Welcome to 2014. It’s a pleasure to start off the year sharing some splendid African poetry with you. I look forward to a memorable ride in the year.
I begin this year with poetry from Mozambique, written by one of the most popular Lusophone African poets you will read yet. Noémia de Sousa was born on 20th September 1926, in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo). Even though she did not publish an anthology, her writing fame spread far and wide with her publication in newspapers, journals and literary papers. For the few poems of hers I’ve read, de Sousa was a protest poet, writing in defense of Africa against colonialism and general oppression. Her poem “Magaíça” (Migrant Laborer) is a good example that ends with the lines
“Youth and health,
the lost illusions
which will shine like stars
on some Lady’s neck in some City’s night.”
Her first poem I read was “Poema de João” (The Poem of João) and it also ends with the lines “who can take the multitude and lock it in a cage?” Due to the protestations of her writing, the colonial secret police monitored her to the extent that she fled Mozambique and took residence in Portugal. She later moved to France and continued to write under the name Vera Micaia. She died in 2002 in Portugal. I review below her poem titled:
If you want to know me
This is what I am
empty sockets despairing of possessing of life
a mouth torn open in an anguished wound…
a body tattooed with wounds seen and unseen
from the harsh whip-strokes of slavery
tortured and magnificent
proud and mysterious
Africa from head to foot
This is what I am
Just look at the beauty of that! Noemia de Sousa’s poem is short and is titled as though the poet doesn’t care if you know them or not. Or rather, she is apologizing for what you might discover when you get to know her. Therein lies the power of the poem. The ‘her’ is not even her.
The poem starts by giving respite from your wondering too long on the title. It seems to sit you down, look straight into your eyes and tell you ‘This is what I am’ (line 1). The images that follow give a picture of a bewildered listener, mouth agape, disbelieving. It looks like the poet is talking to someone who had different ideas who this speaker is. Let’s discover.
Noemia tells us of ‘empty sockets’ which have lost hope for life (line 2). The one prominent socket on the human body that can best contain this expression is the eye socket. Keep this in mind that the body being described is blind; metaphorically blind and unable to see past her issues, her problems, her present life for which she now despairs. ‘A mouth torn open in an anguished wound…’(line 3); that is to say, a battered mouth with a wound extension where lips will not reach; ‘a body tattooed with wounds seen and unseen’ (line 4) – each tattoo a landmark of ownership by suffering, the seen and the hidden. Noemia is describing to us a tortured soul but she goes on, enlightening us that this body got all these scars from ‘harsh whip-strokes of slavery’ (line 5) which, sounding terrible, have awoken in her a magnificence (line 6). How does a tortured body become magnificent? Why not, it adorns itself in blisters and brokenness like a painting. It is broken but it is ‘proud’ for which reason we can only look on and marvel, mysteriously (line 7). But who is this her? Noemia tells us, this is Africa in completeness. If anybody is ready to know Africa, love Africa, this is Africa’s person. At the time when countries were still reeling under colonialism, this was a powerful way of opening the eyes of the world to an Africa that wanted liberation. Making this Africa a person dressed in scars. Beautifully marred. This was enough to merit Noemia getting tracked by the colonial Portuguese secret police.
This writing is so powerful, it brings to mind that post I wrote on why I am doing poetry reviews, which closed with the lines ‘If the government cared, they would have arrested me’. No oppressive government would want its people to rally around a poem like this. Noemia de Sousa has provided this contribution to an Africa that is ever-defining itself and also as a worthy start to 2014 on this blog for a bit of reflection on a common African past from which we can forge a common African future.