About Afric McGlinchey

I am a poet, freelance book editor, reviewer and workshop facilitator. I have published two collections, The lucky star of hidden things (Salmon, 2012) and Ghost of the Fisher Cat (Salmon, 2016), the former of which was also translated into Italian by Lorenzo Mari and published by L’Arcolaio. My work has been translated into five languages and widely anthologized. It was also won several prizes, including the Hennessy poetry award, two Arts bursaries, a Faber Fellowship and selection for an Italo-Irlsh Literature Exchange, as well as Pushcart and Forward, Piggott Prize and Poetry Now nominations. I was commissioned to write a poem for the Breast Check Clinic in Cork and also for the Irish Composers' Collective. My work has been broadcast on RTE’s Poetry Programme, Arena, Live FM and on The Poetry Jukebox in Belfast. I have recently been awarded an Arts Council bursary to research my next project, a cross-genre, auto-fictional account of a peripatetic childhood.

FREE Poetry Film Competition

Featured

Here’s O’Bhéal’s lovely little poetry film competition that I URGE you to support. The competition is FREE! You have about eight weeks before the deadline. Why not have a go at portraying your poem – or someone else’s – visually?

http://www.obheal.ie/blog/competition-poetry-film/

Here’s the blurb on their website:
2018 is Ó Bhéal’s ninth year screening International poetry-films, and sixth year featuring this competition. Up to thirty films will be shortlisted and screened during the festival in October. One winner will receive the Indie Cork / Ó Bhéal prize for best Poetry-Film.

The festival takes place between the dates of the 7th and the 14th October, 2018.
Entry is free to anyone, and should be made via email to poetryfilm [at] obheal.ie – including the following info in an attached word document:
• Name and duration of Film
• Name of director
• Country of origin
• Contact details
• Name of Poet
• Name of Poem
• Synopsis
• Filmmaker biography
• and a Link to download a high-resolution version of the film.

You may submit as many entries as you like. Films must interpret, or convey a poem which must be present in its entirety, having been completed no earlier than August 2016. They may not exceed 10 minutes in duration. Non-English language films will require English subtitles. The final shortlist will be announced here during September.

Shortlisted films also appear in Ó Bhéal’s poetry-film touring programme, at a number of film and literary festivals, to date including the Clare Island Film Festival, Belfast Film Festival, Stanzas in Limerick, the Cyclops festival in Kiev, Poemaria in Vigo and at the Madeira Literary Festival (2018). Shortlisted entries are also screened throughout the year from Ó Bhéal’s competition shortlist archive (in random), at the start of each Ó Bhéal poetry evening.
This year’s entries are judged by filmaker Oonagh Kearney and poet Anamaria Crowe Serrano.
The submission deadline is August 15th, 2018.

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Ghost of the Fisher Cat

Ghost

Honoured and thrilled to receive this generous close reading of my collection, by Abigail Ardelle Zammit. I hope you’ll indulge me if I post it here. Ach, I can’t resist! Besides, it’s also a great example of how to write a review. 🙂

Ghost of the Fisher Cat by Afric McGlinchey (Salmon Poetry)
Review by Abigail Ardelle Zammit
Appears in Issue 58 of Ofi Literary Magazine (Mexico)

Poetry is often considered to be difficult because it challenges the mind to pin down language into units of limited signification, opening it up, not only to plurality, but to the bizarre, the surreal and the unexpected, where the word is more connotation than referent, the verse more music than signification, the whole poem more like a symphony than the unravelling of some secret meaning. The extent to which poets play on this subversive use of language varies enormously, but in Afric McGlinchey’s second collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat, the reader is often at the far end of the spectrum where the juxtaposition of unusual metaphor and conceit, the surprising lexical connotations, the tight stanza forms and highly-charged line breaks demand the reader’s trust in the poet’s ability to inspire feelings, sensations and emotional turbulences, even when the meanings or narrative layers are not immediately cohesive.

