DAMBUDZO MARECHERA is one of the most important figures in the cultural history of post-colonial Africa. Born and educated in what was then Rhodesia, he became a JCR Scholar at New College in 1976. Someone of coruscating intelligence, a natural rule breaker and a brilliant writer, his time in Oxford was stormy and eventful. Eventually, he was sent down. He wrote:
"I remember consoling myself by reflecting on how Shelley’s free and happy life in University College was permanently interrupted by his expulsion in the Spring of 1811 for alleged contumacy in connection with a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism on which he collaborated with his good friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg. Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth."
Literary ‘outsiders’ like Shelley, or even Oscar Wilde, always fascinated him.
Shortly after leaving Oxford, he published his first book, The House of Hunger, which won The Guardian Fiction prize. It was quickly recognised as being a very important work, and received to critical acclaim.
His writing went from strength to strength. A self-proclaimed ‘cockroach’, his work depicted life seen from bedding down on other people’s floors. The Black Insider is a novella which must rate as one of the finest out of Africa of the last century. Marechera once wrote ‘I cannot see a thing without striking an attitude’. His attitudes remain compelling, frightening, uncomfortable and challenging, whether expressed in his prose or his poetry. He died sadly young in 1987 in Harare, still defiantly refusing to accept any labels or attributions of belonging.
Marechera has a very distinctive theory of poetry. He wrote ‘poetry is more a musical notation than a reasoned imaginative structure’. While he did not see a huge difference between prose and poetry, he did exploit its greater ‘concentration and density’. As these excerpts from Throne of Bayonets, a poem written in 1982/83, after his return to Zimbabwe from his sojourn abroad, testify to the power and originality of his work.
Throne of Bayonets
Where to sit still
And slam the door
Against fear of tomorrow?
Brute black rain
Pummels my brainpaths
Unleashes areas of despair
In my once sunlit memory.
Nothing but blows and kicks
Greet the friendly eye of thought
Which bloodied muddied shakes the dust
To all humanity
And discovers terror the totem of truth.
Within tiny blue eggs
In abandoned nest
Within derelict tenements
And the battered souls
Of battered souls
Of wrecked hopes
The shades of incinerated history
Hums my song, hums all the wrong.
Slug, table football, borrowed beer
Furtive lust — these the knowing sneer,
Plans dressed in tom overalls
Share cynical cigarettes in Cecil Square.
Time’s mutilated beggars (harvest
Of Chance, Folly, or Slogan?) hold vigil
Over custom’s empty ceremonial tin cup:
I look at Harare, my hair stands on end.
At midnight Gaunt skeletons
Urinate by the roadside.
Against The polished blackspread of sky
The scarcely visible moon
And the satiated roar of waiting thunder.
I look around at the shuttered houses
The eerie neon signs, the car speeding past
To some distant unknown home, and I lie down
Again within the hibiscus hedge, my refuge
From wind and cold and dour premonition.
Did I mistake the corridor
And the doorway (each step
Now the Room endless black rain
And the blood distant vistas
Of photogenic Falls?
Rather My butchered father
On a mortuary slab, and I,
All of eleven years old, refusing
But forced to look. I know now: Learn
Mortality early and you are doomed
To forever walk alone.
For others the dark blue pond
And darkling plush of day
On the ear sweet, liquid
From all round I hear dark
“You think you are a poet “
“You are black and buggered.”
Lightning flashes, thunder hurls his
“No escape from the whips of Chance
“Only escape to sit down and write.”
Buckets of rain, drums of water, cauldrons
But my arm holds his gate, holds it hard
And my mind makes of the sky-tumult
A cleansing soul brightwhite on the black wave.
What brute hand clamps
over my mouth
What seawaves brutal/broken
roar over me!
From inside empty bedrooms
trees and the Moon
Project grotesque silhouettes
into my sunlit dream.
Depression’s ironclad has not
fired his last salvo
And hours and minutes still attend
those about to die.
