Poem of the week

Jasmine by John Eppel

John Eppel explores the duplicities of the word freedom while, in characteristic style, evoking the odours and symbolism of flowers

Winter jasmine flowers

 ‘The sweet / mingling of woodsmoke and jasmine / with dust’ … winter jasmine flowers.John Eppel was born in 1947 to a miner father and housewife mother, both originally from South Africa. His first language was Fanagalo. When he was four, the family settled in Matabeleland, and here he still lives and works, teaching English at the Christian Brothers’ College in Bulawayo. A prize-winning novelist and poet, Eppel is currently collaborating with Julius Chingono on a compilation of fiction and poetry by both authors, Together. It’s a project that seems to be foreshadowed in the childhood memory explored in this week’s poem, Jasmine.

The poem first appeared in Eppel’s 1995 collection, Sonata for Matabeleland, a book whose very title signals cross-cultural transaction – a fertile but uneasy seed-bed. While written in English poetry’s favourite traditional structure, quatrains, “Jasmine” begins impressionistically, almost synaesthetically, with an odour that merges into cinematic images. The Zimbabwean garden of memory quickly becomes a charged political space.

Eppel’s poems, it is worth pointing out, specialise in close, sensuous descriptions of flowers, often in un-flowery settings. In “Star of Bethlehem”, he recalls how, as a young soldier, he found a single brave specimen of the eponymous plant while digging a bunker, “and stuffed it in my combat/ jacket on top of a phosphorous bomb”. He is particularly interested in capturing odours. Try to get your imaginative nostrils around this description of the marigold: “a pungent,/ khaki odour of crushed beetles, soil,/ old men, hat linings, ointment and dung” (“A Flower Poem, No. 2”). Eppel’s flowers smell of death and war as well as nectar, and, as in Jasmine, allow him imaginative access to a complex identity.

There is a hint of irony (as well as future tears?) in the opening phrase, “When they cried freedom”. The film Cry Freedom was shot in Zimbabwe, with many white extras inevitably cast as bad guys. Eppel writes about this elsewhere, and also considers the duplicities of the word, freedom: “again we are told of a free press/ a free state, free will, freedom of speech” (“The Coming of the Rains”).

“Wrists” in line four seem to salute the freedom but twist it into something else; “the colour of blood” shadows the second stanza. But the poet finds the integrity of his own vision of freedom by going deeper into his personal past: he finds in fact the opening lines of that magnificent African anthem, Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika and weaves them into his fifth stanza. When sung by a choir, these lines are usually performed fortissimo, but in the poem, we’re asked to imagine them as sung by two children, perhaps rather softly at first, until the learner, the white boy, gains confidence. Is he receiving a political lesson from the black child, Sibanda? Perhaps, subconsciously. At the same time, the emphatic rhythms make this a good work-song as the boys share uncomplicatedly the task of polishing the family’s shoes.

The memory for the adult poet denotes equality. He underlines this visually by describing the children’s identical dress. One child, we know, is historically privileged, but privilege is mutable and, anyway, a relative term: Eppel’s parents “never owned one square inch of this land”. “Jasmine” the poem, like jasmine the white-flowered plant, claims the land with gentle defiance. It says: your song is also my song and your earth is also my earth.

The poem is not ultimately ironic. The transcendence of race and class is its vision. The political reality has been very different in Zimbabwe, but the poem does not give up hope. The song is passed on. Their cheeks “pinched” by a “chill” that implies something colder than cold weather, the next generation joins in the hymn of blessing to Africa. And we do, too.


When they cried freedom, when the sweet
mingling of woodsmoke and jasmine
with dust – grass, granite, antelope
bone – gathered into wrists which turned

light the colour of blood, darkness
a memory of the colour
of blood – when their voices lifted
that song and sent it echoing

across Africa, I knew it.
Sibanda had taught it to me,
polishing the family’s shoes,
squatting outside the scullery

door. We both wore khaki trousers
many sizes too big; no shirt,
no shoes. I spat on the toecaps
while he brushed: and while he brushed

we sang: ‘Nkosi sikelel’
iAfrika…’ over and over
till the birds joined in. August birds.
‘… Maluphakanisw’ udumo lwayo …’ *

It comes back to me, this August,
now that the jasmine is blooming
and the air is stilled by woodsmoke;
how they cried freedom, and how I

knew their song. A lingering chill
pinches Zimbabwean sunsets
into the cheeks of my children
squatting beside me as I write.

It is their song too. I teach it
to them, over and over, till
my tired eyes are pricked with tears
held back, sweet smoke, dust and jasmine.

*(Zulu) “God bless Africa … Raise up her spirit.”


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/jul/12/jasmine-john-eppel-poetry