the poem, glued to the shelf of a library whose books I was supposed to be ordering as part of my job, I felt as though I could have been reading about any one of my own encounters with unexpected arachnid visitors, whose lives I have rashly ended with uncharacteristic violence.  Zimunya goes on, lending a poignancy to the spider's demise:

your unsuspecting fate
for tenderly - stealthily - endlessly searching
for prey and resting in nooks in human surroundings.

and begging the question from us all, as to why it deserved to have been killed.

But of course, it is easy to make judgements from the safety of a detached perspective. Zimunya's poem stopped me in my tracks, famed my own impulsive killings in a shaming light: my sympathy with his victim seemed to make a mockery of my own vegetarianism, my continual condemnations of the fur industry, my hatred of hunting. When I think of the poem now, and consider my recent encounters with wildlife - empathic and awed when out of doors, struck with shock when my own home was "invaded" by a rat - it is a sense of defeatism which takes over me.  Despite my many attempts at humane pest control - my sonic devices, sealed surfaces, natural sprays, the handy contraption that I bought for trapping and releasing spiders, I still resorted, earlier this autumn, to the presence of a pest controller to rid my flat of its unwelcome rodent visitors.  Knowing poison would be used, I left the matter in the hands of my landlord, resigned to my - or the rodents' - fate.  The thought of it leaves me with a slightly sick and guilty feeling, but also with the acceptance of a sobering fact: that human beings will often undertake unpleasant, unethical and violent courses of action, but that this inevitability does not make the actions any less wrong. 

Often in Zimunya's poetry, I get a similar sense of resignation, as when the poet states The beauty of the city / only lasts the lick of an ice-cream / and the melting of chewing gum / or the coolness of beer, comparing the transient, temporary pleasures of city life to the groan of a prostitute and the tinkle of a coin. 

This is not a poet determined to sugar-coat the realities of life, but an honest, unpretentious distiller of human and non-human predicaments, the changes faces of his country through the years, and the landscapes - rural, urban, metaphorical - which have shaped it.

I don't know whether I shall ever visit Zimbabwe - whether the dangers of its political instability, or my fears of encountering tarantulas, or the sheer logistics of attempting such a trip, will prevent me.  But the poetry of Musaemura Bonas Zimunya certainly injects a tangible atmosphere of the country and its troubles into my imagination, and has done ever since I first discovered him among the magical miscellany of that library shelf. 


1 comment:

  1. Bravo, Simon! You've done it again...brought recognition and relief through the shared human experience. It is exhilarating for me to read both the poetry and your prose - I feel like I've received a very specially gift wrapped box with one surprise after another contained within.