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“They were eyes that stung you to tears…”: Dambudzo Marechera’s ‘The House of Hunger’

In the prefatory essay to The House of Hunger – a collection including the eponymous novella and eleven other aphoristic, semi-autobiographical sketches – the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera sets out his relationship with the English language. “I took to the English language as a duck takes to water,” he writes:

I was therefore a keen accomplice and student in my own mental colonization. At the same time of course there was the unease, the shock of being suddenly struck by stuttering, of being deserted by the very medium I was to use in all my art. This perhaps is in the undergrowth of my experimental use of English, standing it on its head, brutalizing it into a more malleable shape for my own purposes. For a black writer the language is very racist; you have to have harrowing fights and hair-raising panga duels with the language before you can make it do all that you want it to do. It is so for the feminists. English is very male. Hence feminist writers also adopt the same tactics. This may mean discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm , gas ovens of limitless black resonance.” (p. 7)

This is an interesting paragraph, because it calls to mind an old debate over whether there can be – in the words of Colm Toibin – a “language that is free and untouched by occupation.” Toibin certainly believed so when, in Love in a Dark Time, he wrote of “independent writer[s] whose true home, as I have said, is the language.” Seamus Heaney believed so, when in The Redress of Poetry he wrote of “language pure as air or water, a language which carries the reader (as the truest poetry always does) into the sensation of walking on air or swimming free.” Marechera clearly doesn’t. And his indictment of English as both racist and misogynist recalls the feminist critic Marina Warner, who wrote that “the speaking woman, her tongue freed by the ability to write as well as read, found that the emblem books were still filled with the iconology of female wantonness and frailty and their contradictory companions, fatality and power… women often had to work with the grain of misogyny, and then found the timber broke their tools.” The tools of language – image, metaphor, even words – are deeply political; and therefore, for Marechera, the choice of using a language – and then, how you use it – are political choices.

In fact, the sentence “a keen accomplice and student in my own mental colonisation” brings to mind Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s memorable indictment of “European tongues”. In Secure the Base, wa Thiong’o wrote that “within the African nations, European tongues continue to be what they were during the colonial period: the languages of power, conception and articulation of the worlds of science, technology, politics, law, commerce, administration, and even culture… every educated African who remains doggedly locked within the linguistic walls of European languages, irrespective of his avowed social vision… is part of the problem and not the solution.” However, while Thiong’o’s response to this was to stop writing in English altogether, and write in his indigenous Gikuyu language (he would then translate it himself into English), Marechera, instead, sought to engage in “discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm, gas ovens of limitless black resonance…”

This shows in The House of Hunger, Marechera’s haunting, broken, almost-surrealistic narrative about growing up in pre-Independence Zimbabwe, where English becomes an instrument of distilled violence. If Robert Bridges once wrote that English civilisation “is in great measure founded upon wreckingMarechera employs metaphor, image, and word to show how the English language might be founded upon violence. For instance, in simultaneously describing the death of the narrator’s father in a railway accident, and his mother’s verbal violence upon him, Marechera writes:

“Drinking always made her smash up her words at one particular rail-crossing which – as had really happened with the old man – effectively crunched all meaning or significance which might be lying in ambush… the expletives of her train of invective smashed my body in the same way as that twentieth-century train crunched the old man into a stain.” (p. 20)

Smashed-up words, where “meaning” and “significance” are crunched: this is The House of Hunger, where “the tinfoil of my soul crinkled” (p. 28), where “the pain was the sound of slivers of glass being methodically crushed in a steel vice by a fiend whose face was like that of my old carpentry master who is now in a madhouse” (p. 37), and where “the flood of political rhetoric escaped like a cloud of steam out of my crater of a mouth, leaving me dry and without words” (p. 38).

