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Tete A Tete with Death


Tshiamo Malatji’s poetry chapbook, Happi-, is a conceptually competent conversation with death, writes ART STATE publisher Mpho Matsitle.

Objectively Mangaung’s top performance poet, having won all but one of the slams in the city over the past four years, Tshiamo Malatji has tentatively taken to text in publishing sixteen poems themed around death in the month of love. The free for download digital chapbook with half a title features all new material, most of which uncharacteristically short for the graphomaniac activist journalist.

The dense chapbook is well written and laced with hauntingly beautiful imagery, but its lasting impact will be as a timely reminder of our conception of death: it is not grim, macabre nor suicidal. This because for us death is no enemy, it is not something to fear or fight. We live with death, hence Motlapele a re ‘lefu ke ngwetse ya malapa othle.’ And when the bride visits,

death appears
offering its skin
finally, we are dressed again

All brides are accepted, no matter how disagreeable they may be to everyone but the groom. Death is no different. We accept it and continue living without burdening life with it. In ‘-ness’, we are counselled against

finding ways
to say we’re dying
leaving behind
actually living

But life is not king unto itself, echoing my father who often reminds me that sepheo sa motho ke lefu, Tshiamo notes that “life needs permission from death”. Death here can be seen as the reckoning that is bound to come. It is justice, the final coming. Much like us the dead, death needs only be lucky once, whereas life (like the living) need be lucky all the time. Life and the living must fear our return, for

we have not given in
we are silent
because we are
quietly building

Because despite of all the dying we have done and continue to do as a people, all the ways of dying that warrant the line “death forgot their flesh when it ate their souls”, we are not yet down. We are not yet done. Though we were

once a mountain
now, a shallow plateau
sunken deep into ground
finding tranquil rest

We know that we will rise again, that there’s more to us

than this grief
we are the abundant water
falling to the soft bed
healing from our wounds
and learning joy again

This joy is well noted in the two poems, ‘yesterday’ and ‘each year, once’, dealing with the author of death: birth. In the latter, we reminded of “the peaceful escape” that is birth in those fleeting formative moments before “we remember to die”:

that climbing of the air
as bones stretched
under our skin
and created moments
fluttered our days
into talk, walk, laugh

In ‘yesterday’ nature, naive to humanity’s inclination for violent love and short stints (re bafeti moo lefatsheng), celebrates our arrival:

flowers grew into gardens
too vast to navigate
but too beautiful to stop looking at
all the world
joined all of its peace
for you

Our warm welcome notwithstanding, we constantly kill ourselves when

our tongues whisper
the lie
“i’m fine – i’m happy”
we sink back into ourselves
aborting foetuses of bliss

Happiness is a worthwhile pursuit, but not one worth any form of death, we must unearth the courage to stop halfway at “happi-”. For the risk is that if we continue with the lie, if we continue to die, we will be reduced into nothing but statues, “a structure of beauty”, a memory affixed permanently to infertile imaginations that will imprison us – what is usually referred to as image. Happi- implores us to quit playing “hide and hide” with life and embrace it in all its ugliness because “in the very end”, the bard asserts, “there is only one death.”

Happi- is available for free download at Scribd.

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