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.


Unsane said...

Dealt his assegai,

This is a very ambiguous phrase. I read it as Truth WAS dealt his assegai, rather than he "dealt it". So what does that mean? That the 2nd Chimurgenga was dealt with in such a way that it amounted to capitulation. It was served up cold and dead.

eshuneutics said...

Passive voice, deep syntax, "was" deleted?
Yes, there is a problem...the grammar is suspect on many occasions in Cemetery of the Mind.
"Truth, [on being]
Dealt his assegai, drove..."
That would be the opposed construction to my reading.The , could simply be forgotten--a grammatical slip as often happens in the poetry because the poems are taken from drafs-- but this is a published poem, however, not a fragment, so...Marechera would have been more accurate?

"Truth [was]
Dealt his assegai [and] drove..."
Sudden change from passive to active...

More likely is this construction: two active voice sentences with [and Truth] deleted.

Dealt his assegai {and Truth]drove..."

The "assegai" is the Zulu's shortened spear used as a thrusting blade. So, if the passive voice is assumed, "Truth" is the white "Truth" attacked by the "assegai". Yet, I read that "Truth" belongs to the first chimurenga. The "struggle" is "Truth". In the first stanza, political evil is symbolically served cooked. In the second, history serves its cold truth: massacre.

There is a definite ambiguity (sorry, that's a paradox).

eshuneutics said...

Even "dealt" is uncertain.

Truth used its assegai.
Truth was given it assegai.

But both readings identify truth with the zulu forces.

eshuneutics said...

Hamlet enters too?
Have revised!

Unsane said...

Interesting! I haven't read the poem as closely as you have yet, once again. Mine was a more intuitive reading then.

My take on Marechera is that he was less interested in elucidating his truths along the boundaries of race, and more concerned with pinpointing oppression. So a black versus white reading isn't always accurate. Were the Chimurengas against the whites or against oppression? If the second stanza depicts the present, whereas the first relates largely to the past (and yes, I liked your notion of truth being cooked), then the present has a different kind of oppression which is not specifically racial. The second Chimurenga was stillborn -- Truth being dealt its assegai = truth killed in the womb. And if the 2nd Chimurenga failed to achieve its goals for liberation then the "war for liberation" can be retrospectively reduced to nothing more than a pointless massacre.

Unsane said...

'Truth [was] dealt his assegai' also has the connotation of an ironic turn of events whereby thwarting of the liberatory goal comes from the most unlikely sources. Politically, this was the case in Zimbabwe.

Unsane said...

And, of course, I forgot one important thing. The word "masses" has a particular Stalinist meaning in Zimbabwe, as in "the toiling masses", "the starving masses", "the jubilant masses". There are some examples of such usage in the following article:

eshuneutics said...

YES--well pointed--the communist mass/community. I had not seen this.

Unsane said...

NO, I had forgotten that terminological reference, too. Then, I thought, "But of course--that's what he means!" I don't think the reference is meant positively, though. The way it was used in Zimbabwe was so formulaic, not poetic nor nuanced or anything.