Occupying a liminal space between fable and reality where the dead and the living converge, it is necessary for these poems to reach towards a linguistic and thematic otherness. In ‘Shadow’ therefore, which comes with a nod to Hans Christian Anderson, it might be less important to pin down the speaker and the mysterious ‘she’ who moves ‘to the sun’ than to savour the beauty of the sexual pull ‘towards/the body of the world’, the delicious tearing following ‘a catapulting leap’ where the speaker, simultaneously cat and human, discovers ‘passion’s bounty, a lover’s tongue’. In this poem, the recurrent motif of open windows suggests an escape into a surreal space where the characters can merge into their shadows or their ghostly incarnations, but also where the writer can swim into the embryonic freedom of her creative self.

In ‘Slow Dancing in a Burning Room, ‘ John Mayer’s love song allows the first person narrator to ponder why she is attracted to ‘the unknown / of the known’, to savour her lover’s proximity, feeling her heart’s push against his body. She must move around ‘blindly’, vulnerable to the light and the openness that freedom brings: ‘the doors, both back and front / are still open, and the yellowwood floor / is glowing’. Even in the well-executed villanelle, ‘Alchemy of Happiness’, which is dedicated to the poet’s son, the boy ‘flies through doorless rooms / across a private ocean’; imagining this joie de vivre is more rewarding than trying to pin down the precise question that his body asks, or the way it ‘gives an answer’ as the young limbs float into the airy space of childhood and half-tamed wilderness. The poem is indeed a ‘song of slanted movement’ because of its circular re-telling and reaffirmations and its refusal to pin down meaning. In the poem that precedes it, ‘The Importance of Being’, the epigraph from Wilde suggests that the soul can soar beyond human comprehension, so that in trying to imagine its metaphysical orbit, one has to talk of ‘slanting rain’; once again, the conclusion is an indirect commentary on the role of the imagination:

Each reflection
takes him far beyond

these four-walled days,
floats his soul

through this tiny window
into illumination.

Doubtlessly, ‘Ghost of the Fisher Cat’, which comes toward the end of the collection, continues the trajectory of the very first poem, ‘Cat Music’ – the transformation from cat gut to violin strings – which is also the exploration of art’s capacity for transcendence. The poem starts with a rhetorical question – ‘How to describe the topography / of the imagination?’ Despite the speaker’s directions to the readers: ‘Let your eyes go soft,/ sense peripherals / like an animal tracker’, there will always be those whose mind’s eye does not capture the ghost-cat, ‘her sinuous spring, back / into the shadows’ for this is always a fleeting moment and mental conjuring is not for everyone:

You didn’t catch her?
Well, there are always losses and gains
as with any fishing expedition.

It requires a certain leap of your own
to jump out of one world
and into another.

Sometimes, we are told, it is just ‘A Matter of Persistence’: again, the conditions must be propitious, light and weather being a recurring feature in this collection: ‘aftermath of rain’, ‘certain slant of streetlight’. So the lads in the poem become merged with the superstitious young vigilantes in ‘Familiar’, the ones who drowned Dom Perlet’s diabolical cat. In this poem, the black cat is reincarnated, struggling ‘for days and decades / until this evening’s new constellation – lynx’, and the mind picks up its half-presence, tenuous but real enough to acquire the charge of a ghost story. The way the poem moves rapidly from observation, to narrative, to conversation – ‘just an illusion’, scoffs the taller one to his staring friend’, is very much indicative of the poet’s own attempt to break into the reader’s world, pointing at that ‘bristling, vivid, green-eyed / density’, which is so clearly visible to her that she wants to gift us a glimpse of it, as if lifting the veil onto some other world.

That this kind of seeing is bitter-sweet, making one subject to suffering and vulnerability, is also a thematic concern. The man in ‘The Glass Delusion’ has to protect his glass-body from breaking; in this reading, he is not merely a self-absorbed individual who forgets his duty towards the society where he belongs, but an artistic soul who has to live with the terror of isolation; he is a fragile presence made alien and invisible as a result of his heightened sensibility: ‘though you see right through me / like the glass in that window, I remain invisible?’ It is why the poem is followed by ‘Pareidolia’, the tendency to perceive a meaningful image in an apparently random visual pattern; it is these seers who carry within them apocalyptic fears of otherworldly proportions so that even the setting sun becomes a metaphor for a collapsing world: ‘the arc / of the sun, in the silent moment / before the plummet’.