With the dying the hungry milling
Is it enough to write lines like
Between root and shoot
The worm and I;
Between bough and branch
Birdsong and sky.
Blow softly summer’s breeze
In Black Rain dreams I sail;
Anxiety ends, thoughts cease
On that brightest furthest shore.
But not yet the bliss of oblivion
The gasp of nothingness —
A thousand Cares the hairs on my head
Turning grey, turning time white:
Vast Winter Sky of tiny
A myriad of stars over cold
Or, with thoughtful sneer note how
The Void blows its nose
States of Mind taste of
Or, with linguistic detachment, sing of
Waterwine, sing of
Streamsong — who the questioner
what the answer?
As roses thorns and loneliness
a rhinoceros hide …
(I turn in-
But in the region
I find — naked, bloated,
And picking still from
the Bloodied cauldron an arm
A severed breast —
Myself gleefully at banquet.)
— sound of revolt
From transmitters more certain
than the stars
I hear Franz Fanon and the muted unborn;
“WHEN! WHEN! WHEN!”
I throw Sundays
like steel rings interlinked
To net bright horizons nearer;
“WHERE O tenant Soul
Where are you?”
The poem hastens slowly —
Like the slow shimmering sights of Winter-dawn
The poem screams quietly;
Like flying fish in the oilstrewn burning sea
The poem is dying alive.
As the crow flies
The distance between
Certain death, and
Is three centimetres of harsh, and
Harsher ideas AHEAD —
This film of dust
Under my lovesong dustcloth, when
From the brilliant blue sky
Falls summer’s rainsweet perfume —
(Where lived heart’s delight
Passion is bricked up; my dreams on a spit
Turn a tender goldbrown
Over the fires of awakening.)
“HERE! Tenant soul, OVER HERE!!”
Earning endless day after endless day
After endless day:
PUT EVERYTHING DOWN AND RUN!
On the empty lawn a violent throng
Toward the Throne of Bayonets
Eating violet flowers: long
Lost friends whom the struggle buried. They
Chorused, leaped into dance; they aroused satisfied
Desires older deeper than the Universe.
But my butterfly’s waterpiano said;
“His fierce Wings begin to droop
“His thoughts are less than tricycle pace
“His piercing eyes have glazed over
“His barrel trunk and vigorous stride
“Have collapsed like a Gipsy accordion” —
No way out of the collector’s bottle
No escape from the needle pinning my
Throat to Hararean velvet cascades.
The human sleeping-bag stirs
Waking from profound (but
This dark region of the mind,
By the womb’s poetic skin?
These vibrations, those voices —
Endless possibility at the tip of the fevered
Breathtaking horizons sparkling like newly-washed
Or gut reaction
To terrible truths
Which the mouth shapes into a soundless
Even as the life-force speeds to the stars
Like the luminous flight of a burning, sparrow?
The reasons, like coats
Are hung on a nail;
The circumstances, like teacakes
Are passed around, nibbled.
We sit on the verandah of Destiny
Sipping vermouth, speculating
Whose knock opened the steel
Doors of the soul,
What heralded the bitter cup
That will not pass?
I shift my weight from the right foot to
The left’s radical compassion; from faith to
Cynical resignation; from furious debate on atheism to
Does there lurk design in Chance
And in my place therein?
Reasoning thus I came upon a legless fragment
Of humanity, his toothless scowl
An attempt to accommodate humanity.
Did Antigone, entombed alive
Shrill to her own ears the shriek
Other ears dare not hear?
A hot hungry landscape
Has etched itself on the steelplate
Of the future —
Toothsmiles and wrinklewords
On that verandah
And the view a permanent drought of Probabilities —
Rainscathed phantoms haunt the Second Street bus stop:
Destination unknown — in the brilliant blue sky
Steel flamelilies (crowned with Soapstone
Workers of the world Unite!
Riderless riders have hitched their horses
At the Ambassador Hotel, harbingers
Of horror. Their pith helmets
Are stained red by too many drizzly investments.
I dine on stone and clay
And roam the streets at the end of the day.
