The Strangely Impersonal Private Poetry of Amanda Hammar

Poetry International, April 1, 2009

“A number of marginalised groups,” wrote Kizito Muchemwa and Musaemura Zimunya, in ‘An Overview of Post-Independence Zimbabwean Poetry’, published on the PIW site last year, “have been excluded from literary creativity in this country. Writers are beginning to emerge from various sites of exclusion …”

The authors almost certainly did not have in mind Amanda Hammar, a white, Zimbabwean-born Jewish woman now living in Sweden, when they spoke of the country’s poetic margins. That the publication of her poems on this website will no doubt come as a surprise to many on the Zimbabwean poetry scene is indicative, I think, of the fact that the backlash against a hundred-odd years of white poetry production under the political aegis continues almost three decades after Independence. I’m convinced it is an unhealthy phenomenon, this persistent stress given to the importance of being indigenous, because not only has it repelled generations of aspirant white Zimbabwean poets, it now confronts all those who have fled the Zimbabwe crisis over the years, and who have had a different set of intellectual, emotional and aesthetic experiences. Already, I think, it is fair to say that the greater trend in Zimbabwean poetry is not ‘emergence’, but rather the withdrawal of the ablest poetic minds, whether at home or abroad, into their own shells, some perhaps to monikered blogs or obscure forums, many no doubt composing only for friends, family, imagined inner audiences …

Amanda Hammar confesses to a life of writing for her own eyes. It is only in the last ten years that she has shared a few works with close friends, which makes the appearance of her poems on a public forum which intersects with the Zimbabwean poetry scene a very interesting, and potentially troubled, advent indeed. The transit of poetry from private vaults to the public eye has many challenges, some of which issue from the local context, as alluded to earlier, others resulting from the numberless formal criticisms that are suddenly brought to bear by regular readers of poetry. Then there is that great insistence of the world’s poetry academies, that one cannot simply express one’s feelings and deign to call the effort poetry. It is an undemocratic pre-condition, perhaps, but one which poets seeking publicity for their work must expect to be confronted with.

If you will permit me the use of a crowded bus metaphor to describe the Zimbabwean poetry scene (it seems apt enough, insofar as the Poetry International Web Zimbabwe domain is currently the major vehicle of the post-independence poetic tradition), I will now focus more closely on some of these challenges in relation to Amanda Hammar’s poems.

The gears crunch, the bus begins moving and rejoins the pot-holed highway. Hammar grabs a handrail and surveys the crowded benches. Having gained a ride, will she, she wonders, be lucky enough to find any space to sit? To her right, at the very back – a great deal of noise and gesture – the slam poets are fetching rhymes out of thin air to fuel their brand of popular protest poetry. It is not likely that they will make room for Hammar, though if she could find the courage to venture it, her poem ‘Zimbabwe Lost (in haiku)’ might be taken up – Comrade Fatso perhaps splicing Hammar’s plaintive “What kind of African. / My skin / The colour of colonisation”, with these lines from his own Mutupo: “What’s my identity / what’s my identity meant to be / is my identity meant to be veldskoens and rugby?”

Of all Hammar’s poems published here, ‘Zimbabwe Lost’ is for me the least satisfying, because the search for identity which it begins fails to push beyond the trammelled conundrum of feeling African but being white. It is a mere re-statement of the double-bind that causes her, and many other white Africans, a great deal of pain and confusion. I’m with the poetry academies on this one – a simple expression of the way one feels is not enough. For a fleeting moment, I thought the line “rooted baobab-deep”, used to describe her attachment to Zimbabwe, was ironic, a play on the fact that baobabs are often thought to be trees planted the wrong way round, roots waving in the air. But it is not. The stanzas also fail to meet the syllabic dictates of the haiku form (three lines of five, seven, and five syllables each). The traditional dynamic of the haiku, which is to contrast an image of time with one suggesting place, has also been dropped. I have unfairly excluded far better poems than this from the Hammar selection in order to illustrate some basic dangers of the private/public transit. Poets seeking a good public reception must find ways of getting beyond fixed, dead centres. If traditional forms are used, their time-proven dynamics should not be neglected.

Ahead of the slam poets, egging them on to spikier heights, are the doyens of resistance poetry: Marechera, Hove. Hammar cannot hope to ever match the productivity of their bile ducts, which have been in spate for two decades. Chenjerai Hove does, however, shoot a fraternal glance at Hammar for her description of a certain dictator’s manhood (from her ironically titled ‘The New Nation’), swelling “with pride / At its ill-begotten prize”. In his poem ‘A Masquerade’, Hove sexualises the avarice of the first colonisers in a similar fashion:
“So they said when they came / Swollen with heroic pus …”

‘The New Nation’ has also aroused the attention of the women poets, closer to the front of the bus – Kristina Rungano, Joyce Chigiya, Zvisinei Sandi, and a seat reserved for Freedom Nyamubuya, who has left the poetry scene without leaving forwarding details. Hammar’s plural pronouns bother the women. “Our blood spilled …”, “the soles of our feet curl …”, “our bruised faces swell …” The entire bus, in fact, is interested to know about this. Is Hammar seriously trying to suggest that the abuses of a certain dictator have been so democratically bad that white and black poets, men and women, can now speak interchangeably? Can we imagine speaking for your experiences in exile, they wonder? (Heads shake with uncertainty.)