What this kind of vision entails is a keen awareness of otherness in all its forms, not least its political ramifications. The fisher cat, together with his owner, the alchemist canon, might lend themselves to contemporary migrant narratives because they also represent whatever seems foreign or alien to a particular society; the vigilantes may be an expression of the callousness or cowardice with which we destroy that which we fear, particularly when it appears strange or uncanny. In ‘I is Not Always Me’, winner of the 2015 Poets Meet Politics competition, the female speaker is an immigrant and a victim of racism, but what hurts her the most is the erosion of her own identity because of the violence of linguistic imposition:

In Advanced, we talk about erosion,
cliffs giving way, landing in the sea.
I think of how a foreign language percolates your own
until its idioms even permeate your dreams;
that’s not acquisition, but erosion too.

The speaker is very much like a poet, safeguarding the silence inside her head, seeking the tranquillity of river banks, recuperating her primal language from the flotsam of loss. If McGlinchey too is a migrant and lifelong traveller, then she can better understand what it is to live in so many places and never to belong, a theme which is played out in ‘Blink’, where no house is a home. Moreover, she is less prone to judgment when confronted with difference or seemingly bizarre behaviour. In fact, in ‘Holy War, the speaker could very much be Joan of Arc, ‘traitor, heretic, idolater’ who refuses to ‘betray’ her Voices, just like the poet who has to conjure the voices of others in order to sing variously in couplets, tercets, sonnets, villanelles, free verse and a variety of structural possibilities. Because the language she uses is so multi-referential, the title and the conclusion of the poem may remind readers of all those others, the suicide bombers, for instance, who, like the Maid of Orleans, are utterly convinced of salvation through martyrdom and self-sacrifice:

Though thick stone walls, I hear the bells again,
lifting me beyond this earthly fear. Like death,
my fate is certain, and Paradise awaits!

This is a writer who, like Karen Blixen (who features in the epigraph to ‘Contact’), can truly understand why ‘God and the Devil are one’; it is this subversive destabilization of a well-established dichotomy that allows her to play with language in the way she does, albeit a bit too madly at times, as in ‘Fin de Siècle’ where the speaker can ‘tweak’ God ‘out of you / like Medusa’s hairbrush snarl’, but alluringly enough to keep us engaged in her unique poetic language. It is in poems like ‘Sonnet in B Major’ that the powerful rhythm and oomph of her language are most apparent. As readers, we must hold our breath and accept the speaker’s invitation to Promethean courage, doing ‘magic, like feral creatures turning quick to a language,’ which is full of auditory energy:

A wet black semi-quaver opening up
the fanatic eye of an arbitrary Icarus.
Oh, these bells. But I digress.
If we must die, ingloriously, let’s first
rise up like snakes from the monumental pit.

*

This review originally appeared in Issue 58 of Ofi Literary Magazine, edited by Jack Little.

To order a copy of Ghost of the Fisher Cat, please click on the link: http://www.salmonpoetry.com/details.php?ID=380&a=221

Abigail Ardelle Zammit

Dr Abigail Ardelle Zammit is an English Literature at the University of Malta (Abela Junior College). Her most recent poetry collection is ‘Portrait of a Woman with Sea Urchin’ (Sentinel, 2015).

Ghost of the Fisher Cat

Ghost

Hope you don’t think this is too self-indulgent of me, but what do you do when someone writes a fantastic review of your collection? And besides, it’s also a good model for other would-be reviewers to read. So there you go. Something in it for you too!

Anyway, I feel honoured that Abigail Ardelle Zammit gave my collection such close attention, and she has reminded me to offer the same attention to the collections I review.

The review appears in Issue 58 of Ofi Magazine. Here it is, reprinted in full:

Ghost of the Fisher Cat by Afric McGlinchey (Salmon Poetry)
Review by Abigail Ardelle Zammit

Poetry is often considered to be difficult because it challenges the mind to pin down language into units of limited signification, opening it up, not only to plurality, but to the bizarre, the surreal and the unexpected, where the word is more connotation than referent, the verse more music than signification, the whole poem more like a symphony than the unravelling of some secret meaning. The extent to which poets play on this subversive use of language varies enormously, but in Afric McGlinchey’s second collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat, the reader is often at the far end of the spectrum where the juxtaposition of unusual metaphor and conceit, the surprising lexical connotations, the tight stanza forms and highly-charged line breaks demand the reader’s trust in the poet’s ability to inspire feelings, sensations and emotional turbulances, even when the meanings or narrative layers are not immediately cohesive.

