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Two edgeless poets

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Today I want to dwell on two edgeless poets; one Iraqi and the other, African. Work without edges is a phenomenon in art that refers to art (say poetry or drawing) that tickles the consumer through its lack of definitive meaning.
Edgeless art is not driven by a desire to be understood but by a desire to draw out experience as felt by the artist in its original dreamlike state, without giving away predictable meaning.

You may say the poet’s obligation in that kind of writing is to tell the story with the most beautiful and thrilling language possible, to extend and expand even what is possible with language and real life situations.
Iraqi poet, Sami Mahdi’s book simply called Poems, is a work of art that qualifies to be called “work without edges.” In one poem called “Transience”, he describes being alive as an experience akin to the one that a child experiences when aboard a fast moving vehicle, the feeling that the trees and buildings and mountains are running backwards as the vehicle is tearing ahead and the onlooker is not able to catch anything and that life is just a fleeting affair too.

In another piece, a prose piece that is however very poetic, called “The Man and the Dog”, Sami Mahdi writes about an obscure old man who stays with his dog that he now lives on in order to give his dog company. One day, the dog is run over by a car! The old man starts to meditate over the death of his dog and throws himself under the wheels of a passing vehicle and dies. The language of that poem is edgeless and as you read on, you feel that you could be dreaming or better still, listening to a folktale from a faraway country:

“A man in his eighties, I used to greet him every morning with a fleeing gesture…He used to accept it and reply with a similar gesture, then he would cast a bewildered look at his house. He is my neighbour. And people have neighbours if they pay attention, but between us there was only that tepid language…”
The writing is dreamy and obscure but you keep feeling that it is based on a concrete experience and that the author is choosing to work only on the pith of real life experience without telling you what the oldman has been doing until he is left with only a dog in this wide world full of billions of people.

In yet another dreamy piece called, “The young man and the lady”, a young man visits a man’s house in search of a man who appears to be his friend or mentor, to get something that is never mentioned, but, at the house, the young man finds what must be the man’s wife and the man is away.
Without being neither instructive nor elaborative, the young man notices that as soon as the door is open, the woman is wearing a very strong and enticing perfume! Her smile takes the young man by surprise too, as if the elderly woman has been anticipating the young man’s visit!

The woman tells the young man that his mentor is not home at the moment, but she sort of hoodwinks or coerces the young man into the house. She asks him to come in and sit down to wait for his mentor. The young man wants to come sit in and wait but feels that he is being trapped by the woman’s overpowering presence and her charming femininity! He feels very drawn towards her.

The woman is charming and confident and she talks on and on to the young man as if she has always known him. She appears to be aware that the young man is enticed by her. She seems to want to be intimate with the young man without having to say it to the young man.
She offers him a drink and asks him to sit very close to him. The young man obliges, even when he knows that culturally it is wrong, since she is someone’s wife and that her husband, his mentor, could just walk in anytime! The woman is very circumspect but captivating through her words and erotic body movements:

“Right. You shall talk about yourself. Not married yet? You will get married one day just like others. Everybody does. But you are still very young. You are rather skinny but I can see in your solemnity the vigour of a genuine and strong foal!” Then she walked towards him and says about her dress which exposes her body parts to the young man, “God damn this dress which, whenever one of its buttons came off, showed something that a woman would not like to be seen by a stranger who might annoy her, make flirtations to her or say something rude.” She sat beside him. “Why are you worried? Did I say anything annoying to you? Your eyes look burning…”

When the young man eventually leaves, the woman’s husband still has not returned, but you have a feeling that he has had sex with the elderly woman or they have fallen in love that the young man would really come back again next time in order to have an opportunity to see her again, and not her husband. The edges are just fluid….As you read, you also recall all those people of the opposite sex whom you have been desperately drawn towards even against your will.

In “The Ants”, Sami Mahdi writes about how the many-many ants in the world make life difficult for birds because the ants tend to be everywhere in the forest that even when the forest catches fire or is soaked in rain, the ants never get tired of frolicking around and getting on with their business of being ants! As you read on, you feel that you are suddenly part of the world of ants in their indomitability…
Sami Mahdi was born in 1940 and lives in Baghdad, where he works as editor-in-chief of the official Iraqi daily al-Thwara.

