In a time of growing disembodiment, accompanied by an increasing digitalisation of reality, a collection of poems that foregrounds the sensuous body and its experiences, fragmentations, desires and relationality, is more than simply an exploration of the field of the intimate, the erotic and the libidinal; it becomes an arresting socio-political document of life, living, and love through the lens of the personal.
i have not learned to fight
not for justice
not for bread
not for love.
nothing is handed to me.
i bump into things.
into people. (hollow heart, p.55)
The poetic witness who renders these visceral narratives is Zodwa Mtirara: a recent MA in Creative Writing graduate from Rhodes University, and a writer and musician based in the Eastern Cape. While influenced by various factors in her upbringing, and all too aware of overt phases of recent history (summarised by many sequentially and at times simplistically as a triad of apartheid-interregnum-feesmustfall) her writing chooses to detail experience through the foregrounding of the body and its position and contextuality in a spectrum of religious, spiritual, political, mundane, romantic and transgressive experiences. It delays quick revelations; check here the layered imagery which is a far cry from any hashtag poetry or instapoetry:
I love you most, shipwrecked. Unanchored.
Loosed at the hinges of rationale. The ghost of moral.
Held together by the stench of want. For me.
Tongue wagging. Salivating. Lust dripping as drool.
Lubricating your lies so they slide on my skin, moist.
I know what time it is. Hourglass with some extra minutes.
Some extra loving. Time spent on sheets with no names.
Faces forgotten. Only the imprint of their hand on your
buttocks remembered. Hazy.
What precisely is encapsulated in the shipwreck(ed)? The desired individual? Their desire? What is fascinating is how this poem loops around the very bare essence of erotic relationality, layering imagery that builds up the intrigue of what this poem is about. The full resonance of the actuality of things is activated through tactile imagery that is anchored in a haptic poetics of joints, edges, skin and sheets; objects that mark the borders or movement points between sensation and action.
Something of the complex interplay between morality and desire, the sensuous moment and the transcendental, is hinted at in lines such as “the ghost of moral./ Held together by the stench of want”. The poem then evokes the sensational (what would be called “death on the sheets”, to use an Elizabethan metaphor) ekstasis of erotic climaxing, depicted in religious and mortalistic terms:
A hunger must be filled. Stuffed. Even if for a moment.
That moment, your doubts are starved. Choked dead.
Faint? Because then they are back again. Resurrected.
You walk home in the morning with last night’s clothes on.
Wearing shame for a crown. A befitting honour.
You know you should have tamed that hoe. At least tried to.
But you let her have her joy. And you liked it too. Shamelessly.
But, can a girl have her shame and keep it too?
This becomes more arresting considering that the poet has previously indicated (2021) that the walk of shame implied in this poem, was in fact a fantasy that had been called out by friends. And yet this poem is compellingly authentic through its webbed imagery that draws the reader in. What is truth? Is it the felt? The seen? The imagined? Or all of these things, in different degrees, filtered through the storytelling warp of poetry?
5. I hold my breath for five counts when I think of you. This
I do in remembrance of how I forget to breathe when I
see your face. To feel the urge to live. I am awestruck
I have mastered all the ways to let you in. (“5 screws”, p.35)
What stories do we tell of desire, in an era of digital discourse which rhetorically trumpets the freedom of desire and identity, and yet retains an almost Calvinistic and judgemental tone over the politics of the body; witness the popularity of body-shaming and shame/exposure culture prevalent in shows such as Cheaters and Uyajola 9/9; a type of puritanical epistemology which never goes beneath the surface of desire and only exposes the lies of those captured in trysts, never the very contradictions of society and its skewed power dynamics:
in deep conversation
we wore our bones
bare without fear.
& there was no mention
of you in his eyes. (p.9)
The poem, named “loving con” does not necessarily solely point towards the con-deception of the (probably) married man in the poem’s narration; considering its foregrounding of “bones bare without fear” it contrasts the very seemingly authentic delight of their togetherness with the spectre of societal law. This alerts the reader to another con; not the con of conning, but the con of contradiction, the same contradiction experienced by the girl who “can’t have her shame and keep it”. This is the contradiction of two contending truths: the ekstasis of erotic joy experienced by those who break taboos is not any less sweeter than the desire of those encoupled within the contemporary prescribed mores; in fact, these are often sweeter for their trespassing. Nevertheless:
that love on his finger
does not make
his tongue any less slicker.
And perhaps I can think of another con; con for consideration. A consideration expressed in this brief poem for the sensational realities of their togetherness, as well as an awareness of societal demands, and a consideration for the complexity and contradictory space that eros inhabits.Or even condescension in multiple directions; condescension towards the feelings of desire by moralists; condescension for others feelings and experiences, by the lovers, when their own erotic drives may lead to the hurt of other people?) Or indeed the very prickly territory held by the prefix con-; contrasting, conventional, contrary.
Mtirara is drawn towards depicting the things that are labelled transgressive, neither romanticising nor sensationalising them, but evoking them through her command of sound effects and rhythm.
