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Review – Virga by Togara Muzanenhamo

Togara Muzanenhamo’s third collection of poetry, Virga, derives its name from a phenomenon in which precipitation falls from a cloud but evaporates before it reaches the ground. Accordingly, the poems in the collection have a replete and ephemeral quality, depicting fragile terrains of abundant beauty, and the crowning feats of destinies that fluctuate like

The inspiration for the collection came from the photography book, Century: One Hundred Years of Human Progress, Regression, Suffering and Hope (1999), which Muzanenhamo translates into a tapestry of some of the lesser known – but still substantial – figures and events of the twentieth century: a mammologist stranded in the rainforest, a deep-sea diver who drowns, a search for the rarest stamp in the world. Combining the geographical sprawl of his first collection, Spirit Brides (2008), and the pastoral quietude of his second, Gumiguru (2014), Muzanenhamo delivers, with Virga, his most lyrical and ambitious collection to date, weaving narratives of exploration, conquest, and homegoing, that ‘[chart] the landscape’s breath’ (‘Öxará’), and are tethered to terrains that echo, uphold, and resist the whims of their inhabitants.

The book draws significantly from the Romantic tradition, as demonstrated by its consistent emphasis on the caprice of nature and the anguish of the explorer, the artist, the athlete, the soldier, and so on. Amongst the many tortured souls, Muzanenhamo presents mountaineers ‘climbing naked routes / to soothe the burning call for solitude’ (‘Beneath the Swallow’s Nest’); a geneticist weighing natural selection’s logic against the visceral tumult of attraction, ‘the breath’s turbulence / like a tidal wave’ (‘Swell’); and a dying composer lulled towards oblivion by memories of ‘fields wild with gentians and chanterelle and cep’ (‘Tolbach Summers’). Pathetic fallacy frequently underscores the emotional drama in poems such as ‘Hobiki Bune’, where the vista of fishermen departing at dawn reflects the frosty farewell of a lesbian couple unable to be together; with the unravelling affair foreshadowed by ‘white sails falling loose’, and the ‘crisp and clean’ air mirroring the ‘cold palm snatch[ing] the heat off her skin’. In numerous poems, landscapes are portals for self-discovery – ‘Here I’d find joy – slung to ropes rolling / back in hymns off each step up mountain peaks’ (‘Beneath the Swallow’s Nest’) – or muses for artistic expression:

Quite often, Muzanenhamo presents the land as a living, shifting archive, which bears the scars, hopes, and memories of those who have lived upon it. At Göbekli Tepe, the ruins of the oldest worship site in the world, ‘the soil [is] rammed with a history of prayers’ and memories are ‘held by the dead lay flushed with acres of wheat’ (‘Göbekli Tepe’). In ‘The Texan’, an aviator crashing in the Arctic wilderness succumbs to the land’s ravenous accretion of eons and explorers passed:

Collectively, the poems suggest that despite the unrecorded – or wilfully omitted – stories of history, nature remembers them all. This is especially true in the collection’s titular poem, ‘Virga’, which recounts an avalanche on a Peruvian mountain that killed 67,000 people in 1970 and displaced 800,000: ‘Mud. Ice. Boulders. / Everything sealed beneath the earth.’ Over this tragic burial place are ‘[o]nly names floating dark with grief.’ Here, the dead are ‘never exhumed’, the only traces of them being ‘half buried palm trees’ and ‘[f]ragments of the cathedral wall’. The suddenness of the destruction highlights the evanescence of life, and the contrasts between the seen and unseen propose a naturalistic kind of object permanence, which considers life beyond the corporeality we are familiar with. Additionally, the poem’s free verse form, with lines of different lengths that ebb and flow across the page (a form used frequently throughout the book) suggests an undulating current or a nation’s jagged borders, and signifies the many changes that occur across time and space.

In fact, the recurring theme of exploration in Virga reflects the ideological broadening of the twentieth century as defined by rapid social and political change, the new frontier of outer space, and advancements in medicine and technology. With the incorporation of vast settings, courageous speakers, historic achievements, and elaborate descriptions, Muzanenhamo borrows elements from the epic poem, modernising it and adapting it into compact sagas, such as an expedition to the South Pole, a hike through the Swiss Alps, a dog’s voyage into outer space, the ascent of a volcano in Ecuador, the transatlantic voyage of an Austrian composer, and a German travelling the African coast, trading for dissidents during the Herero Wars. Like the epics of Homer, Ovid, and Milton, these travels underpin humanity’s changing concepts of national identity and morality – although in this case, such questions are navigated against the backdrop of two World Wars, the Cold War, the Space Race, and decolonisation. The coloniser in ‘Swakopmund’ ‘thinks of all the journeys he’s taken’: ‘Journeys that have come with every curse / and blessing’ in ‘ships he knows / will never sail clean’. Elsewhere, the politically charged trade across ancient India’s

inspires Chaturanga, an ancient strategy game, whose notions reverberate into the present, shaping modern concepts of conquest and intrigue – and eventually, the game of chess we know today (‘Openings’).

However, in Muzanenhamo’s ‘epics’, unlike those of antiquity, the adversary is not the gods or any supernatural entity, but the land itself, which is often sentient and has a will of its own. The Antarctic wind is ‘merciless’ in ‘Sun Dogs’, ‘[f]orcing us to turn. Lean’ into ‘the noise that doubled our weight and dragged at our heels’. Here, the unforgiving landscape resists exploration, ‘erasing each step left behind’ and fostering a cold ‘not made for the human voice’. In other poems, the Arctic air is ‘sharpened by the curse of razored winds’ (‘The Texan’); a high-wire artist acknowledges that ‘There is a life in a breath of wind’ (‘Skies’), whose loyalty will ultimately decide his fate; and a chess grandmaster’s victory is sabotaged when he is ‘[i]ntoxicated by the Cuban sun’ (‘Openings’). In ‘Spirit of the Fon’, a spontaneous emission of CO2 from Lake Nyos in Cameroon – which killed 1,746 people and 3,500 livestock overnight in 1986 – is personified as ‘an ancient breath freed to rise’. This breath is cunning, and its decimation wilful. It harnesses ‘the sorcery of the earth […] [t]he witchery of the sky’, with ‘innocent promises / running through our veins. So we slept.’ As well as recounting events from the twentieth century, such struggles against the natural world offer a new perspective for our modern-day ecology, reminding us in the midst of our current climate crisis that by hurting our environment we are hurting ourselves – and possibly even incurring its wrath.

Although Muzanenhamo draws from the Century, he crafts a collection that is entirely original, bringing together disparate worlds and encounters that test the endurance of the human soul. A precursory google of the poems’ titles and authors of the epigraphs may help to prime readers for the more esoteric topics, but it’s a price that is ultimately worth paying for a collection that grapples with humanity’s progress thus far, and the progress still to come in our ever-changing world.

Isabelle Baafi is a writer, poet, editor, and critic from London. Her debut pamphlet, Ripe (ignitionpress), was a winner of the 2021 Somerset Maugham Award, and was the PBS Pamphlet Choice for Spring 2021. She is currently studying Creative Writing at the University of Oxford, and is writing her debut collection.

Virga by Togara Muzanenhamo (Carcanet Press)

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