Friday, 06 February 2009

Lyrical, intensely personal collections

Review of New Country, Mxolisi Nyezwa, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press and Tongues of their Mothers, Makhosazana Xaba, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press

New Country is the second collection of poems by Mxolisi Nyezwa, and continues with the sensitive lyrical voice of his debut collection, song trials, published in 2000. Nyezwa’s work is characterised by intensely personal meditations, expressions of sadness and loneliness, often set against a semi-rural landscape.

The opening poem, for days i looked for my poems, sets the tone of the book:”for days i looked for my poems in the streets,/and since i could not find them,/light fell like a flower on the lonely square./ came grovelling forward/begging,/and children went for days/without food.”

Nyezwa’s poetry generally focuses on the mystery and beauty of the commonplace, as he states in i have a strong fascination: “i have a strong fascination/with simple things./the woman in the waves/bending forward. the human disease./the lasting ember.’’

There are also poems which touch on physical intimacy, such as woman and the simply titled a poem, which reads: “here she comes/today much nicer/today beneath my roof/her house my shelter/talking of chaucer/and french caviar.” But still the overall sense of the collection is that of longing, as in the beautiful poem sana: “the earth is grey and warm in places./the wind blows./far away in Soweto, someone is singing./a heart is dancing./i sing quietly of the woman i love.”

Many of the poems are brief, although there are a few longer poems, such as new partner and like the sea on black stones. The strongest long poem is sky, which contains with the despairing vision of a sky that “lives to reach mankind/with a sad tale/to tell.” Later in the poem, the sky is called “a vast creature/which fumes at night/as men walk/unaccompanied and sad,/ in the streets,/ or toward the blinding alley./like hobos/or gypsies without food./at dawn/with no clear destinations./no homes./no fires.”

But Nyezwa’s poetry of loneliness does not exclude the outer world of social problems and political events. There are references to Steve Biko and Luthuli, to imprisonment and torture. Two poems deal with Zimbabwe and one with the Rwandan genocide: “at each place i meet my black sorrow,/and from my pocket retrieve my smile./i have free-fallen, buried my head beneath the sand,/ i have seen the earth tumble,/the heavens tripping and fall.”

Nyezwa’s subjective lyricism is strongly influenced by the Spanish modernist poets, which sets him apart from most other contemporary black South African poets.

Another second collection from University of KwaZulu-Natal Press is Makhosazana Xaba’s Tongues of their Mothers. While also lyrical and personal, Xaba’s work is far warmer and lighter, as she invites the reader to share her intimate space, as in the opening poem Wishing, which starts: “To my right, a wine glass and a heater./To my left, a peeled naartjie on a saucer./Between my legs, a packet of macadamia nuts./ In front, a TV screen...”

Xaba is however not unaware of the dangers of “exposing” herself to readers; the second poem in the collection deals with the fear of publication, which she describes as “more like the fear/of having your faecal tube/turned inside out into the light/of the midday sun...”

Xaba sometimes takes us into the intimacy of her relationships, as in Your Clarinet, At the Longtable Restaurant, Cotton Socks, or Come, which opens with the startlingly physical: “I want to sit on your lap/ with my legs around your waist.” There is also the poem Locked, which economically portrays the tension in a relationship: “They sit in the kitchen/a small mosaic table between them./Two blue serviettes,/two silver forks, two plates,/hot chicken curry, untouched.”

Her delight in words is evident in the poem To my Librarian, which consists mainly of a list of authors’ names and book titles, and the witty My Book, which begins:’ My book has never been too tired to go to bed with me./It never has a headache or needs down-time to discuss the day.’

But Xaba’s collection also contains some sharp social, political and feminist commentary, such as March 2006 (the date of the Jacob Zuma rape trial), For Fanny Ann Eddy (a lesbian activist murdered in Sierra Leone) , Tongues of their Mothers, and Call me Not , a Woman of Colour.

Xaba’s work may be sensitive and measured, but she can also hit hard and does not draw back from unpleasantries, as in Hills of Montrose, which begins: “The stench of these toilets no longer makes me vomit; looking through the window curbs the urge.” There are also the two somewhat uncharacteristic Farting Knees poems, the first of which begins: “When I vomit/it will be through my forehead/because my ears oscillate...”, and the second Farting Knees poem, which opens with: “When I vomit/it will be through my forehead./ Be warned, stand far off/because the vomit will not spare you.”

What more can I say?

(Published in The Weekender, February 7 2009)

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