Survival poetry. That’s the best way to describe Koleka Putuma’s debut collection of poetry Collective Amnesia. Reading it broke my heart. Made me cry, laugh, angry and woke me up to some things I didn’t know and reminded me of some other things that I did know. She writes of tenderness with tenderness. Joy with anger, because this is still South Africa and we must still be angry that we have had to hear of joy from other mouths but rarely our own. We are still learning to be the face of and revel in our own expressions of joy. Black Joy is the poem that best expresses what the world expects of our joy. And what, as Black people, we have to be careful not to forget to express. Putuma declares:
“you only want to see my mouth torn open in protest,” making the point that black pain has currency.
The word amnesia, though it means a deficit in memory, or memory loss, makes me think of the word amniotic. It is derived from a mid-17th century Greek word, amnos, meaning lamb. Birth words. And also, crime words. Lambda is the 11th letter in the Greek alphabet. In criminology, lambda denotes an individual’s frequency of offenses. The collective offenses against groups of people in this country, by certain individuals, is what the country tends to be amnesiac about. It should be a crime to forget, or to constantly be asked to forget so many atrocities perpetrated against a people.
The birthing of a people might be in their (un)willingness to forget. Black South Africans are told to forget about a past that’s still very much alive and current for them. Then you see white children born into privilege, and still being taken care of by black women. You wonder who gave birth to this situation, and whether the black women have already forgotten who they were always meant to be, because surely it is not this. Yet there is an amnesiac quality to the neighbourhoods filled with the silences of black women, working, taking care of other people’s children. You wonder what becomes of their own children. Putuma writes about these forgotten or out of sight children away from these worlds of privilege. She centres black people and Blackness, and how black people live. She dares to say: remember. Even when there is continued silence or accusations of not being silent enough.
In this land of contrasts, she says think of the womxn who are told to forget or be silent about the violence meted out on them. Think of the lack of basics and access for one group of people, while there is comforting and catering to the whims and fears of another. When will some kinds of memory cease to be oversubscribed while others are barely given their respect or due? When will the deficits in memory be replaced by real Truths, and real Reconciliations.
In 1994: A Love Poem, Putuma declares an uneasy love for a country that consistently fails to love her back, in sarcasm font:
“I want someone who is going to look at me
and love me
the way that white people look at
“A TRC kind of lover.”
The craving, yearning, dreaming, wanting but not daring to hope for too much that’s contained in Hand-Me-Downs is a necessary reminder. It is a reminder that there are few occasions to sit together at the table, and that reality necessitates a break with the past in crucial, material ways. Putuma uses language that is spare, and direct to the point of gut-punching. So you can recognise it or let it be a revelation to you, and once there, so the memory of it never leaves you. She does so, so you can be aware of what is at stake, what is at the heart of the scenes she sets with seemingly effortless grace, but also so she can strike with deadly accuracy.
That is the power and the grace, the sinewy beauty, of Putuma’s best poems. No Easter Sunday for Queers starts as a laundry list of items to centre before the sermon carries you to a glorious summit of emotion and inquiry. It is easily the most experimental poem of the collection, and the longest one. With it, the disquiet is finally at everyone else’s table, rather than always having to be with the narrator.
It is a dual fusion of song and Bible verse located in an unexpected denouement. You have to locate yourself before the accusation locates you. I have never read anything as good, using poetry as the medium, about what it feels like to be black and queer. And specifically, Black, Queer and Christian. Familiarity with these intersections just didn’t prepare me for the poem’s final moments of power, in which the interrogation of a preacher father’s culpability is really also an interrogation of the wider society.
Divided into three sections, Inherited Memory, Buried Memory and Postmemory, the book is like a scrappy fighter who does not give up, and up until the last moment, throws the right kinds of punches. Putuma wins almost every round in this fight for the reader’s soul. She writes with a captivating, emotion-laden style that doesn’t fail to deliver its payload.
In Inherited Memory, she reminds us where she and this nation have come from. That those things not of your choosing can be your undoing or your becoming. It is in refusing to be undone, even by those things that might seem un-survivable, that Putuma carries us on, on wave after wave of survival poetry. There are stories, and settings, and tables here that neither you nor I have may ever have witnessed front row or sat at, but we understand the sentiments, and the emotions that are present.
Some of the poems are garlands adorning the necks of women who loved and lost, womxn who were lost, and those who have had to watch loss as part of life. They are like children’s hands cooling their eyes. There are wreaths for womxn, wreaths for black lesbians, wreaths for children who were denied innocence. Wreaths for black people. I keep seeing pain in these poems, and yet, tellingly, she writes of black joy in the Inherited Memory section. Black Joy ultimately has to be the start. After Storytelling begins it all, it is black joy we must continue with at the very top. It is not pain. Buried Memory’s At the Cemetery and In the Emergency Room are surely some of the saddest poems I have ever read. Yet there is also Indulgence, which is a plea to quiet the silence. To say that these are the things we have trouble with, that keep us awake, or silent once the funeral is over, and that the cemetery is where we sometimes bury parts of ourselves, as we remain in the land of the living. Remembering, thinking on these things, is a part of the healing too. It is necessary, painful, but must be spoken about. That we are living with ghosts is undeniable. That other people around us, men around us and closest to us, or even strangers, make ghosts of us, is undeniable. That society very often would rather have us stay silent and therefore invisible, is also an undeniable fact of our existence.
Too often pain isn’t given real voice, and once it is out in the open, only seen as indulgence. What, in South Africa, in the world, can Black womxn’s pain do? How is it allowed to function, lift the one experiencing it, and elevate them to the next stage? This is where it should not end, Putuma seems to be saying. There has to be a next stage for it to be carried to, for us to get to. Too often we are seen as our pain, and then nothing more.
The next stage must surely be Postmemory. In the post-memory you get to be angry and to once again claim a mountain, to own it again. And to tell everyone else not to forget how they came by it. To tell the world not to co-opt, claim, dismiss, belittle, starve, deny or silence our experiences in order to suit your agenda alone or in order to maintain the status quo.
In Mountain, she writes:
“I ask if she owns the mountain
And she says she owns this land.
I think she is implying she built the mountain,
Erected it stone by stone,
Imagined its existence before her birth.
I think she is telling me that
They own the mountains, too.
And I swear
I am not making it about race, it’s not personal.
It’s just her mountain in Namaqualand.
It’s just private property.”
It seems fitting that in a country such as South Africa, with its recent history that of apartheid, that the longest part of the book is the Inherited Memory section. But then we are false starters perhaps, because we also tend to be amnesiac about history before 1652 and what Black people had before ships on the water took it away. Water, her 2016 PEN South Africa Student Writing prize-winning poem, is the incendiary poem that addresses these losses, and Black people’s relationship to water that goes beyond the clichéd.
Water is birth, and death of illusion about this country perhaps, but it contains something far beyond. It also drowns out the noise and allows you to concentrate: on anger. That this angry and superb poem announced the birth of another in a lineage of poets working, living and writing across time and space, is apt. Water won’t set them apart.
The strongest poems, placed boldly in each section, point fingers. Take names, leave behind no prisoners, and don’t allow silence to reign. They remind us that silence is a weapon against us. They remind us that surviving is one phase, and being able to overcome, but continue to remember and honour those memories, is yet another. They remind us that naming those who we love and who have held us and supported us is another way to honour each other, such as in the poem Lifeline.
These poems are a charge to not forget and to also allow memory to heal. To not get buried by bitter and cruel memory. To seek the next phase for the still living, which surely must be: to thrive.
Collective Amnesia is published by uHlanga Press.