Occupying a liminal space between fable and realisty where the dead and the living converge, it is necessary for these poems to reach towards a linguistic and thematic otherness. In ‘Shadow’ therefore, which comes with a nod to Hans Christian Anderson, it might be less important to pin down the speaker and the mysterious ‘she’ who moves ‘to the sun’ than to savour the beauty of the sexual pull ‘towards/the body of the world’, the delicious tearing following ‘a catapulting leap’ where th speaker, simultaneously cat and human, discovers ‘passion’s bounty, a lover’s tongue’. In this poem, the recurrent motif of open windows suggests an escape into a surreal space where the characters can merge into their shadows or their ghostly incarnations, but also where the writer can swim into the embryonic freedom of her creative self.

In ‘Slow Dancing in a Burning Room, ‘ John Mayer’s love song allows the first person narrator to ponder why she is attracted to ‘the unknown / of the known’, to savour her lover’s proximilty, feeling her heart’s push against his body. She must move around ‘blindly’, vulnerable to the light and the openness that freedom brings: ‘the doors, both back and front / are still open, and the yellowwood floor / is glowing’. Even in the well-executed villanelle, ‘Alchemy of Happiness’, which is dedicated to the poet’s son, the boy ‘flies through doorless rooms / across a private ocean’; imagining this joie de vivre is more rewarding than trying to pin down the precise question that his body asks, or the way it ‘gives an answer’ as the young limbs float into the airy space of childhood and half-tamed wilderness. The poem is indeed a ‘song of slanted movement’ because of its circular re-telling and reaffirmations and its refusal to pin down meaning. In the poem that precedes it, ‘The Importance of Being’, the epigraph from Wilde suggests that the soul can soar beyond human comprehension, so that in trying to imagine its metaphysical orbit, one has to talk of ‘slanting rain’; once again, the conclusion is an indirect commentary on the role of the imagination:

Each reflection
takes him far beyond

these four-walled days,
floats his soul

through this tiny window
into illumination.

Doubtlessly, ‘Ghost of the Fisher Cat’, which comes toward the end of the collection, continues the trajectory of the very first poem, ‘Cat Music’ – the transformation from cat gut to violin strings – which is also the exploration of art’s capacity for transcendence. The poem starts with a rhetorical question – ‘How to describe the topography / of the imagination?’ Despite the speaker’s directions to the readers: ‘Let your eyes go soft,/ sense peripherals / like an animal tracker’, there will always be those whose mind’s eye does not capture the ghost-cat, ‘her sinuous spring, back / into the shadows’ for this is always a fleeting moment and mental conjuring is not for everyone:

You didn’t catch her?
Well, there are always losses and gains
as with any fishing expedition.

It requires a certain leap of your own
to jump out of one world
and into another.

Sometimes, we are told, it is just ‘A Matter of Persistence’: again, the conditions must be propitious, light and weather being a recurring feature in this collection: ‘aftermath of rain’, ‘certain slant of streetlight’. So the lads in the poem become merged with the superstitious young vigilantes in ‘Familiar’, the ones who drowned Dom Perlet’s diabolical cat. In this poem, the black cat is reincarnated, struggling ‘for days and decades / until this evening’s new constellation – lynx’, and the mind picks up its half-presence, tenuous but real enough to acquire the charge of a ghost story. The way the poem moves rapidly from observation, to narrative, to conversation – ‘just an illusion’, scoffs the taller one to his staring friend’, is very much indicative of the poet’s own attempt to break into the reader’s world, pointing at that ‘bristling, vivid, green-eyed / density’, which is so clearly visible to her that she wants to gift us a glimpse of it, as if lifting the veil onto some other world.

