reading revival: a poetry book blog

reading revival is devoted to promoting australian poetry books and related discussion through reading one book - firstly, duty by geraldine mckenzie. i will choose a new book roughly every 3 months

Friday, May 12, 2006

Reading Duty in Rwanda, by Jeff S

I bought Geraldine McKenzie’s ‘Duty’ from Kris at Collected Works and didn’t begin to read the poems until I was in Rwanda. There was initially a parallel sensation of being out of place there and the apparent out-of-placeness of thinking of reading this text in this place. Both perceptions altered as I gradually explored my room, the building I was in, the streets surrounding the building and the long walk into Kigali (the capital of Rwanda) that took about an hour. I traveled to sites (I was in Rwanda to witness memorial sites to the 1994 genocide) in the east, west and south of the country, covering many kilometers. What I noticed first from Duty was the dedication:

to write without betrayal,
to write what will inevitably be partial
but with as great a fullness as possible

There was an accord between this sentiment and what I hoped would be possible in the journal and subsequent writing that I would be doing in Rwanda. There was also a resonance with being in Rwanda and how I also wished to be able to conduct myself in this place. This introduction ‘permitted’ me to continue reading in a spirit that now seemed linked to my room and the surrounding country, however tenuously. I made a note on three poems, Illuminations, Another Nature Poem and Beloved: A Miscellany because I could hug them to my own tenuous being here. These three poems seemed to speak of the place most obviously, literally.

Illuminations: The brush and typewriter become the knives of the gentle tyrant’s kisses. The tit-bits for the dog while I am siting back here in Australia become body parts; not while in Rwanda however. There it was the gentle kiss and the grand children, the duplicity, the humanness of touch that can also supply a militia, the Interahamwe, with machetes to hack their neighbours to death.

Suffering’s an easy slide, typewriter
riddling the neat ranks of obedient
men, paint brush sticky with slaughter,
cameras knives carving pale faces, decent
overcoats, trains ebbing out of life, meant
cruelties – the screws, knout, lash, rack – it’s all
at my fingertips – sober rumours sent
of death – or life, in truth, after the fall

My reading searched out associations, perhaps to embed me deeper in place, to make clearer what I was witnessing. My ‘typewriter’ or brush could easily have been complicit in this genocide. At one site, Murambi where hundreds of the actual bodies of victims are displayed in the technical school in which 50,000 people were killed, I recognized myself in both victim and ‘genocidaire’. “No one escapes…not even the newly-born babies…the victims are pursued to their very last refuge and killed there.” Committee on Human Rights. The closeness to this death, the witnessing of the people who were killed, their smell of decay and lime covered bodies sucks you into the act of killing. There is no escaping. There is a bodily sensation of falling into the racks of dead, of recognizing that you too are this person, you too are the one who killed. The experience of alterity, that complete and unmistakable absolute separateness of the other, who you face as Levinas has said, exposes with a shock of recognition ones responsibility. The red steel door to the small room is unlocked, as are the next ten along the length of two of the many buildings making up the Murambi technical school. Inside there are bodies of adults, adolescents, children. Some still wear clothing, a blue dress on an adult woman or a faded red top with a yellow border around the neck and sleeves on an infant probably two years old. Gradually each body separates from the many that first confront you. They are individual people, who have been killed, and this is what is repeated, and this is who has been exhumed, and this is who are repeated underground 45,000 time. So 50,000 is not abstract, it is lived here in this place, it is smelt and witnessed. Each person is here, as am I and the guide relating how he managed to hide in the bush while all his family members, fourteen people, were massacred here. Beside one of the bodies is a recently laid rose. It is the month of April, the month the genocide began and the time of remembrance across Rwanda.

another nature poem: because of the First World War, that red rose and my return to Australia on Anzac Day. It does not take much to read the names engraved on the cenotaph in my hometown as victims.
B. S. Johnson in See The Old Lady Decently his last novel, the first of a projected three, whose combined titles would have read, See The Old lady Decently Buried Although Amongst Those Left Are You, writes:

“…then years after he had had to give up killing others, Lord (as he had been gratefully prompted) Haig himself succumbed. He was a mere sixty-six, and his funeral procession more than a mile long. Marshal Foch led most of the other Field Marshals available…Unnumbered must have been the dead men’s maledictions following that blind little man’s last putrefying, rotting corpse, so many had he sent to their deaths. And for what? So many dead there could never be an exact count. And was there any sign he had ever felt his conscience troubling him?
It was far more than the men he killed, than the widows and orphans down to him…
During the whole five months of the Passchendaele campaign Haig never once visted the battlefield, never ever saw the conditions under which his men were fighting for him.

Foch off.

Haig. Should his name be remembered? Try this for another mnemonic:

Somme, Fricourt, Delville Wood, Thiepval, Mametz: these and hundreds of other names stink in our nostrils because of the saprophytic criminal Haig.
And especially Ypres.
What scum! His name should never be mentioned but with execrations, with infinitudes of contempt, vials of loathing.
What kind of patriotism could it possibly be for him to thrust deep mourning onto a quarter of his people?
They should have massed to shit onto his grave that year.”

another nature poem:
……every ant
and pebble, every rustle flaring
into moments of distinction

The vortex that was initially the first room I entered at Murambi focussed quickly, in flashes, onto tufts of hair still attached to skulls, those personal items of clothing, crushed skulls and a small child. Each detail still present. Unlike Johnson however those Rwandans I met, I know these are only those that I met, but every one spoke of forgiveness and the possibility of reconciliation. This of course implies confession, which is being made possible through the Gacaca courts, grassroots trials at a community level as part of a national system of trials for those who partook in the genocide. A talking and listening between two.

And in Beloved: A Miscellany McKenzie writes ‘I’ll give what’s my gift”. What else can one offer?

[received via email from the author]


At 8:27 AM, Blogger michaelf said...

jeff - thanks for yr gift to reading revival .. you make a graceful and meaningful connection between poetry. politics, and reality. your report also blows the attitude of not being sorry for the genocide in this country 'because it happened before we were born' (or whatever) to shit.

At 3:21 PM, Blogger beissirissa said...

Interesting blog about your passion poems by sherry, keep up the good work passion poems by sherry


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