Marechera’s themes are themes of violence – the violence of a broken, colonial society in the process of violently struggling to free itself (“I found a seed, a little seed, the smallest in the world. And its name was Hate. I buried it in my mind and watered it with tears. No seed ever had a better gardener. As it swelled and cracked into green life I felt my nation tremble, tremble in the throes of birth – and burst out bloom and branch…” (p. 29)), violence both political and personal; this, in itself, is not unusual. Violence has been depicted to great effect in books as diverse as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathiser. However, what is unusual about The House of Hunger is violence is not merely extra-linguistic, in the content of the description, but linguistic. Even the brief moments of joy are described in metaphors of violence: “And now here he was already gripping my arm with a tongue-scalding coffee joy…” (p. 21); “I smiled, crumpling up the tinfoil of my delight” (p. 40); “the rain came down in little liquid rocks which broke on their heads with a gentleness too rapid to be anything other than overpowering. She laughed a laugh that had little sharp teeth in it and it warmed them, this biting intimacy with the rain…” (p. 118); and: “My dreams still clung defiantly to the steel wire of old memories which I no longer had the power to arrange clearly in my mind.” (p. 124)

One should not think, however, that The House of Hunger is limited to stylistic virtuosity (although, as exhibited above, Marechera’s use of language is brilliant). The underlying theme – the critique of the broken colonial society, and the broken individuals it rears – risks being submerged by Marechera’s linguistic fireworks, but there are times when it emerges forcefully, reminding us that what is at stake, beyond violence, is an indictment of an entire political, economic, and social system of oppression. For instance, at the beginning of the novella, the narrator describes the process of growing up, which can be taken to be purely an instance of existentialist doubt, but in the broader context, is clearly a comment on the manner in which the colonial regime systematically denied fulfilment to its “children of a lesser God”:

“There was however an excitement of the spirit which made us all wander about in search of that unattainable elixir which our restlessness presaged. But the search was doomed from the start because the elixir seemed to be right under our noses and yet not really there. The freedom that we craved for – as one craves for dagga or beer or cigarettes or the after-life – this was so alive in our breath and in our fingers that one became intoxicated even before one had actually found it. It was like the way a man licks his lips in his dream of a feast; the way a woman dances in her dream of a carnival; the way the old man ran like a gazelle in his yearning for the funeral games of his youth. Yet the feast, the carnival and the games were not there at all. This was the paradox whose discovery left us uneasy, sly and at best with the ache of knowing that one would never feel that way again. There were no conscious farewells to adolescence for the emptiness was deep-seated in the gut. We knew that before us lay another vast emptiness whose appetite for things living was at best wolfish.” (p. 13)

The “House of Hunger“, therefore, refers not simply to the literal hunger that colonial poverty brought with it (the narrator mentions staying in the “house of hunger”a few times in the novella, making it clear that its use is both literal and metaphorical), but a different kind of hunger, and a different kind of thirst, that social structures were designed to leave un-sated:

“All the black youth was thirsty. There was not an oasis of thought which we did not lick dry; apart from those which had been banned, whose drinking led to arrests and suchlike flea-scratchings.” (p. 12)

The distilled intensity of The House of Hunger might speak for Marechera’s short life: an education at Oxford University was cut short when, on being offered a choice between a psychiatric examination and being sent down for trying to burn down the college, he chose the latter; The House of Hunger was composed while sleeping penniless, rough and rootless in different parts of England and Wales; when it won the Guardian First Book Award, Marechera celebrated by throwing plates at the chandeliers during the award ceremony; on his return to (independent) Zimbabwe, he lived homeless and died of AIDS-related complications at the age of 35. This life of restless – and often violence – discontent – is summed up by Marechera himself, in Thought Tracks in the Snow, one of the autobiographical essays that comes at the end of The House of Hunger:

“As the plane burred into the night, leaving the Angolan coast and heading out into the void above the Atlantic, I suddenly remembered that I had, in the rude hurry of it all, left my spectacles behind. I was coming to England literally blind. The blurred shape of the other passengers was grimly glued to the screen where Clint Eastwood was once again shooting the shit out of his troubles. I was on my own, sipping a whisky, and my head was roaring with a strange emptiness. What was it really that I had left behind me? My youth was a headache burring with the engines of a great hunger that was eating up the huge chunks of empty air. I think I knew then that before me were years of desperate loneliness, and the whisky would be followed by other whiskies, other self-destructive poisons; I had nothing but books inside my head, and they were burning me, burring with the engines of hope and illusion into the endless expanse of air. Who was I leaving behind? My own prematurely grey had still sat stubbornly upon my shoulders; my family did not know where I was or whether I was alive or dead. I do not think they would have cared one way or the other had they known at that moment I was thousands of feet above the earth, hanging as it were in the emptiness which my dabbling with politics had created for me. I felt sick with everything, sick with the self-pity, sick with the Rhodesian crisis, sick! – and the whisky was followed by other whiskies and my old young man’s face stared back at me from the little window. Would Oxford University be any different – was I so sure of myself then? Dawn broke as we flew over the Bay of Biscay; and the fresh white dove’s down of breast-clouds looked from above like another revelation that would turn out, when eaten, to be stone rather than bread.” (p. 140)

Even here, at the very end, in the throes of seriousness, Marechera cannot avoid just that little dose of linguistic pyrotechnics!

