Special to Books LIVE by Sarah Frost:
Opening to a much emptier theatre than on previous nights, Limpopo poet David wa Maahlamela recited a powerful poem called “Musina”, about the tragedy of poverty. “What do I do?” he asked, listing a host of social problems facing the poor in this town, concluding, “racism is still biting our fingertips to the bones”. His next few poems were in Sepedi, which sadly remained untranslated although the audience clicked its fingers in appreciation. Maahlamela said he believes poetry is “not a calling, it’s a skill”. In a poem called “How Do I Make Love?”, he declaimed, “I do it on a piece of paper / with every word, my pen penetrates”. Equally passionately, he ended with a poem addressing Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe warning, “perhaps you will realise a president is not a country / a country is its people”.
Looking every inch the archetypal poet with a grizzly beard and a paunch, next on was literary heavyweight Fernando Rendon, from Medellin, in Colombia. His poetry (translated from Spanish) was very much of the South American genre – wordy, abstract and filled with high romanticism. His mumbling, yet mesmerising delivery of a prose-poem about a sacred plant, the mushroom, was laborious at times but occasionally birthed lines of pure profundity, such as “we are a body woven by light, which oblivion and bad love unknit”. Rendon’s language, a paean to man’s interconnectedness with nature, was dense and sensual. “Swallows rule the summer: we have seen the tissue of paths in the air”. His second rambling (and at times obscure) poem was about a “Red Bough”, and had a message about the philosophical implications of writing: “In poetry, in the crucial writing of the poem, this mortal history is in all of us”.
Sandile Dikeni provided a subtle counterpoint to Rendon’s gravity. His wonderfully mobile face complimented a poem he recited called “Small Things”, where he noted “mostly it’s the laughter in your laugh / that makes children laugh”. Humble, but not unconfident, Dikeni explained, “I’m trying to move fast because I want to get out of here”. Ending with a poem decrying global corporate greed, he asked, “how much of a black comedy is Africa really / to the unity of nations”.
After the break the implacably cheerful Niyi Osundare, from Western Nigeria, said that SA was very important for Nigerians, especially during apartheid. He read a poem called “Waiting for the Rain,” dedicated to musician Hugh Masakela. He said that his new book, City Without People, contains poems about Hurricane Katrina, which hit a week after he and his wife had arrived in the US. He explained that they were trapped in their attic by floodwaters for 26 hours until they were rescued by a neighbour. He read a poem about loss, dedicated to his daughter, where he said he had lost a house in the catastrophe, but “not a home”. I loved his “Longest Love Poem in the World” which comprised one word: “Yes”.
Oswald Mtshali closed the night’s proceedings, reading poetry written long ago, including an empathetic 42-year-old poem called “The Miner”. He spoke more confidently in Zulu and his English poems were read in a high singsong voice, which was hard to follow. His best and funniest contribution was a song poem he sang in a beautiful tenor dedicated to the Dalai Lama: “Dalai Lama I love you / I want to be your friend / why are you always so cool / when others are playing the fool?”
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- City Without People: The Katrina Poems by Niyi Osundare
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Image courtesy Centre for Creative Arts