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Two edgeless poets



Today I want to dwell on two edgeless poets; one Iraqi and the other, African. Work without edges is a phenomenon in art that refers to art (say poetry or drawing) that tickles the consumer through its lack of definitive meaning. Edgeless art is not driven by a desire to be understood but by a desire to draw out experience as felt by the artist in its original dreamlike state, without giving away predictable meaning. You may say the poet’s obligation in that kind of writing is to tell the story with the most beautiful and thrilling language possible, to extend and expand even what is possible with language and real life situations. Iraqi poet, Sami Mahdi’s book simply called Poems, is a work of art that qualifies to be called “work without edges.” In one poem called “Transience”, he describes being alive as an experience akin to the one that a child experiences when aboard a fast moving vehicle, the feeling that the trees and buildings and mountains are running backwards as the vehicle is tearing ahead and the onlooker is not able to catch anything and that life is just a fleeting affair too. In another piece, a prose piece that is however very poetic, called “The Man and the Dog”, Sami Mahdi writes about an obscure old man who stays with his dog that he now lives on in order to give his dog company. One day, the dog is run over by a car! The old man starts to meditate over the death of his dog and throws himself under the wheels of a passing vehicle and dies. The language of that poem is edgeless and as you read on, you feel that you could be dreaming or better still, listening to a folktale from a faraway country: “A man in his eighties, I used to greet him every morning with a fleeing gesture…He used to accept it and reply with a similar gesture, then he would cast a bewildered look at his house. He is my neighbour. And people have neighbours if they pay attention, but between us there was only that tepid language…” The writing is dreamy and obscure but you keep feeling that it is based on a concrete experience and that the author is choosing to work only on the pith of real life experience without telling you what the oldman has been doing until he is left with only a dog in this wide world full of billions of people. In yet another dreamy piece called, “The young man and the lady”, a young man visits a man’s house in search of a man who appears to be his friend or mentor, to get something that is never mentioned, but, at the house, the young man finds what must be the man’s wife and the man is away. Without being neither instructive nor elaborative, the young man notices that as soon as the door is open, the woman is wearing a very strong and enticing perfume! Her smile takes the young man by surprise too, as if the elderly woman has been anticipating the young man’s visit! The woman tells the young man that his mentor is not home at the moment, but she sort of hoodwinks or coerces the young man into the house. She asks him to come in and sit down to wait for his mentor. The young man wants to come sit in and wait but feels that he is being trapped by the woman’s overpowering presence and her charming femininity! He feels very drawn towards her. The woman is charming and confident and she talks on and on to the young man as if she has always known him. She appears to be aware that the young man is enticed by her. She seems to want to be intimate with the young man without having to say it to the young man. She offers him a drink and asks him to sit very close to him. The young man obliges, even when he knows that culturally it is wrong, since she is someone’s wife and that her husband, his mentor, could just walk in anytime! The woman is very circumspect but captivating through her words and erotic body movements: “Right. You shall talk about yourself. Not married yet? You will get married one day just like others. Everybody does. But you are still very young. You are rather skinny but I can see in your solemnity the vigour of a genuine and strong foal!” Then she walked towards him and says about her dress which exposes her body parts to the young man, “God damn this dress which, whenever one of its buttons came off, showed something that a woman would not like to be seen by a stranger who might annoy her, make flirtations to her or say something rude.” She sat beside him. “Why are you worried? Did I say anything annoying to you? Your eyes look burning…” When the young man eventually leaves, the woman’s husband still has not returned, but you have a feeling that he has had sex with the elderly woman or they have fallen in love that the young man would really come back again next time in order to have an opportunity to see her again, and not her husband. The edges are just fluid….As you read, you also recall all those people of the opposite sex whom you have been desperately drawn towards even against your will. In “The Ants”, Sami Mahdi writes about how the many-many ants in the world make life difficult for birds because the ants tend to be everywhere in the forest that even when the forest catches fire or is soaked in