Friday, December 08, 2006

Marechera and Melancholy.


Unsane and Safe has pointed out a fascinating source for Marechera’s novel Black Sunlight: Bataille. This is quite clearly a missing link, something that I felt was there—hermeticism—but felt unlikely. Bataille speaks of two motions in alchemical thought: rotation and sexual activity. These are conceptual metaphors in the history of alchemy, for the Great Work cycles and the image of the Great Work is frequently depicted in terms of coition (invariably heterosexual, King and Queen, Brother and Sister, but occasionally homosexual). In the light of this it is significant that the central character in Black Sunlight is able to “screw like a circular saw” (p.47): this unifies exactly the occult terms shaping Bataille’s thought.

When Bataille discusses the dark aspect of the sun, he is drawing upon a well-established trope of alchemy, namely, the Black Sun. The Sol Niger, according to Jung in The Psychology of the Transference is “the black shadow” of the psyche, the depression (p.57). Seen as the Black African or the Skeleton, in such works as Splendor Solis or Viridarium Chymicum, the Dark Sun is an expression of the Putrefactio, literally the shit of human existence, the chaos that surrounds human life. The Black Sun’s black sunlight, in a biblical sense, expresses the Original Sin, the iniquity that darkens the bones of mankind. Such an alchemical reading would follow Christian interpretation and the Psalms. But Marechera’s reading of Black Sunlight as excrement, in Bataille’s alchemical sense, is an approach that re-directs Marechera’s thought away from his Anglican upbringing and towards a more radical, political definition.

(Sol Niger).

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Cockroach AIDS: World Aids Day.

Dambudzo Marechera died on August 18th, 1987, from AIDS related causes. In his work, he refers on a number of occasions to his cockroach life, an image that conjures disease and his compound-eye-view of human existence. The multi-faceted eye view applies quite well to AIDS. Facts are multiple and the whole picture is made of many fragments and reproductions. There is a mass of information.

The theme for World AIDS Day, 2006, is accountability and remembering. But what do you remember? Personal anecdote or impersonal statistics? The human dimension or the inhuman scale of the problem?

From a personal angle, I remember setting off to work and opening a friend’s letter. I intended to journey and read the letter for pleasure. Consequently, I was not prepared when a form fell out of the letter, an HIV test result. Fearing that he might have AIDS and wanting to know if he should plan his future in Accountancy or not, he had taken himself off to find his HIV status—to see if he was safe from the nameless disease as his Malawian friends termed it. As much as I was relieved to see that the test had come back negative, I was shocked by the decision he had made. This was not the UK. There was no pre-test discussion. No comfortable waiting room and sanitized surroundings. No after care in the form of counselling or medical support. He had simply walked into a testing site, been tested, given his result and sent on his way. Like an accountant, he had priced his life. No point in seeking funding for education if you are going to die and waste someone’s money. He had faced death with amazing equanimity just to be certain that life was worth fighting for.

We (?) seem to have come to a point of dubious acceptance with AIDS. If the media picks up stories, these are stories of threat and excitement. Not too long ago, the fascination was with gay men who hunted the virus: to catch it. Newspapers ran the story with a horror-film mentality: the more extreme the evil, the greater the intrigue and thrill for the viewer. The recently shown and much acclaimed Line of Beauty depicted another sort of social lie. AIDS for the rich, white, Oxbridge educated male became a tragedy of secrecy and beauty cut short. For the black, working class male, it was an off-the-stage death: it happened, was sad, but did not amount to tragedy. The tv version presented a Romantic vision in which the death of “Wani”, the “most beautiful man ever met” by the central character, was made to matter far more than the lonely death of Leo. Perhaps, it could be argued that Hollinghurst here shows a political truth: rich matters more than poor, white more than black…which is the case globally. I wouldn’t, however, be that convinced by this excuse. And both of these media representations still cling to the greatest lie: AIDS is still about gay men. The truth is anything but this misconceived fact. AIDS becomes about gay men when there is a need to be scandalised—or to scapegoat. But AIDS is very much to do with everyone else when we (?) need to salve or consciences—to feel sorry and show sympathy.

So, the cockroach’s eye:

The developed countries are responding to the danger of AIDS.A recent report shows that 23% of gay teenagers in the UK have sex before 13 and 58% before the age of consent at 16. But little of the education curriculum prepares them for this…and all of these teenagers are the responsibility of schools and the Government.

In the USA, more testing is taking place, but HIV cases are being picked up far too late, a fact that matters greatly when early intervention determines the life expectancy of the individual.

There is no difference according to race in the developed countries.In the UK, the higher rates of HIV infections are related to racial and cultural backgrounds.

A recent report in the USA, recognises 51% of new HIV cases are among African-Americans—half the new cases from one tenth of the population. When the figures are put bluntly, they show that black men are more at risk than women and an African-American gay man is three times more likely to become infected than a straight African-American man. Still, after more than two decades, nothing has changed and black gay men remain the most vulnerable human beings in the USA.

The fight is all about safe sex.
Actually, no. Though this a line still pursued, as Sontag pointed out long ago, in a struggle that is viewed, not in terms of love and care, but in terms of militaristic metaphors and eroticism.

The NMAC Report has this to say about the spread of HIV.

"A lot of what animates the sexual behaviour [of black MSM] is a sense of shame - it's subversive, it's secretive, it's hidden, it's rushed, and in that sense it's not safe… MSM approach their sexual lives with a certain level of fatalism."

Attitudes to sexuality and feeling have much to do with the problem. The developed world forces its inhabitants to live in a highly sexualised way: identity is knowledge and no greater knowledge exists than carnal knowledge. Young adults are brought up to believe that sexual acts and identity are the same. The UK might be appalled by the number of young gay men that pursue sexual experiences. The UK should be equally appalled by the way it surrounds young gay men with the attractiveness of a sexualised life style before they know enough about themselves to make a choice. I remember one eminent commentator on black gay issues joking (on his blog) about what might occur if high and low culture were fused. Personally, I do not think that it is a joke. It is ironical that great writers, such as Baldwin, Hemphill, Duncan or Gunn, say, grew up in fear of what they were, and regretted having no areas of feeling/literature to which to go, yet we now have a situation where gay men happily grow up in ignorance of what was created at great personal cost. It shows immense stupidity, that a literature of diversity and divergence has been cast aside, through an ignorance of literature, for simplistic images of same gender loving individuals: erotic and promiscuous, living for the moment. It is being divorced from areas of feeling that causes individuals to operate with a limited range of sensations.

For women, the threat from HIV and AIDs comes from imagery too. They live under the shadow of the sexual whore: it is their promiscuous natures that supposedly make them carriers of the disease. The truth could not be more different. In Nicaragua, it is the married, chaste woman who is at most risk: at risk from the promiscuity of the husband and the threat of domestic violence. The rate of infection is highest among women in Sub-Saharan Africa—double that of the rate among men.( But look for images of suffering among famous photographers and it is the suffering of men that will be seen). The issue for women worldwide is inseparable from gender issues, coercion and submission: the fact that women are given little say in their lives, their diagnosis, their treatment and expectations.

Safe sex messages matter considerably.
What can you say when Uganda, in 2005, stock-piled 35,000.000 condoms rather than be open about AIDS? Even so, it is prejudice that does the greatest damage. At the recent ILGA Conference, in Geneva, where Africa was a major voice, this point was made: Africa lives in smoke-screens. The latest is same sex marriage. But this is not what really needs to be debated, though it is where the Anglican, Catholic and Islamic religions would like the argument to be: an argument easily won! The real issue is human rights at a very basic level. The argument was made that the White Man did not bring same sex love to Africa. That existed long before the White Man. No, what the White Man gave to Africa was out-dated sodomy laws and inhuman legislation. The African voice prophetically spoke out against patriarchal and post-colonial oppression: “an Africa where no one’s health is held hostage to either money or morals.” And that final point resonates far beyond sexual issues. It is the denial of AIDS, not wanting to spend money or confront moral difficulties, accept a restricted view of humanity, that has allowed AIDS to ravage Africa more than any other continent and destroy so many. AIDS is an opportunistic infection and a negligence bordering on evil has given the disease every opportunity in Africa--it has attacked regardless of gender, sexuality, religion or age. Usually, those four words would be seen in equal opportunity policies. Cruelly, in a continent so unequal, AIDS has made its own own equal opportunity agenda: suffering and death.

In the UK, there is one new HIV diagnosis every hour.
In the World, 60 children die every hour and 5600 adults because of AIDS.
40, 000, 000 people live with AIDS in the World currently.
AIDS has killed more than twice the number of people who survived slavery and the Middle Passage.
Has killed more than 22 Rwandan genocides.
Has killed more than 4 Holocausts.
And the number of predicted deaths are phenomenal. By 2010, India alone will probably have more victims of AIDS than have currently died from AIDS—one country will replicate all that has happened in 20 years.

