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James Matthews: Still Kicking Butt @ 77

by Mphutlane Wa Bofelo


Veteran educator and social  activist, Yusuf Cajee recently shared with me his recollections of the time he was arrested by the South African Police   while distributing copies of Muslim Views (then Muslim News) which were accompanied by few copies of the poetry collection, “Pass me a Meatball, Jones”   penned by the then editor of the paper, James Mathews. He recalled that under the editorship of James Matthews, the paper often found itself on the wrong side of the law and at the receiving end of the scissor and razor of the censors as a result of its resonant and critical critique of the status quo under apartheid capitalism. Yusuf Cajee also mentioned that he recently requested a long-time associate of James Mathews to ask the veteran poet to send him copies of “Pass me a Meat Ball, Jones”,  because he never got the chance to read it in the era of apartheid. Cajee  and many who never got the opportunity to drink from the poetic well of wisdom that springs from the fountain of the ingenious mind, resilient spirit and tireless soul of James Matthews will be relieved to know that “Cry Rage :Odyssey of a Dissident Poet” is a collection of poetry from five poetry books (“Cry Rage”, “Flames and Flowers”, “Pass  Me a Meatball, Jones”, “No Time for Dreams”, “Poisoned Wells and Other Delights”,) and selected poems from two monumental poetry anthologies, Black Voices Shout and Exiles Within. And they will surely discover that the thematic and stylistic concerns of the book are as politically and culturally relevant now more than ever before.

Remarking about his fiery and provocative poetry that unflinchingly and purposefully offends the sensitivities of advocates and proponents of poetry as high art and caused the amnesiac liberals who want the past consigned to the dustbins of history to walk out of his reading at the Cape town International Bookfair, James Matthews remarked: “I am seventy-seven years old but I am still full of sh*t. Telling those who cannot deal with his poetry they have the right and freedom to leave, and also remarking that now that he had left drinking, he gets drunk on words, Matthews jokingly referred to his choice to read radical poetry in the sober and comfort zone of Cape town International Conventional Centre: “I do write love poetry, but I will read love poems when I am ninety five.” If your are an ardent fan of “rock-the-boat”, “defy-convention”, “tell-it-as-it is-poetry’ like yours truly, after reading “Cry Rage: Odyssey of a Dissident Poet”, you  are more likely to concur that at seventy-seven James Matthews still rocks, or to put as blunt as he would, if this mind-f**ing poetry is anything to go by, 95 year-old, romantic James Matthews is sure to kick some butt. 

Garnered from an artistic and socio-political activity that stretches over a period of more than three decades of contemporary South African History, “Cry Rage: Odyssey of a Dissident Poet” lambastes arts for art’s sake and poetry for pleasure and hold no punches in striking a blow in defence of literature and arts in service of the agenda of socio-economic and political transformation and cultural reawakening of the subaltern people. The poetry is scathing in its attack of the philosophy of apartheid and all the practices. It equally chastises   the hypocrisy of progressives and liberals who:” speak so sorrowfully about children dying of hunger in Biafra\ but sleep unconcerned about the rib-thin children of Dimbaza\ they spend their Rands to ease the plight \ of the suffering in Bangladesh \ But not the thought of a cent to send\ to relieve the agony of ilingi\ they raised their voices in horror at \ the killing of eleven jews at munich\  but not a murmur of the thousands\ of killings of my people all over the land\ black people are driven to death by white law\ yet they will say they never knew.”

The poet spares no holy cows in castigating the politics of ethnicity and xenophobia raising an ugly head in the “new South Africa”. In his vintage spirit of to no compromise, James Matthews, unarguably the father and living ancestor of Black Publishing and a pioneer of the poetry of change, is fearless in confronting the neo-colonial and neo-liberal state of affairs in the country he obstinately refuses to call South Africa. (At the Bookfair, Matthews furiously proclaimed:” South Africa is a geographic position. This country is Azania”) True to tradition, Matthews opens “Cry Rage”, “No Times for Dreams” his selected poems from “Exiles Within” and “Poisoned Wells and Other Delights” with a rebellious scorn of poetry of niceness and resonant choice of social commentary poetry. The opening poem in “cry rage” leaves no stone unturned in advancing the poet’s stance on the longstanding debate between poetry for the sake of it and poetry for a social purpose:” It is said the poets write of beauty\ of form\of flowers \and of love \ but the words I write\ are of pain and rage\ I am no minstrel who sings of songs of joy\ mine a lament\ I wail of a land\ hideous with open graves \ waiting for the slaughtered ones.    balladeers strum their lutes \ and sing tunes of happy times\ i  cannot join in the merriment\ my heart drowned in bitterness\ with agony of what\ the white man’s law has done