Other reviews of The House of HungerThe GuardianThe Rumpus.

On Marechera more generally: The Life and Times of an African Writer (VQR).

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Filed under African Writing, Dambudzo Marechera, Uncategorized, Zimbabwe

“A torchlight procession of one, lighting up the streets”: Seamus Heaney’s Redress of Poetry

In Seamus Heaney’s Casualty, a poem about a pub-going Ulsterman who ignores a curfew during the peak of the Troubles, and is killed for it, the last three lines (the poet speaking to the dead man, the “casualty”), are a study in ambivalence:

“Dawn-sniffing revenant,   

Plodder through midnight rain,   

Question me again.”

The ambivalence is one that runs through Heaney’s poetry, perhaps best exemplified by the section in Station Island, where (in a fictional meeting), James Joyce tells the poet to “let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes. / Let go, let fly, forget. You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.” The ambivalence is about the relationship between poetry and politics, instantiated by the tension between the desire to keep words apolitical, and the temptation to intervene directly through poetry.

If such questions remain unanswered in Heaney’s verse, then The Redress of Poetry – a collection of ten lectures delivered at Oxford – gives him a chance to answer them in prose. Eight out of the ten lectures are about other poets – Christopher Marlowe, Brian Merriman, John Clare, Oscar Wilde, Hugh McDiarmid, Dylan Thomas, W.B. Yeats and Philip Larkin, and Elizabeth Bishop. It is in and through writing about these poets, however, that Heaney painstakingly constructs his own poetic manifesto, dealing with the relationship between words, culture, politics, and the world.

It is almost trite to say that politics suffuses our world, and that nothing – not even poetry – can be free of it. The very use of language is a political act, and the dream of an apolitical realm of pure art is simply that much – only a dream. This is something that Heaney is acutely aware of, and he is acutely aware of his own subject-position: as an Irishman, part of a colonised culture, and yet as a white European, also part of a colonising culture. But the question remains: and then what? The task of The Redress of Poetry is to show how language and poetry are tangled up with politics and with the burden of history, and yet not reducible to it.

The project is set out in the opening, eponymous essay, where Heaney notes that “poetry, let us say, whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and out of which it is generated.” Soon after, he writes that “[Poetry] becomes another truth to which we can have recourse, before which we can know ourselves in a more fully empowered way.” 

If there is whiff of the old poetry-as-a-vehicle-for-revealing-hidden-aesthetic-[apolitical]-truths here, it is quickly dispelled when Heaney moves to examining his selection of poets. The first essay is about Marlowe’s Tamberlaine, and Heaney begins by acknowledging that he has “learnt to place this poetry’s expansionist drive in the context of nascent English imperialism”, and therefore “what I want to do here… is to find a way of reaffirming the value and rights of Marlowe’s poetry in our own post-colonial time.” How is one to do this? Heaney’s answer is that “When it comes to poetic composition, one has to allow for the presence, even for the pre-eminence, of what Wordsworth called the ‘grand elementary principle of pleasure’, and that pleasure comes from the doing-in-language of certain things… it is obvious that poetry’s answer to the world is not given only in terms of the content of its statements. It is given perhaps even more emphatically in terms of metre and syntax, of tone and musical trueness; and it is given also by its need to go emotionally and artistically ‘above the brim’, beyond the established norms.” Form, then, is the answer: form that, in a certain sense, exists prior to language, language with all its baggage and burdens of history (it is perhaps no coincidence that Heaney uses the phrase “musical trueness). At another place – in his essay on Hugh McDiarmid, Heaney seems to affirm this when he writes that “the thing that MacDiarmid was after in the deep Scottish ear resembled what Frost called ‘the sound of sense’, a phonetic patterning which preceded speech and authenticated it, a kind of pre-verbal register to which the poetic voice had to be tuned.” 