Perhaps, an image to consider. It says much about accountability (Copyright Gideon Mendel).

Monday, November 27, 2006

Conceptual Metaphors.

What is reading?
There is definitely something to be offered by a study of Cognitive Poetics. I am quite intrigued by Conceptual Metaphor, the basic images beneath how we feel and respond. Behind “The book was like a banquet” or the “The book was a wholesome stew for many readers”—simile and metaphor—is a conceptual metaphor: READING NOURISHES. Conceptual metaphor underlies how we perceive the world, certainly how we read. It is the basis, in many ways, for poetics or making. Peter Stockwell, in his introduction to cognitive poetics, takes up one conceptual metaphor for reading: READING IS A JOURNEY. This notion lies obviously behind such books as The Lord of the Rings or Gulliver’s Travels, where the story, as with a journey, grows with the telling.

Reading is transportation (says Stockwell): we cross into a new land; we track characters; we pursue the bends of a plot. Often, this metaphorical journey influences our immediate responses to a book. “It didn’t really go anywhere, for me.” “I just couldn’t see where the author was going.” "It is a journey that the reader takes on with the main protagonist Ka to his homeland Kars...." (id it is in an interesting review of Orhan Pamuk's Snow.). This way of looking at a book comes to mind readily and suggests something else. Readers store obvious conceptual metaphors and writers who write works outside these frames of reference do so at their peril—at the risk of being seriously misunderstood.
Transportation into another world leads to other expectations: the world and the book will be bridged, there will be minimal departure between this and that, and the bridging will allow the reader to make a participatory resonse through characters—apply this to that.
Reading is inclusion.

Marechera’s novels, however, do not rest upon READING IS A JOURNEY. That it why his absence of endings is seen as a lack: every journey goes somewhere.

Some further obvious conceptual metaphors might be:

THE BOOK IS A MIRROR (which portrays human life).
THE BOOK IS A MACHINE (which is ordered like a clock).

Of which there are deliberate anti-types: Beckett’s The Unnameable; Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.
THE BOOK IS MEMORY. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Umberto Eco.
THE BOOK IS A DEBATE. The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, Ali A Mazrui.
But what about stranger ones?

“And the House of Hunger clung firmly to its own: after all, the skeletons in its web still had sparks of life in their minute bones”. Marechera.


I wonder what conceptual metaphors are behind blogging?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Da Vinci's Hermetic Code of Humour.

How did people pass the time hundreds of years ago? Not with crosswords. Not with sudoku. But with elaborate jokes it seems: riddles for courtiers. An intriguing, though small, exhibition of Da Vinci’s work draws to the close in the UK. Its final stage—touching England, Scotland, Wales, will be Cardiff…in the next few weeks. The exhibition contains a double-sided set of drawings, from around 1490, when Da Vinci would have been at the mid-point of his life. The miniature drawings are accompanied by short texts in Italian…made even more mysterious by the fact that they are written in left-handed mirror writing.

The fascination of these drawings has to be the mind at play. The visual jokes work like this, a light-hearted Da Vinci code which puns on fragments of metaphysical mottoes.

One line of pictures shows a hill+a frying pan+a very modern looking man with a clock face, a cartoon from Disney almost. These spell col+padella+fortuna/time’s fate which conceals colpa della fortuna: a stroke of fate.
Another line shows a pear tree/pare=pero+horse saddle/sella+a sailing woman/fortune’s wind+two notes of music/mi, fa+a gentle fern/felce +tal+a face/vise+a black yarnwinder/aspo nero. The riddle reads Pero se (l)la fortuna mi fa fel(i)ce tal vise asponero: But if Heaven makes me happy I will show such a look.

Crammed onto a tiny piece of material based paper, the hieroglyphs bring another modern artist to mind: Basquiat. It wasn’t just Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings that informed his own traumatised obsession with bones, death and the body of work…from the dead bodies that Renaissance artists cut up to the dying corpus of black African male identity. The packing-in of visual puns is also used in his painted texts:

Only one thing annoyed me in the whole of the exhibition—a piece of unBasquiat graffiti. The bottom right corner of the images are stamped with a royal ER+Crown. Not a clever visual pun, but a remainder of the imperial power that has come to own the artistic imagination of Da Vinci.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Essex Hemphill...More things to remember in November.

Poetry comes and goes.
It is dictated by fashion, reputation, and patronage.
If the audience called common poetry readers likes you…
If the academic world lives through you…
If the publishers believe you have a name to come…

But when your writing is favoured by none of these, what then?

Regrettably, it means your work goes out of print, which has just happened in the case of Essex Hemphill. There are some expressing concern that the corpus will be lost, but the truth really is that the body of work has never been there.

Hemphill died from AIDS related causes in November 1995. Prior to his "Introduction" to Hemphill’s Ceremonies (2000). Charles Nero decided to check Hemphill’s papers in the New York Public Library. Rather too late, he discovered that they had never been deposited after Hemphill’s death and had been missing for years: the suspicion is that his published manuscripts and a novel/autobiography were destroyed by his disapproving family.

Apparently, Brother to Brother, edited by Hemphill will be re-printed later in 2006—there is a market for historical accounts (in poetry and prose) of the black gay experience during the early battles with AIDs. But not the poetry.

Ceremonies is the critical volume that readers rely on, yet that in itself is not really a true account. It is not a collected poetry and prose volume. Ceremonies does not contain one key autobiographical short-story. It does not contain his last work Vital Signs and its working through of an African aesthetic for poetry. It does not contain all of the poems from Earth Life and Conditions: 12 interesting poems are missing. Rather like the black experience, Hemphill’s work has been scattered through gay anthologies, chap-books, journals and his one critical volume.

Amidst this compartmentalisation, one important fact has been overlooked: Hemphill was a fine poet and a fine reader of his poetry, something that many poets are not. The poems that he reads in Looking for Langston testify to his rich attention to detail…he jokes that it is the little details in a poem that are so hard to deliver on film.

So many poets are falling by the wayside, as time passes, another example would be the inspirational theatre director and academic Owen Dodson.

Here is a forgotten and out-of print poem by Hemphill. Perhaps, it might jolt some towards remembering…for he deserves attention…to be taken up by a serious publisher, by the world of academia, and the readers of poetry.

State of the Art.

I have only been here a week.
I almost don’t belong.
I slipped through.
I came during the night.
I have a room in the centre of town.

Whatever dreams I had coming here
seem suddenly dangerous under foot.
Do I start again
to blow glass into another replica of worship?
If so, then I ask as a young man who is skeptical:
how do you blow life into glass? And when you do,
should you stand like the Piper of Hamelin,
or like Patton in the drilling yard at dawn,
or like Dizzy, under a waterfall of perspiration,
his cheeks puffed, black, sails.

Beautifully timed, and suggestive!

(Earth Life, original edition).

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Dancing in the Dark: Depression and Melancholia.

Caryl Phillips’s recent novel received a mixed critical response, often the way, but the responses seemed to miss, often the way, what the book was about: was it to be read as documentary or fiction? Was it docu-fiction? This argument, really, seems to be an entertainment for those who don’t want to be entertained by quality writing: though short (200 pages) in these days dominated by the male authored mega-novel as a sort of rite of passage—much like the marathon—for egotists, the novel is thematically structured and these themes are clearly what matter to the author, not which critical box these can be placed in.

Dancing in theDark has been nominated for the The Hurston/Wright Legacy Award 2006 (judging, last night). If there was a novel meant for that award, it ought to be this one. Why? Well, Phillips’s novel is styled in the manner of Hurston and Wright and the novel is concerned with the consciousness that made the writing of these authors possible in the 1930s: pre-1920s Harlem and the eventual Harlem Renaissance.

Writing in 1940, whilst reflecting back on the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes noted a black irony: it was a time when the most popular novels about black identity were written by white authors and black authors, in vogue, wrote for a white audience. A perverse crossing of the tracks! Dancing in the Dark is fully aware of this irony and dramatises it in the novel’s central character, Bert Williams. The novel is not simply a reflection on a light-skinned black man from the Bahamas who assumed the image of a dark-skinned African by adopting black-face and “playing the coon”, whose theatrical works tried to draw closer to Africa but ended in parody and distanced from Africa. (How can you seek a fixed identity through something without identity?) It is a novel about the connection between outside and inside, the tones of blackness, and what it is like to feel that you do not belong…and how, as a displaced author, you still seek placement with a dual audience.

