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 University...so 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.