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On Chigama’s Gather the Children

Changing a lot of people’s ideas about poetry
 

 

I have always known Batsirai Chigama as a performance poet. She was a regular at the Book Café before its permanent closure a few years ago, and is remarkable as an outstanding citizen in the community of performance poets. To see her transition from the stage to paper is momentous. In this book she intertwines the two art forms beautifully and brings them together in an exciting debut volume that opens a unique window onto the culture, sights and language of Harare. With this book she’ll change a lot of people’s ideas about poetry.

It's become a cliché to say that we turn to poetry in times of trouble, or that we need the vibrant language of poets for consolation. Zimbabwe's political crisis has been a different kind of catastrophe, one that has occurred in slow motion: its mechanisms abstract and impersonal, although the economic, physical, and psychological consequences have been very real and devastating. These strictures insinuate themselves into the ambience of everyday life and language, something that Chigama observes with careful attention in her poetry.

She opts, however, for a wider picture. In the book, she includes plenty of poems, which don't directly address the political situation, thereby aiming to provide deeper and more various answers to questions of a poet's responsibility in a complicated political process such as ours. But she can't help but take the public temperature in her writing.  She writes in LIFE'S COLLISIONS

Intoxicated
I was building castles and airplanes with
maize stalks
Before long, I found myself splattered
on stony ground, dusty, bloodied


Her poetry is a stunning, visual exploration of life. As such, I am drawn to Chigama's work because of the way her poems blend personal observations and experiences with weightier, universal themes. She takes on issues like death and spirituality and history and makes them relatable. These aren't simple poems.

Though Chigama's earnestness is satisfying, it's her vulnerability, her willingness to expose flaws, that endears. A picture emerges of Chigama's critical enterprise: an exercise in curiosity, affection and eager negative capability. In DEAR DAD she is pointedly political. She is clearly aware of the historical importance and power of poetry in its ability to shape the ideas and opinions of a nation, and its particular vitalness in the cause of Zimbabwean resistance and liberation. She writes:

I used to be in awe of you dad
when you took to the podium
And with your eloquence dazzle
millions into belief and conversion
How your single stride was a gallop
I used to boast, you know,
Beat myself on the chest
Tell them you were my dad.
Together we gathered as a family sipping
in your dripping wisdom.
What happened dad?
You started running your mouth


In this poem, and many others in the collection, we observe Chigama's signature esoteric fascination with the notion of questioning truth to power. It's a poem that is direct, and yet ambiguous. And directness is an art that Julius Chingono was known for. Even though he spent long spells of his writing career uncelebrated, unrecognized, when died in 2011, he was widely loved and celebrated by a young generation of Zimbabwean poets. The spirit of Chigama's work has a tender affection for mentors like Chingono, for whom she dedicates the book, who was considered to be the poet laureate of Zimbabwean township life.

Gather the Children is anchored in the personal. The escapist themes in the collection are blended with intimate reflections: mournful, elegiac verses about death, immigrant life in South Africa, endemic corruption, betrayal. Ultimately, Chigama is not a poet of somberness and brokenness, but hope. She makes a clarion call for togetherness, that pleasant feeling of unity in friendship and understanding.

© Tinashe Mushakavanhu, Harare 2018  
 
 



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