A long line runs through Togara Muzanenhamo’s Gumiguru. It is not just the “experiences of a decade” that makes the narratives of this book, it is the lines of the poems on the page, reaching across from margin to margin. The focus of this book is certainly the stories which are largely based in or inspired by Zimbabwe’s landscapes and range from collecting figs to the death of a father. The long lines are neatly kept and the form seems chosen specifically for the narrative qualities of these poems. The vivid descriptions and turning narratives are placed in these long lines which allow the poems to unfold dramatically.
The formal continuity and the thematic links between the narratives make the poems of Muzanenhamo’s second collection feel very much of one piece. The poems create their own space during the collection: firstly they create a form to set the poems in; then, a sense of originating from a particular place. As the lines arrange themselves on the page, the setting of Zimbabwe becomes entrenched in the reader’s mind and the value of these poems being set side-by-side becomes evident. This cannot be accused of being a series of unrelated poems; the poems are linked by their form, their sense of place, their voice and vocabulary.
Some of the most interesting parts of how the poems relate is how certain phrases, descriptions and words are repeated. Tractors are used in nine of the book’s poems and this accentuates the agricultural setting of much of the book. However, they are often beyond use: one is ‘old broken-down tractor’, there is a discarded ‘old green engine’ and there is mention of how ‘tractors once worked’ the fields. There is a sense of both activity in the agricultural imagery but also of hardship, poverty and of things passing. This thematic is well expressed through these images alone and linked to the meaning of the collection’s title, Gumiguru, the tenth month of the Shona calendar, characterised by dryness, heat and therefore a difficult month for farming.
Despite the agricultural struggles, the Zimbabwean landscape is made to feel expansive, much like the expanse of the lines across the pages. However, there is no attempt to make a singular idealistic definition of the landscape: for example in ‘Engine Philosophers’ the Zimbabwean landscape is described as ‘fields shot green with growth, brittle with grain, / or bare as anvils’. These simple descriptions in some way summarise the landscapes of the book; there are natural fields, farmed fields, and ones that are bare. The use of ‘or’ is vital, it expresses multiplicity and this is one of the real strengths of this book: it never reduces its subject matter to a singular vision of the setting. Still, there is room for appreciation of the natural landscape, as shown in ‘Copper Fall’:
streams carving contours through green valleys, the sunset
flattening fast to white layers of mist where prayers of leaves
slip through sacred air; the evening tanned with a copper veil –
the forest thick beneath the moon rusting above sleeping hills.
The lines are careful and neat and the form fits the beauty of the natural landscape. The book contains these moments where the line, the verbal clarity of the language and the imagery just seem to sit perfectly together.
One of the best things about the connected setting and feeling of these poems is how the collection creates an over-arching set of thematics within the narratives. The poems feel centred by the connections between them. It allows Muzanenhamo to explore small narratives within broad contexts. The prevalence of religion is one such context. In ‘Easygoing’ the Bible is said to be a ‘reference book’ and in ‘The Dish’ the location is said to be ‘steady in religion’. The poem, ‘A Faith’, focuses on religion as a large scale tool in the oppression of women, stating that the ‘biblical times’ turn ‘wives to mothers below the age of consent’. The poem then focuses in on a particular image:
hands of prophets hovering above bald-headed
girls primed to serve desire’s omnipotence.’
This single image of the prophets over the girls embodies the patriarchal dominance linked to religion. By distilling the narrative of religious dominance to this single image there is more significance, emotively and otherwise, than the previous statement that this oppression occurs. This type of well-chosen imagery is common to many of the poems, where the image is loaded with resonant metaphorical weight.
The long line of the poems generally lends itself well to the book’s narrative focus. The lines leave room for the stories to work in surprising and poetic ways, for example the change in scale mentioned above in ‘A Faith’. However, on occasion, rather than add structure to the poems sometimes the shape of the poem enforces some unconvincing line breaks. The following lines are a good example, where the splitting of adjective from subject causes a stumble over the line breaks:
‘Tapestries of blue
gossamer fold delicately over the ceiling, fresh
waves brightening to a white film’.
(‘His Sunday Shift’)
While at times the lines seem to work as a space that is written into, here and in some other poems it seems the formal structure dominates the words.
Against the tide of much modern poetry, Gumiguru is a very adjective-heavy book. At times this works, particularly when the adjectives are carefully chosen. At other times though they slow the narrative and poetic work of the poems, sometimes creating something that is more prosaic than poetic. The narratives are often still fascinating and work metaphorically but do not use their language as efficiently as possible.
Some of the best work in this collection comes in the poems which deviate from the long line. ‘Water’ is the best example, its lines fluctuate between short and long, are indented in varied ways and visually there is an impressive evocation of the fluidity of water. There is a temptation to wonder whether Muzanenhamo should have deviated from the long line used in many of the poems; however, it may be that these varied lines work so effectively because there is a well set-up contrast between these poems and the rest of the book that allows them to stand out.
This is a collection that simultaneously seems to be well suited to its form and occasionally held back by it. There is much to enjoy about Muzanenhamo’s Gumiguru and the individual interest in certain lines, but it is very much a collection that is strengthened by its interweaving of narratives that rewards multiple readings.