The poetry of John Eppel can only be fully understood in its geographical and historical context, argues Anthony Chenells. “As a white from Matabeleland, Eppel is at two removes from the political power centre of Zimbabwe. This is one explanation for the individuality of his literary voice.”
John Eppel was born in South Africa in 1947 and grew up in Matabeleland in Zimbabwe, where he still lives. That is not merely a conventional biographical detail. Since Zimbabwean Independence in 1980, Matabeleland has been marginalized economically and politically by the government in Harare, which is justifiably suspicious of Ndebele loyalties to the ruling party. In the 1980s, there were terrible massacres of Ndebele civilians who were blamed for supporting disaffected elements of ZIPRA, the section of the liberation army that drew much of its support from Matabeleland. As a white from Matabeleland, Eppel is at two removes from the political power centre of Zimbabwe. This is one explanation for the individuality of his literary voice.
White Rhodesia produced a literature of its own between 1890 and 1980, when its death gave birth to Zimbabwe. Eppel is not an heir to that tradition, which often struggled to domesticate British poetic traditions in a strange landscape, or developed the portentous, patriotic voice of white Rhodesian nationalism. In his novels, Eppel distances himself satirically from white claims to an uncomplicated Zimbabwean identity. In his poetry, these satirical moments are rare and are replaced by a language that offers an intense identification with the Matabeleland landscape. But he knows that a love of the bush does not make him Zimbabwean, and in some of the poems he uses botanical names for trees and shrubs to indicate a different sort of knowledge from that commanded of the same plant by a sparsely educated black.
The black poet in 'I and the Black Poet' remembers Sharpeville and Soweto. Eppel’s memory is of an exotic flower and he thinks of himself as 'halfway' to being African. In Jasmine, the hymn of the liberation movements, Nkosi sikelele (banned in Rhodesia), is a hymn that he was taught by his family’s servant. When he hears it sung in Zimbabwe, he remembers listening to it sung defiantly, at night, when he was on patrol during the war. In Star of Bethlehem, the common name of a frost- and drought-resistant plant recalls carol concerts in the village in which he grew up, and an Epiphany hymn that celebrates Christ’s birth and death. The same plant, thrust in his combat jacket on top of a phosphorous bomb, becomes a metaphor for life persisting amidst death.
This resilience of life recurs again in Spoils of War, in which Aristotle’s theory of catharsis, pity and fear, is given a gruesome immediacy by the cruelty of the war. His catharsis, his purging, is of a Rhodesian patriotism, and life continues both in himself and in the Sabi Star that he has dug up to replant in his home. But even when purged of Rhodesian patriotism, he, like the Sabi Star, is still a transplant. “[W]e are merely visitors in Africa,” he remarks in On Browsing Through Some British Poems, but when he looks for British poets in London, he realizes that he is also a visitor there.
In Zimbabwe, however, he cannot appropriate the casual glance of the tourist. In The Basket Sellers of the Matopos, the bodies of the women seem to belong to the granite hills. Eppel watches the tourists watching the basket sellers, but he is far closer to the women than he is to the Europeans with “their pale-lashed eyes”.
One of Eppel’s strengths is to record memories that refuse to flinch in the face of horror. He does not allow himself the evasive indulgence of nostalgia. In Remember Granny Trot’s Mulberry Jam? death can come through snake-bite, accident or old age, as well as by war. The Liberation War and the death of Rhodesia are as inevitable as death itself. When he is overseas, thinking of his childhood, he recalls in A Flower Poem one of the least attractive plants of the bush not for itself but for multiple associations, pleasant and unpleasant, that cluster around its smell.
No-one writing in Zimbabwe should ignore the official corruption and misgovernance that has marked the last twenty years. No one writing in Matabeleland can ignore what the Ndebele suffered during the first decade of Independence. The sombre Winter in Matabeleland, 1987 was written while the killings were still daily occurrences. Eppel uses the drought of winter as his dominant metaphor but the predictable seasonal recurrences become sites of doubt in the poem. Will spring and the summer rains come? Will the swallows return? In a moving last stanza, faced with the public horror, Eppel retires into the certainty of family life that offers at least the illusion of security. The new elite is the subject of Waiting for the Bus, a poem that has moments of the characteristic satire of Eppel’s prose: “Digital dolly-birds” and a belly “vast enough to accommodate/ at least seven baby goats”. This is not a poem that scores easy political points, however. The identification with the mass of the people is too strong, and in a poem shaped around tropes of time, the word that characterizes their mood is 'waiting'. The military phase of the revolution which created Zimbabwe is "The time of sweet-becoming", and that is now over. Its place has been taken by "The time of bitter arrival", but whether that bitterness is born of resignation, or of barely repressed fury, the poem does not disclose.
Eppel’s ability to command multiple perspectives in the same poem can be seen in Whites Only. Several film versions of South African novels were made in Zimbabwe before majority rule in South Africa, and white Zimbabweans were used to play the parts of Apartheid’s officials. White Africans are readily stereotyped and if the face of a white person does not confirm the stereotype then the face must be altered: “with dark glasses if your eyes are gentle”. The poem moves beyond stereotype to celebrate instead a Zimbabwean reality in which white privilege has vanished and blacks and whites endure together bureaucratic insolence and economic hardships.