Praxis Magazine Online is honored to present the third chapbook in our 2019/2020 Poetry Chapbook Series selected by JK Anowe: the heart is a caged animal by Nkateko Masinga. Read the introduction from Tjawangwa Dema here, then download and read: the heart is a caged animal by Nkateko Masinga.
Introduction by Tjawangwa Dema
I am and have been excited by Nkateko Masinga’s poetry since I met her in 2018 at an international poetry festival in South Africa. Not only is Nkateko increasingly invited to give readings within and outside South Africa, but in addition to The Heart is A Caged Animal she already has three chapbooks under her belt with a fifth accepted for publication in 2021. I find it remarkable that I had not heard of this young poet until I looked through the festival programme where we met. In The Heart is a Caged Animal, Nkateko offers us a series of what might be described as love poems; which is to say that the poems move in the intersections and complexities that lie between confession, longing, consummation and loss. Love is found, lost, spurned and continually re/animated.
I began this introduction with a word that appears in every single one of Nkateko’s poems in this collection, the pronoun ‘I’. It is a natural enough starting point for the writerly voice and I think by now, the world has flogged the beast of what a poet means by ‘I’ to death and possibly back. For our purposes let us imagine that poetry’s ‘I’ is an amalgamation of the poet’s idea of a self. Reading poetry’s ‘I’ in this capacious way allows the poem’s speaker to represent as much or as little of the writer’s lived experience, imagination and witness. ‘Is there allowance for this?’ the opening poem asks us, ‘to be useful’ to the other, to the many, by beginning with the self. The collection opens with “self-portrait as a grieving ghost”, and again I want to emphasise the ‘self’ here. If we readers of creative texts want not only the bones – the factual architecture of a story – but also demand a story’s symbolic meanings, then Nkateko offers us this over and over through her chosen mode of ‘self’. A coherent self is shattered as the ‘I’ in these poems is at times mourned and mourner. It is now apparition and then flesh, and we are ultimately witness to its song of self.
Nkateko makes the reader complicit through both enquiry and intimacy, moving us close enough to the front of the crowd to be able to eavesdrop. While in previous work she has engaged explicitly with race this is not Nkateko’s focus here. However, it is difficult to read this collection without being reminded of the philosophy of Ubuntu, which is underwritten by an admittedly dynamic but inalienable sense of relation, (i.e. ‘I am because you are’). But the point I make here is that given her national and cultural context I am repeatedly made particularly aware of the individual in her speaker’s ‘I’. Even if Nkateko’s personae were envisoned as exclusively singular in their perspectival use of ‘I’, in a number of poems such “caesurae for the cessation of blood” the telling is often made relational. “I am yours to plunder/offering basket for a body / cadaver your carnival’ and though the act described may not be, the telling itself is an act of autonomy.
I believe, like Mvskoke Nation poet, Joy Harjo that “writing a poem is like listening.” This, I think, is what makes writing poems ‘hard’ as some of my students have often said at the beginning of a class. Listening is a second education; it is a way to hold space and this can be difficult without practice. The poet must work to hold multiple thoughts at once – from muse, from self, other, other-than-human, the many. And if they listen well then the singular can be an instantiation of plurality. How can a poem be intimate and universal all at once? Perhaps for the personal pronoun to remain effective as a poetic device that remains open to multiple readings the poet must remain outside of a strictly navel-gazing ‘I’ and move instead towards relationality. For the reader, the ‘I’ in Nkateko’s ‘My Lover pulls me off the train tracks’ trilogy, who turns into an apparition after being pulled from the train tracks too late, may not be the one who stays or the one for whom ‘It does not matter if no train comes,/I am still leaving.’ Instead, this ‘I’ is left both specific and multiple, and equally elusive.
Nkateko is also a performance poet and these personal poems have brought with them a sense of the epistolary, which continually conjures a listener-reader. To do this of course requires a poetic ear, so that by listening one is able to emphasize what is particularly lyric in a line. Thus, a sentence may catch the eye with its rich and evocative imagery of moving together and moving apart. This offers productive obscurity, that in turn heightens an otherwise delightfully varied but ultimately forthright discourse on love. We trust that Nkateko listens to the poem she is writing as she is able to invite us to listen to what the word ‘heirloom’, or phrase ‘I loom’, can do to lift, lighten or turn a line.
If the poem asks it of her then the space of dreams or the otherworldly is given as much room as the temporal: knife and body co-exist with apparition and melancholia. She keeps us on the page, as all fine poets do, through language.
some ghosts are prone to grieving
i abandon the body i existed in —
i follow him, hapless apparition
Not quite a haunting so much as an unusual, but perhaps recognizable, yearning for companionship. What is personal and specific, perhaps even what makes us feel most vulnerable, is often open to universality. Whereas even the South African ‘born free’ generation might often find themselves largely writing against apartheid and its ongoing consequences, Nkateko mostly abjures ‘we’ to turn her literary scope inward. Still, there is violence and fear here ‘I want the fire without the cult / […] / at the family reunion & not a sacrifice in sight / no-one’s daughter a lamb to the slaughter’. I am treading on thinly veiled identarian ground here so I shall leave the true measure of a reading of this nature to the critics and gladly return to Nkateko’s words. But to be clear, rather than disavowal I am proposing that Nkateko is offering us a version of nationhood that does not overtly privilege the national or obscure the individual. The two imaginaries, the individual and the collective, can coexist simultaneously in her work.
I reel you back to me with a recklessness
I could only have learnt from my mother,
who inherited it from hers
and has not died despite it
What at first may seem a small enclosure of love poems continually opens up to think on and with poetic forms, such as the ghazal, epithalamium and pantoum. Established poetic forms, for Nkateko, become another way to meditate on the self as worthy of both interrogation and archiving. Nkateko’s deeply personal and intimately confessional poetic voice – perhaps a product of her conservative and religious upbringing – when it is made public offers the possibility of not just the revelatory but also the revolutionary.
It was inevitable, it seems
you, having rolled out of the chrysalis of uncertainty
I, having disentangled myself
from a nightmare that was not mine
valedictory poem, aptly titled ‘last request’ closes with the word ‘amen’ and
assumes the form of that most personal utterance, prayer: ‘no howling woman at the pulpit /[…] “I left my daughter
sleeping/ & found her bleeding”’. To borrow from her quote of Santosh Kalwar
‘nobody knows the aftermath’, however it is safe to say that The Heart is a Caged Animal is a
surreally poignant work. One which offers a meaningful contribution to the
constantly growing body of work by African poets preoccupied with life, beyond
and in spite of the all-consuming task of self-preservation. Dear Reader, in
the end this is a thematically cohesive collection written by a poet who is
language and continually grappling with her craft. Nkateko
Masinga is one to watch and here is as good a place to begin as any. The point
at which her personae take a deep breath and begin …I.
–Tjawangwa Dema, 2019