The Poetry of Togara Muzanenhamo


Togara Muzanenhamo, Spirit Brides, Zimbabwe, poetry

Togara Muzanenhamo is a poet scarcely known in his home country, Zimbabwe. His first collection, Spirit Brides, was published by Carcanet Press in the UK in 2006, and his work has appeared amongst others in Carapace, PN Review, The Zimbabwean Review, Revue Noire, BBC Radio 3 and the BBC World Service.

His poetry is beautifully observed, his imagery finely perceptive, his language and its rhythms hauntingly simple as he pulls back the blinds from a world that is known but too often hidden from view. He does so with an empathy and gentleness that speaks of compassion and yet he cuts and shapes his poems with the precision of a surgeon. Various themes echo through his poetry: the magic and mystery of childhood; departure, loss and death; and love, understated, and in all its many and complex connectivities.

‘Captain of the Lighthouse’ is an evocative metaphor of the sea on the dry windswept veld. Two children watch the cattle from an anthill, conjuring with imagination, living in another world, as only children can. The imagery, at once jaunty and playful, is also a poignant elegy to his brother, the Captain of the lighthouse, who “set sail from land’s end into the deepest seventh sea”.

Muzanenhamo has the ability to conjure a scene through meticulous description and then startle us with the vivid imaginative freedom of childhood. He can transform the quotidian into something magical: the children in ‘Skaters’ waiting in the cold in the open-back of a pick-up for “the one who was always last” suddenly leaping out of the vehicle and running onto the “frost-tight green” lawn, “all yells, shouts, arms held out / The worn soles of our shoes taking us along”.

By contrast, whether writing of childhood or of its extension, adulthood, his poetry is haunted by refrains of pain that is as inevitable as life itself. In ‘Tomorrow’ as the light fades and a summer’s day draws to a close with a hint of winter in its wake, we hear “two screams in the shadows and the shade”.  … “The pursuer stops … winking pounding / his fist on the gate”. The safety of the warm house offers only temporary shelter, “the runner’s pursuer will wait for that tomorrow which / never fails to come.”

As in so much of Muzenenhamo’s poetry his description and imagery is used to evoke an atmosphere through which the action is filtered and embroidered to draw on contrast or suggest empathy.

A part of the poet’s sensitivity is his acute awareness that our personalities are shaped by our memories, that the child is father of the man. In ‘Smoke’, a young man is being led upstairs by his lover, his “eyes catching a flash / of her bare thighs under a simple yellow skirt”. This brief sensual image invokes an instant recollection of the protagonist being given his first gun, the pleasure, excitement, and just a spark of fear in the “blind surprise / and spurt of gunpowder-smoke after the first bang”. In an instant, Muzanenhamo conveys the complexity of desire and anticipation that can link experiences at once apposite and inapposite.

Much of the power of Muzanenhamo’s poetry lies in the precision and delicacy of its imagery, and his manipulation of time ­— all time being present but informed and deepened by the sense of before and after. ‘The Pool’ begins with an image of his drowning father, before moving to the blue water in happier times, when it hosted a wedding before its sculpted fountains. But the pool is not just a scenic backdrop, or a place of drowning; it is also a playground where children disported themselves through long days.

Dipping in and out of the many different aspects of the pool and its closely mirrored relationship with human beings is the reminder that, drained of water, “It also killed”: rats, frogs, and “our dog … afloat, a buoyant omen”, the adjective used in its literal sense providing the shock of surprise that prepares us for abandonment not of the pool but of all it represented. “Now it lies empty, no one swims, no one is here to swim. The lions’ heads, / mounted on stone, are silent … in shadow” above “the stained empty hull” of the pool that once offered so much companionship and promise.

Much of Muzanenhamo”s poetry is infused with love of his country, of nature, of people and of women – lovers, companions, partners. ‘Six Francs Seventy-five’ touches on a ritual of buying cheap wine in France and the relationship that develops between him, his female friend and the deaf mute from whom the purchase is made, an investment in humanity that is larger than the simple exchange, signified in memory with its echoes of loss as the visitors leave to go their separate ways.

‘Tea and Sandwiches’ accompany the poet on a long solitary walk through the north of England as “the last folds of daylight ache before the gathering storm” and he reflects upon the necessary closure of a relationship: “the youth of our love buried / Beneath the sorrow of heavy hearts”. His descriptions of emotion are fine and precise, instilling each poem with a mood that finds its counterpoint in the physical surroundings, as in “those tall metal ghosts writhing in unison / Their bladed arms glinting like broad scalpels slicing the snow shine.”

The sadness of ending, and of loss, is also that of ways parted and new beginnings, where what is remembered is not left behind. In ‘Roads’, past and present are fused by a grainy photograph recalling a powerful image of “her running carefree along a wild / stretch of sand, her body in full stride, the wind forcing back her hair”. Now “she’s not here, but you are – / running in full stride, the motion streaming back your hair. I forget then start / to chase you. Your laughter, our full on laughter.” Loss recorded and recovered is not loss but part of the fabric of being.

Muzanenhamo has travelled much and studied abroad, but to travel is also to say goodbye, to leave behind that which one has grown to cherish. ‘Helpless Goodbyes’ recreates the image of a mind focused on loss, on the person he is leaving on the platform as he stares through a palm print on the window of the train carriage. “For an hour, nothing else on my mind as buildings and fields / morphed, as people embarked and disembarked”. Slowly the contained world of the compartment comes into focus, and the poem moves like the rhythm of the train, the kisses of its wheels, between two enclosures, two realities, “As I stare at the tree in the church in the field of my palm”. We are enveloped in the stasis of loss while travelling forward to another future.

The finality of death and the imminence of grief are also captured in ‘The Ornithologist’s Daughter’, a faceted poem where a young woman killed in a plane crash is ever present in a shared children’s book and the memory of her “milk-smile broken in half by two missing teeth”.

In ‘Pallbearer’, Muzenenhamo reminds us that death is very much a part of life: “we are born to death and bred to carry its weight”, but the clarity of his imagery and the precision of his observations give his poetry a depth that forestall the evasions of sentimentality, cliché and rhetoric:
“I stumble as we walk and hear his dead body move, his bones / knock against the wood. Not the knocking to enter, not the knocking for an / answer –- but another way to say goodbye. I take that sound with me as I drive / home smelling of smoke, covered in dust, with his frail and silent wife.”

Muzanenhamo’s poems are richly layered with metaphor that is at once evocative and precise. In ‘The Conductor’ – “We stood poised, in three rows. Our breaths held in front of an audience … His arm in the air, white gloves and a stick” – we are drawn in as we await the fall of the baton. But when it comes it is with the shock of surprise, as metaphor shades into another reality: “You stood at his desk stolen by fear / holding your punishment slip”, and we realise that the audience are breathless frightened school boys, the stick punitive, the punishment corporal.

Muzanenhamo’s work provides a new and powerful voice in the canon of Zimbabwean poetry. The range and depth of his material, its careful articulation and concern with nuanced truths that shape our perception of the human condition, will ensure him a readership for many years to come.

All the poems referred to in this article are drawn from Spirit Brides, Carcanet Press Ltd., Alliance House, Cross Street, Manchester, M2 7AQ, UK.

Irene Staunton is the editor of Poetry International Zimbabwe and the publisher at Weaver Press, Harare.

© Irene Staunton  
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