There are different views to understanding poetry. You can look at that which you find facing you directly – look at what is written on the surface and leave what is beneath. Some other times you have to look at what lies beneath. Think, why did such a writer write such lines? In what time was such a piece written? What was the condition of the writer? It helps to also read the poetry of contemporaries of such a writer in the person’s place. The contemporaries (poets) of Mandlenkosi Langa are the likes of Dennis Brutus, Oswald Mtshali, Stanley Mogoba, and Sydney Sepamla. Let’s look at the poem in full so that we will go along together in understanding this:
You languished patiently
for months on end
in dungeon darkness
in intestinal convolutions
and indefinable chaos
You had neither shadow
You had every right
to riot and complain
or raise your voice
in protest or defiance
I could feel your lust
to join the dead
Your muted attempts
to burst like Christmas chicken
It is not my fault
that you did not live
to be a brother or sister
or lover of some black child
that you did not experience pain
pleasure voluptuousness and salt
in the wound
that your head did not stop
a police truncheon
that you are not a permanent resident
of a prison island.
(‘Mother’s Ode to a Stillborn Child’ by Mandlenkosi Langa; in Black Poets in South Africa Edited by Robert Royston. London: Heinemann Educational Books,1974)
Tough love, wouldn’t you say? It makes one to think deep again beyond the analysis of whatever might have come down. Let’s look at this from the surface first. We find a mother [yes, let’s give the woman this accord] here who is addressing her stillborn. A lot of mothers will be happy to have a child and when something happens wrong to the child, they are saddened. In this poem though, you find a near nonchalant mother talking to her baby and saying: ‘Oh well, you are better dead’. This is a deep poem on whatever level you decide to look at it. Poetry, like art, is an expression of one’s innermost feeling. It leaves you thinking of what might have gone through the mind of the poet. Like experiences, and other forms of art too, poetry is subject to many interpretations even as it speaks to each reader differently.
To have an idea of a poet’s mind though, sometimes you have to ‘visit’ the person, by understanding the circumstances and situation of the timing and writing of such a poem. This is understanding the poet’s reason for writing as opposed to however you might later understand the poem…for yes, each poem and work of art speaks to us and affects us differently, sometimes in ways that the poet might never have imagined.
The above poem, was written by Mandlenkosi Langa during the South African Apartheid period. The persona [we should always remember that the poet is not always the person in the poem; the person in the poem is called the poetic persona, much like the narrator in fiction etc] addresses her stillborn child. To understand this poem, you need to understand that the Apartheid period was one where blacks [the poet and the persona are black] were maltreated and subjected to a life of living on the run. It was evil to be black and one could be killed, beaten, maltreated for simply being a person of colour. It is more like the highest form of ‘racism’ and it was worse because 1) this land was originally the land of the blacks 2) They had the number in terms of population. 3) They had no access to jobs, proper schooling and a lot that the whites had… among others….
Things got so bad that some women rather than cry at a stillborn would shrug and say ‘Well, you are saved. Rest well’. That’s the spirit of the poem above.
The poem starts with the persona addressing how the baby within started off. Note the careful use of words that are not bright or cheerful: ‘languish…in dungeon darkness…in indefinable chaos’… From the outset, the persona knows that the baby had a difficult time within the walls of her body. [ASK: Could the body of the persona be a metaphor for South Africa and the troubles of the land?] The next stanza questions the essence of the humanity of the baby. The persona states that the baby had no form; no shadow, no silhouette. The baby had every right to protest… [ASK: Could the baby, from this stanza, be a personification of the suffering blacks in South Africa? Remember they had no dignity and are below humanity; therefore without shadow or silhouette… In that case, they had ‘every right/to riot and complain/or raise … voice/in protest or defiance].
The third stanza addresses the lust of the addressed to join the dead. Well, with all the troubles, it will seem that is what anyone will desire… So, in the end, at the last stanza: we find this mother without remorse at the death of the stillborn. She even thinks the stillborn is better dead! After all, ‘you are not a permanent resident of a prison island.’
So, there you go… There’s always more than meets the eye, not so? Let’s have your thoughts on this too and if you can, let’s have you put your heart to paper and scribble the spirit of your soul to show its very depths.