Bert Williams and George Walked formed one of the most successful performance partnerships ever. On stage, they were a unity, but off stage they were opposites. In Phillips’s novel, Williams knows his place. Artistry depends on the black man knowing how far he can go within the white spot-light. He is the introspective intellect, living outside sexuality, troubled by never being sufficiently black, whereas Walker is the extrovert. Handsome and confident, he is drawn by sexuality and emotion to cross the colour line…Garvey and Du Bois are the backdrop to his attitude. The real triumph of Dancing in the Dark is that is demonstrates what Wright wrote about the new black novel: it should have a “complex simplicity”. Within a simple life—and the events are mundane—a dazzling complexity should be created, for the “negro” was not simple and did not require a reading “primer”.

Short it might be, but Dancing in the Dark is no “primer”. Phillips takes one theme: the relationship between blackness and melancholia/depression. Then working with the theme of skin, light, and how black skin reflects light—dazzle—he uses the physical to become a metaphor for the psychological. Through the depression that Williams’ experiences, Phillips charts the depression that exists, not in the “heart of darkness” and the racist imagination of Conrad’s turn of the century society, but in the heart of the black identity when it is exiled from life.

Dancing in the Dark is a novel that resonates today. Set between 1873 and 1922, before the negro and negritude were supposedly liberated, it looks to be a novel about what might have been. In fact, it is a novel about what has come to pass. Black, skin, sex, race, the gulf between the ivory-tower Williams and the boy-on-the-street Walker; artistic life and monetary success becoming a withdrawal from reality, a sensitivity to life turning into depression and a terminal sensing of death. A blackness at the heart of things spreading through a despair concerned with what cannot be healed? “Performative bondage”—says Phillips, in the Prologue to his novel…that is the source of melancholy, and in the end: “I wander in this darkness that makes human beings of us all…Here in the darkness….I shall perform no more.”

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A Vampiric Tale for Hallowe’en.
The cover of Marechera’s The House of Hunger shows a deathly face with a long wound that is being sewed by a spider’s web. This illustration alludes to "The Slow Sound of His Feet", one of the volume’s short stories. Robert Fraser has studied this particular work in some depth, but he finds the seriousness of the piece in the wrong quarters. For Fraser, the opening epigram draws a serious parallel between the story and JDC Pellow’s poem on Christ. His effort to make this parallel, however, causes him to miss the wicked joke by Marechera. Pellow was a minor Georgian poet, a civil servant who wrote civilized, devotional poetry. The lines that Marechera quotes are from the poem Tenebrae, included in the volume Paternalia. Marechera’s short story offers a very un-English mental blackness and a very non-Classical festival for one’s dead parents. The story is a post-Blakeian vision, a dark gospel that testifies to an all-circumscribing Death. The writing mocks the Classical pastoralism of Georgian poetry and its English sentiments (the tweedy, country atmosphere of Oxford distant from the Universe). As Pellow’s beggar waits in physical darkness for the Father of mankind, Marechera’s persona waits in mental blackness, recounting a motherless and fatherless dream. It is a story about being psychologically orphaned. Instead of Christian elegy, Marechera introduces something close to deathly voodoo. Into the story, Marechera works two key biographical details: his own stammer and having to view his father’s damaged body on a mortuary table. Like Basquiat’s painting “Brown Jaw” (1986), the story concerns itself with speechlessness and the anxiety of speech…even the room, like the dead father, struggles to articulate and move its mandibles. There is no happy meeting with the ancestors in Marechera’s story. The parents magnetize the writer (and reader) and have all the characteristics of vampires. The father and mother, Father and Mother, fatherland and motherland, the roots (like teeth) of identity bleed painfully between life and death.

The Slow Sound of His Feet.

. . .But someday if I sit
Quietly at this corner listening, there
May come this way the slow sound of his feet.
--J.D.C. Pellow.

I dreamt last night that the Prussian surgeon Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach had decided that I stuttered because my tongue was too large; and he cut my large organ down to size by snipping of chunks from the tip and the sides. Mother woke me up to tell me that father had been struck down by a speeding car at the roundabout; I went to the mortuary to see him, and they had sewn back his head to the trunk and his eyes were open. I tried to close them but they would not shut, and later we buried him with his eyes still staring upwards.
It was raining when we buried him.
It was raining when I woke up looking for him. His pipe lay where it had always been, on the mantelpiece. When I looked at it the rain came down strongly and rattled the tin roof of my memories of him. His leatherbound books were upright and very still in the bookcase. One of them was Oliver Bloodstein's A Handbook on Stuttering. There was also a cuneiform tablet - a replica of the original - on which was written, several centuries before Christ, an earnest prayer for release from the anguish of stuttering. He had told me that Moses, Demosthenes and Aristotle also had a speech impediment; that Prince Battus, advised by the oracle, cured himself of stuttering by conquering the North Africans; and that Demosthenes taught himself to speak without blocks by outshouting the surf through a mouthful of pebbles.
It was still raining when I lay down and closed my eyes, and I could see him stretched out in the sodden grave and trying to move his mandibles. When I woke up I could feel him inside me; and he was trying to speak, but I could not. Aristotle muttered something about my tongue being abnormally thick and hard. Hippocrates then forced my mouth open and stuck blistering substances to my tongue to drain away the dark fluid. Celsus shook his head and said: "All that the tongue needs is a good gargle and a massage." But Galen, who would not be left out, said my tongue was merely too cold and wet. And Francis Bacon suggested a glass of hot wine.
As I walked down to the beerhall I saw a long line of troop-carriers drawn up at the gates of the township. They were all white soldiers. One of them jumped down and prodded me with his rifle and demanded to see my papers. I had only my University student card. He scrutinized it for such a long time that I wondered what was wrong with it.
Why are you sweating?" he asked.
I took out my paper and pencil and wrote something and showed it to him.
"Dumb, eh?"
I nodded.
"And you think I'm dumb too, eh?"
I shook my head. But before I could finish shaking my head, his hand came up fast and smacked my jaw. I brought up my hand to wipe away the blood, but he blocked it and hit me again. My false teeth cracked and I was afraid I would swallow the jagged fragments. I spat them out without bringing up my hand to my mouth.
"False teeth too, eh?"
My eyes were stinging. I couldn't see him clearly. But I nodded.
"False identity too, eh?"
I had an overwhelming desire to move my jaws and force my tongue to repeat what my student card had told him. But I only managed to croak out unintelligible sounds. I pointed to my paper and pencil which had fallen to the ground.
He nodded.
But as I bent down to pick them up, he brought up his knee suddenly and almost broke my neck.
"Lookng for a stone, were you, eh?"
I shook my head and it hurt so much I couldn't stop shaking my head any more. There were running feet behind me; my mother's and my sister's voices. There was the sharp report of firing. Mother, struck in mid-stride, her body held rigid by the acrid air, was staring straight through her eyes. A second later, something broke inside her and she toppled over. My sister's outstretched hand, coming up to touch my face, flew to her opening mouth and I could see her straining her vocal muscles to scream through my mouth.
Mother died in the ambulance.
The sun was screaming soundlessly when I buried her. There were hot and cold rings around its wet brightness. My sister and I, we walked the four miles back home, passing the Africans Only hospital, the Europeans Only hospital, the British South Africa Police camp, the Post Office, the railway station, and walked across the mile-wide green belt, and walked into the black township.
The room was so silent I could feel it trying to move its tongue and mandibles, trying to speak to me. I was staring up at the wooden beams of the roof. I could hear my sister pacing up and down in her room which was next to mine. I could feel her strongly inside me. My room contained nothing but my iron bed, my desk, my books, and the canvases upon which I had for so long tried to paint the feeling of the silent but desperate voices inside me. I stung back the tears and felt her so strongly inside me I could not bear it. But the door mercifully opened and they came in leading her by the hand. She was dressed in pure white. A pale blue light was emanating from her. On her slender feet were the sandals of gleaming white leather. But the magnet of her fleshless face, the two empty eye-sockets, the sharp grinning teeth (one of her teeth was slightly chipped), and high cheekbones, and the cruelly missing nose - the magnet of them held my gaze until, it seemed, my straining eyes were abruptly sucked into her rigid stillness.
He was dressed in black. Her fleshless hand lay still in his fleshless fingers. His head had not been sewn back properly; it was precariously leaning to one side and it seemed as if it would fall off any moment. His skull had a jagged crack running down the centre of his forehead to the tip of the lower jaw; the skull had been crudely welded back into shape, so much as it looked as though it would fall apart any moment.
The pain in my eyes was unbearable. I blinked. When I opened my eyes they had gone. My sister was standing in their place. She was breathing heavily and that made my chest ache. I held out my hand and touched her; she was warm and alive and her very breath was painfully anxious in my voice. I had to speak! but before I could utter a single sound she bent down over me and kissed me. The hot flush of it shook us in each other's arms. Outside, the night was making a muffled gibberish upon the roof and the wind had tightened its hold upon the windows. We could hear, in the distance, the brass and strings of a military band.
DC Marechera (1978).