There does not seem to be space for Hammar amongst Zimbabwe’s contemporary women writers, although they sympathise (as do the men) with the domestic dystopia evoked in ‘Jailbirds’:

Our bed is a prison now
A shared stretch
Of solitary confinement.
Our proximity a lie.

Hammar looks around, disheartened, but some male voices are quick to call her to the front of the bus. They are not young. They like the front because it is quiet, and they can easily see the road ahead. They ask her to recite ‘Abandoned’:

Too long abandoned
Weeds pushing apart …
Beams of weathered wood …
No longer able to hold in
The soft heartbeat of

There are several grunts of recognition. Charles Mungoshi, Killian Mwanaka, Forbes T.K. Karimakwenda, Chris Magadaza – these men know, knew, what it is to return to a home utterly destroyed.

Home sweet home?
muffled thuds
Of soft earth
On dead wood
On the nailed
Despair within
Home …

Those were Mungoshi’s thoughts upon returning home after the war, expressed in ‘Home’.

Do you remember the old neighbourhood
And the pretty little innocent girls?

asked Forbes T.K. Karimakwenda at around the same time, in his ‘On Dreaming of Home’.

      1. Where have they gone?
        What has taken their places?
        Don’t ask me.
        Ever, ever, ever!

In the fading light Chris Magadaza saw the ghostly stumps of what used to be cattle pens. Killian Mwanaka, in ‘The Return’, follows an old path:

Where to and fro we drove cattle in the pastures
Now bearing no footmarks of man or beast

The same sense of almost total erasure pervades some poems Hammar wrote in 2002, a year in which she returned to Zimbabwe for a period. There is a sad irony to this kinship – a disaster comparable to that of war has now been visited on Zimbabweans by the very men who called themselves liberators. The differential of black and white suffering has been narrowed – now whites, too, can write about wrecked homes and lives in the same way. Except they can’t, not really, and Hammar knows it. The eighties poems I’ve referenced are, with the exception of Mungoshi’s ‘Home’, powered by a “before and after” dynamic, which describes the poets’ homes first in affectionate, almost utopian detail, before showing them utterly wrecked. The velocity with which the poems move from memory to grim post-war reality, nostalgia to despair, creates a simple but effective emotional turbine. Twenty years on the technique is not available to Hammar – any hint of nostalgia, she knows, will be met by pained groans of ‘When-we!’

To guard against this, Hammar has chosen to forgo the construction of personal utopias and instead pitches straight to a focus on waste. Debris merits close attention. It comprises four scenes of loss: the first two (a school-yard scene, a farmyard scene) are mere lists, the images restrained and meant to hypnotise:

Faded school dress, pockets
Ink stained …
A teacher’s worn briefcase gaping open
Spilling pens and promise on the ground;

sweat-stained hoe, splintered door …
ploughshares draped in spiders’ webs

A shock to the system (for which we are nicely lulled by stanzas 1 and 2) awaits in stanza 3.

Hidden beneath a yellowed news-sheet lies a
… mosaic of dried blood
And bone in silent invocation

The image has power because, while one can harmlessly visualise pools of blood, blood with bone mixed in is another matter entirely. What surplus violence must that entail, one is forced to imagine? The word invocation is also well chosen, as it can refer to the calling down of both gods and demons – the stanza is static, un-peopled, cloying, and yet pregnant with the promise of vengeance.

The way ‘Debris’ is structured convinces me that Hammar has not returned to Zimbabwe to recover her personal Zimbabwe, but to tell of the violence that the yellowed news-sheet, shamed by its own print, would rather obscure. This pattern of quashing the personal can be traced through other poems as well.

‘Debris’ could easily end with the third stanza, but Hammar goes on to create this memorable conceit:

      1. caught in the rusted barbs of a fence
        Folded in on itself, a flame tree’s waxy
        Orange blossom still full with the memory
        Of its own magnificence

The flame tree blossom stands, of course, for the eternal flame of the revolution. It is not, as one thinks at first glance, a glimmer of hope or symbol of regeneration. With ‘Debris’, Hammar amply pays her bus fare, and also shows that private poets on the Scandinavian margins of Zimbabwean poetry can produce poems which are both technically impressive and of great public relevance.

Beyond that bravura moment, however, one wonders how long anyone can persist with an approach that entirely resists references to personal loss. Hammar’s related decision to restrict particulars of her life in exile is another potentially big problem. One understands, of course, when a poet wants to insist that they are still a child of their motherland, in spite of geographic dislocation, but it is possible to explore the absences of exile through foreign detail. It could very well be, of course, that Hammar has already written many poems that explore her life in exile more fully, but decided to withhold them for personal reasons. This, then, would be another problem of the private/public transit – the possibility that the poems that do trickle back are not necessarily the richest reflections of their author’s inner world.

How to lure more poetry from the diaspora? How to have some hand in directing the choices of diaspora poets? These are questions which it would be nice to hear discussions on, within a broader argument about the limits of Zimbabwean poetry.