The other writer of edgeless poems is the African writer, Charles Mungoshi who is however, less known as a poet. Scholarship on Mungoshi characteristically only mentions “The Milkman Doesn’t Only Deliver Milk,” in passing. This single volume of his poems is the least celebrated of all his books. Moreover, Mungoshi has published little other poetry beyond a few poems in magazines and anthologies such as Zimunya and Kadhani’s “And Now the Poets Speak,” (Gweru: 1981).

However, Mungoshi’s poetry calls for attention as it is closely related to the essence and philosophy of his more celebrated prose. When properly read, his poetry may be seen as the quintessence of his art – capturing subtly and briefly what he achieves in more elaborate ways in his prose. Using a style that is condensed, routinely detached and sometimes deceptively simple, Mungoshi’s poetry paints a multi-layered world of meaning. Almost always, the Mungoshi persona provides a private and contemplative voice, but one that is deeply involved in the movement and multiplicity of the larger world. With the aid of free verse and short, almost hesitant, cascading lines there is here a sense of a persona who sees without being seen and talks without rushing to suggest.

In “Poet” the persona/poet is walking “on the edge of now/like a pole-axed tightrope walker” towards his calling: writing. The mere act of writing poetry (and any writing) is perceived as negotiating a balance between present and past, life and death and the craftsman’s task is one of social and personal responsibility.
But Mungoshi can show nostalgia for the long-past, personal, and rewarding world of rural childhood and innocence. As in “Before the Sun”, the persona’s forté in the world is to chop “big logs”, roast green mealies by a bush fire and when the sun “comes up in the east like some late-comer to a feast”, it is seen as the boy’s terrestrial playmate. Here man and nature commune.

Alternatively, Mungoshi can write elaborate narrative poetry which borders on fiction or folk-tale. “Location miracle” is a ‘story’ about a disabled girl who gradually rises beyond her physical disadvantages and succeeds – to marry a wholly able-bodied young man. Each hindrance on her way is a challenge to rise higher. “Location miracle” rides on the shoulders of subtle understatement, wry, high-density-suburb humour and common-sense. This story-turned-poem has a fireside aura to it and links easily with other similar poems such as “Little Rich Boy”, “Lazy Day”, “The Same Lazy Day”, “After the Rain”. Mungoshi has that subtle ability to fracture and condense the short story and tell it effortlessly.

Another particular form of Mungoshi’s poetry in English is the short, condensed poem. Usually it is based on a seemingly nonsensical object, feeling or observation. This brevity, intensity and relatedness to an object gives the poem the multi-dimensional feel of the far-eastern Haiku or Zen philosophy.
In the interview with Flora Veit-Wild (cited above), Mungoshi volunteers his admiration for Matsuo Basho, the Japanese master of Haiku. Loosely defined, Haiku form springs from observing a specific object or dwelling on a specific mood or happening. However, Mungoshi’s very short poems also remind us of the later poems of the English poet Thomas Hardy that began with a single object – a lamp post, an old table in an old house, etc.

In “Non-Stop Through Enkeldoorn” the persona (obviously in a fast-moving car at night) has a sudden glimpse of unknown people’s “silent faces” and “wordless mouths”, stepping back into the dark as the car drives past. This brief experience provokes feelings akin to seeing/reading momentary words of a page in a stranger’s biography. This refers to the brevity of human life and the frightening anonymity of people one cannot and will not ever relate to.
In most of Mungoshi’s very short and edgeless poems, he captures the spirit of loneliness and the capacity of the perceived object or environment to dictate a specific mood or thought. Other poems in this mould are “How do you do it”, “In Flight” and “The Trees”.

Another aspect of Mungoshi’s poetry is the anguished way he writes of “Home” and alienation in general. The poem “Home” – as with Lucifer in the novel Waiting For The Rain – talks about what it means and feels to live in a colonially defined space from which you eventually run away, returning only to die “after having lived your life elsewhere”. And yet at another level Mungoshi accepts that the space ‘home’ is a place where recent history and one’s people are situated. As in “If you don’t Stay Bitter and Angry for too Long” Mungoshi invites you to return into the home within yourself – that unchanging part of humanity, the conscience.
Charles Mungoshi, a prominent African writer, died in February 2019.

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Insight

The Joker Returns: Conclusion

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Last week I was talking about how jokes, or humour generally, can help get one through the most desperate situations (although it’s like taking a paracetamol for a headache; a much, much stronger resort is faith). I used the example of how Polish Jews, trapped and dying in the Warsaw ghetto, used humour to get them through day by day.

