Interfacing with Memory Chirere in verse

I have always known Memory Chirere as a short story writer, although some of his early Shona poems appeared in a collection titled Tipeiwo Dariro, published by College Press in 1994.

BETWEEN THE LINES with PHILLIP CHIDAVAENZI

He is probably one of the few bilingual writers around and it is heart–warming that in the past few years, he had been publishing more and more in Shona.

This affords respect to the richness and integrity of indigenous languages in an increasingly globalised world where Anglo–Saxon and Francophone literary traditions hold sway.

Having started off with the short story collection, Somewhere in This Country (2006, Unisa Press) and another, Toriro and His Goats (Lion Press, 2010), from his pen we have also got the collection of “flash” (short–short) stories Tudikidiki (Priority Projects, 2007).

Chirere, an author, academic, editor and literary critic, has just published his debut Shona poetry anthology strangely titled Bhuku Risina Basa (Nekuti RakanyorwaMasikati), which is collection of poems authored over a very long period of time in private moments.

Its title can be loosely translated to “a useless book because it was written during the day”. Whenever you are with Chirere, he gives you the title of the book in a somewhat naughty, playful manner filled with laughter whenever you speak to him. But this collection of 70 poems is no laughing matter. Published this year by Bhabhu Books, the slim volume of poems reads like a sweetly poignant blend of laughter, pathos and drama, and this more pronounced in the poem Bhavhadhe Rangu (My Birthday).

Chirere himself recently confessed to me that the title has nothing to do with the contents, but rather, the circumstances under which he was inspired to pour out his emotions on paper in different places over a long period of time. The poems were, however, not intended for publication.

There are a number of things that are worth noting as you study the poems collected in this anthology. Chirere breaks with tradition, like someone saying you have got to respect poetry. In a country whose literary tradition has been to bunch several poets together and publish their works in one compilation, sometimes with two or three poems on the same page, Chirere has chosen to do it differently.

And he has done it in a refreshing manner. Each poem, no matter how short it is, stands alone on a page. This allows each poem to assume its own personal identity and voice without being swallowed by others.

In as much as Bhavhadhe Rangu (My Birthday) scans mundane issues just like a birthday celebration at which the “birthday boy” is hosting a party, Chirere, like someone who springs a surprise at you, stealthily delves into issues of the housing crisis that forces people to grow old while there are still lodgers.

What I found to be the greatest beauty about this book is how Chirere has a way with words. I remember an article in which he described how the late great writer Mordecai Hamutyinei – who gave us the classic novels Maidei and Kusasana Kunoparira as well as the enduring poem Kana Wamutanga Musikana — taught him to use words the way boys tossed coins in the backyard.

It is not surprising, in light of the pathfinder’s rich body of work, that Chirere has the ability to wrestle with words and pin them down until they do his bidding.

Against this backdrop, his poetry becomes cinematic. You actually see pictures in motion as you read the poetry.

The poem Dadirai reads like an ode to the single mother who has to single–handedly raise her child in a society that disparages single motherhood and whose patriarchal traditions and structures exempts the men who recklessly spew seed like wild oats. It’s an affirmation of single motherhood: that it’s not a handicap to be a single mother, because you are just like any other woman!

In Mashiri and Bhutsu, we see the poet as an acute observer who has the ability to draw powerful lessons from otherwise mundane, everyday incidents. When you read Bhutsu, you can “hear” the clanking sound of the shoe on the floor that carries meaning while in Mashiri, an interesting observation is made on how we unite when things are good but scatter when trouble strikes!

Then there are poems that read like “flash” stories rather than poetry. These include Ndangariro DzeStreet Kid, Bhavhadhe Rangu, and Pamuviri PaShamiso. They exploit the stylistic device of blank verse, and this is evident in almost all the poems collected here.

Pamuviri PaShamiso is of particular interest because it is a “hearsay poem” where important things are relayed casually rather than authoritatively, and the reader is deliberately teased to wonder and conclude for himself whether there is any grain of truth in the rumour and suspicion attached to the relationship between Shamiso and the poet.

There is an emerging tradition that I prefer to call “the Diaspora tales”. Here, Zimbabwean writers publishing in the new millennium have capitalised on the great trek to the Zimbabwean Diaspora to produce novels, theatre works and poetry that draw their themes from the experiences of locals who have settled in foreign countries in the wake of the post–millennium economic knife–edge that has become synonymous with Zimbabwe.

The last poem I will look at is titled Bvunzai Vatema. It is the longest poem in the collection. I believe it is an important poem in that it tackles serious issues of black identity and elevates Afro–centric civilisation to a much higher plane.

Here the poet is bold enough to correct the misconceptions created by historical narratives that seek to subjugate African civilisation by casting a new light on African achievement. He challenges the world to tap into such indigenous knowledge systems.

This is an anthology that will rekindle your love for the mother language and, at a time where good novelists and poets are fast disappearing from the literary scene, this is the kind of literature that needs to be promoted and supported.

Until next week, keep reading.

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