Sunday, July 23, 2006

Marechera's Poetry.

Reading the Intellect (1).

In Camera Lucida, Barthes refers at some length to the studium, which is what the critic likes to do, make a sweep of someone’s work, draw themes, then include or exclude photographs, depending on whether they fit or not. The critic likes or dislikes, according to this streamlined view. Poetry criticism has this same problem. The critic of poetry creates certain themes, Romanticism, pastoralism, surrealism, the Movement, and poetry becomes a reading in relation to something else. This approach allows critical authority. For poets, the quest is to find the (mythical) voice that allows the poetry to become recognisably theirs: poetry springs from a unified consciousness which hallmarks the work: Eliot is immediately recognised as Eliot. Such poets write with authority, in control of their voice.

But do they? I look at Marechera and question all I have ever been told. Is he uneven, sloppy in his diction, careless in his imagery, lacking refinement…or does the failure come from me?

Here is “Smash, Grab, Run” from 1979-80, one of the few published poems—it appeared in West Africa magazine. As I cannot assemble any studium around it (Am I unable? Or do not wish to do so?) all I can do is experience it.

Smash, Grab, Run= The title puts the poem in the context of the Brixton Riots. Already there is a problem, these were in April 1981, so the poem is later than stated.
The title suggests what happened (from a White middle-class point-of-view, as reported in the press: widespread looting by uncontrollable Blacks).

Let the minutes unleash
The bullets Brixton wishes
=this is not “slip the dogs of war”, but something more deadly. Time brings about desired violence. Time is as much apart of the war to come as the police dogs brought to Brixton. Time—like the minutemen of revolution—is ready, has been prepared for this. (Historically, this was true, for Brixton was waiting for the moment).
Barbed wire is the ivy on my walls=ivy-clad tradition (as at Oxford), that middle-class dream of the house with ivy growing, a countryside retreat, is a spiked reality in the inner-city.
Acrid cordite like mist in autumn
Dissolves the harsh street into pellucid cameos
=anti-Romanticism whereby Keats’ “season of mists” becomes unnatural. Mist dissolves streets, yet people become shining and hard profiles. Violence, though it thins social order, thickens identity.
Think how the striking truncheon outpaces thought=a statement that mocks: action is quicker that thought, yet the invition is to think. Is this the weakness of the liberal when faced with (police/social) brutality?
How the burgeoning Molotov cancels discussion=for the first time, Molotov cocktails were used on the UK mainland. Burgeoning? Spring-life. An April poem, after all. The violent retaliation is budding, alive, more natural and effective than discussion?
And for just this once in my black British life
Exploded the atoms of me into atoms of power=not the nuclear family and social order, but the nuclear mind. The power released through violence against oppression becomes empowerment.
Let each viewfinder’s instant exorcise
The pictorial myths complacency devises
=viewfinder, gun-sight, in a fraction of time, drives out the found visions that society easily manufactures. Mental focus. Mental terrorism.
Each hurtling brick aimed to smash this enchanter’s glass
Aimed to loot the truths for so long packaged in lies
="Smash, Grab, Run", now operates within a new context: the looting by the Black mind of individual truth.
I am the hundreds of putrid meat in English prisons
In derelict houses, in borstals, the millions of condemned meat
Who let the grim minutes unleash their canned grime
=grim/grime, inscape (out of Hopkins)? Rather an anti-inscape for the mind is drawn into humanity, not nature, and is pulled into intellectual horror and fragmentation, not beauty and spiritual order. Grim minutes? Grim reaper, Death. canned grime=sealed and mass-produced black identity? A moment of intellectual terror(ism)/the poem/offers a focus/aim that destructs the social experiences offered to the Black individual who is seen as meat/flesh/not mind.

The diction, the idioms, the allusions and the syntax are brilliantly unstable.

A Marechera Cocktail.
He asked for intellectual rigour and receives rigor mortis.

Two statements from Poetry International Web.

Reading Marechera, you may not be way off the mark if you consider Marechera’s poetry a form of mental banditry…Marechera skipped on to the scene lightly wearing the cloak of individual experience, which he can toss over his shoulder like a prince.
Chikwave (Caine Prize winner for African Literature, 2004).

