“And because I mean to live transparently, I am here, bear with me, describing the contents”: so opens the Zambian poet Cheswayo Mphanza’s stunning debut poetry collection, The Rinehart Frames, which won the 2020 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. The opening poem, “Frame One,” is one of many centos, or “frames,” beautifully and carefully littered throughout the book. That first line samples Terrance Hayes, who himself is a master sampler.
Mphanza samples artists, film directors, and thinkers. Edward Hirsch, Amiri Baraka, Mary Oliver, Li-Young Lee, and Ralph Ellison (especially his novel Invisible Man, from which the name “Rinehart” is taken) are just a few. There is also the Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami, whose 24 Frames influenced the title of the collection, as well as the Indian artist Amrita Sher-Gil.
Sampling, or intertextuality, is a very delicate ground to dance on, considering, as Kwame Dawes notes in his Forward, how it “introduces significant challenges and raises questions of attribution in a culture sensitive to copyright issues and issues of ownership.”
However, Mphanza does it so well that while reading these poems, particularly the centos, it is clear that what is before our eyes is not an amalgamation of lines clipped from here and there but a culmination that is totally his. He makes better what he takes. If the goal, as James Baldwin said, is to “write a sentence as clean as a bone,” Mphanza has reached it. Finely polished bones, immaculate lines—they abound in this book:
“On a street discreet as our intent, searching for Mr. Badii’s perfect burial, the lakefront’s scent curls around us, retreating me to sore summers.”
—from the prose poem “Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997).”
“I felt the appropriate scars I placed on my body: hacksaw marks like a collar around my neck and faux bullet holes I imagined deepened by the same sulfuric acid that left ant tunnels cutting through Lumumba’s bones.”
—from, also a prose poem, “Open Casket Body Double for Patrice Lumumba’s Funeral.”
Like Carl Philips, one of the poets sampled, Mphanza pushes his sentences, stretches them, creates within them echoes, the sounds bouncing in your head as you read. He does with line breaks what the Malawian stand-up comedian Daliso Chaponda does with his jokes: He takes you to the edge of the cliff, pushes you down, and then he catches you.
He probably picked her up
with a line about how a woman’s body
is like a saxophone,
caressing her waist with the
weighted history in his
rigid palms, running
chilled fingers down her spine,
reaching for keys in her ribs,
pressing until she sounded
—from “Lester Leaps In.”
Memory, the imagination, dream—these are some of the preoccupations of The Rinehart Frames. In “Getting Lost with Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon,” the poet writes about being sent “into/ the convex vestibules of memory,” chasing “shadows of the past.” In the imagination there are no bounds—the imagination transverses universes; lines dissolve in its light. Mphanza knows that there is a strangeness to the imagination, a fascinating one: “Strange to see meanings that clung together once—” (“Frame Two”).
Mphanza knows, too, that remembering is returning and reckoning or not reckoning. But what if there is nothing to reckon with: “I have no place of origin, no home”? What if what there is to reckon with is uncomfortable: “I am of a captured home”? Dream/imagination becomes home: “How do I reach a home aside from the imagination?” But even the imagination is not an escape: it “holds all my anxieties.” He also knows that the imagination/dream can be a knife sometimes: “Be careful to dream too much—your imagination can destroy their homes.”
In most instances, “you” becomes “I”; Rinehart knows that when he points a finger at “you,” four fingers point like guns to his chest. In “The Code of Hammurabi,” Mphanza alludes to the slab of diorite of the same title, an ancient Babylonian legal text that contains 282 edicts. Opening with a comment on reading the French writer Édouard Glissant—“Reading Glissant makes/ me anxious/ of the body’s properties”—the poem becomes an act of witnessing the horror inflicted on a man “caught/ stealing a bag of flour.” A few more lines into the poem, the witness becomes a bad hand of the law as he joins in the brutal performance, as the man’s “pulsating body” becomes “a shock in my hands.”
How have I handled my being—
considering the berry bush vines I have uprooted and
the nesting termites I engulfed in paraffin oil, of
my participation in this tragedy?
—“A Stack of Shovels.”
