The poems in Tsitsi Ella Jaji’s Beating the Graves meditate on the meaning of living in diaspora, an experience increasingly common among contemporary Zimbabweans. Vivid evocations of the landscape of Zimbabwe filter critiques of contemporary political conditions and ecological challenges, veiled in the multiple meanings of poetic metaphor. Many poems explore the genre of praise poetry, which in Shona culture is a form of social currency for greeting elders and peers with a recitation of the characteristics of one’s clan. Others reflect on how diasporic life shapes family relations. The praise songs in this volume pay particular homage to the powerful women and gender-queer ancestors of the poet’s lineage and thought. Honoring influences ranging from Caribbean literature to classical music and engaging metaphors from rural Zimbabwe to the post-steel economy of Youngstown, Ohio, Jaji articulates her own ars poetica. These words revel in the utter ordinariness of living globally, of writing in the presence of all the languages of the world, at home everywhere, and never at rest.
About the Author
Tsitsi Ella Jaji is an associate professor of African and African American studies at Duke University. She is the author of Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity.
Read an Excerpt
Beating The Graves
By Tsitsi Ella Jaji
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
It is so goddamn hot in our country that blooms
— jacarandas, bougainvilleas, flamboyants —
erupt in a shock of fuchsia from pipes laced with rust.
Hokoyo! Step too close and your skin will crisp up like a chicken in hot Olivine.
Everyone will see the fat sizzling from your innards.
It is so hot that locusts
drop in pools around your feet,
their musical legs all melted.
In our nation a waterfall is a cauldron of steaming falsehoods.
Maize simply withers in
the miserly shade of thorns.
Men quiver at cock's crow and
hang their cattle out to dry.
Pumpkins turn to gourds.
Midnight flushes out hunger.
Ngozi dart in disregard
across the oozing tar.
Ach man, spare us your sermons
concerning our weeknight brews:
the problem we are facing now
is the drunkard who drains
his own water pot, leaving
the mother of his children
with one thing only:
Rhinos are shrinking.
Filthy crawfish bloat.
Our grandmother is just seated
as if death were a bus running late.
We have now reached the stage
where lackeys are openly trafficking
dragon fruit, smuggling them through
customs as if they were Marange diamonds.
Meanwhile, at the small house,
their scrawny young girlfriends
are just hassling the houseboys.
Our eyes run
all through October,
We hear the drum's skin
crackling as it curls.
We smell the coming rain.
Archangel, your time draws near.
The Book of VaNyemba
Ex nihilo, omnia.
Plorans ploravit in nocte.
I missed Sekuru?s funeral. Only the stranger who was my aunt
was left to condole. Across the oceanic hiss of telephone static,
twenty years thick, Baba repeated my flight number.
To get them talking again, Sekuru died.
When I arrived she said I was her twin.
I wondered why she had not missed me.
How do I bury the shame of not knowing which tree to turn after
for the road — such as it is — to their land, kumusha?
We rode in the new uncle's pickup truck to the farm. Whining
in the backseat about his open beer bottle, I was scared.
I was scared of going kumusha without Sekuru,
scared I would not have the words for his grave,
scared to walk his fields,
scared I would forget which cows he'd given me,
scared that now he was gone, no one would gather us under the kitchen
thatch to kneel, and clap for protection, and take snuff with the ancestors.
I am right. Kneeling at his graveside,
I have no words to bring him back.
Virgines eius squalidæ, et ipsa oppressa amaritudine.
Tete sits me down and tells me the story of our ankestors.
She says it with a hard K. I squelch my sass, and listen.
Our ankestors were hunters, of the zebra totem.
There were two brothers and a very beautiful sister,
as sweet as a sugar bean. So they called her VaNyemba.
They came all the way from Mozambique to this place,
tracking wild game. When the chief saw VaNyemba?s beauty,
he granted her brothers leave to hunt on his land.
They set out to hunt early, leaving VaNyemba to tend the fire.
She was very beautiful. The chief surprised her.
She screamed, but her brothers were far, far.
He was a heavy man, and as he thrust himself inside her
he found her penis. Our VaNyemba hanged her busted bare
body. When the chief saw it, he was afraid. He stripped
off his regalia and fled, leaving the land to her brothers.
That is the land they buried her in. And that is how
we came to live in Chihota, the land of sweet potatoes.
I am sitting next to Tete, wondering if
I will ever eat a sweet potato again
Alia autem ceciderunt in petrosa, ubi non habebant terram multam.
is your land.
this land was given
for my body.
this land was handed
over to you.
kings and kingdoms
this is my body. this land was broken
over my dead body.