rain, the ants never get tired of frolicking around and getting on with their business of being ants! As you read on, you feel that you are suddenly part of the world of ants in their indomitability… Sami Mahdi was born in 1940 and lives in Baghdad, where he works as editor-in-chief of the official Iraqi daily al-Thwara. The other writer of edgeless poems is the African writer, Charles Mungoshi who is however, less known as a poet. Scholarship on Mungoshi characteristically only mentions “The Milkman Doesn’t Only Deliver Milk,” in passing. This single volume of his poems is the least celebrated of all his books. Moreover, Mungoshi has published little other poetry beyond a few poems in magazines and anthologies such as Zimunya and Kadhani’s “And Now the Poets Speak,” (Gweru: 1981). However, Mungoshi’s poetry calls for attention as it is closely related to the essence and philosophy of his more celebrated prose. When properly read, his poetry may be seen as the quintessence of his art – capturing subtly and briefly what he achieves in more elaborate ways in his prose. Using a style that is condensed, routinely detached and sometimes deceptively simple, Mungoshi’s poetry paints a multi-layered world of meaning. Almost always, the Mungoshi persona provides a private and contemplative voice, but one that is deeply involved in the movement and multiplicity of the larger world. With the aid of free verse and short, almost hesitant, cascading lines there is here a sense of a persona who sees without being seen and talks without rushing to suggest. In “Poet” the persona/poet is walking “on the edge of now/like a pole-axed tightrope walker” towards his calling: writing. The mere act of writing poetry (and any writing) is perceived as negotiating a balance between present and past, life and death and the craftsman’s task is one of social and personal responsibility. But Mungoshi can show nostalgia for the long-past, personal, and rewarding world of rural childhood and innocence. As in “Before the Sun”, the persona’s forté in the world is to chop “big logs”, roast green mealies by a bush fire and when the sun “comes up in the east like some late-comer to a feast”, it is seen as the boy’s terrestrial playmate. Here man and nature commune. Alternatively, Mungoshi can write elaborate narrative poetry which borders on fiction or folk-tale. “Location miracle” is a ‘story’ about a disabled girl who gradually rises beyond her physical disadvantages and succeeds – to marry a wholly able-bodied young man. Each hindrance on her way is a challenge to rise higher. “Location miracle” rides on the shoulders of subtle understatement, wry, high-density-suburb humour and common-sense. This story-turned-poem has a fireside aura to it and links easily with other similar poems such as “Little Rich Boy”, “Lazy Day”, “The Same Lazy Day”, “After the Rain”. Mungoshi has that subtle ability to fracture and condense the short story and tell it effortlessly. Another particular form of Mungoshi’s poetry in English is the short, condensed poem. Usually it is based on a seemingly nonsensical object, feeling or observation. This brevity, intensity and relatedness to an object gives the poem the multi-dimensional feel of the far-eastern Haiku or Zen philosophy. In the interview with Flora Veit-Wild (cited above), Mungoshi volunteers his admiration for Matsuo Basho, the Japanese master of Haiku. Loosely defined, Haiku form springs from observing a specific object or dwelling on a specific mood or happening. However, Mungoshi’s very short poems also remind us of the later poems of the English poet Thomas Hardy that began with a single object – a lamp post, an old table in an old house, etc. In “Non-Stop Through Enkeldoorn” the persona (obviously in a fast-moving car at night) has a sudden glimpse of unknown people’s “silent faces” and “wordless mouths”, stepping back into the dark as the car drives past. This brief experience provokes feelings akin to seeing/reading momentary words of a page in a stranger’s biography. This refers to the brevity of human life and the frightening anonymity of people one cannot and will not ever relate to. In most of Mungoshi’s very short and edgeless poems, he captures the spirit of loneliness and the capacity of the perceived object or environment to dictate a specific mood or thought. Other poems in this mould are “How do you do it”, “In Flight” and “The Trees”. Another aspect of Mungoshi’s poetry is the anguished way he writes of “Home” and alienation in general. The poem “Home” – as with Lucifer in the novel Waiting For The Rain – talks about what it means and feels to live in a colonially defined space from which you eventually run away, returning only to die “after having lived your life elsewhere”. And yet at another level Mungoshi accepts that the space ‘home’ is a place where recent history and one’s people are situated. As in “If you don’t Stay Bitter and Angry for too Long” Mungoshi invites you to return into the home within yourself – that unchanging part of humanity, the conscience. Charles Mungoshi, a prominent African writer, died in February 2019.

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