Friday, October 27, 2006

Let's not make poetry difficult...?

In 1999, the Zimbabwean writer, Nhamo Mhiripiri wrote a signifcant essay on Marechera’s poetry. As a starting point it is of some interest. But is it rather partial…if not odd in the stance that it takes. The essay begins by saying that the “unitiated” should not be put off by the fact that Marechera’s poetry is “inaccessible”. Clearly, Mhiripiri counts himself as one of the elect, in which case his comments are addressed to the many who cannot access Marechera’s poetry. This opening stance troubles me because it already canopies Marechera with the term “inaccessible”. It is off-putting, though Mhiripiri’s essay is rather about including as many readers as possible in the Marechera experience: an admirable intention. This approach, seemimngly, begs a question: Is Marechera “difficult”? He is no more difficult than Christopher Okigbo (who requires an African-European perspective on poetry). He is less difficult that Robert Duncan (who presuppose a massive metaphysical knowledge). He is no more outrageous than Edward Kamau Braithwaite (who delights in intellectual puns). He sometimes equals the crafted lyricism of Osundare. He is more accessible than Christopher Middleton (the major exponent of surrealism in English). He is not as obscure as John Ashberry. He does not rely on personal allusions like Pound. He plays games with linguistic registers—“That curdled the spunk of negritude”— but is not as extreme as Edwin Morgan in interdicting the formalities of speech. Yes, Marechera is difficult—for poetry is difficult—but this cult of difficulty is something of a blind.
When reading Marechera, to overcome the hurdle of impenetrable meaning, Mhiripiri recommends an interesting critical practice: don’t worry about the hard stuff, yet don’t be lazy and unprepared to take a challenge. This, I find, a strange approach to poetry (if not life). On one hand, I am supposed to exclude what I don’t understand! But how can I know this until I have read, felt, researched…experienced it? On the other hand, I must not like what is easy…what I read, sense, know at a glance! But how do I rise above this into the ranks of the elect?
Mhiripiri says: “Pick up the poems that attract you.” And there the problem really begins. So Throne of Bayonets is just too difficult to bother with and “Christmas 1983” is just too simplistic (or so it might be claimed). And what I might be attracted to might not be the most fulfilling poetry. I must search for the middle ground. I understand what Mhiripiri is saying…the middle ground is always the best way for inclusion…it is the way that most teaching of poetry in schools goes…it is the level at which popular academia likes to write…the level of the lecture and mass communication. It is where poetry ends up when teachers don’t really want to teach it and pupils don’t really want to experience it.
Not surprisingly, given his critical stance, Mhiripiri’s reading of Marechera is fairly bland. It comes under four main headings: Nationalism/politics; Voids/existential despair; Harare/intellect; Voices/humour. This gives a cartoon of Marechera: he has an outside and an inside, is emotional, but funny…a bit of an all rounder…who is damn difficult! But worth reading, if you can find poems that you like. Mhiripi’s choice of Marechera reveals a lot about Mhiripiri. He is drawn to the early poetry and wants to make Marechera into an African poet, you know, one of those who writes about the fight for freedom— a poet with political commitment, who lives for the outside world! (How we so love our World War Poetry in the English tradition, all struggle and conscience…how well we ignore Lowell and Levertov because they objected to war or HD who wasn’t a real participant! She only wrote the first feminist analysis of the patriarchal psyche; if only she had been content to drive an ambulance through the Blitz in London instead!) “Pledging my Soul” is given a wonderful Romantic reading about how Marechera loved Zimbabwe’s breast-like landscapes, even though Marechera was sceptical about the great Romantic Image and English poetry. “Boyhood has its satisfying innocence” says Mhiripiri as if Marechera’s poem was something out of Wordsworth’s The Prelude. Marechera no more favoured political heroism than he did anything superficial. Mhiripiri writes interestingly on “Comrade Dracula Joins the Revolution”, a difficult poem, though one whose criticism of politics almost escapes him, and so it enters the field of the middle-ground on which the mind can battle happily. When it comes to existential despair, Mhiripiri has no real time for Marechera. He wants to read the poetry, again, as a despair about Zimbabwe, even though a poem like “Characters from the Bergfrith” touches Oxford as much as Harare. Mhiripiri might not like the “cheapening of religious structures” in Marechera’s poetry. For Marechera, however, they were part of the individual’s problem. And in this respect, Mhiripiri wilfully misreads Marechera, removing the caverns inside the individual so as the flat lands of politics might become the ground for Marechera’s upset mind. It is a sort of hospitalisation of Marechera, who suffered, though not too greatly, a sanitisation that once more aligns Marechera with the poets most admired and needed by Mhiripiri's Africa: those who attacked colonialism and post-colonialism, but didn't know much about the individual psyche and how that connected to the future, communal psyche.
At the conclusion of his essay, Mhiripiri is right: the reader should read Marechera by bringing his or her whole being into the reading process. But that is an odd statement, considering that he recommends a reading experience that only requires the reader to engage with what they are happy with. It is rather like advising the reader to perform a dive into 30 centimetres of water! And finally, Mhiripiri urges the reader to celebrate life in poetry in spite of “anguish and loneliness”. Unfortunately, what he makes an apology for is rather what life is about—certainly was for Marechera.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Habila's Marechera.

Oxford was a huge culture shock for Marechera. Nothing in his background quite prepared him for it. He was astonished by the lazzez-faire approach to education displayed by the mostly upper-class students. His typical colonial upbringing had taught him to believe that education was the golden fleece to be pursued and attained at all cost: it was the only way out of the ghetto…From all accounts he never really encountered overt racism at Oxford—he was, after all, a member of the Oxford “aristocracy.” The brand of racism here was almost polite. Its tone is best captured in the semiautobiographical short story, “Oxford, Black Oxford,” where the Marechera-like narrator is questioned by his white fellow student, Stephen, a member of the real aristocracy.

This is Helon Habila writing about Marechera. It tells a nice tale. It also shows something that is noticeable in Marechera Studies: a little information produces many Marecheras. So, what is being slipped by in this version?

Yes, Oxford was a shock.
No, he was prepared for part it. The elitism of St Augustine’s, Rhodesia, would have been a good preparation for the elitism of Oxford, United Kingdom.
Yes, he was astonished by the lack of intellectual effort he encountered, the mediocrity among the so-called elite.
No, his colonial upbringing did not teach him to believe in education. (Here, Habila introduces his own Nigerian perspective). It was something much more personal that made Marechera cross out “school” and invent a box called “university” on his High School questionnaire in 1971. Marechera carried an inward belief in intellectual thought, at all cost, even if it isolated him.
No, he did not see education as a way out of the ghetto. (Again, Habila transfers his view of Nigeria to Marechera or the reality of modern day North America). He quite liked ghettos.
No, Marechera was not part of the Oxford “aristocracy”—his beliefs would have been fundamentally against an elitism as they were based on intellectual merit-- and Marechera was isolated equally from the White Class System and the Black Class System: the Nigerians at Oxford who did not value him as a Rhodesian intellectual and looked down on his aspect of Blackness.
Yes, Marechera did encounter racism at Oxford. This was of the institutional variety that UK establishments specialise in as much as learning.
No, the brand of racism was not “polite”. There is no such brand.
Yes, racism is captured in “Oxford, Black Oxford”, but it is not as gentle as Habila thinks.

Habila is a consummate writer, but here he tells his fiction too well.

