Poet: Teamhw SbonguJesu
Publisher: TNG Publishing
Teamhw SbonguJesu’s Bury Me Naked.
A Poetry Review
by Sihle Ntuli
In his debut book of poems Bury Me Naked, Teamhw SbonguJesu introduces us to a rural Pietermaritzburg township in sharp and provocative language.
The poetic approach of SbonguJesu is often nihilistic, piercing, and direct. He uses a conversational style in both his traditional linear and prose poems. In the second poem of the book, we experience some typically sharp lines that read:
They just threw me here,
expecting me to see for myself
like they saw for themselves.
Now nothing can be taken back or undone.
(“They Just Threw Me Here” 12)
The majority of this offering by SbonguJesu can be considered sociological, with an emphasis on black lived experience. In the face of blatant dysfunctions afflicting him both internally and externally, the voice of the speaker is matter-of-fact and unflinching.
The first section of Bury Me Naked narrates a breakdown of the speaker’s childhood household. In the course of this story, both his parents die, his mother when he is ten and his father when he is older. This gives us a greater understanding of his somewhat troubled ideology, which appears to be haunted by generational trauma. He is seemingly devoid of any behavioural restraint and averse to all things deemed upright and moral.
The titular poem “Bury Me Naked” is an example of the author’s imagined funeral, where decorum and respect for ceremony are replaced by coarse, provocative behaviour, inappropriate to the context of a funeral procession.
When done, leave.
Don’t put any headstone,
or try to make it decent.
People should know
and not know who it belongs to.
Let them take a wild guess.
(“Bury Me Naked” 22)
The unravelling of the poetry in this collection is compelling. Socially accepted norms are turned on their heads as we face a harsh world, a sort of hell on earth.
The second portion of the book appears to be an acceptance of darkness where the speaker’s adulthood is, in many ways, a continuation of his dislocated upbringing. A sense of vulnerability pervades poems, such as “The Deepest High,” which speaks of an attempted suicide, and “My Bed,” involving a bed the speaker inherits from his father.
There is often engagement with faith and religion, revealing an ambiguity, which then furthermore gives a sense of a deep existential grappling in the second portion of the book.
Dear God –
enemy of bad actions and thoughts
The rightful punisher of those who deserve punishment.
The rightful exacting creditor (who doesn’t listen to stories
because He says they are all the same).
God who is stern in justice.
Who watches with careful eyes
to discern the errors of men.
(“Prayer during Sleep” 36)
There is a beauty in the speaker’s self-awareness, his knowledge that his actions are socially unacceptable. As readers, we witness an internal back and forth between right and wrong, which is pillared on the notion of faith and religion as moral compasses. In “Handcuff All the Angels,” he turns his back on religion altogether. The duality of this turning from is shown in “Prayers During Sleep,” where there is not only an element of sarcasm but also an indirect hinting at the source of the speaker’s dismissive outlook on religion: profound and personal hardship, severe enough to have all but dissipated any belief in the possibility of divine intervention.
The third portion of the book engages with the public domain of township life. Here the reader is provided with a view on black-on-black crime alongside some sharp social commentary.
I will tell my bodyguards
not to push, beat, or shoot you.
I will ask what you need,
make you touch it, feel it.
But that will be all.
I have a mansion to get back to.
(“Election Manifesto” 41)
In the poems “Election Manifesto” and “Leadership,” we are met with representations of your typical greedy and corrupt politicians who have become all too familiar in modern day South Africa. The juxtaposition between the politician’s lifestyle in these two poems and the impoverished lifestyle in a poem like “Lament of a Poor Man” further emphasises the sociological elements of this offering.
There is no sin greater
than not having money.
You don’t need to go to hell
to be punished for it.
(“The Greatest Sin” 52)
The final portion of this debut, which focuses on the speaker’s journey with poetry, is essentially an Ars Poetica of sorts. This is evident in the prose poem “It Was Poetry,” as well as “To My Beautiful Ex” and “Telling the Pages.” Generally, poems about poetry itself are frowned upon, but the uniqueness of SbonguJesu’s work is that it goes against conventions. We are given a rare glimpse, into not only what it means to function as an artist, but also the internal and external obstacles the speaker has been forced to overcome.
As a whole the collection, Bury Me Naked can be considered a work of performance art. Individually, the poems are often nihilistic, provocative, and shocking. As a whole, it presents us with deep sociological questions. In sociological discourse, there is at times a need for a radical perspective, able to initiate robust discussion from leftists, liberals, and even conservatives. SbonguJesu definitely has something here.
While parts of the book may be painful for those who have experienced trauma, and uncomfortable for the squeamish or conservative, it is also important to note that the unpleasant details contained here are the lived experience of many black South Africans.
There comes a time when the wounds of a country need to be confronted rather than be turned away from. Bury Me Naked is an open wound, a horror of South Africa’s past manifested. While the contents of the poems may be shocking, the real work begins with those willing to be brave.