Published at intervals over the past twenty years, the poetry of Chenjerai Hove can be read as waves of opposition to changing modes of injustice. Here, Zimbabwean critic and literary theoretician Maurice Vambe traces Hove’s poetic biography of resistance.
Chenjerai Hove is one of the more prolific writers in Zimbabwe and his steady output includes both fiction and non-fiction. Celebrated for his novel, Bones, which won the Noma Award, Hove actually has a longer creative history in writing poetry. He first contributed poems to the anthology And Now the Poets Speak (1982), which was followed by four collections of his own work, Up in Arms, (1985), Red Hills of Home (1985) and most recently Rainbows in the Dust (1998) and Blind Moon (2003). Hove’s major thematic preoccupation is humanity. His poetry cries out against whatever attempts to diminish the personhood or humanity of ordinary men and women. The creative canvas that engages his poetic imagination is colonialism, ideologies of African patriarchy and, more seriously, the impact of the policies of domestic tyrants on the lives of ordinary people.
Up in Arms against Oppression
In those of his poems that lash out at colonial injustice, Hove shows greater sensitivity to the plight of men living under such a regime. The poem ‘A Boy’ reveals the humiliation, embarrassment and infantilisation of an old African man who is denied respect by his white ‘bosses’: the “milk-plastered lips” of “weak-boned madams” negate his manhood, refusing to see that the worker whom they call ‘boy’ has “fathered, husbanded” like them and is thus entitled to equal respect.
For Hove, the process of restoring the dignity of African men and women took several tortuous paths. In ‘A war-time wife’ and ‘A war-torn wife’, neither black nor white women could spiritually survive the demands of the war. In these poems, war is depicted as an evil that entraps people, crushing their ability to lead normal lives. This happened on both sides of the racial divide in Rhodesia. These two poems bring out the humanist element in Hove who observed some of the violence against black and white women during the war. Other women, such as the one who chose or is chosen to serve the guerrillas in ‘The way we fed’, have to endure the pain of war and yet, at Independence, remain “unheralded by stately choirs, Forgotten by national anthem makers”. It is the cunning, heartless charlatans – the leaders who in ‘ Uprising’ roast “brother for sister’s lunch” while making sure that “gun bills strangle food bills”; the ones who “spend more time sharpening blades for imaginary throats” – that Hove challenges in post-Independence Zimbabwe.
Red Hills of Home as a critique of the betrayal of Independence
In Red Hills of Home, Hove continues to bemoan the environmental disaster wrought by colonialism in the form of the “bulldozer” that desecrates African burial sites and undercuts their sense of place, to the extent that the village is “home no more”. But he goes on to suggest that the wounds of the red hills of home, which fester with “pus”, have not been healed by independence. In ‘Independence Song’, Hove’s persona underscores the enigma of freedom: “Independence came” but ordinary men and women were still bound by “the noose”. Cynicism informs the poet’s understanding of the capacity of Zimbabwe’s leaders to do good: “people’s bare feet maul the dry earth till freedom come”. For Hove, Independence becomes a dream deferred, as members of the new parliament debate ideas but fail to raise issues that will improve the lives of the people in whose name the war was fought and whom the delegates supposedly represent. In ‘Child Parliament’, the debate degenerates into a demand for higher salaries for MPs. The duplicity of the representatives of the new political dispensation is revealed in the way they discuss again and again, “stale overdue projects that crawl now when they should have run yesterday”. There is a real sense in this poem that the new political élites have failed to deliver, because there is “o debate about us”.
