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Poetry of reconciliation invites reconstruction and retelling with love    
Thu, 10 December 2020



One function of the Day of Reconciliation (16 December) holiday is to remind South Africans of the need to heal the wounds of Apartheid. A powerful young poet, Kopano Maroga, says the struggle lives on in our traumatised collective body and invites us to reflect on how the work of healing continues. This remarkable artist uses love as “a weapon of mass construction” to encourage readers to revisit and reinvestigate the past.
 
Coming at the end of a year when the COVID-19 pandemic severely undermined our health and serenity, the radical notion that we can use love to reconstruct our world is timely. Healing our broken society from its toxic history and from all that still divides us is the ongoing work of artists everywhere. 
 
The poem ‘it’s been so long’ achieves a remarkable feat of interrogating our history and language, and notions of gender.
 
where do we begin 
where do we begin
 
i end where my gender begins: 
in 1652 / with a boat
with many boats / with many many ghosts
we begin where… 
 
where 
where
 
in the languages of my mother’s and 
father’s tongues there is no pronoun for 
he or she / only: you / only: them / only: me
 
Maroga, who was born in Benoni, uses the pronouns they/them, and is a practising curator and dramaturg at Kunstencentrum Vooruit in Ghent. There’s a strident oddness about life in Belgium, where statues in the streets of King Leopold remind them daily of Africa’s vexed history. The critical work of reimagining the meaning of colonialisation is an essential conversation that impacts policy- and art-making. Their goal includes redefining the grammar of sex and the language of gender. “English is limited with its binary pronouns,” they comment. “Dutch has a neutral pronoun, but in Kiswahili, there are 14 pronouns.”
 
A core aim of the AVBOB Poetry Project is to support and create a body of work that enables individual and national healing. Thus, it is important for those who wish to grow their own poetic sensibility and understanding to look at the new generation of artistic pioneers who are articulating and creating new ways of beholding, listening and speaking. Like the struggle heroes of the past, they are educating people to think differently and to question their assumptions based on how a person looks – specifically regarding gender presentation.
 
They ask the following poignant and relevant questions: “How do we rewrite our histories? What is the language that only the body knows? How do we work to write ourselves, our joy, our trauma, our bodies out of the imaginary of oppressive institutions that could and cannot conceive of the unnameable beauty that it is to be this black, this brown and this queer at this moment in history?”
 
Maroga’s debut poetry collection, Jesus Thesis and Other Critical Fabulations, was published by uHlanga Press in November 2020. Simultaneously haunting and exquisite, harrowing and sublimely tender, the work explores the genderqueer experience with humour and compassion. 
 
Doing an MA at the Institute for Creative Arts, Maroga studied how the history of coloniality shaped categorical identity as a system of reference. “In South Africa, we take people’s identity for granted as if it’s the nature of the universe, but we’re referring to a system that’s barely existed for the last century,” Maroga explains. 
 
“There is no new language; the grammar of violence and history is all there. Our work is to arrange it such that it can become coherent in our embodied experience. The trouble is that in our over-intellectualised society we might think that by having said it, by having written it down, we’ve done something about it.
 
“But the impact is that the body keeps the score. This is one of the most important mechanisms of reckoning. This has to be done through the mechanism of the body, where the impact and results of traumatic experience fall.” Maroga concludes: “We don’t suffer from conceptual racism, it affects our bodies, and our abilities to eat, to move through space, to love, to understand ourselves, to create and develop a sense of ourselves.”
 
This collection of poems is for exceptional readers who are willing to have their hearts broken. It is for those who can risk investigating their preconceptions through the eyes of the poet. In Jesus Thesis empathy and sorrow co-exist in a retelling of the violence of our collective South African heritage and reimagining of the gospels. 

This poetic reckoning offers a path into the mess of our history via words that shoot straight to the heart. Lyrical, sensual, formally conceived, Maroga’s voice is lyrical and sensual at times, and at other times driving with the rhythm of violence, sex and violent sex. 
 
This book is elementally a love letter to the self. With an extraordinary representation of the erotic that combines grief and alienation, the narrative is a resilient determination to exist as the self that is seen by itself and, once seen, can be honoured, recognised and beloved.
 
Jesus Thesis is, however, not for the faint of heart or for those with a fundamentalist interpretation of scripture. The collection contains images of nudity and comes with a trigger warning. Readers that risk stepping out of their known world will find in these poems a blessing that enables a release of the dogmas and stereotypes that keep history locked in a single narrative. This book is an invitation to love the world in a novel way. It is a luminous and ground-breaking collection.
 
FULL POEM
 
it’s been so long
 
where do we begin 
where do we begin
 
i end where my gender begins: 
in 1652 / with a boat
with many boats / with many many ghosts
we begin where… 
 
where 
where
 
in the languages of my mother’s and 
father’s tongues there is no pronoun for 
he or she / only: you / only: them / only: me 
 
where do we begin 
where do we begin
 
in the language of my mother’s and 
father’s tongues we call people by their names 
we do not call people by the secret flower we imagine 
may or may not be blooming between their thighs 
 
where do we begin 
where do we begin
 
in the land of my mother’s and 
father’s tongues we have the 
fourth highest rate of 
femicide in the world 
 
where do we begin 
where do we begin
 
in the country of my mother’s 
and father’s tongues we have lost 
so much and there is no 
one to count the bodies 
 
where do we begin 
where do we begin
 
in the country of my mother’s 
and father’s tongues there is a 
burning roof and no one to 
sing the smoke to sleep 
 
where do we begin 
where do we begin
 

 



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