And yet, in the same essay, Heaney describes his poetry as composed of “a language pure as air or water, a language which carries the reader (as the truest poetry always does) into the sensation of walking on air or swimming free.” In a collection that is otherwise so acutely conscious about the place of language in the world, the reference to “language pure as air” (a little reminiscent of Colm Toibin, at one point, talking about language that is free and untouched) comes across as surprisingly naive. Indeed, it directly contradicts a particularly brilliant observation that Heaney makes in his essay on Elizabeth Bishop: “it is precisely Bishop’s linguistic virtuosity that creates the delightful illusion of access to a pristine, pre-linguistic state.”

In fact, the contrast is all the more jarring, because Heaney spends a substantial amount of time interrogating the precise relationship between language and the world. In his essay on John Clare, Heaney writes that “Clare is a sponsor and a forerunner of modern poetry in post-colonial nation languages, poetry that springs from the difference and/or disaffection of those whose spoken tongue is an English which sets them at cultural and perhaps political odds with others in possession of that normative ‘Official Standard’.” This paragraph comes soon after he approvingly quotes Tom Paulin’s description that there is a “sense of being trapped within an unjust society and an authoritarian language.” The use of the adjective “authoritarian” to describe “language” is surely a carefully-chosen one, and is meant to indicate the political baggage that language carries. And in that same essay, Heaney ends with one of his most eloquent passages, basing the idea of a “world culture” in the equality of languages:

“The dream of a world culture, after all, is a dream of a world where no language will be relegated, a world where the ancient rural province of Boeotia (which Les Murray has made an image for all the outback and dialect cultures of history) will be on an equal footing with the city-state of Athens; where not just Homer but Hesiod will have his due honour. Clare’s poetry underwrites a vision like this, where one will never have to think twice about the cultural and linguistic expression of one’s world on its own terms since nobody else’s terms will be imposed as normative and official. To read him for the exotic flavours of an archaic diction and the picturesque vistas of a bucolic past is to miss the trust he instills in the possibility of a self-respecting future for all languages, an immense, creative volubility where human existence comes to life and has life more abundantly because it is now being expressed in its own self-gratifying and unhindered words.”

Of course, even as he speaks about a world culture, Heaney’s vision is enclosed within his own “horizon” (to borrow a term from Gadamer): to make his point about “outback” and “dialect” cultures, he references an Australian (Les Murray) poet’s choice of a Greek image (Boeotia). While Boeotia might be an “outback” relative to Athens, and Hesiod a rustic in relation to Homer, these references are all part of an existing canon that is the product of a certain universalisation of a “Western” aesthetic. It would be churlish, of course, to blame Heaney for this: the Redress of Poetry is a beautifully self-aware book – but it is a point that must be made. In a similar fashion, in his essay on Dylan Thomas, Heaney writes about how he treated “language as a physical sensation“, and then goes on to call this an “Egyptian” style (with references to fertility, the Nile, and Anubis)! He uses the word “Egyptian” on more than one occasion to describe Thomas, and each time it is as if Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism is swimming in one’s mind’s eye – you could not ask for a more textbook case of unthinking, internalised Orientalism. Gadamer was right after all: nobody can escape the bounds of their horizon. I point out these (what in my opinion are) slips, to highlight, as well, that any exploration of such topics in the world constructed along the axes of power and dominance, is fraught with peril, and even a walker as sure-footed as Heaney is bound to slip on a couple of occasions.

And these are but minor blemishes – for the most part, The Redress of Poetry is a beautiful book. Heaney has that unique ability of capturing the essence of a poet, or a poem, with impossible economy. In his analysis of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, he writes that “the master of the light touch came to submit to the heaviness of being and came, as a result, to leave his fingerprints on a great subject.” I cannot think of a more perfect description of Wilde, and of this poem of Wilde’s. His description of Hugh McDiarmid is equally pithy and brilliant: “In 1922 he emerged like a new and fiery form out of the agitated element of Christopher Grieve’s imagination; or it could be said with equal justification that he emerged from the awakened energies of the Scots language itself.” On Dylan Thomas: “Imaginative force has moved a load of inchoate obsession into expressed language.” And perhaps, in closing, it would be most apt to quote his observation on poetry and the world, as a whole: “The world is different after it has been read by a Shakespeare or an Emily Dickinson or a Samuel Beckett because it has been augmented by their reading of it.”

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Filed under Ireland, Seamus Heaney