— till this land —
Benedictus fructus ventris tui.
Esurivi enim, et dedistis mihi manducare
Come, let us eat.
Come, let us pray:
Our Grandmother, VaNyemba, we bless you.
Makaita basa, VaNyemba, Ambuya vedu.
Grandmother, we sing your name in the fields and in the mountains.
Ambuya, tinorumbidza zita renyu muminda ne mumakomo.
You died for your land, but you were victorious. Praises, Grandmother, high praises.
Imi mafirenyika yenyu, munorumbidzwa nemupururu Ambuya
Give us this day plenty of sweet potatoes.
Tipei mangwanani ano zvihota zvakarasirira.
O, how we rejoice to eat your sweet potatoes.
Nemupururu tinoda kudya mbambaira yenyu.
And how we love to eat your sugar beans.
Tinopembera kudya mutakunanzva waVaNyemba.
For we are your great grandchildren, raised at your breast;
Tisu, tiri vazukuruzukuru venyu yakayamwa musvisvinwa waVaNyemb
Yes, we come from the Land of Sweet Potatoes.
Hongu, kumusha kwedu ndekwaChihota.
Praise be, Sweet Sugar Bean
Mupururu kwamuri, VaNyemba.
Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani? hoc est: Deus meus, Deus meus ut quid dereliquisti me?
On the third day of the hunt, our sister.
On the third day of the hunt, our sistren.
On the third day of the hunt, our mother who wert called hermaphrodite.
On the third day, our intersex ancestor.
On the third day, our intersex ankestor, hallowed be thy name.
On the third day, our intersex ankestor, how wouldst thou have
wished to be called?
Wouldst thou have recognized our stories
— bullets in the wallet of your womb?
Wouldst thou, our splendid sister, have been happier hunting as a brother?
Our beginning, you who were robbed of your self, what could have
comforted you, soothed your terror, eased your tender, tender heart?
What would you have wanted to hear us whisper, your name, your
truth, your home? What would have broken your search for woven
Our blessed third-gender ancestor, how shall we summon you?
Oculi tui columbarum, absque eo, quod intrinsecus latet.
O Daddy Rex,
you horn-billed bronze.
Shake that mane, baby,
flash that strobe-colored coat.
Dazzle us, old Guinea-Eyes,
all black and white and
red all over.
Let me hear you
do that njenjenje,
you earth rambler, you.
Kick up a storm, sweetheart.
Kick with your mouth.
You, highway-robbed of
you, endless gift
* * *
Praise Song for Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
Oyehe heeeeeeeh. MotherPoet!
Your fatha taught you to be bold.
If something is true, keep doing it.
Ah, you, Doctor Patricia Jabbeh Wesley!
You are the mother of four children.
Mama Wesley, you have raised
four black human beings in this thicket called
America. You, Grebo woman. You
You have raised four human beings
in this thicket of words
and wordless slights.
Ah, who can say you are timid?
Who can say you do not know how to throw your voice into the air?
And who would have pushed that air aside, if not for you?
Who has come to the door asking for Liberian womanspeak poetry?
Hehnnnn, they want to know, who is listening-o?
Ayi! Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, we are standing
on your shadow. Forgive us, mother.
We have been crowing like johnny-come-latelies:
Maonaka? Ndasvika panyika iyi nemakumbo angu, ndega.
What! We are saying what?
But who made a shelf for us?
Aiwa, tiri tese!
Who micro-braided her own hair
and blocked the TV screen, a MamiWata for today
hands perched on her child-bearing hips?
Who put the pepper pot down
hard, there, in the middle of the table,
ready to spar joke for joke,
ready to match these men?
Did you hear the one about the Ibgo, the Yoruba, the Hausa,
and the mango tree?
But what of the Yoruba, the Hausa, and the Igbo who jumped off the roof?
Ah, you, Patricia.
What kind of people joke about those who have died very hard?
But you look death in the eye and it looks down.
You look death in the eye and you weep,
then take off your glasses to look at us straight on.
You look death in the eye, burying your sister?s children,
and your teacher?s teachers. You do the woman?s part.
You refuse to wail. You will not be quiet.
Even we who are very very small
would like to be like you.
We want to have your accent.
We want to make people work
hard for our words.
We want our voice to have your husk.
We want to inform people at
the other tables who were not
even eavesdropping at all, at all
that we are not Kriyo ...
We are not Kriyo.
We want the buttons on our wool blazers to strain hard like that.
We want to wear red frames like yours. That same rectangle shape.
