Last month saw Bulawayo-based publishers ’amaBooks launch Textures at Book Café – an event hosted with support from British Council and the Culture Fund Trust of Zimba-bwe. The anthology is by two of Zimbabwe’s leading poets – John Eppel and Togara Muzanenhamo. Both were there to read to a warmly receptive audience, before a discus-sion on the book led by Ignatius Mabasa.
The fascinating feature of this anthology lies in the unexpected and significant contrasts between these two Zimbabwean poets; indeed, Polarities might be a more suitable ti-tle than Textures. Much of the conversation at the launch was around the interplay between form and content – both of which are vastly different between the poets.
Eppel reveals himself and his location in almost every poem whilst Muzanenhamo is almost invisible in his work, which is set in seemingly random global locations. Eppel, who described himself as a “suburban poet” draws inspiration mostly from the Hillside suburb of Bulawayo and his lyrical and meticulously crafted poems, whilst not without ambiguity and nuance, are an easy and pleasurable read. Eppel described the poetic forms such as the sonnet as a canvas. “I like to have a canvas, and to express my freedom within the limits of that space… it’s something of a paradox, I know. A good poet uses the rules of these forms, but so well so that a reader doesn’t even notice them.”
Through his poetry, Eppel shares his appreciation of nature, his loss of love, and his existential anxieties with the reader. In so doing, his vulnerability becomes a strength. In the opening poem of the anthology ‘A Suburban Night in August’, Eppel shows both his ability to create atmosphere from a few select details whilst sharing his loss of and long-ing for love. The diversity of Bulawayo’s rich nature provides both context and solace as he takes us with him on his late night walks through the suburbs and daytime excursions around the Dams. The formal structure of his poems creates a rhythm and rhyme which leads a reader without pause to sometimes unexpected conclusions. ‘Grey Heron’ for example ends with his need to rewire his house; ‘Hornbills in My Garden’ finishes with “…don’t forget to kill me once I’ve dined.”
Eppel has a determination to capture the essence of things, and perhaps uses poetry to distil his thoughts. This is most clearly revealed in ‘Cape Turtle Dove’. He runs through aspects of this iconic and common bird – its smell, colour, movement, rasp, pick – rejecting them with “that’s not it” until he comes to its “three syllables that rise and fall… and that’s it.” Eppel does not seek the exotic outliers to enrich his poems. The birds he selects are the most visible and common. The trees too. He captures the essence of his set-tings through the commonplace, local and everyday. Reading his poems is a delight especially for someone who has been there, who knows the Matabeleland dry season and the Hillside dams.
In contrast, it is unlikely that any reader could feel rooted in the soil of Muzanenhamo’s selection for this anthology. The poems have a global reach, the settings and stories are eclectic. Significance has to be sought. He is skilled in creating image and atmosphere, and his poems are looser in form.
Muzanenhamo is more than just a poet of the diaspora, but is a poet of the age of globalisation, fascinated with obscure and distant narratives. His subjects include a 19th century American jockey, early Tour de France competitors, Somali child soldiers, medieval Norwegian battles, jewellers, cricketers and brave pilots. It is refreshing to read a Zimbabwean poet who is free from the troubled history of Africa’s colonisation and liberation. I found his poems full of flavour though I was not sure what I was eating. They demand more work than Eppel’s to grasp, and for me have a taste that requires repetition to acquire. For most readers he digs “deep into the heart of the unknown.”
Muzanenhamo alluded to this at the launch, saying that writing poetry, “is very hard work and very frustrating, but the end product is something to be delighted in. Poetry can be read at three levels. Firstly they should be enjoyed as music, then the meaning sought. With my historical poems, the story then follows these.”
If you are of the rare species of poetry reader, buy this anthology. It contradicts the common perceptions of Zimbabwean literature. Give it time and frequent reading and you will be rewarded.