His autobiographical poems are very conventional in their use of allusion, reference, vocabulary, and poetic form, though they often strive to attribute significant meaning to every mundane action and utterance… He also uses conventional poetic diction, and has a particular fondness for abstractions reminiscent of the English romantics. His importance does not lie in the revitalising of the poetic idiom but in… his articulate energy
Muchewna. (Zimbabwean Open University, 2006).

Have I got the wrong poet?

1) mental banditry? Exactly the wrong phrase: banditry=to band together. It suggests social pillaging and a binding of thoughts.
2) skipped…lightly…to the scene? He did not do the “scene” and there is nothing “light” about him.
3) cloak of individual experience: cloak=covering. If he is difficult, it is because he refuses to dress up in experience and believes in nakedness.
4) like a prince? Only in the sense that King of the Road can be a euphemism for bum. He was a social outcast, born in a township, lived in UK slums, died on Harare’s streets.
5) convential? I have spent my life being forced to read convential poetry of the English tradition, it’s nothing like Marechera.
6) strive to attribute significant meaning? But his poems are not about attribution, assigning thoughts in some easy manner.
7) abstractions reminiscent? Marechera uses abstraction that are human thought. They are not reminiscent of anything. They are thinking. (Why do we fear the abstract?) This is not evidence of a Romantic sensibility.
8) articulate energy? That couldn’t be more wrong. Davie, whose phrase this is, saw syntax as the joined ribs of feeling (and got this, in part, from a mis-reading of Langer’s early Philosophy in a New Key). Articulate energy became the base for the restrained Movement poets. Marachera, however, is no hymner of syntax. Syntax is not the energy: that's where he puts the explosives.
Where is the poet of the cemented buildings of the world's cities who lived the Cemetery of Mind?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Mask: (Part VII).



The Divine Love of Dante and Beatrice by Botticelli.

In The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), William Butler Yeats re-published a poem from his pamphlet Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1917). The poem, dated to 1915, is titled "Ego Dominus Tuus". In this poem, Yeats develops his theory of The Mask. The poem is a Platonic dialogue between Ille and Hic, That and This. Ille, or Willie, as Pound put it, is the voice of Yeats the occultist-poet. The Mask is described by these emotional lines:

I call to the mysterious one who yet,
Shall walk the wet sands by the edge of the stream
And look most like me, being indeed my double,
And prove of all imaginable things
The most unlike, being my anti-self,
And, standing by these characters, disclose
All that I seek.

On joining the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Yeats took the name DEDI (Demon Est Deus Inversus: The Demon (Dark) is a reflection of God (Light). The central aim of the Golden Dawn was to attain the philosopher’s stone which appeared as the golden rays of morning. And this took place at an advanced psychological level through the Conversation with the Holy Guardian Angel. What Ille refers to is God, the opposite of the Demon, the world of shadow. And the Mask is Yeats’ Antithetical Self, “my anti-self”. Instead of seeing the mask as an artifice that blanked out the face, Yeats adopted a ritualistic—almost African—approach to the mask. The mask erases the human so as the divine might speak through the mask. The idea of the antithetical sense came from mystical conversations between Yeats and a spirit-being known as Leo Africanus (the Hoy Guardian Angel). It is interesting to note, how Yeats, the Western lamb, saw his opposite as the lion-named African! Truly, antithetical even by name. (And probably, it is the Lion-formed antithetical self that moves towards Bethlehem to be born in “The Second Coming”). The Mask, for Yeats, is the opposite that makes an individual whole, which frees him or her from the "persona". In "Ego Dominus Tuus", it is the divine Love that balances Dante’s earthly sexual life. Among the African Baule, every man and woman has a divine lover whose image (masked-form) must be sculpted and honoured. Every human relationship is part of this divine relationship. One night in every week, the man sleeps with his divine love and the woman with hers. For Yeats, the Mask is not created for the outer life, but born from the inner life. The Mask is the deep, erotic and artistic longings of the hermaphroditic human who forever searches for the missing part of his or her being.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Mask: (Part VI).




THE LEGACY OF ONE'S BODY OF WORK DEPICTS A LIFE WELL LIVED AS ONE IS ONE'S GREATEST WORK OF ART! EVERY ROLE PLAYED IN ONE LIFE TIME'S RELATIVITY TO THE INFINITE CROSS REFERENCES IN THE UNIVERSAL PATHWAY TO EXPAND THE EVOLUTION OF ONE'S SPECIE UPON EARTH.