Marechera arrived at New College, Oxford in October, 1974. According to the Dean of New College, Marechera had a “chip on his shoulder for being black.” Not the healthiest of attitudes by the college’s main disciplinarian. Marechera particularly resented the origins of his scholarship: a collection of funds from white students at New College. At Oxford, as at home, his mind was living on hand-outs from white patrons. Veit-Wild quotes Nyamfukudza as saying that Oxford University was difficult for students because it required continuous work rather than cramming for exams, which was the University of Rhodesia’s method. This does not seem to have been Marechera’s objection, however, and this had more to do with the staleness of literary tradition and a kind of teaching that removed the personal from criticism and so excluded identity. Apparently, he wrote a shocking comparison between himself and the black Heathcliffe…obviously aware of the possibility that Emily Bronte’s outcast might have been of African origin. Fitting in, culturally and intellectually, was a pre-requisite that Marechera did not really see. Sir William Hayter, the Warden of New College, summed it up matter-of-factly as Marechera was a somebody, but not “a somebody who could fit into the curriculum…”
Fundamentally, Marechera was expected to be the Other who showed obedience to his Master—whose job it was to whiten himself and undergo what Marechera described as “being mentally raped”. There is a lovely note in Lady Iris Hayter’s diary for September 18th, 1975:
“Charles Marechera and Owen Kibel appeared, Charles very neat in good form, but as usual wanting money, for the nice reason of going to stay at Romney with Owen’s friend.”
How well these few words betray Oxford’s English class set-up. Firstly, “Charles”, not Dambudzo, a good example of what Marechera describes in The Black Insider as how the white man has taken over “more than the geography of the African image.” Secondly, there was a warm reception because Charles came with a white Rhodesian. And finally, the request for money was a “nice reason” this time because Owen would be taking Marechera into that oh so delightfully, English county of Kent, a region of autumnal whiteness. And, of course, this would have been seen as proof of successful social engineering: Kibel and Marechera were introduced in the gardens of New College as a social experiment, white and black together, and were expected to get on because they shared the same country—even though that country was ripping itself apart along racial lines! Kibel’s reflections on Marechera at Oxford show a typical psycho-analytical view from a bridge over the River Isis: Marechera was Gollum (filtered through the Anglo-Saxon world of Oxbridge) with the possibility of Tourette’s disorder and coprolalia. (Not really, more a question of an imaginative mind—like Joyce—who was prepared to throw shit at mankind’s universe). Marechera’s New College was full of Old College prejudices.

Marechera’s own view of Oxford is radically different from Habila’s. Towards Oxford, Marechera adopts an almost Thomas Love Peacock stance, an intellectual, ironical distance. In Black Sunlight, his pastiche of Oxford and Blanche Goodfellow (White+Fellow, in the academic sense+Good) captures a world of decadent eroticism before which he is simply prostrate. In The Black Insider, Oxford is a place of intellectual repression, against which, with a sense of irony, Marechera stands as a black Shelley, a black Prometheus Unbound, a heretic who is thrown out and shunned by his black friends for daring to provoke whiteness. They repeat the white man’s literary lectures and method of education and “lecture” him on the “I-Told-You-So-Got-What-You-Deserve” theme. Oxford taught Marechera about “parasitism”, the living in a corpse, life-amongst-death. In “Oxford, Black Oxford,” Marechera begins and finishes in golden ironical vein. His portrait begins with a reference to an earlier satire on Oxford, Zuleika Dobson. She was a magician and Marechera takes up her role, the cosmic joker he references in Black Sunlight and The Black Insider. Now, it is All Souls College that he attends…a place again chosen with irony, for Oxford is a soulless place. With his white tutorial friend, Stephen, Marechera visits Dr Martins-Botha—a brilliant type name in the style of Peacock. This Fellow resembles Dr Martins, a sign of his trendy boot-boy nature, whilst being inhabited by the mind of a cultured racist, P.W. Botha. Before Dr Martins-Botha, the representative of Oxford’s liberal intelligentsia, Marechera is the “monkey face”, whilst Stephen (not exactly Dedalus) is his erotic, prized, class object. All Souls leads to All Souls Day and Walpurgisnacht, and a moment of black conjuring when Marechera notices that the teacher is fondling his student in a literary, Decadent way. No, there is nothing polite in Oxford’s racism--as depicted by Marechera-- and nothing gentlemanly in his satire.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Black Insider.

Words are the chemicals that H2O human intercourse...Everywhere you go, some shit word will collide with you on the wrong side of the road. You can't even hide yourself because your thoughts think of themselves in the words you have been taught to read and write.

And The Black Insider never allows the reader to forget how we possess what Eco (in his latest novel) calls our "paper memory" such that texts mesh with the tissue of life. The range of literary texts in The Black Insider records something of Marechera's own "paper memory":

The Bible
De SadeDefoe
G. Eliot
The Pearl-poet
The Rood-poet

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Marechera's Poetry.

Reading the Intellect (4)
Reading Marechera hermetically.

In the History Class".

Dress the question in jeans
And sweater
And black-bull-skin sandals
The hair Gorgonlocks of the dead
Man’s father: Gunter Grass’ jellied
Pig’s head Salome of Babylon
Serves on a brass platter;

Night’s drumsticks in overpowering
Crescendo pulse within; massed oxhideshields
And knobkerries like blackrain sea in pounding
Tumult toward the Gatling Gun. Truth
Dealt his assegai, drove to the bone-hilt
The uttermost point of the tumult. Where then
The sire and hero of our time, the all-amassing massive msasa?
Written 1982-83, this poem from Mindblast is one of the few poems that Marechera published during his lifetime. The poem belongs to his return to Zimbabwe. It is not surprising therefore that the imagery has both a public and African feel to it. The public aspect of the poem appears in the development of imagery, metaphors progress one another and are rather more studied. Even so, they make few concessions to the reader and adopt a surreal, Futuristic approach. The same can be said of the Africanism in the poem—it is mixed with European references. Marechera does not give up his eclecticism here: the poem is still written with a world-mind.
“In the History Class” adopts a familiar two stanza structure. The double stanza poem might be considered a basic poetic design for it easily gives itself to contradiction, or comparison, or parallelism, or simple extension of an idea: these principles lay behind centuries of sonneteering. Marechera’s two stanzas, however, are linked by a kind of free-association—again, this draws upon Futurist methodology.
Stanza 1 focuses on a deceptively simple piece of personification whereby a question becomes a person, a person to be dressed. Playing with the phrase “dressing something up”, elaborating falsely, Marechera literally sets about dressing up the question, grounding the abstract in the concrete. Eventually, a figure emerges that is tragic. Marechera deletes “dread” from “dreadlocks”, links dread to its original meaning of causing terror, and through this connection arrives at the terrible Gorgon, the mythical Greek creature whose homeland was Africa. The syntax is ambiguous at this point, but I read that the historical question dressed up has "Gorgonlocks of the dead" and this is "Man's father". Here, Marechera alludes to the spectacle of Hamlet's ghost: "Thy knotted and combin├Ęd locks to part". There is a rhyme between the poet and Hamlet, Gertrude and Salome, for both murdered for sexual motives, and Africa’s recent bloody and matted historical involvement with the classical European mind. This imagery is then paralleled by a gory image reminiscent of a key work in Futurist Poets (1912): Manzella-Frontini’s “The Anatomy Room” delights in the preserved horrors of history. (Marechera would also have known Pounds’ image for history, the “pickled foetuses” in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley). For Marechera, history is the jellied hog in Grass’s volume of poems, Gleisdreieck (1960), an image from a Dadaist poem that presents the head as a perverse symbol of cooked rage. It is this, rather than the head of John the Baptist in Mark: 6, that “Salome of Babylon”, a line from Strauss’s opera Salome, serves up to the Herods of mankind. The surreal image that closes stanza one offers a vile religious and political image, one that history sexes up and beautifies on a fine platter. The image has the quality of a Caravaggio painting.

Stanza 2 reverses the effect of Stanza 1. It seeks to undress the question of Stanza 1 by addressing African history. The first image is a self-enclosing image: Night’s drums bring a violent music that is contained by night. Energy is sealed. Marechera, like the Futurists, respects war and resistance, but with one crucial difference, his frenesi, charge, does not come from a worship of the modern machine. It isn’t the “Gatling Gun” that attracts Marechera, rather the human force that surges with “oxhideshields”, “knobkerries” and “assegai” in the name of “Truth”. The battle imagined in Stanza 2—the battle of uluNdi, “the high place” 1879—is captured by the bulleting , a sound effect that climaxes in the final thrusting of truth: “bone-hilt, the uttermost point of the tumult.” The eventual question that emerges in the classroom is this: where is the deliverer of Africa, the new warrior? And pointedly, Marechera withdraws at this point into an organic image. He puns on “massive” and “amassing”, binding weight and accumulation together, anagrams “amass” (the root of both words) as “msasa”, and upholds a many-branching tree—African history— as the symbol to overcome the implied word behind the whole of Stanza 2: massacre.
“In the History Class” offers its final organic image as an image of binding, not a Fascist bundle of sticks, which is where the politics of Futurism, warfare and the machine eventually went, but a belief in thrusting natural savagery rooted in earth, in the branches and trunk of life--a war in which the poet enters as a combatant.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Lateness of Being? Essex Hemphill.
(Essex Hemphill--top left--from a photo by Rotimi Fani-Kayode).
San Francisco has just staged a challenging play entitled The Hard Evidence of Existence. The title comes from Hemphill. The publicity for the play acknowledges this fact rather interestingly; totally unaware of the context in which Hemphill wrote. So, the title is from a poem by the late black gay poet Essex Hemphill.

