The poetry of Tari Mtetwa



I had never heard of Tari Mtetwa before, but it was so wise of him to introduce himself with such a tenderly evocative, memorable, educative and powerful poem as ‘First’, which opens:

Still and silent
my foetus grew
in the warmth of your womb
my first home

Simple, direct, fresh and powerful reflection on the gift of life, a dedication to all mothers who have birthed humanity, without sermonising, achieved through a subtle rearrangement of verbal sensation. Simplicity combined with reverence, which the emerging talent sustains throughout the four stanzas of the poem without slipping one bit.

The power of this little poem lies in showing reason behind simple things by creating one surprising equation after another, where none was obvious before, ambushing the reader with plain lessons through metaphors of life that he or she should know, accept and cherish by now.

In ‘The Old School’, the reader suddenly realises that the poet is on a biographical journey continuing from infancy and childhood. Once again, the poet reflects on this rite of passage in simple but vivid metaphorical images, tracing his early learning experiences and university graduation in just the same amount of brush strokes as he did in the first poem, again without losing his foothold. This is a rite of passage into education, knowledge and wisdom nourished by the inspirational mother, guardian angel, who must break the earth in the searing fields of Africa to reveal lessons of life to the child.

Now confident enough, the child and the man may become what they will, through the protean gifts an education may provide. Thus, in ‘Rock’, Mtetwa takes over the role of the mother who created him, but this time as a sculptor, an artist. The labour of carving is rendered  almost as the nourishing and nursing work of mothering, as though inspiration might just play a trick and vanish and the stubborn rock act recalcitrant. In language reminiscent of an erotic experience, the sculptor’s touch also persuades the “boulders” to yield to the lover’s wish until orgasm.

Related to this is ‘Potter’s Song’, also a tribute to the miracle of creation seen in the work of a potter whose fingers must knead and carve “finesse’s beauty” from “clay’s misery”. This is a poem which forces itself upon the reader in spite of its risky start and the sequence of abstract phrases that threaten to kill its integrity. The reader, having forgiven the poet, will, no doubt, find delight in his ability to create lines, phrases and images so highly allusive.

In due course, the same supplicant at the feet of wonderful mother and Nature finds moments to reflect on those simple things that lie just under the surface of our skins, things that ultimately define identify us and define us as in ‘Naked’. Mtetwa comes through as a personality with enormous ability to self-efface, at the same time as he explores his own self. He may not be aware of the old Shona folk song which celebrates nakedness as the original stamp of human frailty – naked at birth, naked at death. That is, we emerged into the world as naked, and, no matter how much the fine dress or suit or coffin or grave may conceal, there is a naked body down there in the end. ‘Naked’ manages to reveal the human body in those moments when we find ourselves in doubt of its shape and value, as it deteriorates irrevocably to its final end, like a candle in the wind.

The biggest challenge for most emerging writers has always been to find that big inspiration in grand themes such as love, death, joy, sadness, politics etc. While these may appear the readiest material beckoning for attention, it is impossible to guarantee success in rendering them in verse. The majority of our new writers have no regard for what is poetic, only what their heart urges them to believe is poetry, not what their minds should caution them to understand. As a result, Zimbabwe is awash with self-proclaimed ‘poets’ who compose tributes to preferred politicians, hero and lovers; or who rap about our tyrants, murderers, torturers, mothers and fathers in the same tone and style and the same prosaic narrative rhetoric truncated to produce the maximum rhythmic effect when the occasion to perform avails itself. They do not care for the language of foreign mothers, its beauty, its rules, its immense possibilities beyond vulgar declamation.

So Mtetwa is one more promising talent out of our midst. He does not seek the loud and bombastic phrase to prop up vacuous inspiration. He is at home being alone and seeking the meaning of desperate love in a woman who turns up so early in the morning only to leave him like a river before he has recaptured his breath, as she rushes down the continent to make an appointment with the deep sea – one of so many conceits the emerging poet has created for himself, conceits that actually work without leaving the reader jarred and unwilling to be tortured further with banality.

For those who may wonder where this new talent may be placed in the scheme of poetry in this country, it is clear to me that he has the skill of brevity characteristic of Chingono and Mungoshi, brilliant with incidents most would find negligible. This requires a certain discipline, a certain refusal to allow words to drool over pages and pages without so much as a spark of beauty.

Musaemura Zimunya’s poetry featured on PIW in 2002. He is Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Zimbabwe, Chairman of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair and an active member of the Zimbabwe Writers Union.

© Musaemura Zimunya  

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