This extract, from an internet newsletter, introduces the art of Basquiat. But what does it mean? Does “RELATIVITY” mean “Relativity” or “in relationship to”? What is a “specie”? A mistaken singular form of “species”? A body of artistic work “depicts a life well lived”. Not true for many artists and certainly not true of Basquiat who did not see himself as his “greatest work of art” and whose life was decidedly not “well lived”. But as an example of the PERSONA voice… this is perfect! The “one” and “one’s” carry such authority, are smeared on like spiritual blue oil paint, yet actually say nothing at all of any human value. "But shit, man," they sure sound good. In his later work, Basquiat scrutinised the word IDEAL. He saw the pun, “I deal”, also how the “IDEAL” had become sellable. Isn’t so much modern art about marketing the perfect product? And he would have laughed out loud at anyone’s attempt to deal out ideal ideas from the persona.

Basquiat ‘s art is not at all what people claim. In an early work (if you can talk of an early period in an artistic life that only lasted 7 years), Basquiat mused upon the art of image making. His drawing shows himself elevated (as an art object) on a staircase. At the base floats Warhol (?), spectral, the spectator, camera in hand. Upon Basquiat’s face is shock. He wears a smile that is faked, mask-like. The right of his face is red, as if it has been stripped of skin: exposed for the camera. The camera’s flash of light has been transferred to the photographer’s head—the idea rests with the photographer. Two diagonal lines mark a line of vision. And between them is “FOTO” crossed out by two lines. The status of the word is ambiguous. It has been cancelled. And yet it can be seen. It haunts the viewer (what Basquiat called “ghosting”). The instantaneity of the photograph is caught in the instant style of the drawing, which in turn questions the speed at which the camera makes a photographic mask. Basquait questions what the viewer sees when s/he looks across the colour line. Would a black male see differently? This seems to be the challenge in a series of photographs taken by Van Der Zee. As a photographer, he was known for making Harlem’s beauty look more black and its blackness look more beautiful. Black was beautiful in his hands. Something very different is going on as Basquiat, an icon of beauty and sexuality for both genders, sits for Van Der Zee. Spontaneous life is captured through a slow and studied art. The result is a beautiful mask, but still a mask. For as Van Der Zee said about his work: the camera image shows what the photographer thinks should be there.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006



The Mask: (Part V).
“To us, the man who adores the Negro is as “sick” as the man who abominates him.”

This is one of the provocative opening views of Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. It places the “Negro” as an object of love and an object of hate. The second statement, that the racist is “sick”, seems correct and apparent to anyone with humanity. Not so clear, however, is why the first statement is racist. Throughout Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon explains this initially puzzling statement. A condensed explanation goes like this. When looking at a black male, the white male sees the Other. This creates fear within the white male and this fear is projected as hate. But the white male also experiences fascination. Fear and fascination produce a “sick” desire, an adoration centred on racist assumptions about the black male body. As Fanon puts it, simply and explicitly: the “Negro…is a penis”. The naked black male body is invested with sexual worship, which is then stripped from him to reveal what he truly is (in the white man’s eyes): natural, primitive, aggressive, raw and ultra-sexual. Black skin becomes a fetish. The black man’s face wears the white mask that the white man places there.

The black man’s response to this is to assume the superficial needs of white society. The persona he wears allows acceptance, but not integration (because this can only begin at a level deeper than the mask). Fanon detests this psychological and social enslavement:

“…the black man who wants to turn his race white is as miserable as he who preaches hatred for the whites.”

And here Fanon hits another raw-nerve. Those who teach hatred for the whites are “miserable” because the hatred that consumes them reflects self-hatred and anxiety. Colour v Colourless ranting only locks man in a binary cell. Rather than preaching hatred against hatred, man must reach beneath the mask to learn self-love.

