Old Love Skin

Voices from Contemporary Africa

Edited by Nyashadzashe Chikumbu
Mukana Press ($15.95)

by Mbizo Chirasha

Old Love Skin, a collection edited by the energetic griotic Zimbabwean poet Nyashadzashe Chikumbu, is a rainbow of vibrant African voices, a rainbow that rises Mandela from the royal caves of Qunu. It is renaissance that sings to the bones of Nkrumah waKwame sleeping saliently in the lush meadows of heavenly bliss; it is real poetry smoked by ancient ghosts and love angels upon the zenith of Kilimanjaro and fontanelles of Chimanimani mountains, real poetry of Chimurenga grandchildren watering the literary pastures with the rain of organic allegory. It is real poetry strangling ghosts of warlords in Nzere. It is real poetry floating with the gigantic spirit of Nefertiti in White and Blue Nile and Nzinga walking onto the beauty of pyramid rubbles, with Nyamhita Nyanda Nehanda strutting onto the spiritual podium of chimurenga gods. It is real poetry smacking the yellow-orange hypocritical faces of colonial mood and smashing the spiking python tails of post-independence African dictatorships wearing the sheep’s fair coat. It is the love of love and hate of love. And it is the hate of hate and the love of hate. Old Love Skin is a cousin of dramatic irony, satire maybe, or the grandchild of African paradox.

Alvin Kathemb’s poem “Contingencies” well represents the body politic of the collection:

She carries a condom in her purse in case of rape.
When I saw it, I asked, teasing?
expecting some joke or frisky comment—
“You never know when the craving will strike”—
something in that vein.

“Contingencies” depicts the modern trends of sex, population control, and the nausea of recolonization/mental slavery in the name of civilization and modernism. The poem is a graphic presentation of the erosion of ancient African morals that decried sex before the performance of matrimonial rites as exercised by the generations of the past in real Africa. Kathemb takes aim at today’s moral decadence and social rot in comparison to past cultural values and traditional rites, and by prologuing with three of his poems, the anthology sets up a discussion between modern problems and the puzzles of old Africa.

In the nerve-raving verses of “Gaana” by Henneh Kyereh Kwaku, the memory and psyche of the poet are twinned with the reader’s poetic ear. In this political/revolutionary volley presented as a Christmas/valentine present—what a dramatic irony—we see the reincarnation of old literary revolutionary voices such as Léopold Senghor, Jack Mapanje, and Christopher Okgibo, with their ironic/satiric yearnings for freedom during days of colonial madness when Africa was grinding under crude Anglo-Euro colonial iron fist rule. Yes, the African griot on the Old Love Skin podium sings to the current pseudo- revolutionary-tyrranical-autocratic African leadership that never repented from shenanigans of self-hate, greed, killing, war, and decadence. Kwaku, the young muse, recites raw resistance to the machinations of neocolonialism that has reared its unfriendly double heads unto Africa, sliding Africa into dire impoverishment, cultural adultery, and political discord:

I want to get a pet one day—a cat, maybe or a dog—& name it after my country, so each poem I write for it, is also for my country. I want a messy pet—a beautiful pet a pet that’s a metaphor for my country. That when I say my pet tore my life apart today, I also mean—my country tore my life apart. When I say my pet is beautiful, I also am saying—my country is beautiful. When it steals my fish, I say what I say. When it brings me fish, I know there’s a bargain—something taken, something I won’t know of. When it breaks my heart, I know it is my country & I cannot unlove it—when it kills me, I won’t know

Kwaku Dade’s “To Aluah I” is a powerful, painful, and erotic, but so lovely, love-nostalgic epistle. The poet is writing a memory, a long-ago letter to someone she/he knows, a love lost. Sometimes the lover is enjoying afterlife in heaven’s chambers or burning already in the merciless red-hot charcoal chalices of hell; otherwise the poet speaks to his mother who was swallowed by the untamed legends of the world on the day of his birth. Maybe the poet is speaking to a country lost in the decadence of war or the discord of political greed, a country with slums as its wounds and poverty as its boils, a country with a name but no longer living, a dead/lost country. And again, the poem is an elegy, a heart-thumping epitaph, an epistle of memories, a sad love story:

In my mind, you lurk about the house. You splash in the bathtub, tap on the ceramic, you are in the hall, in the kitchen, in the hallways. But the walls whisper to me that I am lying. I step into these your motions, and I find only a brush of cold under my skin. In our backyard, your hand touches mine, pegging clothes on the drying lines, and longings inside you transfer into me. But the passing breeze screams into my face that you are not here. In the sky, asperatus clouds form you, naked, in a bed of bubbles. You stare back at me with famished eyes with a hint of detestation. And sunlight pours through it all. And it rains. I remember us sleeping on our Tamale bed. Our son sleeps between us, and when the void of dreams takes him, I climb over to you; I brush my cheeks against the silk of your stomach

This anthology is also a display of bravery and resurrection of lost hopes. The verses within it are in sync with “old love skin”—how deep and broad the title is, though it is anchored by rims of precision and grids of literary simplicity. Pusetso Lame, the versatile genius of the land of Batswana, comes out with guns blazing; the crudity and the bravery in her verse is a portrayal of Africa believed, Africa disbelieved, Africa loved and hated, Africa hopeful and hopeless. Pusetso’s militant-but-logical verse is optimistic and thus reminds us that Old Love Skin is a revolution to replace the old with the new—or swap the rotten new with the sane/fresh old. Lame speaks to women’s fear of seeing their graves. She stands with/for the victims of violence, victims of fear, and victims of hate, and she wants them to rise. As usual, poets are dynamic perception-changers and life-savers, and Lame’s words offer a rebirth, a renewal, a rekindle, a resurrection, and an uprising:

When all you can see is a worthless being Trying to resurrect from a grave that keeps digging itself deeper and deeper Like rain droplets, I’d slowly but surely wipe away all the pains from yesterday’s rejections When all the doors before you have been closed even before your existence

Old Love Skin can be read as symbolizing a rebirth of the old wine skin adage, or maybe its replacement: the reincarnation, the memory, the rise of ancestors of letters or another literary revolution, a non-violent resistance with fistfights dressed in cloves of mushroom, bullets loaded in petals of roses or petals of blood—and iconic literary prowess.

Zimbabwean poet Energy Mavaza was born and bred in that land of contradiction, the land of embrace and bruises, the land of scenic beauty and political ugliness, the land that requires today’s corruption sanitizers as it needed yesterday’s colonial fumigators before the shrill of the cockerel in 1980. Mavaza, the new of the old Shimmer Chinodya (author of the award-winning novel Harvest of Thorns, a novel that predicted the colonial present of the country under siege and the future of a republic that was to greedily drink its own eggs of economic and political freedom), brings back to this poetic podium a searing verse :

That winters’ sun shone so bright, Thawed hearts in melanin delight. Hope swallowed in ballot box, Hope in Africa? What a paradox. For nature nurtures its own well. It adorns wild peppermints with green, Climbers scale up rocks and boughs Embracing the bush to keep the axe at bay. Landscape painted in scattered thistles in gloom-bloom as they shudder To the August gust. The firm rooted tastes November dew. Thistles appease in summer breeze, Whispering dry rumours to the prickly leaves. Roots ferret beneath for moisture but the ancestors stare licks our hope up. Zealous ploughers did much about nothing Silos awaited nocuous for stores but Dust, the response to what we sowed, Shrubs and thorns too. No one knows what they fed on We will reap what we did not sow Bountiful harvest of thorns We didn’t toil for

Old Love Skin is a theme-based display of poetic gems equalized by the sweet/slow/fresh/smooth flow of a young river pouring into the tired/sober/ harsh but motherly pigeon-infested old river. It is a unique African story told by brave-militant wordsmiths who divorced their play with androids and stereos and got initiated by poignant metaphor, crude pliers of irony, and sharp, double-edged razor blades of satire.

Some of these word-soldiers were trained in the style of Ben Okri and Wole Soyinka; others are great-grandchildren of Senghor and Mapanje; many of them copy the lyricism of Dambudzo Marechera; and still others drank Victorian and metaphysical poetics, maybe some African Canterbury Tales. Old Love Skin is a yearn for freedom, a rebirth, a resurrection, a revolution, a resistance of the bad old, and an embrace of the good new—as well as a chant against the rotten new and an embrace of the good old.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2023 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2023