That this kind of seeing is bitter-sweet, making one subject to suffering and vulnerability, is also a thematic concern. The man in ‘The Glass Delusion’ has to protect his glass-body from breaking; in this reading, he is not merely a self-absorbed individual who forgets his duty towards the society where he belongs, but an artistic soul who has to live with the terror of isolation; he is a fragile presence made alien and invisible as a result of his heightened sensibility: ‘though you see right through me / like the glass in that window, I remain invisible?’ It is why the poem is followed by ‘Pareidolia’, the tendency to perceive a meaningful image in an apparently random visual pattern; it is these seers who carry within them apocalyptic fears of otherworldly proportions so that even the setting sun becomes a metaphor for a collapsing world: ‘the arc / of the sun, in the silent moment / before the plummet’.

What this kind of vision entails is a keen awareness of otherness in all its forms, not least its political ramifications. The fisher cat, together with his owner, the alchemist canon, might lend themselves to contemporary migrant narratives because they also represent whatever seems foreign or alien to a particular society; the vigilantes may be an expression of the callousness or cowardice with which we destroy that which we fear, particularly when it appears strange or uncanny. In ‘I is Not Always Me’, winner of the 2015 Poets Meet Politics competition, the female speaker is an immigrant and a victim of racism, but what hurts her the most is the erosion of her own identity because of the violence of linguistic imposition:

In Advanced, we talk about erosion,
cliffs giving way, landing in the sea.
I think of how a foreign language percolates your own
until its idioms even permeate your dreams;
that’s not acquisition, but erosion too.

The speaker is very much like a poet, safeguarding the silence inside her head, seeking the tranquillity of river banks, recuperating her primal language from the flotsam of loss. If McGlinchey too is a migrant and lifelong traveller, then she can better understand what it is to live in so many places and never to belong, a theme which is played out in ‘Blink’, where no house is a home. Moreover, she is less prone to judgment when confronted with difference or seemingly bizarre behaviour. In fact, in ‘Holy War, the speaker could very much be Joan of Arc, ‘traitor, heretic, idolater’ who refuses to ‘betray’ her Voices, just like the poet who has to conjure the voices of others in order to sing variously in couplets, tercets, sonnets, villanelles, free verse and a variety of structural possibilities. Because the language she uses is so multi-referential, the title and the conclusion of the poem may remind readers of all those others, the suicide bombers, for instance, who, like the Maid or Orleans, are utterly convinced of salvation through martyrdom and self-sacrifice:

Though thick stone walls, I hear the bells again,
lifting me beyond this earthly fear. Like death,
my fate is certain, and Paradise awaits!

This is a writer who, like Karen Blixen (who features in the epigraph to ‘Contact’), can truly understand why ‘God and the Devil are one’; it is this subversive destabilization of a well-established dichotomy that allows her to play with language in the way she does, albeit a bit too madly at times, as in ‘Fin de Siècle’ where the speaker can ‘tweak’ God ‘out of you / like Medusa’s hairbrush snarl’, but alluringly enough to keep us engaged in her unique poetic language. It is in poems like ‘Sonnet in B Major’ that the powerful rhythm and oomph of her language are most apparent. As readers, we must hold our breath and accept the speaker’s invitation to Promethean courage, doing ‘magic, like feral creatures turning quick to a language,’ which is full of auditory energy:

A wet black semi-quaver opening up
the fanatic eye of an artibrary Icarus.
Oh, these bells. But I digress.
If we must die, ingloriously, let’s first
rise up like snakes from the monumental pit.

To order a copy of Ghost of the Fisher Cat, please click on the link: http://www.salmonpoetry.com/details.php?ID=380&a=221

Abigail Ardelle Zammit

Dr Abigail Ardelle Zammit is a lecturer in Creative Writing, specialising in Post-colonial poetry, at the University of Malta.

The Blog that Facebook Banned…Misogyny gone mad.

And just because Facebook banned this post, I’m reblogging it here. Most astute logic and opinion yet:

The Meaty Mammy

So here it is folks. I wrote this article for Facebook and it received a lot of publicity but for reasons only known to the person who reported it, it was banned. I don’t like that thousands of women took the time to share the post and their voices as well as mine were silenced. Misogyny is alive and kicking in 21st century Ireland.

