In her poem ‘hand-me-downs’, placed boldly near the very beginning of her debut collection Collective Amnesia, South African poet Koleka Putuma writes: ‘I have learnt how to say my glass is half full even when it’s broken’. This collection as a cohesive entity offers no such pretence or platitude. Beautiful, thought-provoking, and scorching in its honesty, Collective Amnesia is a cathartic pouring-forth of words left unsaid for far too long.
Putuma’s poetry is heavily intertwined with her own identity. Here, she explores what it means to be a womxn (her own insistent terminology) in a world where men feel entitled to your space and your body; what it means to be a lesbian under the eyes of Christianity, or under the hands of a lover; what it means to be a Black South African living in a country that white people laid unjust colonial claim to.
You can’t go up the mountain without going past my property,
I ask if she owns the mountain
And she says she owns this land.
Much of the third act of the collection, ‘Postmemory’ (following ‘Inherited Memory’ and ‘Buried Memory’), picks apart the hypocrisy of colonizers and their descendants claiming they can own anything on stolen land. ‘mountain’ in particular focuses on how unthinkable it should be for someone to take a mountain in a country they essentially invaded and claim it as private property – and yet it happens, with mountains, with people, with ways of life. The repetition in this poem, over and over again, describing how colonialism and its knock-on effects wear one down little by little, is exquisite. It gives the impression that while this collection is powerful on paper, it could be transcendent if performed aloud.
Her prose carries something of Audre Lorde in it – both ephemerally and quite literally. Putuma goes as far as to name her as part of her ‘lifeline’ in what is presented as the poem-that-is-not-a-poem of the same name.
Several of the poems in Collective Amnesia tell stories that so enrapture you to the point where you find yourself carried across several pages before you remember to blink. Others take the opposite approach, though both have equal power....
This is an excerpt of a review by Simon Jordan. For more information on Koleka Putuma and her digital installation of Collective Amnesia at StAnza21, please click HERE. To read the whole review, go to the DURA webpage.