Fanon’s speculations seem highly important at a time when White Skin, Black Masks seems to influence youth more and more. But this reversal—where all things black are cool—does not have the deep dynamic of its opposite. The commodification of the black body (male and female), described by Holt in The Problem of Race in the 21st Century as the most dangerous brand of new racisms, invites white youth to buy into the persona, merely demands that they accept what a capitalistic society wants to sell them, so as it can ultimately make them sell themselves.
Mask: (Part IV).
In my innocence, I thought that blogging was just something that a person did. It seemed a leisure activity with purpose, a pleasant blend, like taking tea or having a coffee. But I have stumbled across the world of internet slang and advice from experts, the Great Masters of the Blogging Fraternity. (I didn’t take long to spot that insulting terms like Momosphere, for the poor women who sit at home and write menial thoughts while their babies play, had their origins in men’s techno-brains). It came as something as a shock, to find out how wrong I was. One did not just blog. One considered one’s blaudience. And if one wished to increase one’s readership, one had to think carefully about three questions. Who was the blog for. What was to be left in the mind of the blogee? How did one hope to effect a response? Fantastic stuff! But the “one” is such a sign of the persona. That formal pronoun that meets an uncertain world with authority and hIdes the “I” which really thinks something personal, but hesitates to say it. Beware the “Ides of March” and the Prophet Bloggers. Or should that be: Profit Bloggers? Gradually, I began to find more deliberate uses of the word “persona”. Not only are there “Persona Bloggers”, who are not good. (No longer called “fake loggers” or “floggers” who are people made up by companies to recommend services). But there are also people with a “Blogger persona awareness”, who are good. These are (the once rather hectic sounding “multi-bloggers”) who take their blog and sub-divide into thematic posts for the sake of clarity; so as messages are delivered to the right people.


At this point, however, I gave up. I had a vision of myself having to convert my posts to the Dewey Decimal System. And really, I like the mixed-up blogs, those that chat about a book, or discuss their favourite things, or muse esoterically about Milton, or consider world politics, or just have a thought for the day, something that has drifted into the mind, a memo to be posted like a note on the fridge door. This is human. Simply that. It is what the human is: variable. Not the One. But the Many in the One.

This mask-talk goes against the very liberal nature of the blog. People can drop in. And dropping in is much better than “dropping out.” Over the years, I have seen many kinds of masks. Metal. Wood. Terracotta. Each is rather like a post. There are the metallic posts, shiny and abrasive; the wooden, full of grain and flow; the clay, moulded and fragile. And there are also posts that are as light, but wonderful in their vulnerability, like the tissue-cane masks at a Caribbean carnival. The danger of the PERSONA mask written large is it forgets that a mask needs the human face behind it.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Mask: (Part III).
When Basquiat was performing with Gray (his music group), "He seemed to be its artistic persona." This one sentence from Phoebe Hoban in her biography, Basquiat:A Quick Killing in Art, moreorless sums up the general approach to Basquiat. As an artist, he is forever linked by critics to Warhol, as if the mask was all that Basquiat was and could be. He was the black persona attached to the white art world (as symbolizeded by the iconic Warhol, an artist whose mask was everywhere but inner-face nowhere. Even Warhol's Diaries/memoirs smile with artifice). Creating art in a world where everything was constructed, where art, as Warhol put it, was "Cash and Carry", and money rather than the soul talked, Basquiat became another construct, his life but a surface. Basquiat's artistic achievements are lost to the mask, be it the gossip surrounding his life, which is preferred to worthwhile appreciation of the art, or Schnabel's superficial persona film Basquiat (1996).

Basquiat himself was aware, however, of another reality. One where the sub-conscious played itself out in real life events. In the early part of his career, Annina Nosei gave him studio space. This was a dark basement under her SoHo gallery. Here, Basquiat became (not the mad white woman in the attic) but the black madman in the cellar. His life position showed what the black artist was supposed to be: wild, primitive, sexual, the buried and hidden side of creativity. To this subterranean realm, the white world could descend with curiousity and leave unscathed with primal art. It was a descent into the underworld. What Basquiat did in his art, however, was to reverse the process. His canvases/masks began to reflect the ascent from Hell. The mask, discarded by White psychology as a mere pretence for the outside world, became something else. The mask became a collection of inner energies: a second-face made from within. Just as Basquiat played with the art world in real life. He was the noble savage who could wear an Armani suit. A wonderful camp persona. So in his painting, he rips that mask apart and replaces it with another: a mind re-constructing itself to seek self-identity. Basquiat's art, in its day, renounced the posturing of pseudo-masculine abstract expressionism, which saw words as anathema , and returned a literal belief in vodon, his Haitian roots, and the magic of words. The result is an art about the fragility of the psyche.