WHY IRISH WOMEN NEED TO BE EXTRA CAREFUL: A BLAZER AND CHINOS DOES NOT A GENTLEMAN MAKE: The Nation Breathe a Sigh of Relief as ‘Top Shaggers’ Walk.

Screenshot_20180328-174120

Social media was buzzing with comments of support for the four men whose privacy and dignity was so callously abused during the Belfast rape trial. The country bowed their heads in sympathy as the boys were found not guilty of the plethora of charges against them. “Could ruin their career”….”Should never have gone to court”…”Let this be a…

View original post 639 more words

Tipping my hat to female poets

Books

I’m doing an inventory of my poetry books in anticipation of preparing my writing room for a tenant who’ll be moving in while we move to Zimbabwe for a few months. In honour of International Women’s Day, I thought I’d do a roll call of the female poets on my shelves: the 178 full collections and chapbooks together are the works of 148 poets (damn, I bet I have one or two lurking elsewhere in the house…) I picked up most of these books at festivals, as well as a few gems at the Time Travellers’ Bookshop and also the Salmon Poetry Bookshop in Ennistymon, which has a great second-hand section; a number were sent to me for review too. Another favourite bookshop is the Book Stór in Kinsale.

Each of these poets has been an inspiration in one way or another, and I just wanted to say thank you! Here are the names:

Aifric MacAodha
Alice Oswald
Alice Walker
Alyson Hallett
Amy De’Ath
Andrea Mbarushimana
Angela T. Carr
Angela France
Anna Akhmatova
Anna Journey
Anne-Marie Fyfe
Ailbhe Darcy
Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh
Anne Carson
Anne Fitzgerald
Anne Rouse
Anne Sexton
Bethany W. Pope
Breda Wall Ryan
Brenda Shaughnessy
Carol Ann Duffy
Caroline Smith
C.D. Wright
Chrissy Williams
Daphne Gottlieb
Deborah Tyler-Bennett
Deirdre Hines
Denise Blake
Denise Levertov
Djuna Barnes
Doireann Ní Ghríofa
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
Eileen Casey
Eileen Sheehan
Eleanor Hooker
Elizabeth Bishop
Ellen Kombiyil
Emilia Ivancu
Emily Berry
Emily Dickinson
Eva H.D.
Fiona Moore
Fiona Sampson
Fran Lock
Frances Horovitz
Geraldine Clarkson
Gill Andrews
Gillian Allnut
Gillian Clarke
Grace Wells
Hannah Lowe
Helen Farish
Helen Mort
Ileana Malancioiu
Ingrid de Kok
Isobel Dixon
Jackie Kay
Jane Clarke
Jane Kenyon
Jane Hirshfield
Jane Weir
Jannice Thaddeus
Jean O’Brien
Jessamine O’Connor
Jessie Lendennie
Jessica Traynor
Jenny Lewis
Jodie Matthews
Joan McBreen
Jo Shapcott
Kapka Kassabova
Karen Press
Karen Solie
Kate Noakes
Katherine Kilalea
Kathryn Simmonds
Kathy D’Arcy
Kerrin McCaddon
Kerrie O’Brien
Kerry Hardie
Kit Fryatt
Kimberly Campanello
Kim Moore
Leanne O’Sullivan
Leeanne Quinn
Leontia Flynn
Lianne Strauss
Lo Kwa Mei-en
Maeve O’Sullivan
Maggie Harris
Marcela Sulak
Marie Howe
Martina Evans
Marion McCready
Mary Mullen
Mary Noonan
Mary O’Malley
Maya Catherine Popa
Meg Bateman
Medbh McGuckian
Meredith Andrea
Minal Hajratwala
Michelle O’Sullivan
Molly Minturn
Monica Corish
Moniza Alvi
Moya Cannon
Natasha Trethaway
Nell Regan
Nessa O’Mahony
Nicki Jackowska
Nina Karacosta
Nuala Ní Chonchúir
Nuala Ní Dhomnhnaill
Orlaith Foyle
Paisley Rekdal
Pascal Petit
Pat Borthwick
Paula Cunningham
Paula Meehan
Renée Sarjini Saklikar
Rita Ann Higgins
River Wolton
Robyn Rowland
Roisín Kelly
Rosemary Tonks
Ruth Padel
Robin Houghton
Sandra Ann Winters
Sarah Clancy
Sarah Howe
Shirley McClure
Shikiha Malavia
Silvia Secco
Sharon Olds
Sinéad Morrissey
Sophie Hannah
Sujata Bhatt
Susan Millar du Mars
Suji Kwok Kim
Sylvia Plath
Tania Hershman
Theresa Muñoz
Ulrikka S. Gernes
Victoria Kennefick
Virginia Astley
Vona Groarke
Wislawa Szymborska
Zoë Brigley

Why would anyone in their right minds write a memoir?