Let music, soft and low
Underline the loneliness
That’s passion’s source;
I lick my knuckle-busted lips
And of the vinegar take another sip.
Ice? A dash of lemon peel, sir?
Do placid faces mask frightful
Dare I light my cigarettepoem
With traffic accident statistics?
Or let the words
At the Playboy
Do their striptease
For the Minister
And the clerk?
Or so seduce the sense
From the meaning
With experiments random
And indistinct construction
That I resort to the label
O for Black Rain to cleanse the blues!
A queue as long as the Original Snake
Has since dawn waited to buy cooking oil
Paraffin, petrol, and matches; Prometheus
Has donned his Mask
And proceeds casually to the prostitutes at the Kopje.
Minds of every hue intermingle with matter
Only of concern to the Censor; Athena
And Malcolm X are the hosts, dealing
Out dagga and kachasu to freedom’s veterans.
Black sky, dark stingray — O To drown in deep waters!
This dried-up Lake Kariba
Of censorship peering over,
That tumultuously waterless
Of writer after writer
Hurled to the seething hell below.
I gave her the pure bloom of jacaranda
The fiery ecstasy of flamelilies
This continuous gnawing delight
That now is nothing but painful memory;
And few the luminous seasons in her eyes
Which to sheer adoration toss grudgingly
Bits of psychological speculation,
Bits of political condemnation
Were Hell other people
And not myself I could willingly
Diagnose the scratchings at the other side
Of the door.
The telephone rings: from the other end of the line
My name and voice introduce themselves: Poet.
Finger-fat delusions wash themselves
in the dish of dollars
And proceed to eat liberation’s sadza and stew.
Take cast iron pains
To maintain their ignorance;
Their wide bellies and Castro beards
Are the matter of many a snide joke.
What can violet flowers do
Their perfume Baptist to Thrones of Bayonets?
I came out of the Harare barber shop, my hair white
And bright like icecream melting.
A single finger traces on the sand
The simple finger traces on the sand
The simple design of death
Whose centre is everywhere
Whose circumference is nowhere.
The sight of blood makes me hunger
After raw tomatoes
After the cream and rose complexion of Nordic
Makes me thirst for the Masai’s bull-wrought
And perhaps a glass of Gerac, that savanna sundowner
Of redneck modalities.
Were regrets basket chairs
We’d be condemned to sit for life,
To sit still passionately; the Siamese cats
nuzzle against my ankle, purring.
In the garage of the imagination
Quietly sparkling, a Rolls Royce, Pulsar, an
Alfa Romeo …
I will smear my face with soft Lanoline,
With American Girl Hand Body Lotion
With Ambi skin-lightening cream —
With pasteurised and bionised dung.
It’s Disco Time at Scamps and Chantelles
You and I in platform boots and imitation Levis
Will mimic the hours in twirl and stomp
The like of Gary Glitter;
Icecream hats and Rasta T-shirts the emblems
Of our liberation’s arrival — Guitars, trombones,
Ukeleles, harps, synthesisers, instruments of wind and air,
I think of Stravinsky (Soldier’s Return)
And hibiscus/violets in the shadow of Great Zimbabwe,
Shadows! Their salttaste a judgement
On common reality,
The oblique equation on mirrorlike poems.
To make or unmake the impulse which kills
All other impulse,
To do or not to do the deed of commonplace key
And say ‘‘This was Hamlet”,
Untold doors behind me are slamming shut
Each labelled Harare.
Ti saa har Gud elsket verden, att han utgav
Sin enfödde Son, para que todo aquel que en el cree,
Mas tenha a vida etema.
THE BLACK INSIDER
In his novella, The Black Insider, Marachera creates a ravaged post-colonial landscape miniaturised within a faculty building which has been destroyed in fighting. Here, a group of survivors – all outsiders –recount their experiences. There are many autobiographical references, a brilliant mini-drama satirising the Smith-Muzorewa government and, as this excerpt shows, an extraordinary and eclectic use of language and allusions.