Another form that Mphanza employs repeatedly in the book is the ekphrasis. “Taste of Cherry” is written after the movie, of the same title, by Abbas Kiarostami. In the poem, as in the film, Mr. Badii, the protagonist, wants to die by suicide and is looking for someone who will bury him: “‘I don’t want to give you a gun to kill me; I’m giving you a spade,’ Mr. Badii says.”
One of the most striking images in the book is in this poem: “The mother running to scattered limbs, attempting to sew back the severed child.”
Other than the ekphrasis and cento and prose poems, Mphanza dresses his poems in other forms. But the magic shines brightest when he fuses them. He does so in “Notes toward a Biography of Henry Tayali,” a poem with energetic stanzas which attempts to capture, and converse with, the work of the Zambian painter Henry Tayali, employing the pecha kucha form (a Japanese form adapted by Terrance Hayes in Lighthead) in which, according to Hayes, the poet “riffs on twenty images connected to a single theme for twenty seconds at a time.”“Notes” is at once ekphrasis and pecha kucha. “Taste of Cherry” is ekphrasis and prose poem.
Beyond poetic/ literary history, Mphanza engages cultural and political history. There’s a heartbreaking poem, “Open Casket Body Double for Patrice Lumumba’s Funeral,” written in the voice of the Congolese politician, in which, lying in the casket, he tells of a letter to his wife, written “on the lavender handkerchief stuffed in my front shirt pocket.” He mentions his wife Pauline’s “bare- breasted march in Leopoldville,” in 1961, to protest the murder of her husband.
How the poet marries the political and personal is incredible—he can make an intensely political poem a burning love poem. Love for a woman is at once love for a country. The body, country; country, body.
“Gina, is it not you I see in the woodcuts I chisel into effigies?
Their backs shaped like kandolos. Your face, Zambia’s best export—”
“The privations of my love I, at times, kept from you. Which helped me understand what makes a man a dictator is the same as his need for freedom.”
The poetry of Pablo Neruda comes to mind; as does the work of some contemporary African poets, a number of them also winners and finalists for the Sillerman Prize and published under the African Poetry Book Series. In Romeo Oriogun’s debut Sacrament of Bodies, for example, in poems about the immediacy of bodies, laced with Yoruba mythology, the political is also engaged. Safia Elhillo’s The January Children is a love story, an exploration of culture and language, as it is about what it means to be an immigrant. Gbenga Adeoba’s Exodus is about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, among other preoccupations, but also about tenderness, love, music.
As in “Open Casket” and “Notes,” The Rinehart Frames is filled with aching lines, tiny odes, to the Congo and Zambia, the poet’s country, and to the world: “I want clear days and nights and no secrets/ but also to invest the world with a clearer understanding of itself” (“Frame Eight”).
The letter from Lumumba ends: “History will have its day one day.” And in this book, in the deft hands of Mphanza, history has its day. Historical events/ texts/ figures are lifted from the coldness of forgotten, charged with the heated urgency of now.
The Rinehart Frames is at once literary criticism, cultural commentary, art criticism, a scholarly text. It is a conversation with the writers and artists and historical figures whose work/ personality have moved Mphanza in a way. But it is also a homage to them and their work. As Kwame Dawes puts it: “The centos emerge here, then, as a physical enactment of a spirit of intellectual generosity and gratitude.” These poems are elaborate, exciting performances, delivered almost effortlessly.
Cheswayo Mphanza’s The Rinehart Frames is published by the University of Nebraska Press, with Forward by Kwame Dawes.
More Reviews from Open Country Mag:
—Sacrament of Bodies by Romeo Oriogun Review—An Originative Work by an Epochal Poet
—The Origin of Name by Adedayo Agarau Review—Narrating Grief
—20.35 Africa Vol. III Review—The Pain Won’t Go Away
—Waterman by Echezonachukwu Nduka Review—A Sobering Stare at the World
—Nsukka Is Burning Review—How a Small University Town Influenced Nigerian Literature
—The Geez by Nii Ayikwei Parkes Review—Threading Family, Love, & Race
—Transcendence by Wana Udobang Review—Woman in the Light