IMG_20170926_182336 (3)

So, as you may have gathered, if you read my blog, I’m writing a memoir. Of sorts. Call it a series of remembrances. But in the absence of diaries – all of which were lost in the process of many moves – I have to rely on my very shaky memories of experiences and how they felt. Mostly what I’m interested in is capturing what it felt like to live a peripatetic life as a child. The memoir (because it might become a trilogy!) will cover the years up to when I graduate from Rhodes University.

It’s quite terrifying, I’ve discovered, writing a memoir. With poetry, there’s a screen. With memoir, there’s no place to hide. Already I’m beginning to feel really exposed and vulnerable.

Also, what if friends from Ireland or Zimbabwe or university read my book and throw it down, saying, ‘Ugh, she got it all wrong’? Not to mention extended family members.

Or, which may be worse, what if nobody reads it at all? That is, if I even find a publisher!

And then, if it does come out, I’ll be asked intrusively personal questions. Because much of my story is set in a colonial country and era, and describes a privileged white girl’s experience, it’s certainly not going to receive a sympathetic reception. And so little has been written from this perspective — there isn’t much at all out there, or certainly not from an urban point of view. So research is difficult.

As for the process of writing, I’ve been struggling with form. Do I write, as I originally intended, lyric prose poetry (behind which I can hide) which some readers will find baffling and alienating, or go for straightforward narrative with dialogue (where readers can actually follow a story)?

Most importantly, my major concern is crossing a line in terms of family loyalty. How to protect family members and their right to privacy?

So why am I writing this? Because it seems to be a compulsion. Something I’m trying to work out. Maybe by writing my life, I’ll pull it into some kind of whole.

I’ve decided the best way to go about it is to blend forms – go for both prose poetry and narrative. Write what I want to write, and not worry about outcomes.

I can deal with them later.

What Ngomokurira taught me

Since we arrived in Harare, I’ve been strongly affected by olfactory impressions – eucalyptus trees, yesterday today and tomorrow bushes, jasmine, cut grass, strong whiffs of homemade roll ups, the smell of water from sprinklers onto dry red earth, the sadza sweat of labourers working in the new organic vegetable and herb plot. The changes, particularly the light here, mean that I’m getting up at 6am and diving into the pool, so appreciative that I have this luxury. Going to bed earlier. Getting back into the African rhythm of life.

As well as a trip home to see my family, this is a research visit, courtesy of a literature bursary from the Arts Council. I was hoping to have conversations with my father to stimulate ideas for my project, but his health has deteriorated dramatically since my last trip. He’s very frail, permanently bed-ridden now and too weak to speak. Instead, I’m facing thoughts of his approaching death, at a time when I’m writing about my childhood, and memories of a very different man. How to reconcile my impressions of my father then, with the man I see in front of me now? How is the current situation going to impact on the outcome of my story?

And now that my planned research with my father will not take place, how best to use my time here, from a research point of view?

Michael and I drove out to Ngomokurira one afternoon, somewhere I have never been, as we usually went to Domboshawa, a far smaller, but similar place, half an hour closer to the city.

Ngomokurira is much more dramatic.

Ngomokurira – the word ngomo is Shona for rocky outcrop – is a colossal, sheer rock-face, the curves softened by millennia, so it has an almost feminine look, in spite of its monumental presence. We drove along potholed tar roads, until even the tar ran out, and the bustling traffic, commuter kombis, handcarts, roadside stalls selling electronics, tomatoes, mobile phone cards and car parts gave way to wandering horned cows, children running, propelling a solitary bicycle wheel, women cultivating vegetable plots and beautiful rondavels:

Roof art

And all the time, Ngomokurira towered in front of us, its granite presence accepted as part of the landscape by everyone else, but astonishing for us.

