AiW Guest: Rashi Rohatgi
AiW note: This is the fifth in a series of poetry reviews on the New-Generation African Poets Chapbook Box Set from AiW Guest Rashi Rohatgi. You can find the introduction to this series here, and reviews of the first three volumes in the set here, here and here.
Kechi Nomu’s poetry centres on memory. In its titular poem, ‘Acts of Crucifixion,’ (19) its comprised of the physical, the genetic, the social, the personal, and more. A particularly evocative image is simply two shoes:
your mother’s shoes hanging on nails to the wall
in sensible acts of crucifixion.
besides their worn heels, no stories are left for her children.
In the last image in the last poem (‘Memory, 27) it is jellyfish soft.
The collection is diffuse; Safia Elhillo describes Nomu’s poems as striking, in the contemporary poetic context, in their inclusion of so many non-autobiographical voices: they are poems “populated with lovers, fathers, mothers, boys, Eves, and ghosts… given exquisite attention” (5). These bodies often blend and blur, she notes, into the landscape; the narrative blurs and twists time.
Nomu’s title foregrounds biblical imagery, and this does run through several of the poems, not only the titular one. It is deftly deployed in lines such as these from ‘A Poem About Falling’ (10):
you and I, Eves.
when we fall, we fall out of that year like fruits too ripe,
from trees that do not hold us.
Me, into a penance where the heart is never enough
and the world only lets me touch it
bone to cervix. You into men
whose faces begin to swallow your own.
Religious imagery also takes the place, it seems, of the speaker’s own memories in ‘3 Women,’ (15-16) where the grandmother and mother’s memories are personal, but the speaker’s societal.
This memory is mine:
of a girl, name unknown.
She dies carrying a bomb,
head severed from her body,
Body floating in sand & air.
She only wanted to see God.
Afraid to say her name,
I make it the shape of a prayer.
For Nomu, (Acts of Crucifixion), memory has become collective, as collective memories grow more demanding in their trauma:
This is where all the poetry begins;
on a street
where a body has bombed itself in search of God.
But the collection, ever shifting, also yields this laugh-out-loud line from ‘It Comes in Waves’ (17):
Google search history: has Jonathan Cheban found love?
Henk Roussouw also sifts through history: in particular, the history of Cape Town. His chapbook is only three poems: Rearrival, Doppler Shift, and The Water Archives, each meditations on place and on that place in particular. Xamissa: The Water Archives is the name of the entire chapbook; Ximassa, the poems explain, is a historical name for Cape Town. Gabeba Baderoon writes that the collection “misses nothing… Landscape is confession. Anything but surface” (4). As Roussouw is South African, currently teaching at the University of Houston, the autobiographical element of the poems is implied, but it’s also fascinating to read these poems in response to recent reports of Cape Town approaching the end of its water. What will remain in fact, soon, and what only in memory?
The poems are beautiful, though dense; having never been to Cape Town, the lines that struck me as the most evocative (rather than the most accurate) are:
Xamissa, the city at nightfall double-lit
by the artificial and the fleeting.
Electric sunset. (8)
The narrative running throughout is a story of someone returning to the island after seven years, reuniting with his brother. Some common threads are starlings, sodium-vapor lamps, and canals, seen all together here (10/11):
and the dock cranes, new since
democracy, frame the sea as if
to lower the sun, a starboard-red
container, beyond the coastal shelf.
We learn that Xamissa means ‘place of sweet waters,’ with those reservoirs underneath called (to the poet) ‘the water archives’ (13). The poetry makes use of line, and space, and grammatical uncertainty; poems tend to end mid-phrase, quote attribution parentheses remain open. This adds to the sense of flow, of permeation, and, shared as these characteristics are between water and memory, of the present place as already part of history.
Through ruminations about the layers of past that still remain, that still throb under the newest layer of city skin, we get to the third poem, the titular Water Archives. Here we see that the language itself is meant to be representative, with referent (27):
Xamissa is sprachbund, city of utterance
and creole echoes, none more Xamissa than
the dialectic of now-now and just now
a liminal city afoot on the seabed for
a tidal instant, without
foam of whiteness. (32)
There’s a lot to unpack here, in the best way; I want to touch, just for a last moment, on the idea of ‘a city of utterance.’ The phrase brings to mind jokes in which the punchline rests on the fact that no one would think the doctor was a woman… it’s such an evocative phrase, and it brings to mind all of the settings, and hometowns, of canonical novels and their authors. But – pushing aside the ‘foam of whiteness’ that colours our literary imagination – Cape Town: a city of utterance, of course.
Rashi Rohatgi has taught for Skidmore, Kutztown, the School of Oriental and African Studies, the University of Chicago, and at various London schools. She has served as Reviews Editor at Africa in Words and Fiction Editor at Boston Accent Lit, where she convened the Accent Prize for WOC writers. She is currently Associate Professor of English at Nord University.