Book Review

Some books of poetry achieve their effects through subtly of language and close attention to craft, others through the power of piled on images. Zimbabwean poet Tendai's Mwanaka's Mad Bob Republic - Blood, Bile and a Crying Child is one of the latter. Mad Bob is, of course, Robert Mugabe, the dictatorial leader of Zimbabwe. Even Americans need little to convince them of the damage that Mugabe has visited on his country. Recently, merely crossing the border from Zimbabwe to Botswana, this reviewer was able to surface signs of the problems. Travelers were warned to keep their cameras out of site. Bus van drivers were charged more to cross the border than their vehicles were worth. Zimbabweans willingly exchanged a over $30,000,000 Zimbabwean note for one U.S. dollar or South Africa rand. Mwanaka's book, however, takes the reader much more deeply inside, giving a first hand view that only one who lived in Zimbabwe could have:

Hope in Zimbabwe is knit with lives lost
And plaited into a pattern of suffering
Hope afraid of unbraiding the past
Waits for others to undo the knots

The book begins with the poem "Brutal times", describing the general state of affairs in the author's country.

The arrest and slammed doors

In a cell, in Harare.

                                          The beatings, gorging, choppings

                                          And in the throes of a shape-shift-

The walls of my cell, in Chikurubi

Maximum prison.
After "Brutal Times" the poems are arranged in no particular thematic order or chronology. Rather, a number of leitmotifs seem to wind back upon each other contributing both a sense of the confused state of affairs in Zimbabwe and to a sense of some of the major issues that confront the author. One of the things that Mwanaka tries to do is give a picture of Mugabe himself. In several cases, the author writes a monologue from Mugabe's point of view. One such poem is "Paradigm of Mugabe's Mind," which begins

My people laugh at me
just to taunt me!
Obama looks at me through
Bush's warmongering eyes
More taunting!

I clip one person
and those western bigots curse me
and we grind across disagreements
but I am not moved by their angers.

Not surprisingly a number of the poems in Mwanaka's collection focus depict of Zimbabweans trying to get out of their country. A cluster of poems including "Journey to South Africa," "At Beitbridge Border," "Refugees," and "Voices of Exile" center around these experiences. In one of his most visceral and compelling poems, Mwanaka describes attempts to escape to South Africa and crossing the Limpopo River, which takes on an almost symbolic motif throughout the book.

The raven's voice falls silent in the darkened leaves
The trees are the only ones who pray for themselves
For the moon always passes on top of them
And in the dark nights we wait for the moon
To tell us to venture into the hungry crocodiles in Limpopo
And I can see their red tongues stretching out
To lick the slime of our yoke and blood.

We are another one among these marauding herds
Limpopo River is now a mixture of silt, blood, bones and scars
Where other traumatised adults giggle chorus of grief
And every anguished cry feed these fat crocodiles
We are now bones within this river's churn
Soon fish will have to negotiate us.

Once in South Africa, Zimbabweans still face a host of problems. In "Lives Not Lived" Mwanaka describes the hardships they encounter as a foreign people in an unwilling country.

Corpses scrambling out of Zimbabwe
gasping for fresh air, while South Africans
squirm from this encroaching pestilence...

Huddled along the tarred roads.
Waiting for a day's cleaning job
or to fix and fit, load and unload
some rich man's looty-booty.

Crowds standing shoulder to shoulder
under the bright southern sun.
Their browned shaggy bodies
can't support them against ridicule.

Political and economic refugees
migrating into an alien culture.

One technique that Mwanaka uses effectively in his poetry is that of the litany. It is a choral form that allows for the poet to give expression not just to his own singular voice, but the collective cry of a people. In "Voice in Exile", the poet is actually able to achieve both in the first two stanzas of the poem.

From the loneliness of this time
From yesterday, today, tomorrow
From this hour, this minute, this second
From what might have been
From gazing at dreams rotting in the sun
From the need of closure from our illegal ourselves
From time served being refugees but still unwanted
From an echo of ourselves that no longer exist. This poem is the soft call of one lonely raven
That has lost her loved birth-ones
It is the voice of reason in times of pestilence
It is the voice of the spirit that left luggage
And bundles of bones in Limpopo River
It is the voice of flesh and blood that sustains
Fish and crocodiles in Limpopo
Year in, year out

For the Western reader, this form also carries with it the overtones of the Greek chorus and the Latin Mass, both of which are suppications to the gods, rendering these stanzas as much prayer as poem.

Mwanaka is not shy about pointing a finger at those who do not answer the prayer, including the United States, Russia, Australia, Japan, Canada, Germany and the UK, who sit around doing nothing about the situation. EVen stronger accusations are leveled at South Africa for quot;moral bankrupcy and ineptitudequot; and at China for supply Mugabe with weapons. His sharpests barbs, however, are leveled against ZANUPF, the ruling political party in Zimbabwe, for the crimes against its own people. It will not be lost on American readers, of course, that one of the poems in which he excoriates these groups is called "My Axis of Evil".

As the title of Mad Bob Republic - Blood, Bile and a Crying Child implies, Mwanaka's poems are not all bile and blood. Moments of tenderness and compassion for particular individuals do punctuate the book. In "For Nigel" "For Nigel" he describes the plight of a young boy whose parents have been killed, in "Coming Home" the author reflects on the effects of the fear in Zimbabwe on his friends Thomas, who did not leave the country, and in "Milk with Marvin My Cat" he shares some personal moments. The inclusion of such poems remind the reader that even in the midst of generalities about groups of people, at its base life and poetry both come down to the individual experience.

There are times when the social aims of politcal poems are sufficient to justify their being read, regardless of their literary quality, as in the case of Basanta kar's The Unfold Pinnacle. Mad Bob Republic deserves to be read, not only as a political document, but also because of the power of its images and, occasionally, its lyrical verse. While there are certainly some poems such as "Journey to South Africa" and "For Nigel" that easily stand on their own, it is really the cumulative effect of the book that provides its power. Some may feel that certain poem are repetitious or that images from one poem have been co-opted for another as well, but it is the loading on of these experiences that help to provide the reader with something of what the oppression that weighs on the lives of those Mwanaka is writing about. A reader invests the relatively little time it takes to reader Mad Bob Republic, will gain a much deeper understanding of what the poet means when he says:

This is not the life we dreamt of
But it is the life we have.