Stitching a Whirlwind: An anthology of  southern African poems

Stitching a Whirlwind: An anthology of southern African poems

This is the first of eight volumes in the African Pulse series from Oxford University Press; as the publisher’s note states “the texts translated for this series have been identified time and again by scholars of literature in southern Africa as classics in their original languages” [iii]. It comprises 42 poems or excerpts from longer poems, with the originals (in Sesotho, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Setswana, Sepedi) printed on the left-hand pages, their English translation on the right. Translators include thepost’s very own Tšepiso Samuel Mothibi.

In her Foreword one of the translators, Gabeba Baderoon, states that when the poems are gathered together they “engage in an imaginative exchange across barriers of language, author and period, overcoming decades of riven conversations” (viii). One notes that this is something the poems are being asked to do, not necessarily part of their authors’ aspiration. But Baderoon’s point is borne out by the anthology. The poems in each language are not clustered together—rather, the arrangement is, roughly speaking, thematic—which strengthens the point about speaking across. On that score, one of the praise poems included is “The praises of a maskandi singer” and one can imagine Basotho readers coming across this isiZulu poem and thinking, wow, how like our own lithoko, but how interestingly different, too.

Baderoon expands on her point: “translation should be our thirteenth language. [South Africa has twelve official ones]. Instead, our literary culture, publishing, and education systems have not kept pace with this polyglot reality” (viii).
Antjie Krog, one of the volume’s translators and its coordinator has an Introduction in which she remarks: “This anthology gives readers a glimpse of the incredible depth and wealth of beauty, knowledge, flair and brilliance found in the literatures of indigenous languages in southern Africa.” (xiii) and the volume bears this out in trumps.
The volume kicks off with love poems and poems on beautiful women, for example, “Nomkhosi of my father” by B.M. Vilikazi: “Your firm steps as you walk / tire a young man courting. / He passes you and then takes a glance backwards, / watches you and tears flow” (3).

Some wonderful words crop up. Everyone will find their own favourites, but mine is the Sepedi mantlhadisabageso, translated as “tawny-coloured.” Henceforth I’m going to use that at every available opportunity.
One of the most striking poems, Otty Nxumalo’s “Why does it keep saying?”, protests at the repeated cry of a dove, reminding him painfully of lost patterns of social behaviour and interaction, a topic that might have proven maudlin but is made vibrant by the poet’s close observation and wit (“Here they eat sweets and ice blocks . . . here they don’t milk into their mouths—they pour from the bottle”; 17). Better known than Nxumalo amongst the Zulu poets represented here is Princess Constance Magogo, whose love poem “Hold me, hold me!” is wonderfully raunchy. The title of the anthology comes, by the way, from one of the most ambitious poems here, in terms of expanse, language, and use of metaphor, “Beloved” by K.E.Ntsane.

There is heartbreak here, too. Gili KaNobantu’s anguished poem “The promised girl” is on the way labour migrancy shatters relationships; this is another non-Sesotho poem that will speak intimately to Basotho. There is a powerful piece by St. John Page Yako on the loss of land, combining close observation with quirky imagery (“We fold up our knees—unable to stretch out, / because the land has been shrunk”; 53). Two poets have elegies on the troops who died in the First World War in the Mendi troopship disaster (a historical incident that continues to fire the creative imagination, with recent poems and a musical play on the subject, and Fred Khumalo’s novel Dancing the Death Drill).

There are other poems on the ravages of colonialism and apartheid. A.S. Mopeli-Paulus issues a clarion call—“African, wake up—the country has been seized by foreigners” (67)—in a poem published just a few years before his leading role in the Witzieshoek cattle rebellion (there is still no monument in Phudidatchaba to those who lost their lives in this). One of the most powerful, and extended, poems, by H.R. Jolobe, is built around the refrain “I have seen the making of a slave / In a young yoke-ox”; 55). And one of the most challenging, even shocking, poems is “A resister’s reply to a Christian convert!” by Nontsizi Mgqwetho, who, as her mini-biography states, is “thought to be the first woman to have written poetry exclusively in isiXhosa” (213).
Roughly in the centre of the volume comes the longest item included (some 130 lines), extracts from the formidable “The poems of Moshoeshoe and others” by D.C.T. Bereng. Remarkable, that poet’s influence, given that he only published one collection—but what a collection!

And there is much more. Mqhayi’s virtuoso poem “Black soldiers”, with its amazing word-play. Mgqwthu’s “The female poet and Abantu Batho”—talk about outspoken! The scathing satire of B.D. Magoleng’s “The principal who hates his work” (“During lunch break you can see,/ the principal plunges into his plate, / Smack-smacking his lips, eating chicken and cake together”; 157). Masizi Kunene’s “Mandela’s letter to Nomzamo”, which prompts a sob, both on account of its beauty, and on account of events that followed its composition (Nomzamo was the first name of Winnie Mandela). A long, harrowing poem by H.M.L. Lentsoane on the events of the first day of the Soweto uprising.

The last twenty pages of the book are taken up with mini-biographies of the poets and translators, the latter with photos. This section includes invaluable documentation, though there are two errors in the notes on A.S. Mopeli-Paulus (Ho Tsamaea Ke Ho Bona is a poetry collection, not a novel, and—a vital recognition in understanding the trajectory of his work—Mopeli-Paulus was born in South Africa, in the lost territories, not in Lesotho).
I could only spot one infelicity in the translations: the ambiguous placing of “from” in “we shall seek protection from your shield” (63; better would have been “we shall seek the protection of your shield”). Some of the poems could have done with a historical / explanatory note, for example, “Dingane and the Boers”, which perplexed this reader.
But this is a volume to be treasured, the Crown Jewels of southern Africa. It can be ordered from Oxford University Press, Vasco Boulevard, Goodwood, N1 City, PO Box 12119, Cape Town, RSA.

Prof Chris Dunton

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