In 2019, Mangaliso Buzani’s A Naked Bone won the African Poetry Book Fund’s Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry. In a subsequent interview published in Africa in Dialogue, Buzani recalls how, upon hearing the news, he quicky phoned fellow poet and New Brighton resident, Mxolisi Nyezwa. This phone call is one that is particularly apt because when you read A Naked Bone there is, hidden within Buzani’s remarkable and dreamlike poetry, a touch of Nyezwa. There is a fragile sort of beauty that poignantly captures a deeply personal suffering.
I have written previously about how Nyezwa, in his poetry, steps away from the explicit political comment of much South African poetry to render something much more intimate. The Malikhanye collection, for instance, captures Nyezwa’s agony as he grieves for his lost child. It does so in the most beautiful and touching way. A Naked Bone frequently conjures the same sense of heart-break. Buzani mourns those who “choose death instead of life”. The grief is for those he loved the most and include his father, his mother who “left [him] in 2003 to roam the underground world”, and a former childhood sweetheart, Nwabisa Qhanqa, whom he loved and has lost: “But now it is too late to/ comb your hair with my fingers – you are completely/ the soil”. Indeed, the depictions of loss extend to a foreshadowing of his own passing in ‘I will be gone’ where:
Clouds wept the sun wore a black gown mourning beforehand for my death and I heard the footsteps of my coffin coming towards me
This is poetry written in the face of suffering and personal deprivation. Consider ‘The drowning heart’ that makes one immediately recall Nyezwa’s ‘From a Blue Container in Motherwell’ and ‘Heaven’s Prisons’:
The ocean is deep so is the wound of my soul and I'm trapped here inside a raindrop I cannot swim I have lost my legs and all this has happened in my heart too.
There is a profound lack of hope encapsulated by the lack of movement and the sense of insignificance that these lines depict. However, the strikingly simple language also reveals a serenity and acceptance that is a hallmark of A Naked Bone. When you consider the collection as a whole, Buzani’s poems may glimpse personal devastation, but this is not overpowering. His poems also draw strength – indeed, draw life – from the simple pleasures we encounter every day.
Running throughout the collection is a declaration of the joy found in the nature world, something beautiful which persists no matter what. Buzani is fascinated by the smallest details of nature; he absorbs it in all its splendour and with a large degree of youthful excitement. In ‘Inside the river’, he reads his poems to frogs; in ‘Only then’, he speaks of a desire to “raise butterflies” and to “let them drink from my dimples”; and, most profoundly of all, in ‘My first lesson’, he reveals the importance of finding light even in the smallest and most delicate of things. He writes:
so I settled amongst the flowers quiet as leaves I was welcomed by the snails who taught me how to make a trail of light on a leaf.
Coupled with this expression of Romanticism, a pairing made explicit from the very first poem of A Naked Bone, is a belief in the power of family and love. Domestic life provides a sense of purpose that may not overcome sadness but does at least hold it at bay. My favourite poem of the collection, ‘To my family’, describes Buzani’s determination to keep going despite recent bereavement:
Today I will paint my house with warm colours I will paint the table for six elbows three chairs for the three bums [...] I'll paint my love for you your faces before my face smiling because you never smiled for me always a sour sugar always a sweet salt a sadness I cannot tell.
Within this domestic act and the fierce honesty that drives it, there is such profound courage, both explicit and tender, that encapsulates all that Buzani writes. Nkateko Masinga identifies something similar in ‘Kiss Me’, a poem that portrays the vulnerability of expressing desire. When she asks Buzani about it, about whether he worries about being so forthright, he describes, instead, his determination to “continue to empty ourselves of any poems that are within us, as long as we are still alive”.
A Naked Bone is an example of that belief – to be true, to follow the moment – throughout. As you move through its pages it becomes clear that love and loss, suffering and hope, joy and despair are always present. They follow each other and interchange in complex and contradictory ways. For Buzani, there is an acceptance that things move forward in ways you cannot control. The key to surviving is to grasp every opportunity:
Since there will be no time to dance in heaven Let us make a table for the last supper Listen to the jazz music And find the time To finish a bottle of wine.
Life is beautiful, yet fragile. It is, for want of a better phrase, a constellation of fragile beauty. But, as A Naked Bone makes clear, beautiful nonetheless.
Mangaliso Buzani (b.1978) grew up in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth and later trained as a jeweller in Tshwane/Pretoria. His first collection ‘Ndisabhala Imibongo’ (Imbizo Arts, 2014) written in isiXhosa, won the 2015 South African Literary Award for Poetry. ‘a naked bone’ (Deep South, 2019) was his first book in English: Its title poem won the 2014 Dalro Prize for best poem published in the poetry journal New Coin. Buzani teaches poetry in English and isiXhosa in the MA in Creative Writing at Rhodes University.
Tom Penfold is a Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg and current Reviews Editor at Africa In Words. Prior to this, he was a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Birmingham. His research centres on contemporary South African literature, with a specific focus on poetry and performance culture. He is the author of Black Consciousness and South Africa’s National Literature (Palgrave 2017) and eleven other journal articles.