"The faculty is the last desperate ditch of a state of my mind bred in the tension of war. Black clouds of smoke graze their brief minutes in the black of the sky, which is still cindered by the shock and concussion of the comet that blasted us in that old twentieth century. The dog-eared history books say so. A half-digested idea is transformed into an overwhelming description of the world. The eerie inside-out illumination bursts out of the void. Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, or Hamlet and a Raymond Chandler give us similar briefs of the blood-rimmed glow of human circumstance imbued with a painful fascination, an almost superhuman Improvidence. Each word clicks into the cogs of the mind, leaping off the page like oily flames spreading over a calm sea. Cool eyes seethe with reading and gaze out of the window on to a war-paralysed city where multitudes each day succumb to the despair of hunger, disease arid homelessness. William Burroughs Jnr’s Naked Lunch exposes such entrails whose steaming augury paralyses the motion of our bowels. A long-haired homosexual sang ‘The poison of asps is under their lips whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood. Destruction and misery are in their ways. And the way of peace have they not known.’
What we see, being our sight, has no objectivity and cannot be of itself but there it is, aghast at the edge of sense where our perception seeks to fuse with the concrete that is always just out of grasp. All Cretans are liars, said the Cretan. It is not so much what is unimaginable as what we cannot imagine that frames each individual human experience. Words evoke more than that which is there to be evoked. Imagination has the same edge over mere experience. And yet man is rooted only in what is there, beginning with birth and death and the state of his guts. The infinite is best expressed inexpressibly, suggestively, negatively. Human capacity is, in reverse, a definition of the impossible that incredibly surrounds us. We are what we are not, is the paradox of fiction. What is not observed, sharply observes that which is. What is not said, qualifies all that is said. Each circumstance comes into focus when we adjust the lens, making reality a series of parallel foci rather than a sharply outlined human epic whose every detail is simultaneously in focus. Soyinka’s interpreters, like ourselves, have to learn this, though without the precision and auto-sensitiveness of an expensive camera.
A diet of Tarzan and cowboy films, of James Bond and Hollywood thrillers and Hepburn romances is not the best pre-school eduction but that is what we get. A series of English classics in basic English - Dickens, Trollope, the Brontës, Kipling, Defoe, etc. - is not the kind to seduce one to the study of literature but that is what is being done. The teaching of English as though the acquisition of it gave one the status of being an honorary divine cannot attract many thinking foreigners but that is what it has done so far. To be able to read and write is therefore only the first downward step towards the first circle where black fires rage inconsumably. Candide’s experience of the world is the nearest we can get to the series of cerebral shocks which await the savage who is earnestly in search of culture. ‘There is nothing here but illusion, and one calamity after another.’ The experience is not unlike that of one organism living on and at the expense of another.
The ability to read and write exposes the mind to the haustoria of everything that is written. The parasite is entirely dependent for food upon our minds. There are very few animals living in natural conditions which do not possess at least one parasite, and sometimes a whole fauna is sheltered in various parts of our thinking. Apart from such ectoparasites as bugs, like fleas, mosquitoes, leeches, and vampire bats which lead a free existence but periodically attack the host to suck blood, there are endoparasites which actually live permanently in our minds. The later are also known collectively as ‘culture’, ‘tradition’, ‘history’ or civvilization’. There is a definite degree of tolerance established between host and parasite; each becomes adapted to the other. It is not to the advantage of a parasite to cause serious harm to its host, as thus it is likely to suffer itself. To cause the death of its host is tantamount to its committing suicide. There have been cultures, however, in Germany, Uganda, Japan, and South Africa which have pig-headedly embroiled their host in catastrophic strife. Hermann Hesse sought to escape the social parasite:
Would you really want
to be a gentleman now,
and a master craftsman
with a wife and children
reading the paper by the fireside?
Look, said God, I wanted you
The way you are and no different
You were a wanderer in my name
and wherever you went you brought the settled folk
a little homesickness for freedom.
And in South Africa, Mtshali saw the grim parasitism everywhere:
Glorious is this world,
the world that sustains man
like a maggot in a carcass.
