THE FACT THAT this anthology of poems has to date sold over 2 000 copies, according to its publisher, attests to the need for inflammatory words of this nature, couched as they are, in the conventions of poetry and uttered by a young person – Koleka Putuma was born in 1993 and is an individual who wields the term ‘womxn’ with conviction and isn’t afraid to do so. It doesn’t however, mean that the work is completely flawless.
Peppered with incredibly beautiful and dangerous turns of phrase that shreds violence into laughter and duct tapes screams with staples, the 51 poems in this anthology take on the monster of memory: memory of being black and poor and a child, memory of the knowledge of violence perpetuated – against women, against queers, by religious values, by relatives – and memory that turns over the challenges of making sense of one’s body, one’s supporters and one’s terrors.
Unashamedly constructed in the first person, the work embraces everyone’s values and the popular political/cultural/historical references are as much about today and tomorrow as the newspaper or the internet might be. Indeed, the political edge is the nub of these works, which don’t claim to be poetic in the romantic sense, but pour themselves from Putuma’s keyboard into your sensibilities almost seamlessly.
The work is, however, slightly marred by subbing errors and a kind of self-conscious concreteness, where you see bullets used in the construction of a poem, words deleted, or words printed very lightly on the page. These render imminently readable poems into rubrics and games, and flaw the flow of the material, sometimes rendering them more list-like than poem like. But there are wordless poems in this anthology which vie with this kind of gimmick remarkably, raising them in astuteness and sophistication.
The work ‘Storytelling’, for instance, is footnoted: “How my people remember. How my people archive. How we inherit the world”, but it otherwise comprises a blank page, hits with a resounding force of devastating eloquence.
All these elements considered, Putuma is a voice to take notice of. Like the angry young men who populated early European Modernism, the proverbial fist she raises in fury and protest against the crooked way in which the world turns, for the voiceless people who live, love and die often ignominiously and anonymously, and against the heft of radical religious beliefs which can break the relationship between a parent and his homosexual child.
You may not have been schooled to read poetry – indeed, it remains the one literary form which still nurses a bad deal in terms of readability. But once you begin the foray into Collective Amnesia, it’s not only the way in which collective memory is thwarted and made to trip up by the universe that will grab you. Read aloud or not, the work flows rapidly, and the shifts and turns in Koleka’s focus horrify and traumatise you as they take you through forbidden sexual climax and into the realms of sexual violence. In short, you can read this cover to cover, or dip into it at will. But be warned: it’s angry poetry, unrelentingly premised on political assumption and the fire of youth.
- Collective Amnesia by Koleka Putuma is published by uHlanga, Cape Town (2017).