Mother- José Craveirinha
It is the destiny of my birth
Amongst ballads chanted round a bonfire.
You know how the sorrow is always new.
You know that, don’t you, mother?
Do you know it or not?
The burning mystery in the eyes of a man
You encountered one day on your way
As a barefoot young woman.
Do you know this or not, mother?
The resin from the old trees the spirits planted
Their virgin roots being salted by dead men’s curses,
And huge moons dying of anxiety,
The skins of the furious drums,
And giving the palm leaves
The incandescent shine of naked blades.
It is the taste of the spell, Mother,
Of our disenchanted ancestral enchantments
The ingenuous exorcism of your old wives´ tales
The marvellous melody of your songs
And the secret of your body when it is possessed
But of maternal blood inviolable
Where my destiny was born.
The space of your black woman’s tomb,
Do you or don’t you know the truth.
Now, do you know this or not,
I have moved from thinking about Pondal in nineteenth-century to Galicia to Craveirinho in twentieth-century Mozambique. Does it seem a great leap? There is a logic to it. You see, I was thinking about the violence and machismo latent in the rape poems of Pondal and thinking about how these were related to the rising nationalism in Galicia. Rosalía de Castro’s poems about the peasants of the region leave us in no doubt about extreme rural poverty, animosity against Castilla and a fervent desire to give dignity back to her own people. Pondal translates the same desires into a Celtic warrior myth.
As I was turning over in my head the few things that I know about this, I felt echoes from my student days in Edinburgh where there was an almost racial dimension to hatred of the “Sassenach” from England, representative of the historical oppressor. This led me on to thinking about other oppressed peoples and the ways in which their experience has transformed itself into art and literature. You cannot get a more extreme version of this than Mozambique, which was a Portuguese colony up until 1975 operating a forced labour programme that was slavery in all but name. The tensions made the wars of independence, and the repression of the independence fighters by the right wing Salazar government, fierce and bloody. The revenge Frelimo exacted on assuming power was to give all Portuguese twenty four hours notice to quit the country. It was a disaster.
The big whale I am floating around here, as a light-weight little darting fish, is the way that oppressed people build myths to buoy them. In Galicia it was a mythic Celtic past. In Mozambique it was “blackness” or what came to be known as “negritude” and international movement that was headed by Césaire and Senghor of Senegal.
Let’s look at another poem by Noémia de Sousa to see what this might look like. She is another Mozambiquan poet and one of the chief lights in the negritude movement there, although she escaped to live in Portugal until after independence.
As if your sons
-peerless, noble statues-
Haughty, sculpted in bronze,
Tempered in the infernal light
As if your sons,
Tied to the earth
Like slaves working, loving,
Were not my brothers!
-Oh, my Mother Africa-
Great pagan, sensual slave,
Your delirious daughter
Opens to you and forgives.
The honesty of the vision is heart-breaking because it makes the sons haughty and noble without ignoring the fact that they are tied to the earth. Notice how she is attracted to the same celebration of the pagan side of Africa as Craveirinha, how important the image of the Mother is and the celebration of sensuality. In the next poem she is tells exactly what she expects of us:
Se me quisieres conhecer
Ah, that is me;
Vacant eyes despairing of possessing life,
A mouth torn in anxious wounds,
Enormous flat-palmed hands
Raised up to implore or threaten,
A body tattooed with invisible and visible wounds,
If you want to understand me
Come bow down before my African soul
Before the groans of the blacks on the streets,
The frenetic dances of the muchopes,
The rebellion of the machanganas,
The strange melancholy that winds out
From a native song with night in it.
And don’t ask me anything else
If you want to know me
Because I am no more than the horn made flesh
In which Africa’s revolt froze
Its cry, swollen with hope.
This is another intense poem. “Tortured and magnificent/Haughty and mystic” reminds me of Pondal. He is also keen to show that the songs and the lyricism of his Gallegos come from deep roots in the people’s past, that there are older gods than the ones they have been forced to bow down to.
I am an emotional reader. I get swept along by the force of the writer’s vision and, if the poem is any good, I suspend my critical faculties. These poems sweep me away like that. However, when I get back to my feet I realise there is something here that remains to trouble me. What is it that I find so troubling about these mythologies that dig into the earth to find their power? Could it be that these black, white and Celtic identities cover something less than appetising? Is my friend Bashir in Glasgow less Scottish because of his ancestors were not hunting deer on the glens? Are the children of my German friends going to be able to call themselves Gallegos?
It would seem presumptuous of an Englishman to doubt the experiences that give rise to these poems. After all I am a representative of the historical oppressor race. Wole Soyinka takes that burden from me. In his 1952 book Peau Noir, Masques Blancs he said that the black soul was but a white artefact. Isn’t that an interesting observation?
I’ll leave the last word with another poetess from Mozambique, Mia Couto. It is called Lesson from My Country- Liçao de Pais
If you want
To write this country
Then just learn
To read it first.
All poems from Floriram Cravos Vermelho, Xosé Lois García (Espiral Maior: A Coruña, 1993)