If writer Lesego Rampolokeng was given to overt off-stage narcissism, he would probably compare himself to a Johnny Dyani bassline. In a country in which populist guitarist Jimmy Dludlu just took a South African Music Award for best jazz album, Rampolokeng’s increasing obscurity is nothing if not symbolic.
In 2007 the journal Chimurenga put out its 11th issue, Conversations with Poets Who Refuse to Speak. Had that volume been released this year, Rampolokeng would have featured in its pages, reiterating his “difficulty” with being thought of as a “performance poet” while throwing in some caustic humour about bards who sell petrol and body lotion.
A few weeks ago at the Bioscope independent cinema in downtown Johannesburg, the playwright and poet launched Head on Fire, a book of “rants”, “notes” and “poems” spanning the period from 2001 to 2011. It is his 10th book since releasing Horns for Hondo in 1990.
The signs of his receding prominence were omnipresent. Between reciting his most frequently rendered pieces, Mountain Sermon and Dedication (for the critic), both from 2003’s collection Second Chapter, published in Germany, Rampolokeng joked about only being able to attract “family members” to his book launch.
He then picked on the same targets he has aimed at for the past few years: Thabo Mbeki’s poetic pretensions (“my friends wrote his speeches”), the sterile halls of “fuckademia” (ironic considering his current residency at Rhodes University) and the usual complaints about “literary bodies that hate literature”.
Oh, he also balked at the suggestion that he has ever relied on the “timbre” of his voice.
All the above are, by now, part of his tired stage shtick, rendered gimmicky by the fact that even though he has graced many stages, Rampolokeng is, ultimately, nervous in front of people. His onstage profanity really just serves as a screen until the spotlight is off him.
At his best, though, he is an MC in the old-school “move the crowd” sense, a volatile electrical conductor who has — in his own mind — been blacklisted by the gatekeepers of “poetry” in South Africa. But then again, in his preference for the profane — both on stage and as a metaphoric tool on the page — it seems Rampolokeng overestimated the ruling class’s capacity for masochism.
Although the Soweto-born wordsmith is almost exiled from the South African podium — where his already deconstructed diction unfurled even deeper layers thanks to his everyman accent — he is still obsessed with “rhyming you to a nervous breakdown”.
These days, though, you will not find the easy-to-follow couplets that populated Horns for Hondo or The Bavino Sermons’ sweeping “dis-cum-dedication To Gil Scott-Heron”. Much of the new material in Head on Fire is impossibly mangled and dismembered, making it a daunting challenge on the first read.
This is apparent especially when one considers the book after the first 59 pages that comprise The Second Chapter. Published for the first time in South Africa after it was originally published as a separate text in Berlin in 2003, it is expertly lucid — a pitch-perfect combination of the simple rhyme-based style of yore and the more fragmented surrealism he would opt for in later works.
In it he vividly unravels the obscene violence and hopelessness of township life, shatters Zionism and other forms of zealotry and takes pot shots at his increasingly pliable peers.
In Dread-Word/ H.A.L.F. he writes: “nuclear nightsoil’s not arable/ WORD-CHECK nothing’s stable/ the politicsword cuts thru vocal-cord/ disables the mic-cable/ brothers poet & politician/ poison relation/ envision cain & abel”.
Untouched habitats of language
Although Rampolokeng’s take on the rainbow fable, run by gluttons and their bamboozlers, has retained its ideological consistency and militancy, in subsequent chapters the presentation of this nightmarish scene suggests a trajectory towards untouched habitats of language.
As the avarice and moral decay of South African society reaches fever pitch, so too does the cauldron of his brain, rendering his own head shattered. The reader, of course, is left either to gather or sidestep the shrapnel.
Name of the Pharoah (from The Bumboklaat Testament) uses grotesque sexual perversion — if one can imagine a hyperrealised Hillbrow — to comment on the country’s power relations. This may well be a Hillbrow back alley where police rape geriatric prostitutes but, then again, it may be a back-door deal that spawned our stillborn revolution.
By the time one gets to In Base World Step, one may become a little fatigued with the unrelenting desolation. In fact, the author may be, too.
What starts off as a focused meditation on archaeology’s part in the black holocaust ends up as a repetitive rant on global capital’s self-defeating warmongering. It is, arguably, Mountain Sermon dressed in new underwear.
Repetition as resistance might be part of Rampolokeng’s aesthetic, but at some points you get weighed down by his obsession with his own intelligence.
If the masses are force-fed “easy reading for retarded Caucasians”, as he suggested in a now-classic dismissal of a Fred Khumalo book, Touch My Blood, some years ago, then you can only imagine what he, by contrast, is trying to feed us.
My advice is to chew thoroughly, take time to ponder, or suffer a death by mastication.