I am drawn to those that drape their flaws like grace.
Bask in the taste of their delinquent scent
Shape myself into canals & pray we never run dry. (The missing, p.19)
This is a society that promptly removes the mention of the thorns that feature in the rose’s narrative; an imbalance Mtirara tries to shift through poems that encounter transgression and recognise the full complexity of the body and its component zones of sensation. In “thighs never lie”:
are you mad that these thighs speak of deliverance and
they seek to escape yet remain home
they have been in bars and in clubs
yet remain chained behinds these bars
they want to be exempt even of me
my complaints about how sensual they are attracting
all kinds of unwanted attention
(thighs never lie, p.23)
This is no simple celebration of the body; rather, through the personification of the thighs it renders a dynamic rendition of both the body’s particularity and its connection to the identity-self, as well as locating the thighs’ agency and speech within the context of societal control and concretely foregrounding the complicated relationship between the speaker and her thighs’ autonomy: this prevents the poem from simply being a spokesperson piece for freedom from patriarchy. The text locates ontological truth in different directions simultaneously, recognising the innate wilfulness of being a body. (Considering something similar to the thoughts of Nietzsche; do we will, or are we willed?) Nature speaks through the body and its component parts; not tritely or romantically, but as a living force with multiple flows; the self is made up of all these pluralistic movements and relations; (indeed evoking the shipwrecked in some manner), and yet also meaningful within its complexity. The thighs are joined to, and yet separate from, the self of the poet; they have their own adjunct, are perceived and experienced as a kind of liminal space or metaxy.
these thighs tell of all kinds of things
with every motion they make
even as I lay.
Mtirara uses the rich resources of sound, symbolism and image to convey the complicated-alive experience of eros and relationality:
i will brand the names of my loves
inside the velveteen of my vagina
there, nobody will see them
they will not be spoken of
then, my heart will be cleansed
clear of your punctures,
and the stampede of the knights
that mended it. (never yours, p.22)
The sensuous alliteration, the harnessing of action words and phrases (will brand, will see them, will not be spoken of, cleansed, mended) and the ability to describe the chaotericMoving with a chaotic energy of creation, cresting on swerves, or the chaosmos of the creative mode. wilfulness of erotic experiences through the highly original image of stampeding knights forces the reader to read this stanza more carefully, in order to detect the multiple movements within it, which build to a head in the stampede of knights that mend the heart. And this volatile image also links to another awareness in her poetry; a foregrounding of the different forms of labelling, oppression, interpellation and gradated internal/external violence that women experience in the course of their daily lives.
when I am done being a woman
bleed me into a corpse
say a prayer to the warmth between my thighs
a temple most sacred – most desecrated
count the men on my lips to whom I was good food
Even here, the imagery bursts beyond being a sheer visceral depiction of victimhood or a realist copyage of suffering; its very broadness and negatively transformative imagery captures the full spectrum of existential pressures that a woman faces and is surrounded by, climaxing in the intense final image, where death is bartered with aesthetics.
do not let my tears sing my songs and thieve them of joy
stretch me into a casket
& trade my noose for pearls
In poems such as “Trained for war” (p.51) and “I prefer you thus” (p.52) relationality is perceived within the metaphor of war(fare). This metaphor is suitable as it proves to be a very graphic way of highlighting the inevitable differences and different personalities of erotic partners, whether short term or long term, and highlights the presence of loss in creating/shaping the template for erotic fulfilment. War is also invoked as a metaphor for sexual experiencing:
i prefer you thus
you make war
A musician who has released several songs, Mtirara invokes song-like rhythms and the potent energy of chants within her poetry, which along with her complex and motile imagery, enable it to escape any easy didacticism. Adapting hymn-like structures in some poems, she challenges patriarchal norms and strangleholds on religion and desire:
she chanted a tune of sin
to the God of chastity
Purge me of you
Strike me down
Make a goddess out of me (p.18)
The God is given its orders to “purge/strike/make” by the woman, thereby revealing a creative reversal of power and glorifying the transcendent power of eros. At a time when many have forgotten the role of intimacy and erotic desire within the terrain of the political, Mtirara focalises these in her poetry. Nor is it simply a propagandising of desire as a vital force; it is all too aware of the limitations and weak points of desire; even the extent to which desire and being ecstatically open to experience makes us vulnerable, and human:
i bump into hearts
they hold me.
when their grip loosens
never to look back.
i run to hearts like mine
that hold nothing
there i spend sleepless nights
wishing to be held. (“hollow heart”, p.55)
A focused collection of poems, through its nuanced language use, catchy imagery and song-like rhythms, Thorn of the Rose encourages its readers to become aware of the role and actual presence of the erotic in everyday life. It conveys through its rich resonances sensuous knowledge, and celebrates and critiques the registers of eros.
|Or even condescension in multiple directions; condescension towards the feelings of desire by moralists; condescension for others feelings and experiences, by the lovers, when their own erotic drives may lead to the hurt of other people?)
|Moving with a chaotic energy of creation, cresting on swerves, or the chaosmos of the creative mode.