The image below is a painting by an 11 year old. He was given a watercolour portrait of Basquiat, a persona-graph, and then asked to use his own love of Basquiat and his own experiences as a black male to create his inner turmoil. For a day, he scribbled and talked, like Basquiat who spent one of his First Nights drawing "alchemical signs " (Hoban) on the gallery walls. This was his attempt "to put on a mask against racism."

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Mask: (Part II).
The persona is a fascinating and important aspect of the mask. In fact, it probably comes closest to what most people would mean by mask: something which is manufactured and distant from its creator. In Jungian psychology, the persona is not part of psyche’s processes, but an archetypal figure; not the soul speaking as it were, but a figure of speech. For Jung, the persona belonged with the Anima and Animus, but it did not interest him as much as these deep, life-enhancing images. Why? Because they belonged to the deep whereas the persona belonged to the surface. I imagine my idea of the persona by thinking back to childhood, back to a time when I am floating on my back in the sea whilst looking up at my father. I know that I am in touch with something enormous, the Ocean, but what I show to my father is the mask that he wants to see: I am happy. I gaze with a fixed-expression that hides whatever thoughts are truly mine. My thoughts are partial, but the mask is complete. Because of its completeness, the mask is safe. Jung, like the watching father in my image, looked down on the persona. It was satisfying. It was also false. And yet accepted. Because self-satisfaction is so important, feeling certain wins over the alternative, the acceptance of multiple anxieties.

Artifice is far safer. The persona is a second face made in response to society. To use the original meaning of persona: it is an actor’s mask which functions within a play— a modern social documentary. It is part of a story, with facts and events, a fixed face that allows a person to adapt to changing events and survive the outside world. The world demands certain things, the individual struggles to reply, so the persona steps in to answer and say what is needed. The persona is a double protection. Not only does it keep the outside at bay but it also avoids pressures whereby the individual might have to turn his or her face inside out and look inwardly at truth.

This concept of distanced and moderating second-self is present in many modern day uses of persona.

Persona is a network communication system—an alternative reality, one that can be selected.
It is a method of contraception—it controls and intervenes, removes from life.
It is a security device—it locks away, can only be opened with a personal image.
It is a novelist’s second voice—not a character, but a second consciousness that is separate from the author.
It is a cosmetic brand—an applied screen that makes the self attractive to the outside world.
It is a robotic devise—an artifice that mimics its owner.
It is a clear and manufactured product-image: it is purposely designed to be accepted and purchased.

The way that the word has extended its meaning truly shows the method of the persona. The persona merges with society.

Saturday, July 08, 2006


The Mask: (Part I).

Yesterday was the “anniversary” of the London bombings. The press were keen to remember is as 7/7 and silently align it with 9/11, as if this numerical form might be a code that identifies the threat of Islamic terrorism. Previous to this unquestionably tragic day--when Tanweer killed 7, injured 171, Khan killed 6,injured 163, Lindsay killed 26, injured 340 and Hussain killed 13, injured 110--the press had been rightly concerned with the loss of secret anti-terrorist information. Apparently, top-secret counter-terrorism plans were left behind in a Manchester hotel and an MoD anti- terrorism dossier was discovered by an English roadside. Behind the numbers, the mask of figures, a dangerous face was appearing: ineptitude. There was a definite sense in which secrecy was no longer security, a country’s hermetically coated face was flaking dangerously. People were doubly unsafe, from those who threatened the mask as well as those who kept the mask in place.

Many images have stayed in people’s minds over the past year. But interestingly, the image that is referred to as “iconic” is this one:




It was this image that made the front page of Time and transmitted the pain of so many human lives to Europe. And the same image found its way onto BBC pages when it sought to justify its “sensitive live coverage” of events. A number of calming messages exist within this photograph. There is the hero, the heroine, the survivor, the helper, triumph over adversity, but most of all the protective mask. The photograph has been significantly cropped, masking all background devastation at Edgware Road, so as the whole scene is envisaged through the open face and the concealed face. The water-gel burn-mask speaks resonantly of the healing screen placed by the community. It is a defence against intrusion.