No Times for dreams” opens with the reaffirmation of the poet’s commitment to the poetry of commitment and conscientious literature: “I wish I could write a poem\ record the beginning of dawn\ the opening of a flower\ at the approach of a bee\ describe a bird’s first flight \ then I look at people\ maimed shackled, jailed\ the knowing is now clear\ I will never be able to write\ a poem about dawn, a bird \ or a bee”  The opening poem from “Exiles Within” is perhaps the most lethal word bombardment on poets who opt for poetry for the sake of word-play:

“There are poets who parade as pimps\ whose words are decorations for their whoring\ they escape the suffering related by ho chi min\ of a man imprisoned because of his freedom’s need\ they sell themselves in the drawing-rooms of the lords\ art for art’s sake is what they parade\ the lament of pain wrested from the lips of lorca\ did not find sanctuary in the falsity they display\ a line so finely polished to reflect their falseness \ metaphors and meters part of the deceit they weave\ when the hail of iron opened the chest of Pablo neruda \ tears did not wet their faces as they turned away\ their lies evident\ lyrical lines offered for profit\ as they gathered their grin from words pillaged\ as the death in its brutality embraced steve biko\  lamentations did not loosen their lips in sorrow\ the cause of freedom not the road they walk\ poets turned pimps have not the knowing of an honest word.”                     

The aptly titledFreedom Owns the Poet’s Soulfrom “Poisoned Wells and Other Delights” is the poet’s testimony of his decision to utilise his gift of turning words into poetry to appropriate poems as freedom songs:

“ Freedom owns the poet’s soul\ he shall not be garbed in \ a cloak of ideology\ his voice not laced by legislation\ His voice, the voice of birds; a robin heralding hope\ a nightingale lyrically lamenting pain\ an eagle emoting the people’s power\ on bird-wing he will streak\ from freehold to the dungeon \ his songs filled\ with fire; the words flaring flames\ the poet’s fervour fuelled with \ strength gained from draughts of \ intoxicating water drawn   from an Oasis of deep\ dank poisoned wells” 

To rubberstamp his point, Matthews ends “Cry Rage” with a disclaimer, disowning the poet moniker and embracing the mantle of chronicler-cum-griot-cum-people’s historian-cum-activist-writer\writer-activist (a rather ironic confirmation of, or maybe a cynical retort to the criticism raised by some lovers and scholars of poetry that the work of James Matthews is prose pretending to be poetry):” To label my uttering poetry\ And myself a poet\ would be as self-deluding \ as the planners of parallel development\ I record the anguish of the persecuted \ whose words are whimpers of woe\ Wrung from them by bestial laws\ they stand one chained band \ silently asking one of the other\ will it be the fire next time?” 

For the benefit of the born-free shopping mall generation of the 2000something epoch, James Matthews’ early work is a poetic narration\preservation –some poetry purists would argue prosaic\ journalistic documentation- of the apartheid years. From it they will learn about the tragedy of children who died in Biafra, the rib-thin children of Dimbaza, the suffering in Bangladesh, the suffocation of mannenberg and the forced removals, detention without trial, and the 180 day act, the killing of Imam Haroon and Stephen Bantu Biko, the raping of black culture by white syphilization, the Soweto uprisings, the struggle in Palestine, the sorrow of Beirut, the genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the sell-out actions of sanction-busting percy sledge, and the sheroic stand taken by the nina simone’s and the mirriam makeba’s, etcetera, etcetera….James Mathews poetic criticism of the negro-phobic, non-white-ism attitudes of self-hatred and inferiority complexes in the heydays of Apartheid remains relevant in these times of Americanism, black COINsciousness”, cosmetic africanism and pop Rastafarianism :My sister has become a schemer\ and scene stealer\ her swinging breasts strangled by a bra\ face smeared with astra cream\ skin paled for Whiteman’s society\  songs of the village \ traded in for tin pan alley \ “black is beautiful” has become \ as artificial as the wig she wears.” 