We want to take off those glasses again, to weep for joy at
our young sister-upstarts. We want to hehnnn like that.
We want to dent the table of conversation with the
struggle that is us. It is not easy-o.
Four books of poetry,
four children, and
an African Husband.
Patricia. You are your fatha?s daughter.
We thank him for teaching you to take up space,
but we thank you for standing in that space.
We thank you for pushing the word no so hard it fell backward.
We thank you for squeezing the word man so tight it noticed
it was missing two very important letters.
We thank you for pushing the point.
We are inviting you now.
We are saying
Mother Patricia, teach us.
We are not ready to become big women like that.
We are not ready to make sure that our uncles
are buried properly. We are not ready
to learn how. But watching you,
we just did.
If something is true, keep doing it.
Song of Yobe
Introit for Girls' Voices: In the Physics Lab
Fire. We flinch, then lean in to the light.
A Bunsen burner transfigures air
into flickering tongues of indigo.
We watch the curious commotion
of copper sulfate flaring into
a bright blaze of turquoise.
Fire. We come to learn how compressed air
powers an engine, how pressure does work.
We come to prove our candlelit diligence,
our memories sharpened by flame.
What we know cannot be countered — the law of
thermodynamics, relativity, force.
Open the gates and examine us.
We will silence those city bureaucrats who claim
girls who learn by firelight will never pass. Tomorrow
we do our part. We wield our nibbled pens
for the principle of uncertainty.
Our heads are clear, our minds made up.
Antiphon for Boys? Voices: In Sambiza Forest
Fire. First the sour smell
of petrol spilt on dust.
We too knew of conversion:
chemical energy turning to light.
We were slow. But clutched in flames,
we wasted all their bullets, charred as we were.
Ashen, now we spirit-see the mad one leap
from a lorry. She limps into the dead
of night. More sober, her sisters take to
the forest. They cook, they pray, they pray again.
Our sooty eyes foresee their return, nursing
horrors at their breast, fired,
fired with impossible love.
Look at us, we twenty-nine
boys gone up in smoke. Bring us back
to mind. Water our memory
with your tears.
O, spare us some water too.
To Praise the Hornbill
for Chris Abani (after Harryette Mullen)
Crick-cracking horn honker.
Crunk-billed golden nester.
Hoot, you hungry seersucker.
Sunny-side: Calypso Kitchen.
Smack-tongued, seedy toaster trash.
Yellowbeak roosted raunch,
crank-pot slow and conched.
Button down those breastplates.
Platter plenty of tinny,
Guinea spotted dick. Strut
wing-tipped through the ball.
Blitz! Calling all dappleblacked,
root doctors. Wing
it, baby, wing it.
O stray dusted hornbill,
eye-twinkler. What a
swingin' life you've lushed.
Evolved? Hell no. Elevated.
Walk through the edges,
circumvent the center.
(Circle the square, so to speak).
Having parted ways with the crossroad,
take each path offered, and unite into
a thousand thousand fragments.
Stutter in the tongues of men and angels.
Spit out the honorific truth:
rave stark as a mad woman.
Destitute, discover the ankestral home
and sit down to fast sumptuously
at the high table.
Comforted, stare into the mirror
that divided all these years,
the mirror that melts in the mouth.
Now, speak clearly.
a letter of resignation to the board of missions;
duplicates to supporting congregations;
two plane tickets; two ceremonies; two receptions, one large.
Being American, her family made no further claims.
Neither did her adopted Manyika brothers.
* * *
Grandpa's wedding gift to Mai and Baba:
one piano and two pecan trees.
Chickens were barbecued. Fish were caught.
* * *
The bridewealth of Mainini Fay, Mai's Manyika sister:
various beasts, cash, and goods, up to and including furniture and a fridge,
to which Mai objected, shaming their brothers.
Said fridge was deducted, but remains in the accounts of the saga.
* * *
The bridewealth for my young brother's bride-to-be:
given as calves to him at age four. Slighted, I raised cane
and also got a few. The cows stayed on the farm, kumusha
Babamunini counted, corralled, herded, nursed, milked, cleaned,
prodded, yoked, and slaughtered them. So, ask him if you need to know
which ones are which, or when they died.
* * *
My bridewealth: a helicopter
engraved on a collector's coin
to tickle my father. Stateside,
my brother had no need of cows.
* * *
The bridewealth of my grandmother, Ambuya:
unsecured. When her husband died, and again when she was gone,
this was factored into the burial ceremonies as fines to be paid in goats.
* * *
Baba built that house for Ambuya and Sekuru with his first paycheck.