The mask is often seen in this way. The mask that the individual wears and the mask of secrecy that the state wears are designed as barriers between the inside and the outside. The mask is a hidden layer that represents privacy. (Away from London, the removal of the mask was what worried people in Leeds. The old, prejudicial south-north divide began to show and when the press came to expose the origins of UK terrorism innocent northerners found their faces in national newspapers, even though they had insisted that they would give words but not photographs to the newspapers). The mask, in a simple sense, is a construct worn by the vulnerable (and we all are vulnerable!) It is a sign of the guarded person: the individual who stands like a guard on duty (unflinching as the guards outside Buckingham Palace who protect the Icon of the democratic State). And when it is spoken of, it is spoken of apologetically—like MI5 or the CIA—as a suspect though necessary state-of-affairs. The mask is consciously worn as a screen that allows the individual to live amongst others because it prevents others from getting too close to the individual. It distances the "I" from "them" and the uncertainty which "they" like terrorists might bring to me.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Author and Creator



God, wrote Nietzsche, is dead.
The empty cathedrals of the world are his tombstones.
The Author, announced post-modernism, is dead.
The empty novels of the world are his graveyards.

Killing the creator has become quite a joyful occupation.

As Barthes put it: “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing”.
(Image-Music-Text, Collins, p,143).

Writing under this shadow becomes a corpse, a corpse to be animated, with jouissance. Criticism is necromancy. The hermetic text becomes the elixir whilst the “author” retreats to the prima materia, to earth, and is laid to rest.

Removing the author does have its advantages. It gets rid of the authorial tendency to spout about the creation: how good it is; what it is about: why it should be compared with other great writers. But murdering the author just to avoid these ego trips is rather severe. Common readers are not so easily fooled and taken in by vanity.

So what is the place of the author?

Enshrined within the idea of authorship is the idea of genius. Amazingly, the author is an individual who is supremely gifted and able to write at a level beyond the common human being. Our belief in this, however, has taken something of a battering. Some of the great paintings of the world were not painted by the Great Masters: the job of painting was delegated. Some of the finest realists did not draw their figures free-hand, they copied using light devices. Damian Hirst is an “artistic genius” though the donkey work of making becomes the employment of artisans. The maker does not have to make. But this is the art world. What about literature? Surely, old beliefs still exist here and the novel reflects its roots in “newness” and springs from the mind of a fresh and unique individual.

I remember once coming across an enthusiastic proof-reader who felt the need to refine my punctuation and argue for fewer “passive voice sentences”. That was possible to consider. (Microsoft Word has a similar problem with my writing!) I also recall that this was followed by a zealous proof-editor who wished to substitute her words so as the article reflected “ideology”. Here, the brakes went on. And it was certainly “No” when a second proof-editor requested that whole passages be changed in line with what he saw as “a masculine house-style”. As I pointed out at the time: my meaning was in my words and in the ordering of those words. I was not a brick-layer building a bungalow.

There is a point, surely, when editorial help becomes intrusive. And more worryingly still, a point when editors can become invited participants into the game of writing and publishing concerns replace authorship and authenticity. The most extreme example of this has to be “ghost writing”. It isn’t the writing of someone else’s story that worries me. Helping to tell a story is therapy. (Therapy "draws out" through words). It is the ventriloquism performed by publishing houses under this term. So, the hidden writer writes what they think the “author” wants to say. (How does anyone know that?) Then the “author” claims the book as their life’s story. (In what sense is it their story? Or are they alive?) This is the dummy claiming to be real and making the ventriloquist into the puppet.

Personally, writing is about honesty and effort. I think of Frederick Douglass. He was an illiterate slave. He used every devious strategy possible to learn to read and write. He painstakingly read and modelled writing on his reading until he could tell his story. Language was his liberator, the spirit that pushed him towards escape and liberation from slavery. His Narrative of the Life is a work of genius (Though the White press claimed that it was “ghost-written” because Black people did not have minds capable of authorship!). A work of genius because every page testifies to an original and challenging mind that has worked therapeutically with language. In cultures where the quick-fix has become the norm, killing off the author isn’t the only problem: it’s raising the unborn into a false life. The philosopher's stone is inside and close at hand, though it might take a long journey to realise that, and it cannot be bought from the hands of editors, a lesson beautifully crafted by Paul Coelho in The Alchemist.

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.