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Between baptism and drowning

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2014-11-13 14:31

South Africa slam poet, Koleka Putuma performs a thought-provoking piece in our studio. Watch.WATCH

Collective Amnesia by Koleka Putuma

Uhlanga Press

114 pages


In Julie Dash’s ground-breaking 1991 film Daughters of the Dust there is a moment.

The children of the Gullah tribe, descendants of slaves, want to abandon their homes, crossing the river to the mainland, half submerged in water.

It is a slow, luminous moment where the camera circles their bodies in a long tracking shot. They look simultaneously like ghosts and babies in the womb. Caught in between two existences, home and other where.

I kept thinking of this when I saw the cover images of Koleka Putuma’s debut poetry collection Collective Amnesia.

The evocative images see Putuma, like the daughters of the dust, submerged in water, wearing all white as if submitting to a spirit higher than herself. It is not clear whether she is being baptised or is drowning.

In this debut body of work, like the children of the Gullah, Putuma is abandoning something. For her it is the false notion of the rainbow nation.

She is floating away into a transitional space where the now does not seem good enough yet there is no clear place to cross to.

Putuma is not just a poet, she is a war poet. And here the battle is domestic and she is fighting what at times feels like the good fight, but what is ultimately a lost cause.

Collective Amnesia is divided into three movements: Inherited Memory, Buried Memory and Postmemory. The book has already been praised for its subject matter.

This is not surprising since we live in a world where most art is praised in relation to its identity politics, but subject matter alone does not make great work.

It is the aesthetics of Putuma’s work that seems to have gone under the radar.

She is aware of the visual aspect of reading poetry. At times the words on the page take different shapes and sizes, spilling out.

The placement of commas and exclamation marks challenges the reader and makes you question whether you are reading things right.

Do not feel bad when you do a double-take on a sentence in this book. It is all part of the game that she is playing with her audience.

Her work is beyond baroque; it is rustic.

As I was tearing though Collective Amnesia, it became increasingly clear that this is a collection written by a person obsessed with refinement.

Beyond her years, Putuma has the foresight to not produce poems that are overwritten.

She trusts her reader; at times she leaves phrases feeling incomplete, suspended in the air.

Her use of simple and sometimes colloquial words to bring down the barriers of language is a deliberate choice. She is aware of the limits of language and the medium she has chosen.

And instead of adding unnecessary fluff there is a directness in her words that is both cold and affecting.

A rigorous self-editor, she works her sentences like mules until all that is left are the essentials.

“writing (n): a doctrine

used to deliver one from

the ills of silencing”

- from Teachings

Most of the poems in Putuma’s collection are written in the first person, bringing us at times unbearably close to the realities of occupying three of the most complex identity spaces in South Africa today.

Those of woman, black woman and black queer woman. Putuma’s poetry is not merely lyrical; it also functions as memoir.

Here she is neither asking new questions nor even proposing any real solutions because that is not her task. Rather she evokes and provokes.

Her work is as restless as the society it comes from. She displays a controlled volatility that makes reading her poetry a somatic experience.

A beguiling aptitude, the unexpected alacrity of her humour and a keen sense of observation are some of the attributes that converge to make up Putuma’s instrument.

A fine tenor whose power is always in the low notes. Clean short lines, menacing and giving the reader no place to hide.

“I don’t want to

die with my

hands up

or legs open.”

- from Memoirs of a Slave & Queer Person

While Dash’s film can be described as poetic, Putuma’s poetry is cinematic. It is a book that is instinctive and defies interpretation.

Specifically because it is rooted in the abstraction of emotions.

It is a work that says simply and freely that your experience is valid. These gifts are not natural, they are hard won.

Collective Amnesia is showing us what it feels like to be one of the burnt children of the rainbow nation.

It is when Putuma abandons the first person voice, however, that some of her most wrenching work happens. Her skills as an observer are powered by specificity.

She is able to draw connections between moments and their meaning.

“Black men and white womxn

Always write about black womxn

As if we are already dead.”

- from Interview

This is probably the most important thing that has ever been said about South African writing.

Picking up the collection I was interested in how Putuma writes her women.

She does not treat them as subject matter but as exertions of herself; they are tortured, pushed and enraged but they also laugh, love and dance out of the page, lingering in your mind long after the cover has been closed.

They are not complex for complexity’s sake; they are multitudes.

“Your mother hands

you the telephone:

your grandmother says

hello in an old age that

reminds you that longevity

does not always mean life.”

- from Aviophobia

In Cape Town, not too far from where Putuma lives now, men and woman were padded down into evil ships and sailed into slavery.

Forced into free labour, made into products for breeding, silenced into death.

The hostility of this history makes its way through Putuma’s work.

“Yet every time our

skin goes under,

it’s as if the reeds remember

that they were once chains,

and the water, restless, wishes

it could spew all of the slaves

and ships on to shore”

- from Water

Putuma, with heartbreaking accuracy, captures the disquiet of living in a place where you’re both so valuable yet so hated. Memory is the weapon, says Don Mattera.

Collective Amnesia is a reminder that memory is earned.

There is no reason to be a poet in South Africa right now, and that is reason enough to be one. The fact that we have been rendered voiceless is both tragedy and a chance.

How can you sing when the throats of your ancestors have been slit? Who in this wasteland could possibly have given you a song?

In her work, Putuma gives glory to the gone, most of them unknown. She renders them undead and through her couplets they are able to summersault in the minds of us, the living.

She is about both seizing and becoming yourself. A poet in full liberty. The difficulty, yes, but also the joy. Most importantly the joy.

In writing, it is one thing to be fearless but it is completely another to be relentless; Putuma is both and we are better for it.

Collective Amnesia is a cool drink of water on a hot summer day.

It will leave you dazed, wanting more and thirstier then when you came in.

. To buy Collective Amnesia, visit


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