Sunday, July 02, 2006

Marechera: My name...is mind.



The writer Dambudzo Marechera was born in Zimbabwe, 1952, and died in Zimbabwe, 1987. His life, as a novelist and poet, was a life spent in opposition, his poetry emerging as an unfamiliar collection of straight-forward and hermetical images, his death occurring as a mystery: he died from the terrible cryptogram AIDS, a disease that was still being named and one that continues to be nameless in much of Africa; also from what appeared to be a sustained assault. Soyinka has described Marechera as a “profound if exaggeratedly self-aware writer”. And that phrase depicts what Marechera was opposed to, as a writer and an activist—as a human being. He argued that Africa had a place for depth, but was so steeped in tradition that anyone with a self and personal life automatically became an outsider .
Marechera’s biography is undoubtedly one of extremes. He was expelled from the University of Rhodesia because of how it rigorously carried through racist practices. This was followed by a further expulsion from the University of Oxford because his behaviour was deemed disturbed. Or as Marechera saw it: expulsion from an instititution that lacked intellectial rigour. Commenting upon Marechera’s short story, “Oxford, Black Oxford”, the astute novelist Helon Habila, offers a peculiar apologetic tone: “The brand of racism… was almost polite”. How that statement shows the divide at work here! Actually, what Marechera reflects in “Oxford Black Oxford” is the institutionalised (class based) racism that the United Kingdom has been able to deny until quite recently. Perhaps, its intolerance is not as noticeable as apartheid, not as prejudiced as what Marechera was to later encounter in the country of his birth, but it is neither “polite” nor some sort of benign cancer. The racism that Marechera comments on became the root of the racial politics that Thatcher’s government was laying down from 1976-82. In 1982, Marechera returned to Zimbabwe. A disastrous move for someone who believed in self-criticism and state-criticism, whose free-thinking poetry denied boundaries and any form of censorship. Not surprisingly, with Mugabe as Prime Minister, Marechera became an enemy of the state. He was beaten up, arrested in 1983 before the International Book Fair as a threat to national security and his literary agency was closed down after state pressure.
For Marechera, the word “international” always came before the word “national”. And his poetry is a testament to this belief, for it borrows widely and refuses to be limited by any kind of Africanism. It is also a poetry which sweeps aside one of the main tenets of modernism, Eliot’s “objective correlative”. Words, as Marechera pointed out in a reflective 1984 interview, do not always correspond with feeling and when you are writing in English, as an international poet, you often have to rip its insides out to say what you want to say. It is this recognition that produces an irregularity in Marechera’s work. To excuse his poetry as “experimental” (i.e. being formed rather than formed, pre-maturity) is to miss the point. It is experiential and totally opposed to the nice rhythm and diction of what passes for English Modernism. This can be sensed in this type-script of “Angry Tenderness”.

The poem is a sustained oxymoron from start to finish. And just when the poem appears to be settled and understood in the mind, Marechera places “inscape”. From Hopkins, he borrows a poetic term that implies ordered, objective uniqueness. A most English notion is thrust into the heart of Africa and the reader is left, like Marechera, in a state of dizziness as “tormented inscape” rips up any sense of subjective conclusion. So much of Marechera is about demonstrating what the racist denies: the Black individual has a mind and can create a poetry about mind that challenges a white supremacist poetics.

The poems of Marechera were gathered after his death into a Collected Poems. The rightly titled Cemetery of Mind is a brilliant work of scholarship. Regrettably, it cannot do what is expected of a Collected Poems, give a chronology and a sense of development. But in a way that is as it should be because if there was any poet who hated the traditional notion of single-minded development and ordered poetic life, it had to be Marechera. In his poem, “Mind in Residence”, which puns on Writer in Residence, a role which he occupied at the University of Sheffield, in 1979, Marachera offers a poem of multiple perspectives. In the final six lines of the poem, the reader, who stands beside Marechera, looking down from that city of concrete balconies, waits for one word, “I”. It never comes and the final lines cannot settle down into grammatical closure. The poem is a symbol of Marechera’s poetic life. It cannot be sentenced.
Mind in Residence.
On grey twilit balconies
In T-shirts and shirt sleeves
Each shrouded in preoccupied misty thoughts
The several pasts of my life
Wait for this and all other days to end.
Down in the streets, antlike thoughts
In rags and overalls
Leaning against the derelict buildings
Squatting on the cracked much-stained pavement
All looking up at those looking down
From the grey twilit balconies of hindsight.

12 comments:

Onyeka George Nwelue said...

I enjoyed this post. Though I have never heard of this Zimbabwean author, I think his works would be so engaging.

Well, nice post, indeed.

eshuneutics said...

Hello and thanks for your comment. I think you would find Marechera very interesting indeed...he's an interesting poet to work through...he says a lot in a few words.

Unsane said...

He argued that Africa had a place for depth, but was so steeped in tradition that anyone with a self and personal life automatically became an outsider

Gosh, did he actually argue that?

I'm not so sure that this is true about Africa, any more than it is true about anywhere else on the Earth. IN Black Sunlight he points to a universal truth, that most people put most of their energy into surviving and fulfilling what they deem to be their needs, rather than putting their energies towards humane causes. So Marechera's alienation is more directly related to the human condition of being superficial in pursuit of a living and ones needs -- he surely found the British equally superficial, which was a part of what caused him to feel contempt in Oxford.

eshuneutics said...
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eshuneutics said...
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eshuneutics said...

I would be inclined to agree with you, from a general standpoint. And yet, his diagnosis of Africa remains an issue 20 years later...very much a literary issue. He imagined his writing, or at least, the poetry, as a "twilight" conflict. He would have known very well that this in English Literature alludes to the twilight of modernism, as with Yeats. But Marechera's "twilight zone", alluding culturally to a supernatural dimension of conflict(connected tangentially to society and self) isn't what interests him so much as his "cockroach voice". That intimates rather wonderfully the omnivorous nature of the poet and a rather basic survival instinct. Your Marechera sounds rather Beckettian: life is alimentation, alienation and meaningless, one lives "ones needs". Yes, he found the British superficial. They were, after all, part of the human condition. Marechera disassociated himself from two traditions, the pre-modern Golden Age of Africa, its innocent primitivism, and the post-modern anti-colonial struggle in which questions about the self emerged. Critics seem to approach Marechera as an existentialist, but I'm not sure that really takes them very far because that philosophy is so varied. Perhaps, there is a split here: as a human being, superficial needs drive the individual into exile; but as a poet, who deals with a linguistic density at times beyond prose, exile is not based upon either the superficial or needs. There is much to consider. Many thanks for your observation. Dialectics push thought forward.

Unsane said...

Oh, I didn't quite mean that Marechera was the complete or even partial victim of what he diagnosed. Well, partial victim perhaps. You see that in The Insider where he gets caught up in form over content and his friend pours a beer over him, because he can no longer communicate with him the content of what he is experiencing. It is all form and no content.

eshuneutics said...

That is so well put! Thanks.

eshuneutics said...

Unsane, no, not dialectics (how academic!)...human dialogue. I take that word back.

Unsane said...

I don't mind dialectics. They are quite nice to have around. But often what passes for dialectics is the horse built by a committee.

My Talking Beginnings said...

Funny how everyone else asides from the people in power have an insight into the troubles/issues of the African continent, however has this changed anything?...

eshuneutics said...

Hi, mtb, I think Marechera proves your point. This strikes a chord, perhaps, a jazz riff, on something you were writing. Where do I belong or am I always an outsider who can see problems, but cannot change them? By seeing the problem, as in Marechera's case, do I become the problem? Thanks for reading.