The Ancestors & the Sacred Mountain
As a slight variation on the menu of this column, this entry is concerned with poetry rather than prose, and with a local writers work.
The collection of poetry that Mazisi Kunene titled The Ancestors & the Sacred Mountain (now out of print, and probably available to most readers only in libraries) was published in 1982. Considered the great exponent of Zulu verbal culture and an internationally respected writer, Kunene has, since his return from a long period in exile, (re-) settled in KwaZulu-Natal. His best-known work is the epic Emperor Shaka the Great a fascinating and ambitious work of cultural vigour, psychological complexity and political insight. He also published a second epic in English, called Anthem of the decades, which could be roughly described as an account of Zulu cosmology, equally an impressive and multi-faceted text.
In this discussion, however, we shall be looking at Kunenes considerably briefer lyric poems, written first in Zulu and rendered in English for publication (like the above-mentioned epics).
As the title of the collection indicates, the notion of generational continuities beyond earthly life, as a profound and continuing inspiration to the living, is a central theme. Yet even though the poems were published in a time of harsh oppression for most South Africans, they do not engage in a manoeuvre of cultural retreat from political issues. What they do manifest, however, is a desire to establish the worth and need of cultural resources as a bulwark against oppression. Kunene is also insistent upon the perspective that the commemoration and interpretation of events by their artists is the most significant of the tasks imposed upon an oppressed people.
This is a point made, for instance, in his Congregation of the Story Tellers at a Funeral of Soweto Children (69-70): We, who have seen our children die in the morning, / Deserve to be listened to, he writes here, and although acknowledging that Nothing really matters except the grief of our children, whose grief must be revered, the speaker adds that We must not be rushed to our truths, since what is not being poured out at once is stored secretly in our minds.
The story of the time can be heard over and over again by these story-tellers, who have nothing more [to] ... fear they are not silenced by any intimidation, but by the fact that their minds are numbed beyond the sadness.
So the poem succeeds in being or enacting the very commemoration it says it cannot (yet) achieve, and records in its confession of tongue-tiedness an eloquent testimony.
Some of the poems express a much more immediate sense of what it feels like to live in a state of harsh constraint: I hear voices shouting from the mountains / And the echoes of stampeding feet. / An unfaltering solo cries out to the night: / Meleko! Meleko! Meleko! / And I know the rapers of our sleep have come!. This is the whole of the unforgettable small lyric titled Police Raid (22).
With this poem is to be compared the grave moral exhortations of the poem called To a South African Policeman (25-26) violent authority being likened here to the authority of the beast. The speaker warns, here, that They have no future ... who serve in the chambers of tyrants, and he likens such functionaries of oppression to pests and monsters, infest[ing] our sleep with sudden madness and embodying the night that haunt[s] our children.
Yet many of Kunenes poems are lyrical in the more usual sense of the term, and he constantly varies the perspective. Hence the previous poem is followed shortly by the tender tribute called Motherhood (27), which opens with the following stanza: The women of our village / Like a travelling herd of giraffes / Their heads thrust against the blue afternoon / On the ridge of the earth they walk like shadows.
This respect felt for these maternal powers [that] surround the earth in the above-mentioned poem may help to explain the intensity of the disdain expressed in the poem about the woman Nozizwe (2 the title, her name, ironically alluding to the idea of the nation), who is (in the subtitle) identified as (a traitor who served the SA police). This latter poem contains the lines You chose a lover from the enemy / You paraded him before us like a sin. This is seen as a sin so heinous that it mock[s] the gods of our Forefathers.
Interspersed with such fierce denunciations are poems that are clearly meant to hearten the despairing, such as Kunenes evocation of the First Day after the War (3-4). Such a time is beautifully evoked as filled with a soft light / coiling round the young blades of grass, rather than by any political triumphalism. It is, nevertheless, imagined as a time of risorgimento in a religious and cultural sense for, says the speaker in the final line here, We saw our Ancestors travelling tall on the horizon. A similar ethos (of cherishing life) is evident in the lovely poem (equally concerned with the imagined period after the battles have been won) that is called Brave people (5). For the kind of courage it celebrates is not battle-strength, but that much rarer form of it, generosity hence the poem ends: For the knowledge of life / Makes people wise / And those who are wise are generous.
This keynote of Kunenes collection is maintained to the end of this collection for in the penultimate poem, called Secret Wisdom (75), the narrator concludes that, despite arduous and terrible testing, the hero is he who brings a total gift / Narrating a tale of danger through invincible love, / Bringing into the circle, a witness of endless wisdom.
Inherent in the entire collection is an evocation of the earth and its glories, although this is, clearly, a profoundly spiritual vision. A central poem (expressive of these ideas) is called Nourishments of love (50-51). The great nature rhythms, overcoming the destructive in inexhaustible patience, ensures that The stone is softened and its heart grows, for the Deep-Eye creat[es, again and again,] a new season.
One hopes that, in a time when a measure of historical and aesthetic retrospection and cultural consolidation can begin to occur in this country, some more readers will discover, or rediscover, the work of this great South African poet.
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