A similar, though less nightmarish, situation obtains in today’s Nigeria. Conditions there are less hellish than those of the Warsaw ghetto, but still pretty awful. There are massive redundancies, so millions of people are jobless. Inflation is at about 30% and the cost of living is sky-rocketing, with the most basic foodstuffs often unavailable. There is the breakdown of basic social services.

And endemic violence, with widespread armed robbery (to travel by road from one city to another you take your life in your hands) and the frequent kidnapping for ransom of schoolchildren and teachers. In a recent issue of the Punch newspaper (Lagos) Taiwo Obindo, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Jos, writes of the effects of economic hardship and insecurity on his people’s mental health.

He concludes: “We should see the funny side of things. We can use humour to handle some things. Don’t take things to heart; laugh it off.”

Professor Obindo doesn’t, regrettably, give examples of the humour he prescribes, but I remember two from a period when things were less grim. Power-cuts happened all the time — a big problem if you’re trying to work at night and can’t afford a generator.

And so the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) was universally referred to as Never Expect Power Always. And second, for inter-city travel there was a company called Luxurious Buses. Believe me, the average Lesotho kombi is a great deal more luxurious (I can’t remember ever having to sit on the floor of one of those).

And because of the dreadful state of Nigerian roads and the frequent fatal crashes, Luxurious Buses were referred to as Luxurious Hearses.

Lesotho’s newspaper thepost, for which I slave away tirelessly, doesn’t use humour very much. But there is Muckraker. I’ve always wondered whether Muckraker is the pen-name of a single person or a group who alternate writing the column.

Whatever, I’d love to have a drink with him / her/ them and chew things over. I like the ironic pen-name of the author(s). Traditionally speaking, a muckraker is a gossip, someone who scrabbles around for titbits (usually sexual) on the personal life of a celebrity — not exactly a noble thing to do.

But thepost’s Muckraker exposes big problems, deep demerits, conducted by those who should know and do better — problems that the powerful would like to be swept under the carpet, and the intention of Muckraker’s exposure is corrective.

And I always join in the closing exasperated “Ichuuuu!” (as I do this rather loudly, my housemates probably think I’m going bonkers).

Finally I want to mention television satire. The Brits are renowned for this, an achievement dating back to the early 1960s and the weekly satirical programme “TW3” (That Was The Week That Was). More recently we have had “Mock the Week”, though, despite its popularity, the BBC has cancelled this.

The cancellation wasn’t for political reasons. For decades the UK has been encumbered with a foul Conservative government, though this year’s election may be won by Labour (not such very good news, as the Labour leadership is only pseudo-socialist). “Mock the Week” was pretty even-handed in deriding politicians; the BBC’s problem was, I imagine, with the programme’s frequent obscenity.

As an example of their political jokes, I quote a discussion on the less than inspiring leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer. One member of the panel said: “Labour may well have a huge lead in the polls at present, but the day before election day Starmer will destroy it by doing something like accidentally infecting David Attenborough with chicken-pox.”

And a favourite, basically non-political interchange on “Mock the Week” had to do with our former monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Whatever one thinks about the British monarchy as an institution, the Queen was much loved, but the following interchange between two panellists (A and B) was fun:

A: Is the Queen’s nickname really Lilibet?
B: Yes, it is.
A: I thought her nickname was Her Majesty.
B: That’s her gang name.

OK, dear readers, that’s enough humour from me for a while. Next week I’m turning dead serious — and more than a little controversial — responding to a recent Insight piece by Mokhosi Mohapi titled “A reversal of our traditions and culture.” To be forewarned is to be prepared.

Chris Dunton

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Insight

Reading, writing and the art of reflection

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There is a close thread that runs through what you reflect on, what you read and what sticks in your mind. It’s almost a cyclic process with regards to how all these processes unfold. Today, in this installment we focus on the thread between reading, reflection and writing.

This appears a bit cumbersome to explain. But let’s simplify it. Let’s begin with a beautiful poem which encompasses what we have so far spoken about. Here we are! The poem is penned by “Tachibama Akemi.” It goes:

It is a pleasure
When, rising in the morning,
I go outside and
Find that a flower has blossomed
That was not there yesterday.

Seemingly, the poem is simple. But, on close analysis, it reflects very deep reflection and thoughtfulness.

The persona, in an existential fashion, reflects all about the purpose and meaning of life and his place in the overall matrix of life.

The persona carefully reflects on nature. This is what makes all this poem rustic and romantic.

The persona thinks deeply about the blossoming flowers and how the process of the growth of flowers appears almost inadvertently.

