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Reading Hope Masike in verse

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BETWEEN THE LINES:Phillip Chidavaenzi

SOMEONE once said all singers are poets — and that all poets are song writers — and they were probably right. The line that divides music and poetry, in a way, is often too thin to be visible.

Hope Masike — reputed as Zimbabwe’s mbira princess following in the steps of Stella Chiweshe and the late Chioniso Maraire — has decided to unveil to the world the poet that has for too long been shadowed by the musician.

Having made her name as an exquisite mbira player and musician, she recently decided to try her hand professionally at written poetry. In this debut collection of poetry, she turns to her childhood passion, and does so with the same sublime skill she demonstrates on the ancient instrument as she uses carefully selected metaphors and images to share her heart.

Predominantly, love verses that speak to women, and for women, many of the 36 poems collected here plumb the very depths of red-hot passion, and also speak to a range of issues that concern women. These include broken dreams, the search for love, prostitution, loneliness and sex.

By her own admission in the author’s note, the poems are designed to affirm, to confront the silence we so often feel comfortable with and to give voice to those things that have remained unspoken. She writes, “I did these poems in a very ‘open-minded’ effort to find an often silent/silenced voice. There are things we do not ever say. There are things we don’t know how to say. There are things that have never been said.”

Through the crevices of these poems, we come face to face with facets of Masike that we have probably not known before. This is a collector’s gift.

Prior to the publication of the book, Masike told NewsDay Life & Style that some of the poems collected here were quite “steamy”.

“A particularly steamy section of the book shall get many definitely hot, appropriately so as we approach Valentine’s Day,” she said. “So I must add, this is an adult game not for persons below 18 perhaps.”

This particular review focuses more on that section.

The collection opens with the piece, They Are All Paid For, where the poet plays with the image of woman as “sex businesswoman”, “concubine” and “wife”. The portrayal of women in literature has been an area of great contestation. But here, Masike questions the difference between a sex worker, a concubine and a wife, if they have all been paid for. She concludes that it is “Just different homes/Just different names/Just different prices”, but all offering paid-for sex.

In the poem, T for Toy, Masike uses subtlety in a way that makes the poem sound cryptic, but the title and images create a certain, pre-meditated impression in the reader’s mind. This is a flash poem, but loaded with meaning: “It selflessly gives secret pleasures to me/It neither kisses nor kisses and tells/It’s also not warm, but it’s you/Eyes closed, I fantasise/Here, right there.” The question, at the end of the day is: what could be this toy?

A woman’s longing for a man is captured in the poem, I Wish I Had One. Often, in patriarchal societies where women’s narratives are subdued, their personal yearnings, especially those involving love and sex, tend to be criminalised. Such personal desires are simply human, and this is what the persona in this poem puts across strongly, expressing her wish for a man to cavort with, “his head (put) to rest on my soft bosom/His hands, to heat, clenched in between my thighs/His body, my arms and legs enveloping…”

Still on desires, imagine a society where a woman could just go and “kidnap” that man who has been making her turn and toss in bed? In traditional Shona society, there was a custom called musengabere, where a man would literally kidnap the woman he loved and make her his wife. The female persona in the poem, Purple Skies and Yellow Clouds, envisions a society where the tables are turned, “Where musengabere was still allowed/But for women too.” She would hire Petso and Tindo to “grab Fatso by those long legs” and “deliver him right to her sleeping mat”.

Landscape is about the mystery of the woman’s body, itself a source of fascination for men since the beginning of time. Masike uses images of a scenic landscape to describe the woman’s body, with its “wild curves” and “delightful casts” as well as “the dark hairy secrets” and “hills” and “troughs”. It is indeed the “scenic herscape” that delight men, but also, “the very first home” and “nurturer” for all mankind. It is about the complexity of woman.

The fascination resurfaces in Two Pimples and a Tough Behind, where African men’s fascination with well-endowed women comes under the spotlight. The persona, a slender woman, quips to her man: “Do you compare my small bosom to hers?/Mine are just but two pimples on a near-bare chest/Hers are hard, perky hills that dance about as she walks/Do you compare?/Do you compare my small, tough behind to hers?/Mine are just firm enough to sit without hurting on my bones/Hers are wild mountains of womanhood that dance about as she walks/Do you compare?”
The persona, however, will not take the challenge lying down. Despite lacking in physique, she argues, she has other ethereal qualities that should fascinate him in similar fashion because “I was born for you, body and soul/And two pimples and a tough behind”.

It is often said a man is at his most vulnerable and perhaps, his most senseless, during sex. These are unguarded moments when he is “inside” the woman. The poem Inside seems to confirm this because “Inside he can say anything/Inside he can promise anything/Inside he can confess everything…/Inside, where you can find the true him/Inside, where you won’t find his head/Inside, where he is, and lost too.”

The collection, however, includes several other poems with equally fascinating themes. It is a bold pronunciation of Masike’s arrival on the literary scene, and one can only hope that this is just the beginning of several more poetry collections to come.
The collection is set to be launched this Friday in time for Valentine’s Day.

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