Rainbows in the Dust and the question of governance
In Rainbows in the Dust, Hove departs significantly from the convention of using image, metaphor and simile to convey his message. Poetry in this collection is ‘poetry’ because of its rugged and forthright mode of address. In this collection, Hove has put his literary gloves away and his angry punches are meant to draw blood. The distinction between poet as messenger and poet as political activist is collapsed into one. No longer is there an appeal to the conscience of the new élites; anger has instead become the stuff of poetry: the meaning and the message. New times demand new forms. In ‘on being asked for a ruling party membership card’, ZANU(PF) is depicted as the “ruining party”, one with misplaced priorities. In ‘dispute’, the new élites are portrayed as deriving their power to rule from coercion and not consent. Hove identifies their possessions, the symbols of their status, their “armoured cars, guns, poison” – all symbols of destruction – rather than alms to uplift the life of beggars. In ‘power’, Hove expresses the belief that the problem in Zimbabwe today is one of a crisis of governance. He singles out the love of “power like a pestilence” as the source of social convulsions in the country. In ‘eagle’, he is more direct still:
fly and perch
fly and perch
no one else perches
except a tyrant
in state house
with guns and silence
for the nation
For Hove, guns are but one instrument that “a tyrant in State house” can use to “silence the nation”. Another potent weapon is the rewriting and conceptualisation of history. He suggests that this is a contested terrain where social struggles are fought in order to establish a truth. In the poem, ‘history’ the persona suggests that what people think – their ideals and identities – are ones that have, in fact, been circumscribed by “crooks and criminals” who “dictate” what “memory” people may have. Put differently, in such a restricted ‘history’ lies the recognition that a people, divested of the power to describe themselves out of their own experiences, have given up living. The anti-plurality of voices that the poem decries presages personal death. That is why in ‘me’, the poet fears for his life as he visualises himself “dangling on the rope of despair under military orders”. There is an eerie sense of entrapment in this poem, one that is anguished and sees the possibility of death in the refrain, “it could be me”. Although Rainbows in the Dust is an angry collection of poetry, there is a refusal to succumb to what the poet sees as forces of death. In ‘tears’, Hove stubbornly asserts that:
I will not be remembered with graves
I will be remembered with words and whispers
Silent as the echoes in the hills
Calm as the waters of the valleys
Deep as the voice of history (61)
Blind Moon and the search for justice
While Rainbows in the Dust evinced anger, Blind Moon is characterised by mixed emotions. There is the relentless critique of what Hove perceives as the personality cult that has been developed around Zimbabwe’s leaders. ‘To a dictator’ bemoans the fact that the fruits of a communal process of struggle have been individualised. The consequences of monopolising the struggle and its results are that the “flowers” of people’s “freedom” have been hijacked. The playfulness associated with a bright moon has been undermined, and becomes a metaphor of betrayal: the “land cried”, and “this moon too was dark in your time”. Hove’s concern is that, in contexts of injustice, named tyrants turn to the power of the word in order to blind people. “Praise singers, flatterers [and] charlatans” are part of the ideological state apparatus that ensures that people believe in a single relentless narrative of truth and history authored by the powers themselves. Alternative sources of knowledge are undermined. This cultural aspect of oppression is difficult to counter even among the very ordinary men and women in whose name resistance to tyranny is mounted, when they do not have access to alternative sources of information. A nation can only “grow” in health by acknowledging its strengths and weaknesses. ‘A poem for Zimbabwe’ reasserts the need of the poet and all kindred spirits to redefine their humanity by way of struggle, if not with guns, which they do not have, but with words because “if I fall silent/ you will be a silent tool/ if I fall silent/ your wounds will be named silence”. Thus although the moon is blind, in ‘we’, Hove waits for “another flower to bloom”. This is where resistance in his poetry lodges.
Maurice Taonezvi Vambe is a lecturer at the Bureau for Learning Development, University of South Africa, where he teaches African, African American, and Theories of Literature. He has published on Zimbabwean film, music, media and development in local and international journals, edited Orality and Cultural Identities in Zimbabwe (2001) and with L.M. Gunduza co-edited We are the Herb (2000), an anthology of poetry, short stories and drama on HIV/AIDS. His current interest lies in chimurenga (liberation struggle) music.