Wednesday, 23 January 2019

No 76 - John Eppel publishes "O Suburbia": a review

When I started teaching at Rhodes University in the 1990s, we entertained (and still do) a substantial number of Zimbabwean students, some of whom had come through Bulawayo high schools and recalled with both fondness and hilarity their former English teacher, Mister Eppel.  At once warm, maverick and acerbic, John Eppel, now retired, still teaches on the side, runs writing workshops – and continues unabated to produce and publish poetry, short stories and novellas. I think it is safe to say that his accumulated works are the most substantial by any single author in Zimbabwe since Doris Lessing.

Eppel sprang to prominence with his satirical schoolboy novella DGG Berry’s Great North Road, and with his first substantial volume of poetry, Spoils of War (1989). Most of his work is locally set in or near Bulawayo’s suburbs or school environs, so familiar to Eppel; and most is acidically satirical in nature, a feature almost designed to marginalise him. Satire generally has not been a prominent or easily assimilable mode in Zimbabwe’s literary traditions. Eppel’s coruscating portrayal of his ‘own’ white settler society has not always endeared him to his peers; and subsequently ZANU-PF’s cultural commissars have narrowly misconstrued as racist his satirical take on all Zimbabwe’s groups, from political leaders to suburban madams to NGOs.

His poetry, while generally less bitingly or lewdly satirical than the stories, has also incorporated two ‘traditional’ elements which have not been kindly received by Zimbabwean commentators and the occasional post-colonial scholar. The first is the consistent if varied use of traditional English stanzaic forms, as well as the sonnet, sestina and villanelle; the second is a high degree of concentration on the poet’s relation to the natural world. Both of these have laid Eppel open to accusations of an anachronistic adherence to foreign, imported models of poeticisation, especially the English Romantics. While Eppel acknowledges his indebtedness to the Romantics, and insists on the primacy of crafted form as a vital element in good poetry, to confine a reading of him to these elements alone is, I believe, to do the work a considerable disservice. Most recently, Eppel has responded to current events in two ways, one by writing more trenchant and undisguised gripes about politics, Mugabe’s autocracy, and municipal failings; secondly by collaborating with other Zimbabwean writers, notably Together (with the late Julius Chingono, 2011), and Textures (with the young, highly intellectual poet Togara Muzanenhamo, 2014). They make for interesting conversations across racial, cultural and age categories, and signal an increasingly wide acceptance across former divisions, including amongst academics.

O Suburbia, now out from Weaver Press, revisits many of the themes and motifs of earlier collections; indeed, to judge by the dates attached to some of the poems, they may be resurrections or rewrites of poems written decades ago. But Eppel also brings us up to date, as in one poem alluding to the deaths of civilians during last year’s ‘coup’. (Events overtake us so fast, as of course there has been another flurry of repressive violence in Zimbabwe this past week. Anyway, it’s ‘situation normal’, only more so – securing the ongoing relevance of the poetry despite its topical references.)

The collection, indeed, is a bit of a rattle-bag, with no discernible order: childhood memories jostle with political satires, haikus with villanelles, gentle love-poems with hard-edged critiques. A poem about a dog-meat vendor rubs up against a meditation on teaching King Lear; something scatological up against a light-hearted philosophical squib. Some readers might enjoy this anarchic feel; others might wish that some sort of shape had been imposed on the whole. If there is a common thread, it may be that Eppel just revels in language itself – we live inside language, as he says in one poem – and he wields his linguistic and literary resources with both glee and precision.

Where ‘shape’ continues to be prominent is, as ever, at the level of the individual poem. Eppel is truly gifted at constructing a finely-tuned machine of a poem, rigorous in rhyme and even syllable-count, while maintaining so fluid and chatty an air that the mechanism is all but invisible, especially when read aloud. This is less so with the several villanelles included, which are intrinsically rather more stark in their repetitions-with-minor-variations. Villanelles are clever, fun to construct in the manner of good crosswords, but I find them less satisfying than some of the many sonnets, a favourite form of Eppel’s.  To give you a taste, here is one especially beautiful yet playful one, “Waxbills” (he has of late very often written about birds):

Like my safari-suit, same powder blue;
like the plumbago (Cecil’s favourite
flower) that hedges me in; like the few
remaining stills of my father’s eyes; bit
by bit, little by little, hippityhopping
from place to place; pecking at shame,
at stubble, at grains of time; frequently
splashing your chums in the bath; far too tame
for your own good (my cat is on a quest);
like Bulawayo skies… you absorb me.
My home sits also near a hornets’ nest:
will they impound it? Will they let me be?
Underneath the thorns, you pick and you choose;
your tremolo gets me singing the blues.

As always, Eppel is intimately observant of the natural world around him, as here in “Tracks I Remember”:

Paths with banks of tick-heavy grass tilting
to caress the thigh; roads where dipping
hornbills lead the way, mopani scrub on
either side; tok-tokkies doing headstands,
their fused wings harder than fingernails, taptapping
messages of love; antlion
larvae (doodlebugs) crafting pits of death
where the critical angle of repose
slides crawling insects to their doom;
stink of formic acid, of resin, of
crushed locusts, wings in threatening display.

But Eppel is no displaced Wordsworth-like Romantic just revelling in natural diversity or beauty (though he does that, too): the second stanza of this poem is about human violence, warmongers and soldiers dying and laying their own death-traps. And at times, the natural is deployed to political ends, as in “Winds behaving badly”, where the final bombshell line reveals that the image of the wind has been symbolic all along:

The clouds descend, the firmament grows grey,
a churning wind, bone-cold, assaults the trees,
blowing petals and little girls away
before relaxing to a shirtless breeze.
Again it rises flapping doeks and scarves,
banging casements, matrons, widows, wives...
whistling through cracks, keyholes, while it carves
that look in daddy’s eyes. Run for your lives.
The clouds ascend, the firmament blows blue,
the rising wind lifts skirts and lashes hair –
what’s true is false, my child, what’s false is true –
the white sheets shaking, raking underwear.
Behaving-badly-winds will not subside
till you, my dears, commit tyrannicide.

This kind of observation is, for some in the decolonising camp, hard to stomach, coming from a white “settler” – a word Eppel still uses to describe his status in Zimbabwe. But he seems to have reached a point in his life where he is defiant about this, as in “A Settler’s Taunt”:

You can deny me
my birth status but
you cannot deny
me my death status:
death will fix me in
the soil forever.

Eppel knows – and as this collection shows – he has written with a wry humanity about members of all sectors of Zimbabwean society, has sent up the pretensions of all groups, not least his own – and not least himself: he is willingly satirical about his own “will-to-form”, for example. He has, in some exemplary ways, transcended a narrow ‘settler-dom’.

It is impossible here to really exemplify the full richness and variety of this collection, which at times shows off Eppel at the height of his humane powers, at other points descends unabashedly into bathos and brief whimsies. It is substantial, at over 80 pages, and as welcome on the subcontinent as anything Eppel has ever written.


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