we march on: #2 dambudzo marechera
TRIGGER WARNING: The poem today contains curse words, out-dated language and invocations of violence and torture perpetrated by white supremacy.
Hello and welcome to We March On, a series where we'll be revisiting iconic protest poems from the past to learn from those who came before us and honour their legacies. Today we’ll be focusing on 'In jail the only telephone is the washbasin hole: blow and we will hear',
by the maverick Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera, iconoclastic anti-authoritarian poet, playwright and author. Marechera's poetry was published posthumously in 1992 in the collection, 'Cemetery of Mind'. Sadly the book now seems to be out of print. You can access some of his works and more information about him here. The poem we're discussing today was accessed using this link if you would like to read more of his poetry and writing:
In jail the only telephone is the washbasin hole: blow and we will hear
Write the poem not from classroom lectures But from the barricade's shrieking defiance. From the mortuary's brightly frozen monocle From day's gunburst to night's screaming human torch From bleeding teeth that informed to underground Perception of black fire
Write the poem not from the rhyme and reason of England Nor the Israeli chant that stutters bullets against Palestinians Nor (for fuck's sake) from the negritude that negroed us Write the poem, the song, the anthem, from what within you Fused goals with guns and created citizens instead of slaves
Do not scream quietly We want to hear, to know And forge the breastplate a poet needs against THEM!
Before we delve into the poem itself, contextual information is helpful. Dambudzo Marechera is a figure who refuses rigid definition, his life was fuelled by rebelliousness.
He was born to a poor family in Rusape, Zimbabwe in 1952. During the 1950’s up until 1980, Zimbabwe was under the colonial control of the British, and the imbalances of power rampant in both Zimbabwe and the UK are injustices Marechera raged against. Dambudzo was thoroughly intelligent, and won a coveted scholarship to study at a private school in Zimbabwe which then helped land him a place at the University of Oxford. However, Marechera’s interactions with academic institutions and the British publishing industry is no tale of 'rags to riches', but a sad example of how these powers utilize and tokenize black work without properly caring for the artist themselves.
Dambudzo was thoroughly critical of authoritarianism in all its guises, calling himself an anarchist; he got into hot water for not following the university syllabus, instead choosing his own reading lists. Life during his time at Oxford was troubling, being constantly under the white gaze and discriminatory views of his contemporaries had a negative effect on how he was able to handle himself. Marechera frequently found himself fighting in pubs and literary parties, but his tendency to fall into violence was found to be a symptom of schizophrenia; a mental condition which still is more likely to be suffered by black men from Africa and the Caribbean than their white counterparts in the UK*. These White institutions and individuals boring over Marechera trying to stifle his spirit literally pushed him to the edge, and when confronted with the choice to either undergo a psychological examination or face expulsion, Dambudzo opted to move forward alone.
After leaving Oxford Dambudzo experienced homelessness, squatting, arrest and further discrimination from the police in the UK. Often writing on park-benches, his tenacious spirit created ‘House of Hunger’, which in 1979 won him The Guardian Fiction Prize. (he was the first and only African writer to win the prize throughout its 33 year life before it merged into the Guardian First Book Award) This award ultimately did little for Marechera other than land him a short lived residency at Leeds University, and in 1982 Marechera returned to post-independence Zimbabwe. He continued writing until his untimely death at the young age of 35 after suffering from an AIDS related illness.
Today's poem was selected because it directly addresses some of the key philosophies that Dambudzo lived by. In rejecting 'classrooms' and the 'rhyme and reason of England', Marechera plots a decolonizing project of the imagination by encouraging readers not to mimic or assimilate into accepted modes of creativity permitted by white supremacist authorities, but to reject indoctrination into the status quo and instead think critically and independently. He wills us not to look away from the violence caused by war and racism, but to focus using the 'mortuary's... monocle'. The poem uses subversion to conjure light from images of morbid brutality, for example describing a person being tortured with fire as a 'torch'. Marechera is using these invocations of terror as a way to incite urgent support for Black Liberation. But by melding pain with light, he shows that the ultimate goal of paying attention to the pain of the past is not to continue as normal, but to 'forge the breastplate a poet needs' to fight the ubiquitous nefariousness of colonizing nations.
In the poem he specifically mentions two cites of liberatory struggle: the suppression of Palestinian homelands, and ideological difficulties relating to the concept of Négritude. Considering that the time Dambudzo was writing coincided with his homeland of Zimbabwe achieving independence, it makes sense for him to sympathetically show solidarity with Palestine. Palestinian lands being forcefully colonized by Israel after WW2 is a very complex, fraught issue ongoing today- but the point he's trying to make is that we shouldn't prioritize the official agendas and propagandist histories of national governments over the suffering of the people themselves.
Négritude is an artistic movement and concept first espoused by the Martinican poet, Aimé Césaire. It has since undergone much revision and criticism, but at the time of it's inception during the 1930s it was wildly popular for its radical embrace of all things Black. Négritude
claimed that all Black people of the African diaspora were united by a universal sameness or togetherness. Whilst it can be seen as empowering, to others Négritude symbolized an over-simplification and reduction of the myriad different lives, conditions and experiences Black individuals have. For the lone wolf Marechera, it's clear he rejects this homogenization of community, instead pushing for what comes from 'within you'. To trust your own gut with forthright honesty, and indulge in what makes you different and thus powerful.
To honour the legacy of Dambudzo Marechera, 'do not scream quietly', but use your voice to express your own reality, make art to fortify your ideas against the manipulations of others. Whilst he may have been a somewhat polarizing character in his own time, the value of his contributions to literature and poetry must not be forgotten.
Please do use your own voice or social media to share Dambudzo's memory far and wide! And if you have anything else you'd like to add, or would like to recommend a poet for the future in this series please do comment below!