Title: Starfish Blossoms
Author: Samantha Rumbidzai Vazhure
Publisher: Carnelian Heart Publishing, 2022
Hardback: isbn: 987-1-914287-27-5
Paper back: isbn: 978-1-914287-28-2
E-Book isbn: 978-1-914287-29-9
I am hoping to refer to Samantha Rumbidzai Vazhure’s latest collection of poems, Starfish Blossoms, as a multi-tasking anthology.
It often occurs to a poet that one of her books may carry pieces from the many different periods of her life, ably reflecting continuity and change of the poet’s vision and methods over time. This is the essence of a multi-tasking collection.
Through such a book, the poet makes definitive statements on a wide range of themes and subjects under one cover. Later in life, the poet herself may actually sit back, like any other reader, and re-read her own book in search of the growth of her own philosophy of life and the development of her craft.
As a result, Starfish Blossoms is a festival of sorts. Many of these poems ring with the unmistakable clarity of biographical information from the life of the poet herself; the ups and downs of life, the poet’s discoveries, the poet’s mental experiments and the poet’s acute personal memories. You could draw the poet's graph, underlining your favourite pieces and flipping over others for further reading.
I may want to call this book a diary anthology, too.
What is however clearer to me than my other observations is; this collection is decidedly based on the firm foundations of the wisdom of one’s female ancestors, both in mythical and real time. This book can be read as an archive of women's thoughts and sweet secrets from one generation to the other.
In these pieces, there is the hovering presence of the persona’s paternal grandmother, vaChivi. She is the spirit of the lioness, hunting relentlessly for game in order to feed her pack of cubs. VaChivi is more vicious and runs much faster than her lazy and redundant male counterpart. Hunting is not sport. It is a matter of life and death.
There is also the maternal grandmother, aChihera, the woman of the Shava Eland totem. Charwe Nehanda of the first Chimurenga is amongst the strong Chihera women of Zimbabwe. They are renowned in Shona lore for their resilience and sometimes they are known to be strong headed, fighting harder than their fathers or their husbands!
These two archetypes VaChivi and aChihera demonstrate that this poet is coming to the world stage already armed with ready-made stories of the brave women from her own community. She is not looking for new heroes. She already has the blood of heroines running through her veins. She is only looking for a broader audience. For me this is Samantha Rumbidzai Vazhure’s greatest achievement.
In the very first poem the persona recalls her time with her grandmother out in the countryside. It is a return to the stable source and to roots that go deep.
Grandmother hides her monies everywhere; inside her crimpling doek, under the reed mat and even inside her G-cup bra. Meanwhile the corn is roasting by the fireside. When she asks her granddaughter to count her money, the younger woman says, “but you can’t see the money even if I were to count it for you!”
And the elder answers: “These eyes can see what they want to see.” Meaning I would not have asked you to count the money if you were not a trusted fellow. This poem is a story about the easy camaraderie between women from across generations.
In the poem Hanyanani, the poet goes even deeper into the Shona mythology. An old woman lives in the drought smitten district of Chivi in a year when the famine is at its bitterest. There is danger that the many-many orphans that she is keeping in her homestead may actually starve to death. VaChivi goes up and down amongst her neighbours and she finds no food to cook. But the orphans gather around her crying louder and louder...
VaChivi comes up with a plan which has become legendary amongst the Shona people. She lights a fire as if everything is alright and puts a pot full of water on the fire. There is still nothing to cook and VaChivi picks pebbles from the bare ground and throws them into the pot and she tells her grandchildren that she is now cooking something and she will make soup out of it. She dishes out the ‘soup’ eventually. It is the mere hope amongst these children that the hot water that they are taking in is real soup. That saves their lives;
And there’s an old woman from Chvi
who cooked stones and drank the soup.
She did not swallow the stones.
Did she not know that those
who swallow stones do not die?
The Chivi woman’s story is about intense hope and resolve. In the same area there is a contemporary tale about Hanyanani, a ghost that goes ahead with its ghostliness without thinking about what people say about her as a ghost. Sometimes Hanyanani terrorises wayfarers who walk the paths in the middle of the night from beer drinking binges.
The daring drunkards even think s Hanyanani is a fresh new prostitute from more urbane place like Masvingo, Harare and Bulawayo and on being taken to her home, the men fall into deep sleep. When they wake up they find that they are actually resting in the graveyard! In a more contemporary period, Hanyanani is often reincarnated as Peggy, the other terror ghost of the other Zimbabwean towns of Chiredzi and Triangle.
These are stories about woman triumphalism retold in poetic form. Vazhure does not exactly rewrite these myths but her allusions to them through her poetry are powerful and strategic. Vazhure uses local materials to talk about global issues.
The story of the girl, Fatima, in the title poem Starfish blossoms, is retold by a girl child narrator. Fatima works for other people looking after their home and children. Fatima uses herbs in order to elongate her sexual organs and improve the general fecundity of her body. She is aiming at attracting one powerful suitor. The result is tragic but Fatima does not collapse and cry. Her spirit of resistance remains in the mind of the girl narrator who tells this story. The narrator wants to avenge Fatima and create a freer version of her. Fatima, Just like the widely spread starfish flower in blossom, has some overarching influence on other women including the persona.
In one transcendental poem, My mother aloft a raging fire, the persona sees mother way before mother is born. That recalls the Shona proverb chisionekwi humhandara hwamai, it is impossible for anyone to meet their mother during her girlhood! But the persona is that rare seer who has powerful visions of her own mother’s girlhood. She was there before and during her own mother because she is a fellow woman:
In my dreams of mother, rare as true love
she looks nothing like the end, but rather, the beginning
before I was born – a vivacious stunning queen…
Afro glowing like a golden halo…
In her youth, which no son or daughter can ever see, mother was a terrible beauty. Strangely, when mother tries to pass on the cooking stick, like a baton in athletics, she is raising it by the wrong hand and the persona runs away from receiving the cooking stick! Presumably, the daughter is running away from the seemingly disabling traditional women’s duties. But is clear that in her wild and speedy flight, the daughter persona runs with no baton, tripping and falling along “abysmal tracks” of athletics and wakes up very tired and exhausted.
This poem challenges us to see the womanly duties differently. You may choose to see slavery in women’s domestic duties but beyond that, the caring duties of motherhood have actually sustained generations.
Woman’s duties have been a subject of heated debate. If you perform them you are damned, if you don’t, you are damned too. The life of a mother appears to beg for a more careful reading. There is pain in a mother’s life but there appears to be life at the end of mother’s pains. We have come this far because of our mothers.
Down the pages, in a more cryptic poem, the poet clarifies her position: “An abused mother is too sore and too drained to nurture her children the way Mother Nature intended her to.” As confirmed in Barbed crowns, suffering should not be the crown of thorns that a woman should continue to wear. Women should rebel from oppression but should not refuse the natural task of suckling and healing the whole nation.
Samantha Vazhure’s poems are a useful addition to the rich tradition of Zimbabwean poetry. Her views on how women ought to proceed from the concrete local foundations as they grow globally, are going to provide space for discussion amongst scholars and theorists. Samantha Vazhure studied Law and Business Administration at the University of Kent. She works in the UK as a regulatory consultant in financial services. She has published various collections of poems and short stories in Shona and English.
- Reviewed by Memory Chirere