As a poet, Hemphill faced, as he saw it, a triple exile. And there was a fourth exile made from trying to make sense of the three. Simply, Hemphill was an exile because he was black—he belonged to a minority ethnic group symbolically governed from the WHITE house. He was an exile because he was gay—he lived on a daily basis under the laws of heterotyranny. Finallly, he was a radical(black gay) poet—Hemphill would have said raDICKal—no publishing house was likely to put his words into print freely. Hemphill’s existence, like Red Annie who speaks these words to the USA, was founded on a hard struggle: Am I more black than gay? Am I more gay than black? Am I more a poet than black and gay? How does the black poet speak to the gay audience? How does the gay poet speak to the black audience? The permutations build a complex sense of identity in crisis--all of which were imposed by patriarchy upon Hemphill.

By adding “late” to “black gay poet”, unintentionally, the publicity blurb suggests that death too is a hard fact of existence—for Hemphill. This attaching of “late” to poets is becoming quite fashionable, but why?

Would we say the “late Shakespeare”? Well, no, because his death is a well-known fact.
What about, then, the “late white gay poet Thom Gunn”. That sounds ridiculous. Again, the phrase is a kind of tautology because everything stated is well known.

So, what is that “late” supposed to say about Hemphill? He just died? Well no he didn’t: it is some 10 years since his death, so the “late” is not an obituary notice.
He died from AIDS? * Is it the nature of the death that is important? Certainly, that would make sense as it was Hemphill’s gay-black status that placed him wide open to such a virulent and opportunistic disease. Yet, the “late” only contains this sense if a person knows the biographical facts—not much point in telling what is already known.

But this still begs a question, for me? Hemphill is a great poet—as good as Ginsberg, whose work exists in the present tense. His work is not dead and attributed elegiacally to a dead poet. Ginsberg is Ginsberg. Why can’t Hemphill be Hemphill?

This use of “late” is a form of modern, linguistic nonsense. It does not belong to Hemphill in some existential sense. It belongs to him in one sense only: the critical world has been late in its recognition of a significant gay, black, poet.

* Marechera, like Hemphill died of AIDs... and in the mid 1980s, 40% of Zimbabweans were HIV+. Interestingly, this is not always mentioned about Marechera, but always mentioned about Hemphill. Heterosexual AIDs is best not mentioned whereas homosexual AIDs always has to be mentioned. There is also a tendency, now, to speak of Marechera as "late"...but this is from a different angle, as if critics would like the bad boy of African literature to take his ghost elsewhere. Perhaps, it would make more sense to speak of the living poetry of Hemphill and make sure the ghost continues to haunt.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Black Sunlight,

We had only that single year at Oxford together, full of study and hugs and shit and that somnolent afternoon…
On the mantelpiece fragrant sticks were burning. Their thin curls of air-sweetening smoke somnolently plucked upwards seeming to pause contemplatively before the framed print of Bronzino’s An Allegory. Blanche sat before the electric fire wearing nothing but her scholar’s gown. Through the wide open curtains, thick handfuls of snow digressed slantwise against the windowpanes. The transparent lattices of that somnolent afternoon. I lay naked face down on the bed, my mind utterly blank, my body languorous, my feelings a sheer perplexity. The silence was even nastier than the experiments we had done on each other’s bodies. The best had emerged from the sunken depths and we had clawed, scratched, bit, drawn blood till our eyes had enflamed and frightened the dragon back into its lair in our bodies. And the distant bells of St Mary’s had to clang the hour, letting loose upon the slate roofs and spires a peal of golden sparks. (BS. P.5)

This is an early reminiscence of Christian, Marechera’s “protagonist”, in Black Sunlight. Its subject is the anthropologist Blanche Goodfather.

What exactly is being said?

At this moment in time, Christian is hanging upside down, tied to a rope, as a punishment. He is well aware of the different levels of meaning. He refers to his swinging thoughts. And yet, the reader is not given an oscillating stream-of-conscious narrative, but this weighted prose. The weighting of the language is calculated, it would seem, to match the gravity of the moment—for Christian. The very formal descriptive prose also measures Christian’s state of mind. A reminiscence is something ordered tightly by memory. And here, the reminiscence is pictorial. Like a painting.

Christian recalls an afternoon in Oxford University. (Marechera is drawing upon his own experience in the city of dreaming spires). His experience is pointedly related. The reader expects “study”, “hugs” not so much, “shit” even less. Quickly, the academic world is reduced until all that remains is a “somnolent afternoon” that explains the mixture.

“Sticks” burn on the “mantelpiece”. Not candles. The two words pin-point the older-world homeliness of Oxford and a modern decadent(ism). Marechera is writing a language with an irony that touches on the mock-heroic (of Fielding). Like hair (sexually) the “smoke” is “plucked” upwards. Cleverly, the hair image rises through a verb that means to pull hair (from the Latin root pilus, hair). There is the poet’s eye. The fragranced air becomes religious as it pauses to contemplate a painting on the walls of Blanche Goodfather’s room.

Marechera is creating a joking religious tone in Christian’s mind, a joke that becomes apparent at the moment when “Bronzino” is included. Instead of some religious icon, the wall holds sexy paganism. And Marechera is specific about which: it is one that he would have known from the National Gallery, London: An Allegory of Venus and Cupid (1540-1550). Bronzino’s painting is a Mannerist allegory and the style now takes on the quality of the painting: it has a veiled eroticism in which the figures are distorted and figures assume a symbolic stature.

In Bronzino’s allegory, Eros incestuously fondles Venus, behind which a tortured face hints as the dangerous side of Venus, venereal disease and infection, whilst two figures bring rose petals and a honeycomb—these probably refer to the honey that led Eros to be stung and the fallen rose petals of Venus's desire. The exact meaning of Bronzino’s painting cannot be known, but that doesn’t really matter, for Bronzino is being re-interpreted by Marechera. Themes emerge from the painting, eros, incest and infection, an individual’s distance from original desire (the image is only a print) but the immediate comparison is between the divine beings and Christian and Blanche.
Sitting naked in her Oxford gown, Blanche/White is a representation of Venus, her name connecting her to the skin of white civilisation and to the glowing white goddess painted by Bronzino. In her black gown, by the fire (of desire) she repeats the academic eroticism of An Allegory. White snow is seen through the lead-glazed windows of academia and in front of them Christian lies naked. He is prone, not supine, not an accidental detail for it shows his passivity. Suggestively, Christian relates his mind, at this moment, as “blank”, whitened, empty, as if his blackness has been lost. (At Oxford, Marechera felt that he had been reduced to a student of whiteness, an “Uncle Tom").

This sexual experiment is one of the many in Black Sunlight—“experiment” is a key noun. And in keeping with the rest of the passage, Marechera's writing advances through a pun that functions like a false perspective famous in Mannerism. Within this world of allegory, the reader is prepared for a sexual beast, instead s/he is given “be(a)st”. Christian relates a view in which the best is inseparable from darker, less likeable layers, but in these levels life exists without any form of check—carte blanche? Unbounded desire?

In the final image, Christian (Marechera) recalls the Church of St. Mary’s, an image central to Oxford’s history. The ringing of “golden sparks” from the Church of the Virgin is a beautiful piece of Decadent pastiche, but also a description that parallels religious ecstasy and ringing the orgasmic bell. This pictorial covering over of “clawed, scratched, bit” intimates the veil that Western civilisation has cast over sexuality.

But not all of Black Sunlight is like this!
Is this the "best"?
No, it shifts with the mind, as it critiques the Western novel.
There is still the beast.

Friday, September 01, 2006


Probably, we all have objects that irritate us personally. Mine would be the mobile phone and its omnipresence in daily life. I was surprised to see a prologue to Heading South which read, in cosmic letters, PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR MOBILE PHONES AND THINK OF OTHERS BECAUSE RINGING PHONES SPOIL THE FILM FOR THEM. It hadn’t even occurred to me to bring my mobile phone. Who did I want to talk to? But having said this, walking phones and mobile people do have their moments. In a world of respectability (without respect) they have a wonderful way of cracking open life’s surface. Nothing like the mobile phone to show the static nature of the human mind!

Scene. A bookshop. A father is talking pompously to his son/daughter about University choices.

Going to university is very important, you know, such a privilege!
Yes, I am in the bookshop.
So, which offer do you think you will accept?
Well, I am checking it out now.
(For five minutes he has been sat reading An Introduction to Philosophy).Are you sure about Philosophy?
It doesn’t seem like a real subject to me.
Isn’t it one of those sort of padding subjects, you know, one that other people do to make up their A Levels?
Don’t you think Psychology would be the better option?
I mean, Psychology is all about the brain.
Employers…you have to think about that…always want people with brains.
I’ve looked at some Psychology books and it looks hard, like a real subject.
You still want to do Philosophy.
Don’t you think you’re brighter than that though?
But one goes to university to stretch one’s mind.
This Philosophy stuff won’t teach you to think.
Wait until I get home!

“Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must pass over in silence.”

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Shoot the (Hermetic) Messenger: BBC2.

Last night, the BBC finally screened its controversial play. Originally it was to be called “Fuck Black People”—after the slogan that the lead character Joe-the-black-teacher writes on the walls of a comprehensive school, having been suspended for an alleged assault.

The final title invites controversy, as do the final words of the play, which fall like a challenge from the playwright, Sharon Foster and the director, Ngozi Onwurah:

“I’m not taking back everything I said. You don’t like the way I said it. So, shoot me!”

Before it hit the screen, Shoot the Messenger had already taken a round of bullets. The black press and various watchdogs were keen to unleash the dogs of war on the production. On the BBC’s website, clearly set up to counter screams of “Racist”, Sharon Foster attempts a nice damage limitation exercise, warning that people should be wary of shouting that word too often because when racism really comes along it might not be heard.

So, was the programme racist? That isn’t really the issue. Criticism should begin with whether the play actually said anything to become upset about.

The primary problem with Shoot the Messenger was television. On the stage, which allows more distance, the play would have come across more accurately. The structure of the play, as a black Everyman’s progress, would have been transparent. Theatre allows symbolic episodes and short-cuts. On the tv screen, the structure was confused: some bits seemed like soap opera, some like alienating episodes out of Brecht, and some like kitchen-sink docudrama. Consequently, the quality of the message brought by the messenger was uneven. The first twenty minutes of the drama saw Joe go from IT consultant, to idealistic teacher, to fallen man, to schizophrenic, to existential outsider. It was like watching a five act tragedy condensed into one. Probably this was deliberate, to avoid empathy, and keep the audience outside the character. But this intention—if that’s what it was—hit two major problems. Firstly, the acting of Oyelowo (Joe) was outstanding. Through the power of his performance, the cartoon character kept coming alive. The enslaved Joe became Prometheus Unbound. The message was usurped by the messenger and identification kept entering the play unevenly. Secondly, the climax of the drama focused on the resolution between Joe and Germal (Charles Mnene)--the symbol of Joe’s fatal flaw: self-righteousness. This was offered as a tragic catharsis. Both had died psychologically. It was supposed to be a scene of pain and revelation. But there was no emotional charge to make it mean anything at a felt level. How really had Joe or Germal come to this point? What was being accepted and healed? In the end, Shoot the Messenger became a series of tableaux…with some highly provocative statements and ideas. But how radical where these?

Was the drama a gift to the British National Party as claimed? Well. I doubt first of all if the BNF would have understood the play…it did require a mind…but having said that…how thoroughly did the play show the underbelly of the Black Beast?

Joe entered the play with “A call to arms”. He was going to be the solution to the failure of black male underachievement. Problem: the education system needs more black teachers and this is why the system fails. Actually, not so. Research has not shown that; what it has shown is alienation created by a flawed curriculum, racism by teachers towards black males, and entrenched institutional racism consequently.

Joe adopted a disciplined line of what he called “enforced education”. Problem: black males cannot handle discipline. Actually, not so. Research has shown that black male teachers are often no different to white teachers—they all transfer coercive patriarchal attitudes into the classroom and that is the root of conflict. The play picked up on this. But it also committed an over-simplification by presenting the conflict between Joe and Germal simply as black versus black. Joe is Nigerian. Germal is African-Caribbean. That produces a complex dynamic in the classroom connected to cultural expectations and hostility. The play, though it took education as the springboard for its drama, really did not know much about education and teaching. In its classroom scenes, the play even failed to critique one of the principal examples of institutional racism: where black males are positioned within classrooms.

Joe was presented as a “House nigger” in Shoot the Messenger. Problem: raising expectations are despised by blacks because it is seen as a sell out to white culture. This is a real issue in education and a cause of black male under-achievement, but it is only half the problem: the other half comes from institutionalised attitudes to black males as loose sexual guns waiting to go off. Too much was done too quickly in the first twenty minutes for a successful critique to emerge dramatically.

How radical were some of the view-points?

1) Christianity is a kind of mental enslavement. Well, that’s not exactly news. James Baldwin studied that in detail throughout his novels. And a reading of Douglass shows how Christianity provided a slippery rationale for slavery.
2) Single mothers are bad parents who “Give more time to their [children’s] names than who should father them.” Yes, that is a contentious issue, but it has been well-aired elsewhere by the media.
3) Black people need “to get over slavery”. That has been argued forcibly for quite some time and how the teaching of slavery should be turned into what slavery teaches everyone about the importance of self-worth.
4) “Black people are cursed”. Well, that particular line goes back centuries.
5) There is a difference between the old and the new. “They went to church. We [men] go to prison”. A nice irony, swapping one institution for another, but again, that has been argued for sometime. Though Shoot the Messenger spent a lot of time on the problems of males, it never really probed what these problems were; bell hooks has written far more heretical things about the black dis(community) than appeared in this play; and why black men are driven into prison.
6) "Bring back slavery. We were good at that, at our most productive. This freedom shit isn't working." Indeed, but that is rather a philosophical issue than a specifically black concern. Being alone on the streets, as Joe put it is "strangely freeing", as he entered Beckett's world. There is nothing like being up-and-in yourself to realise that you are really down-and-out. Finding salvation outside the institution of a white capitalist suprematist society/racism is incredibly hard: trying to live outside the institutions of religion, family, education, work, relationship is enough to institutionalise anyone. And the play did raise that question well and suggest some reasons why black males are more likely to suffer mental illness.
7) Women suffer because they must live up to the “Black is beautiful” message and that causes low self-esteem. The same is true for black men who must live up to an erotic image imposed by white culture…yet that went unsaid. Racist commodification of the body goes deeper than women wanting to straighten and supplement their hair. This vital issue seemed politically nostalgic rather than hard-hitting.

"So shoot me! "What for? For opening Pandora’s black box of race secrets? Hardly. For a lot of deep and original observations about race and achievement? Not really. For being racist? Never. But as thought-provoking drama, Shoot the Messenger was a terribly important piece of television. It's a long time since I've watched anything with total concentration more than once.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

How to Read?

Nick Hornby recently wrote an article entitled “How to Read”. That—once upon a time—was the title of a famous essay by Pound. For Pound, the title meant “What to read”, according to Old Ez. Hornby’s article in the Daily Torygraph (accidentally found via Gypsy Scholar via Chronofile) is more concerned with “What not to read”, according to Old Nick. The two versions of “How to Read” really represent the problem of reading in modern culture. Pound’s essay (yes, literary critics wrote essays back then) upholds literature: “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.” Hornby’s article (the kind of fragmentary stuff written today by lad-lit authors) attacks any such idea on the basis that difficult stuff holds no pleasure and only puts people off reading. Ironically, Hornby also upholds the novel against the evils of television, yet as the Times Literary Supplement has pointed out with reference to Hornby: reading his work “is like reading television”, the experience is like reading a sparse script for a “sentimental film” suitable for relaxed television. “How to read”, in the Pound Era, meant learning what was valuable by encountering great works. The method resembled a walk through an art gallery with all the high moments of Art on the wall—exposure created the literary sensibility. In the Hornby Age, “How to read” moreorless equates with a walk through W.H.Smiths whilst obeying all the signs that say “LITERATURE BEWARE”, so avoiding exposure to anything remotely challenging. Neither method really addresses the statement “How to Read” because that does imply a methodology, some sense of how meaning is derived pleasurably from reading or even how pleasure is extracted meaningfully. Perhaps, both are needed to re-instate reading as a valid human activity.

The problem with Pound’s method is that it inevitably creates an elitist list, a fascism of reading. With Hornby’s method, the problem relates ultimately to a liberalism of reading whereby anything commonly fashionable will do. Meandering through Borders and Waterstone’s, today, I simply surveyed the difference between prose and poetry. Waterstone’s had 20 shelves and 6 tables given over to general novels…two shelves to poetry; Borders had 24 shelves and 5 tables for general novels…two shelves for poetry. The relative lack of poetry illustrates the extent to which the popular now leads, the degree to which Hornby’s belief in simplistic language dominates. When he talks of honing down the language of the novel, Hornby is really discussing the removal of poetical language from the novel—taking out anything that might challenge the reader—as if the erasure of simile, metaphor, complex characterisation, psychological and philosophical depth is no worse than removing additives from food. It is troubling that we have not developed a democracy of reading with, to borrow a phrase from Whitman, a democratic vista, such that we still exist in a culture within which individuals feel that they have to read Ulysses or read the Da Vinci Code, or have to have a favourite book. Neither the high camp nor the low camp seems to show much respect for the intelligent Common Reader. Of course, there are novelists, thankfully, who do not prescribe to either extreme, who refuse to be limited by style: authors such as Patricia Duncker who accept that language should match what you want to say, and what you want to say creates the language you use. The worst novelists today are those that try to write literature and produce precocious garbage and those who try to write journalism and pass it off as precious jewels. Duncker’s recent novel, Miss Webster and Cherif, for me, is worth reading simply because it treats the reader as worthy of the effort needed to write well.