At a dilapidated thatched building, we paid our entrance fee – $5. Just follow the track, we were told, and the white arrows. One path will take you to the rock paintings. The other one will take you to the cave. And off we went.

The crackling heat of the afternoon, the cicadas, occasional birds, trees rustling, were all the sounds we heard. Up and up we climbed, and every now and then – so unfit! – I clutched on to a thorn tree to get my breath. Sometimes, as I scrabbled up the dusty track, I’d skid and gasp, fearful of tumbling onto stones and thorns. Michael was soon far ahead of me. Looking up at the looming rock, I started thinking of Picnic at Hanging Rock, and hurried after him.

At one fairly level point, I looked away down towards a stream, and there was a half-stripped boy, about to take a dip. He looked up sharply – had he sensed me? – and we made eye contact. Embarrassed, I continued on. Michael had by now disappeared. I glanced back, and saw that the boy was still staring at me. Would he alert others to my solitary presence, a white woman? I felt incensed at Michael for leaving me on my own. Where was he?

I came to a beacon: a column of rocks, about chest high. The arrows pointed two ways now, and I didn’t know which way Michael had gone. I opted for the rock paintings. The trees became more lush and around a bend, I came upon the stream again, widening into a pool, surrounded by vegetation. For some reason, the enchanting scene made me think of Keats, or Wordsworth. After the scorching heat, it was an oasis, and I sank to the ground, and wondered whether to ignore the probable presence of bilharzia and dive in. First, I lay back on the warm rock and stared up at the blue blue sky, a passing falcon. I heard a click behind me. Michael, taking a photo of the the sheer rock-face and the trees reflected in the water:

Nogmokurira - photo by Michael Ray

We approached the ngomo together. The colours were amazing: rose-pink, grey, white and black, in waves. The rock paintings, of cattle, horses, various antelope, and humans, were obviously done at different times or by different artists, some more sophisticated than others. We could go right up and touch them. No one around, nothing to protect them from the blazing heat. There was an incredible atmosphere. I had a feeling that it was probably a sacred site, a burial site.

We spent a little while there, but as the afternoon was drawing on, and we knew darkness would be sudden when it came, we carried on to the cave. For the second time, I became aware of the presence of others, away in the distance. A young couple.

Again, Michael took off ahead of me, like a goat. Eventually, he was a silhouette on the horizon, standing at the pinnacle of the rock, looking down at me. I was exhausted, dehydrated, and kept stopping to sit, to take in the atmosphere. No one else around. Well, except for many scurrying lizards, startlingly coloured: iridescent blues and oranges.

I thought about snakes, and made a lot of noise as I moved, to give them advance warning of my approach. Eventually, I caught up to him, as he was on the way back.

–Can’t get to the cave, he said. It’s down a sheer cliff. And we’re running out of time.

I was greatly relieved. We set off at a pace. After a while, I heard footsteps behind us, and looked around. The couple were catching up to us. We paused to let them pass, but they paused too, and exchanged comments about the heat. Then he – Australian by his accent – asked if we could give them a lift back to Harare. They’d come here by commuter bus.
–Sure.

We headed back to the hut together, chatting. He had been to Peru and Bolivia and Mozambique. She was Shona, and had met him a few years ago, through NGO work. At the base of the rock, two young children approached us with yellow enamel dishes filled with mujanges, and sugar fruit. We bought some, and on the way home, ate them.

No falls. No attacks. No snakes. No police roadblocks on the way home. No hitchhiker horrors. They were lovely.

Ngomokurira is magnificent.

Why oh why do I always anticipate the worst?

The trip has reinforced something I had suspected about myself.

That will have to be incorporated into my story.

Meanwhile, there is my father. I head to his room, heart in mouth, and breathe a sigh when I see his chest lifting. The window is open, the white gauze inner curtain drifting slightly in the breeze. Beside his bed, a bowl of scented roses. His eyes are closed, but he opens them slowly, turns to the door and slightly lifts his thin, quavering hand. I’m glad I have an adventure to share with him.