It is a poem about change, healing, the lapse of time and the changes or vissiccitudes in the life of a person are reflected creatively through imagery and poetry. We all go through that, isn’t it? We all react and respond to love, truth and beauty.

So far everything appears very interesting. Let’s just put to the fore some good and appealing thoughts. Let’s enlarge on reading, writing and reflection.

Kindly keep in mind that thoughts must be captured, told, expressed and shared through the magical power of the written word.

As a person, obviously through keeping entries in a journal, there is no doubt that you have toyed about thoughts and ideas and experiences you wish you could put across.

Here is an example you can peek from Anthony. Anthony likes writing. He tells us that in his spare time he likes exploring a lot. And, more often than not he tells us,

“I stop, and think, and then when I find something, I just keep on writing.”

So crisp, but how beautiful. Notice something interesting here; you need to stop, to take life effortlessly and ponderously, as it were; observe, be attentive to your environment; formulate thought patterns and then write.

To some extent, this article builds on our previous experiences when we spoke at length about the reading process.

But how can you do it? It’s not pretty much different. I can help you from my previous life as a teacher of English Languge.

The most important skill you must cultivate is that of listening, close listening. Look at how people and events mingle.

What makes both of you happy; enjoy it. I am sure you still keep that journal in which you enter very beautiful entries. Reflect about Maseru, the so-called affluent city. So majestic!

How can you picture it in writing!

I am glad you learnt to reflect deep and write. Thank you very much. Kindly learn and perfect the craft of observing, reflecting and writing. Learn that connection. Let’s meet for another class.

Vuso Mhlanga

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Insight

The Joker Returns: Part One

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Don’t be put off by the title, esteemed readers; what follows has nothing to do with the Batman films. As you will be happily (or unhappily) aware, I am a big fan of jokes. There’s a common understanding that a joke is ruined if you have to explain it, and this is true, but some jokes do need a bit of background explanation. Anyway. I like jokes and I like thinking about how they work.

Many of my favourite jokes have to do with language and the way we use it. For example: “I just bought myself a thesaurus. I similar it very much.”

Other jokes have to do with human behaviour and here it is important, out of respect for others, to avoid jokes that perpetuate stereotypical ideas about gender, race, nationality, and so on. I’m afraid the following joke does depend upon a stereotype (I’ll come back to that), but here goes, after a bit of background information.

In Lesotho you have an insect called a praying mantis — stick-like, bright green, and with great bulging eyes. They are rather lovable, despite the off-putting fact that the female practices insect cannibalism; after mating, she consumes the male. So, now you’ve had your zoological primer, here goes.

Two praying mantises are getting up close and personal. The female says to the male: “before we have sex and I bite your head off, could you help me put up some shelves?”

Apologies to female readers, because, as I said, that joke perpetuates a gender stereotype, namely, that women are good with a vacuum cleaner or a dustpan and brush, but hopeless with a hammer and nails.

There are many jokes that are, as it were, much more serious than that. As I rattled on about in a couple of earlier columns, many of these are satirical — jokes that are designed to point a finger at human folly or even wickedness. In another column, titled “Should we laugh?”, I explored the question “is there any subject that should be kept out of the range of humour?”

Well, apparently not, if we take on board the following account of the Warsaw ghetto.

Historical preface first.

The Warsaw ghetto represents one of the worst atrocities in modern history. In November 1940 the genocidal Nazis rounded up all the Jews in Poland’s capital and herded them into a small sector of the city, which they euphemistically, cynically, dubbed the “Jewish Residential District in Warsaw.”

Here nearly half a million Jews were in effect imprisoned, barely subsisting on tiny food rations. An estimated quarter of a million were sent off to the death camps. An uprising against the Nazi captors was brutally crushed. Around 100 000 died of starvation or disease.

Not much to laugh about there, you might say. But then consider the following, which I’ve taken from the New York Review of Books of February 29th this year:

“In the Warsaw Ghetto in October 1941 Mary Berg, then a teenager, wrote in her diary about the improbable persistence of laughter in that hellish place: ‘Every day at the Art Café on Leszno Street one can hear songs and satire on the police, the ambulance service, the rickshaws, and even the Gestapo, [on the latter] in a veiled fashion. The typhoid epidemic itself is the subject of jokes. It is laughter through tears, but it is laughter. This is not our only weapon in the ghetto — our people laugh at death and at the Nazi decrees. Humour is the only thing the Nazis cannot understand.’”

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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