Marechera's Poetry.

In 1984, Marechera gave an interview to Flora Veit-Weld (the text of which appears as an epilogue to Cemetery of Mind). Most reviews of Marechera’s poetry come from generalisations made by writers which relate to what they think his poetry was about. Here is an attempt to look at what he actually thought himself and try and understand the implicit sources.

At the start of the interview, Marechera associates and then disassociates himself from Eliot. Marechera states that is the “poet’s job” (M) to find as Eliot put it, in 1919, “ a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” (E). He re-terms “objective correlative” (E) as “verbal correlative” (M). That could be a half-recollection of the term, or it could be something more pointed: Eliot’s emphasis on the objective as a code for the subjective, physical for mental, was taken over from Poundian Imagism. In 1913, Pound developed Imagism into Vorticism which placed emphasis on the verb, action within the image—verbal manifestation. Quite possibly, Marechera implies that emotion seeks its correlative in action, in the moving image. Marechera’s objection to Eliot’s objectivism is quite simple, in one respect, however: Marechera sees its weakness: a writer may have a “feeling” (more complex than an emotion) for which there might be no obvious objects capable of creating it.

For Marechera, poetry is a “retreat from physical reality” into philosophy. Here, the human exists no longer and the soul takes over. This shift into metaphysics is rather startling, not at all where the opening discussion seemed to be going. Marechera feels this retreat as a withdrawal into invisibility—into the “invisible poet” (M). The term “invisible poet”, by implication, once more returns into the framework of Modernism. When Kenner used this phrase, in 1959, of Eliot, it was used to mark a shift from the poem as the creation of a real person, one easily identified, into a realm of Poundian personae such that the poem became the creation of a unifying consciousness. From Marechera’s perspective, this withdrawal into invisibility allows the poet to illuminate “things from within as from without out”(M). A double illumination? This borders on how Langer described the process by which symbolism is made in Mind: nature is transformed subjectively by mind and mind is objectified metamorphically by nature. The “objective correlative” is half of imagination and imagery. The other half is the subjective irrelative. Marechera sees poetry as coming from an invisible centre, a self, an individuality which “you can’t really find in Africa”. His view-point, here, again is Poundian, but also older than Pound, as Pound well knew and acknowledged. (The roots are in Reniassance Neo-platonism). Pound wrote “the stone is alive in my hand”. Nature is not dead. It isn’t simply moulded by the sculptor, subjected to the mind’s conscious design. It knows the design that the mind seeks and so allows itself to objectify an idea. The light of the mind is already in the light of nature. Marechera compares poetry, through simile, to a kaleidoscope. This isn’t quite what happens, but it is a way of linking to the process of poetry. The physical world can be shaken and shaken into new coloured patterns. Objects endlessly transform. What must be noted, however, is that Marachera says that this method fits “physical environments” (M) “rather than” (M) “mental environments (M). The mind is not best imagined as a kaleidoscope: he does not view the mind as directionally mutable. Marechera appears to be alluding to Modernism all the time, yet his thoughts do not appear to simply coincide. It as if there is something he can’t relate in the language of Modernism. Its European logic of perception, developed obviously in Eliot’s aesthetic “objective correlative” and then re-designed in the psychological critical principles of Richards, in 1929, is not in Marechera’s blood.

When Marechera upholds the view that poetry is a “musical notation” (M), well, that is a re-statement of Modernism; both Eliot and Pound played endlessly with the relationship between music and poetry, the sound qualities if the image, but when he upholds the link between poetry and music rather than “a reasoned linguistic structure” that is another direction. The disorder of poetic language returns, seemingly, to the kaleidoscope. Though the physical landscape can be endlessly structured into logical symmetries, the mental landscape is known through randomness. And that is why the logical, consciously selected “objective correlative” of Modernism is flawed. Not only can it not represent some emotions it also cannot represent the mind at work.

By arguing that there is no difference between prose and poetry, Marechera once more follows Pound and Joyce: charged writing is simply speech intensified. But what fascinates Marechera is something more than the logic within the illogic of the stream of conscious technique—Ulysses, for all its eccentricities—is shaped by a logical, concentric mind. All the rejoicing in language comes from the unified consciousness of Joyce. What rather fascinates Marechera is the “enchantment” of language, the reverberation of language, as in his own Black Sunlight, that moves thought towards disorder, “psychotic insanity”. Why? Because the abnormal society that Marechera sought to critique in poetry and prose would require an abnormal language. (The uneveness in his poetry, its annoying register breaks and irregular dictions, challenge the very notion of poetry, in the West, as polished…).

Poetic commitment, according to Marechera, is double. It is a commitment to the world inside the self and outside the self. The “visible poet” is committed simply to the last of these: the poem is a message to be delivered. The “invisible poet”, however, is not the logical antithesis, a poet committed simply to the self. Marechera illustrates the “invisible poet” by referring to Soyinka and Okigbo. Of these, Okigbo is the most revealing—a poet who knew the metric of Eliot, who faced his self, the tensions of a dual education—yet broke with Eliot to write a poetry of dissonance and dissidence.

As an “invisible poet”, one not split by inwardness and outwardness, but living the unification of the two, Marechera’s extensive comments on language and education make a lot of sense. Though he previously placed Soyinka as an “invisible poet” (one who has more to offer than those who look back innocently to a pure Africa before colonialism) there is a note of anxiety when he describes Soyinka as “a cerebral poet” (M). There is an awareness that as much as he appreciates Soyinka, the existential clash between colonialism, neo-colonialism, contact with European and Western values, Soyinka is not poetically in a place that Marechera wants to inhabit. The “invisible poet” is not a fixed ideal, it has specific levels, levels of discrimination, differences without hierarchy.

When the question is put, “Do you start writing a poem with a specific feeling or idea?” Marechera’s response is emphatic. The poem does not begin with an idea (mind). It begins with “the first line” (M) -- a point where inside and outside already exist. The poem begins with something physical, never as a conception waiting to be nailed into place. It then becomes a matter of “abuse”. Interestingly, Marechera finds in writing the exact opposite of the existentialist Beckett. As a conscious writer, one requiring absolute control over the written word, Beckett preferred to write in French then translate into English. Thinking in a second language brought a conscious discipline to his work. Marechera reversed the whole of this process. English was his second language. It made him too conscious. A disciplined language was unwanted. So, his writing in English became an argument with consciousness and English had to be roughed up so as it learnt to say what he wanted to say. To the Modernists, most noticeably Pound, language paralleled sculpture. Polished form reached its height with the work of Gaudier-Brzeska. In Marechera’s work, there is a different awareness of how language is sculpted. To Western eyes it might seem to be uninformed, lacking in polish, but really what exists is an unpolishing, and re-informing. As with African sculpture, Marechera is not afraid to leave the marks of craftsmanship, his creative actions.

In discussing the love-sonnet, nothing really develops, not until the subject matter of the Amelia poems enters. The fictive “Amelia” is White and Marechera, of course, was Black. Veit-Weld pursues the obvious inter-racial line, puzzled that Marechera did not explore this more. His response is direct and existential: a relationship is a relationship and loving people of the same race is “an incest” (M). His statement about race, here, seems perfectly in line with his approach to poetry. He isn’t interested in binary splits or being confined to one side of an equation. He is more interested in love and its “very personal and intimate kind of terror” (M) and the multiplicity of forms that result. The “emotional chaos” (M) experienced in a “concrete way” is poetical theory being lived.

The 1984 interview, like any interview, does not amount to a poetic ideology. As with any interview, it is a dialogue opened and closed by the interviewer’s questions. It would also be wrong to commit an intentional fallacy and start to read insights from the interview into Marechera’s poetry and create a canon of poems that fit his statements. What does exist in the interview, however, is a record of an unusual intelligence at work, and a clear sense that Marechera’s poetry existed in relation to an intellectual and experiential mindscape. To either call him a genius and avoid analysis or view him as a Beat hobo and deny synthesis is to do him a considerable wrong.