Bricks and mortar with a shiny metal roof.
When he married, Mai helped him
fill it with store-bought sofas covered in knots of bumpy wool
and green melamine plates. Plus, there was a wood-burning iron stove
locked up in the kitchen built of bricks. Ambuya kept the key on string
around her waist. It was never used once.
* * *
And so, I moneygram the bridewealth owed by Babamunini, my uncle,
who is my small father by virtue of being the younger brother to my father.
Babamunini, who beat his own mother once
when his medication ran out.
Forgive me, Mainini, my future little mother.
My mental math tells me you will outlive him.
mother was a mango transplanted by moonlight. she glowed like spilt cream. on unknown days she would burst into bruises, or leak tears, but it was just a skin game. fruit do that, seeping out ripe-juice, when inside all is sweetening. the real hurt was slower, deeper.
as the years swelled, her tenderness rooted in the soil of dented fruit. the real rage was churned with the fatherwomen. then they hurled it together like paint at uncles gouging lobola or marrying twice or taunting children.
these days everyone is quieter as she begins to sag into the third age, so terribly afraid of going blind.
brother was a flamboyant tree. he arrived like flint and steel, which we fought over until everyone died. at first he would run through the house bass-booming for us to wake up. but as it became clear to him that no one would dye his room red he settled down to chewing gum and playing foosball.
now, once a week, he hands out pocket money, backwards.
we are so proud of him.
father, an acacia, was exactly the same only, before brother hustled steel, he herded cattle. he handed out proverbs with a largess too tardy to make anyone fluent. there was always a tangle of thornwire barbed under his skin.
i cannot remember the history of the scars, except to know that it was our own uncles who lit the fire.
the acacia survives immolation. the acacia screeches with laughing children. the acacia cries like a man, pregnant with meaning.
the sister is tough. she is dropping frangipani blossoms on the soil-red plot while things fall apart. her ivory bloodlets are the inverse of the mother's. everything is chilled, yet she gives off a scent as if, within her, rocks were smoldering.
she is a locked bowl of bee's gold.
she is equally silent, equally flammable
we call that aunt a fatherwoman. A boarding school master could snatch her branches to strip them for caning. hunted, hers was a hard wood. mopane, or mukwa perhaps. it emerges that she is remembering a pendulated body, the rape of the royal house of zebra, the lustfear that drove the brute away, and the winning of the land for sweet potato cultivation like it was yesterday.
she plucks away at her bearded chaos.
who can count the mouths she feeds?
there is an "uncle." how can i put it? some claim he gripped us like an unplanted vine.
yet the fact is, water is better than blood when one is thirsty. and all those years there were sister-brother fruits on the table when the in-laws were spoiling. and everyone had enough. for the moment, it is better to keep still and plan on grapes some other time. let's,
let's stay together.
some things hold a mirror to the earth, as with this recent
grandmother and simultaneously, her fathergrand-uncle. he was wide and whorled, and just as empty as a cream-of-tartar fruit. she was wiry and wizened like national baobab roots. together they met at the drought: the corruptions, the lamentations. they tapped morse code across the ocean for years, detailing pickup trucks, bags of maize, longing.
one day they stopped haggling and ate a goat and we all went back to dying peacefully
look, the cousin-brothers grow like weeds, to put it bluntly. the fatherwoman wants to pull them all up by their rude little groundnuts. but look at it this way. this is a drought. and the field is all that stands between us and a hollowed rectangle.
consider the cuts, the aches, and the sun-lash we take to salvage a single pumpkin plant. at the end of the day, it is three feasts in one: leaves and gourd flesh and blooming "tomatoes."
or take the eucalyptus, growing more stubborn each time we mow it down. nevertheless, how well it clears our throat.
* * *
Excerpted from Beating The Graves by Tsitsi Ella Jaji. Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ANKESTRAL. Drought The Book of VaNyemba Praise Song for Patricia Jabbeh Wesley Song of Yobe To Praise the Hornbill Deep English BOTANICAL. The Go-Betweens Family Trees. Vindication Holy Departure (A Berceuse) Dust to Dust Document for U.S. Citizens Who Have Never Applied for a Visa and Have Had It Up to Here with Those Loud Aliens Who Go On and On about Some Letter Blunt Balm Matobo Hills Philosophical Investigations Limpopo Blues Wait until the Leader Clears the Lunar A Prelude to a Kiss My Funny Valentine Small Consolation Our Embrace CARNAVAL.Carnaval: A Suite Liturgy To Bless the Memory of Tamir Rice Acknowledgments