Sihle Ntuli (South Africa)
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Book Review: New African poetry turns history pictures to the wall

Old Love Skin, a pan-African poetry collection, finds new voices summoning divinity where they please, and turning history pictures to the wall to fill in the blank negatives with ambivalence, impiety and intrigue. Poetry is, here, voice and breath, medicine and blood, origin and trace, unresolvedly tangled in a witching combat.

Poetry is witchcraft. At a Bantu cleansing ceremony, it must be revealed which words boxed you to an evil fate, and you must break their hold through new poetry chanted in the hearing of the ancestors. On paper too, poetry has always been its own curse. Where poets have divined love, browbeaten strange gods, found the nation its origin story, made utility claims for their trade or undressed evil kings, the new poet has found herself in a fixed category. The fate of words is to accumulate into categories. To unbox words into free play is to turn history pictures to the wall. Old boxes into paper planes bewitched with madness of the kamikaze kind. Old Love Skin – Voices from Contemporary Africa finds new poets summoning divinity where they please to fill in the blank negatives with ambivalence, impiety and intrigue. Poetry is, here, voice and breath, medicine and blood, origin and trace, unresolvedly tangled in a witching combat. 

Old Love Skin – Voices from Contemporary Africa finds new poets summoning divinity where they please to fill in the blank negatives with ambivalence, impiety and intrigue

Nyasha Chikumbu, editor of the forthcoming anthology from U.S-based Mukana Press, has few curses of poetry in mind. While poetry has always been a popular feature of Africa’s oral traditions, Chikumbu observes in the foreword, it has not been equally celebrated in its written form. “Africa has celebrated its novelists, essayists and short writers more than it has its poets; poets have been left to steal the little bits of limelight and praise. That has partly been a result of the idea that written poetry is a high art which is meant to be indulged by a select few, also compounded by Africa’s liberation history against colonialism, in which writing became an active act of both resistance and liberation, poetry was looked as at best articulating a private voice, and thus could not carry the larger version of the liberation agenda.”

Old Love Skin editor Nyasha Chikumbu (Zimbabwe)

Poets have been also recruited for political messaging but equally interesting is their faithful opposition to the system, which one suspects to be a moment in the establishment agenda. The poet is the one who listens for the sound of her own voice away from choices already made for her. 

Old Love Skin is an offering of possibilities, where radical imagination meets the sheer unrelenting power of creativity

Though many of 51 poets featured in this collection would have written in isolation from each other, perhaps without sharing a prompt, Old Love Skin is a book with a sense of movement. Not without laughter, the history African writers are always being asked to engage, and the authenticity they are required to perform, become the material for ironic self-probing in some of the anthology’s strongest offerings. Old Love Skin is an offering of possibilities, where radical imagination meets the sheer unrelenting power of creativity; here poets play god with language, form, images and voice, in a battle of reinvention, in ways that are humorous, urgent, striking, sometimes deep and contemplative,” Chikumbu explains the ambition of the anthology, and his poets’ curious windows into “what is it to be given the world and not knowing what to do with it, how different and not so different we are.”

Alvin Kathembe (Malawi) opens the anthology

Chikumbu hints at the motivation for the title, Old Love Skin, in an interview with This Is Africa. “I feel that the title plays in a lot with what the collection is about, the title of the collection, of course being derived from Henneh Kyereh Kwaku’s ‘playing god in old love skin’; the way the young and not so young poets (if ever there is such a thing as a young poet or writer) are playing and finding their voices in ‘old’ forms of poetry, ‘systemic’ language as they’ve inherited it, and as they’ve been taught to see it, owning it and creating a niche out of them. In other words, how the poets are making, language and form work for themselves,” the editor explains.

“So, old love skin, plays a lot into that in the sense that the poets assume the titular of god (In Kwaku’s poem title) as they’re the creators. Unlike the religious gods, they’re not creating out of nothing, but they’re creating and innovating out of something that’s already there, the old poetic traditions not just out of spite, but out of passion or love. That’s where the old love skin comes into play.

“As most if not all these poets write in English which is a second, at times third language. There is this love–hate relationship, so that’s the ‘old love skin’,” adds Chikumbu.

Pusetso Lame (Botswana) (L) and Billyhadiat T. Adeola (Nigeria) (R)

The book starts as a gentle explosion. The “30-year year old child” and the “little black boy” soaking up white nerdery in Alvin Kathembe’s opening pieces carry the idea of refusing to grow up. To grow up is, perhaps, to make clear choices, bend world to a world view, or disappear into its adult grind. Kathembe’s boy, maybe the poet himself, doesn’t realise that he is black until he is told so. This is also how you refuse to grow up. But nobody is more self-aware than the one who has refused this human business of growing up. At 34, Dambudzo Marechera is cruelly self-aware regarding the years he has disowned, “I tend to feel ageless, you know, as if time is nothing to do with my mind; and at the same time, you see, I have become aware of my age because kids now call, ‘Mama, Mama, who is that man?’ and I look around to see who they’re talking about and they are talking about me. Jesus Christ!”

Timothy Fab-Eme’s beautiful poem opposes the COVID-19 pandemic to the ecological crisis:

We’re sick now, and Earth’s healing real fast;

a grand submit is on in the Sahara—

everyone’s there except Human. Coyote sits still

on a dinner table with Wolf talking about

the unusual peace they’ve got. Zebra and Lion

mock Human for gathering things she doesn’t need

to live, like nuclear arms and diamond rings.

Of all creatures, Tortoise says, Human’s the most

pitiable. Reckon God’s regret about the damn thing?

We’re sick now, and Earth’s healing real fast

His poem has something of the leftist opportunism of Slavoj Zizek and his ideological comrades in the wake of the public health emergency:

COVID-19 has shut us in, like a despot,

and all our love for oil and gas

and negative science has become naught as noise.

We’re resting from NBC and VOA breaking news

about trade wars, petty politics and greedy folk

Only, this poem betrays too much faith in humankind, as Cold War 2.0 and the mainstream media excitement regarding “the rearmament of the righteous” and “the waking up of the West,” would have already shown us.

Henneh K. Kwaku (Ghana). The title of the anthology is taken from his inspired thread, Gaana and Other Poems

It is Henneh Kyereh Kwaku’s title poem, “Playing God in Old Love Skin”, Chikumbu engages in his foreword, “How do you play god in skin that is not of your own making? How do you stay visible in a space that threatens to unmake you, and render you invisible? How do you speak the unspeakable? How do you amplify the dialects of your dialogue through (a) language that speaks everything against you?”  The idea of an answer is undermined as Kwaku follows up on the cruel moments of Kathembe’s thread – a friend who “carries a condom in her purse/ in case of rape”  – with other contingency measures – the magician who  “sharpens the metal so he gets a quick death/ if he’s impaled on it/ one day.” 

If Chikumbu and his poets answer his question at all, they do so in the only word they know. Poetry. And the messy ambiguity. And the bluesy resignation that implies. In more scenario maps, Kwaku tells just how much he will take from his country if only because it is his country, the country he cannot unlove. The worst of it can be even more casually taken because, as Kwaku says of that country, “when it kills me/ I won’t know.” The one who loves the world is lost in its otherness. The one who writes marvels at the world she cannot know and the knowledge she cannot solidify. Love and poetry are these fallen states in Old Love Skin. 

Old Love Skin will be released by Mukana Press on August 15, 2022.

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