 The more recent poems of the 2000 to 2002 period deals with themes such as the one-sided and half-hearted reconciliation, xenophobia and ethnicity, the pain of transformation\change and the challenge of re-humanizing the brutalised and de-humanised:”learning to laugh and love again is a painful task\ in the land where laws in the past where as harsh as the desert sun\ scorching soul’s sensitivity”. James Matthews approaches the call towards an African renaissance with a sense of hope and a vision of a reawakening of a people:” I hear the sound of\ people sounding drums\ I look at scenes painted \ on a canvas of faces \ I see antiquity reflected\ in the eyes of people\ words and music reveal \ the truth of our heritage\ we shall paint our history\ in vibrant colours\ orchestrated with music \ from a thousand drums\ setting dancers a’ swaying\ poets and writers\ mount your words\ into satisfying phrases\ to give strength\ to sculptors sculpting\ images of glory \ musicians strum strings\ to aid singers \ of songs urging’\ painters to fill\ a canvass \ sparkling an African renaissance.” 

But he also approaches it with a critical and questioning eye: “ Can an African renaissance emerge\ like a phoenix \ from the ashes of Rwanda genocide\ volcanoes of violence burst forth\ on Africa’s soil\ havoc spewed in places of despair\ releases streams of displaced humanity……is an African renaissance an illusion\ a fantasy conjured by the spin-doctors\ to give substance to a vision proclaimed\ an African renaissance will not be sloganised as a political programme\ the emergence of an African renaissance will flower from the minds of the people\ ” Matthews is equally critical of the excesses and abuses of power and the escalating levels of corruption:” Freedoms fruit has turned into bitter crop\ its ripeness spoiled by the blight of corruption\ through the greed of a grouping of gardeners\ sated with gain plundered in the harvesting\ at ease in the conservatory of law-making….the people’s new elite are seated in places of splendour \ they have become world travellers\ familiar faces \ at ease in the courts of foreign lands\they converse with leaders of former partners in the bondage of our people\ their travelling has distanced them from the villagers of limehill and dimbaza.. .”  

Being the consistent and tireless freedom struggler James Matthews gives tapestry to the voice and struggle of the subaltern, under-classes of Azania who catches the fire in the new era of neo-liberal capitalism:” the new marginals \   not sharing the sweetness \ of our rainbow coloured land \ register their discontent\ with increasing rumbles of rage\ as they are humbled\ by the arrogance displayed\ by those exhibiting\ rainbow drapes.” He is equally critical of the cooption of poets by power and capital: “are the new poets \ coerced into party poets\ their verses that sustained \peoples anger\ against apartheid abomination\ now structured into sycophantic\ symphonies lauding the new elite…” 

 My favourite poem in the collection is “it is too late to relate my belated mourning”- which I consider to a powerful message to this nation that suffers selective memory and only give lip-service praises to heroes at their funerals: “let not the burying of my bones\ be a bothersome thing\ now that I have tasted the sweetness\ of victory over the evil\ of apartheid feast \instead upon the productivity of my flesh\ that served the useful role \ in the procurement of freedom\ if praises are to be sung\ as I am lowered into my grave \ then let the song be sung\ to those who have helped in the righteousness of the our cause\ let their names be known\ rescue them from \ shadows of obscurity\ where they have been consigned \ let not the burying of my bones \ be a bother something…” If perchance, like Yusuf Cajee, you were denied the opportunity to read James Matthews, seize the opportunity now and get yourself a copy of “Cry Rage: Odyssey of a Dissident Poet.” As for me, I am looking forward to more and more of James Matthews love poems (and pray for his long life).