Language is like water. You can drink it. You can swim in it. You can drown in it. You can wear a snorkel in it. You can flow to the sea in it. You can evaporate and become invisible with it. You can remain standing in a bucket for hours. The Japanese invented a way of torturing people with drops of water. The Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique also used water to torture people. The dead friend Owen, who painted the mural on my wall, used to dream about putting LSD into South Africa’s drinking water. It seems inconceivable to think of humans who have no language. They may have invented gelignite but they cannot do without water. Some take it neat from rivers and wells. Some have it chemically treated and reservoired. Others drink nothing but beer and Bloody Marys and wine but this too is a way of taking your water. The way you take your water is supposed to say a lot about you. It is supposed to reflect your history, your culture, your breeding, etc. It is supposed to show the extent to which you and your nation have developed or degenerated. The word ‘primitive’ is applied to all those who take their alphabet neat from rivers, sewers, and natural scenery - sometimes this may be described as the romantic imagination. The height of sophistication is actually to channel your water through a system of pipes right into your very own lavatory where you shake the hand of a machine and your shit and filthy manners disappear in a roaring of water. Being water you can spread diseases like bilharzia and thought. Thought is more fatal than bilharzia. And if you want to write a book you cannot think unless your thoughts are contagious. ‘Do you still think and dream in your first language?’ someone asked me in London. Words are worlds massively shrunk.
If yonder raindrop should its heart disclose,
Behold therein a hundred seas displayed.
When thought becomes wisdom, the scholar can say,
I came like water, and like wind I go.
And the believer can only sing,
Celestial sweetness unalloy’d
Who eat thee hunger still;
Who drink of thee still feel a void
Which only thou canst fill.
The languages of Europe (except Basque, Hungarian, Finnish, Turkish) are descended from one parent language which was spoken about 2500 to 2000 BC. This Indo-European group of languages - in their modern form - has been carried (by colonization, trade, conquest) to the far corners of the earth. Thus the Indo-European river has quite neatly overflowed its banks and like the flood in the Bible has flooded Africa, Asia, America and all the islands. In this case there does not seem to have been any Noah about who built an ark to save even just two words of all the languages and speech, which were drowned. Literacy today is just the beginning of the story. Words are the waters which power the hydro-electricity of nations. Words arc the chemicals that H2O human intercourse. Words are the rain of votes which made the harvest possible. Words are the thunderstorm when a nation is divided. Words are the water in a shattering glass when friends break into argument. Words are the acronym of a nuclear test site. Every single minute the world is deluged by boulders of words crushing down upon us over the cliff of the TV, the telephone, the telex, the post, the satellite, the radio, the advertisement, the billposter, the traffic sign, graffiti, etc. Everywhere you go, some shit word will collide with you on the wrong side of the road. You can’t even hide in yourself because your thoughts think of themselves in the words you have been taught to read and write. Even if you flee home and country, sanity and feeling, the priest and mourners, if any, will be muttering words over your coffin; the people you leave behind will be imagining you in their minds with words and signs. And there will be no silence in the cemetery because always there are burials and more burials of people asphyxiated by words. No wonder it is said,
In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God.
And the Word was God,
All things were made by him;
And without him was not any thing made
That was made.
No wonder too it was said,
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the dust descend;
Dust into dust, and under dust, to lie
Sans wine, sans song, sans singer, and -
Suddenly the other side of the world is only an alphabet away. Existence itself becomes a description, our lives a mere pattern in the massive universal web of words. Fictions become more documentary than actual documentaries. The only certain thing about these world descriptions is the damage they do, the devastation they bring to the minds of men and children. You do not become a man by studying the species but his language. The winds of change have cooled our porridge and now we can take up our spoons and eat it. Go, good countrymen, have yourselves a ball."
Dambudzo Marechera, Cemetery of the Mind (Baobab Books, 1992)
Dambudzo Marechera, The Black Insider (Lawrence and Wishart, 1992)