Books don’t save burning houses.
The irony of books, of flammable paper, carrying the responsibility of saving houses from burning, says a lot about the role of literature in society. But if the poems are the real cause of the arson, then where is solace? What’s the lifespan of poems that are written under surveillance? The poem from which the line Books don’t save burning houses is got, entitled I DON’T WANT TO WRITE A POEM, is in its entirety a handful of ash; the poet and his useless creation are the aftermath of a battle between an internal force and an external force. The incessant provocation and satirizing are things poems used to pride in before they became prone to gun shots and unforeseen raiding. In such a brutish setting, it’s right to assume that poems are refusing to be written. To save themselves from awaiting failure and helplessness:
Poems can’t hide
They don’t know how to duck
One knocked down door
And they have already been seized and burnt.
The “Poems” are both physical and emotional components of their bearers (“houses”). They are a medium for warmth and belonging. But here they are, utterly incapable of putting up resistance. The instant conflagration of poems after “One knocked down door” tells of the vulnerability of inchoate voices and adulterates freedom of expression. However, the presence of “door” somewhat frees poems from blame; they are reclusive fantasy-things that have not been heard by anyone else but their conjurers. They should therefore not be expected to save anything. Not even themselves. Maybe it’s the fault of the “outside world” for not listening closely enough.
In a similar poem, MY HAND WON’T WRITE ANYTHING BEAUTIFUL, beauty is enslavement of conscious expression; it’s a manipulation of colors and an exertion of instructions. The “beautiful” is only that which isn’t repugnant to the high class. “Master,” the first word in the poem, trembles with timidity and bravery. But the consequences of refusing to write “acceptable” poems (eulogies) cannot be predicted unless the previous poem is referred to.
But in poems like WE WANT ANOTHER WAR, we are in dire need of pain we hardly understand. What our cravings teach us however, is how war victimizes different people. The girls (“virgins”) suffer rape, the warlords get “driven in posh imported cars” and “sleep in flats that touch clouds,” while “debtors” lose their heads. The debtors could be the same people who have owed us a war for many years. Or those who won’t retire so that “we” (the unemployed youth) take over. It could be anyone. The eagerness associated with these lingering desires, the unknowing of their strengths, is shown in this stanza:
We get excited at the smell of an aroma we think is of gun powder
We realize later it is burnt matooke……
Begumya Rushongoza, a new voice in the literary scene of this country, is a courageous one. He, unlike us, the watchers, isn’t afraid to ask for what we truthfully deserve. The tones of the poems keep changing, like he’s working under inflection. One time he’s raged with impatience, and the other he’s treating his need like a triviality he can do without. He makes war sound like a short moment of cathartic bloodletting we’ll forget as soon as the vestiges are washed away by time.
HOW WILL THE GUN BARK IF I AM KISSING ITS MUZZLE ?, his debut collection, reeks with violent vengeful emotions (towards an oppressor or a despicable self), fore-telling of an eye for an eye crimes, and a normalcy in wanting and/or experiencing the aberrant.
Apart from making us anticipate a liberation war – “One last war,” Begumya Rushongoza also warns of a genocide bred on our tongues; the bad blood amongst tribes brimming. In WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES, the tellers do not seek intervention: they’re aware of their inescapable fate. It’s like offering oneself up for sacrifice. And WISH is an unheard voice, repressed and kept away in a tin. If the speakers are to be killed with their families, then their informing the world is like a humble request for whoever is listening to not bother trying to create survivors out of immobile bodies to be found lying dispersed.
One of the most powerful poems in the collection, GRASS GROWS, tends to concern itself with the fleeting of time after an evil has transpired. The less we remember the better. Time, in this case, is a measurement of love, and death its impetus; the rotting of our emotions due to indifference facilitates the growth of the grass. However, the grass growing is also about us giving up so easily any kind of struggle to claim what belongs to us. The grass works as a cloud over the brain. Forgetfulness is a means to help the whole body survive. Here’s an extract from the poem:
The crying dies down slowly
The deceased is accidentally buried with his dog
Eyes blind to everything but pain.
The soil is put back where it was removed
The rain falls and grass grows
HOW WILL THE GUN BARK IF I AM KISSING ITS MUZZLE? treats various aspects of life apart from war, as moments of pleasure where the decision of the person “holding the trigger” is to be determined by a particular person’s skill of kissing. Playing with danger is part of self discovery. It’s about having all the cards in one’s hands. How we tickle death and other irremediable dangers is what (makes us human?). We are as good as our actions in times when we probably shouldn’t be doing anything. On the other side of this collection, the love poems and others of that kind are like stories told about a people before they went to war with themselves. By carefully looking at these two “ways of life,” we can tabulate them with blood and start making comparisons.
Please, treat with excessive indulgence.
Begumya Rushongoza’s book is available on Turn The Page’s online book shop via this link.