​Koleka Putuma’s poems of celebration, grief and rage

The front cover of Koleka Putuma’s debut poetry anthology, Collective Amnesia, reveals itself in layers. At first glance, it is a black-and-white image: a barefoot black woman, dressed in black and sitting on what seems to be a bare wooden floor; in striking contrast a white baby doll in a frilly white dress against the blackness of the woman’s chest.

In this image by Andy Mkosi, a Cape Town-based photographer, the two figures are a striking pair not only because of the way the monochrome photograph juxtaposes the differences in their skin, but also because of the history and the present the image evokes.

This is the turbulent pot into which Putuma has dipped her pen and because of this the poems in Collective Amnesia hum, writhe and rise out of the page to call for all of us to remember.

As the newest addition to the collection of anthologies from uHlanga Press (home of award-winning titles such as Thabo Jijana’s Failing Maths and My Other Crimes and Genna Gardini’s Matric Rage), Collective Amnesia is a stunning, complex exploration of the connections between personal and political memory. Separated into three chapters, Inherited Memory, Buried Memory and Postmemory, the book reads as a deeply personal diary and as a public reflection on the ever-shifting politics of identity, in a country that is still deeply troubled by the past’s complicated legacies.

In the book’s first chapter, Inherited Memory, Putuma examines intergenerational themes in poems that touch on black childhood and community.

In Hand-Me-Downs, one of the chapter’s most poignant poems, Putuma hands us lines that sparkle with an affection for black life. She writes: “I have inherited a lineage of hand-me-downs/ It has made me a mechanic and magician” and later she nostalgically reveals that she “[comes] from a lineage of borrowed and borrowing/ The neighbour’s sugar was an open jar without a debt collector”.

More than just a celebration of black communal life, poems in Inherited Memory subtly reconfigure the meaning of wealth, and thus push back against narratives that position black life as poor, damaged and ultimately disposable.

Moving deeper, the book’s second chapter, Buried Memory, is a deceptively quiet exploration of grief. With titles that hint at the spatial pervasiveness of grief — At the Church, At the Cemetery, Online, In Public, In the Kitchen — the poems unflinchingly attempt to unearth the effect of both personal and historical trauma. Here, Putuma captures and elevates a sense of collective rage that simmers just beneath the surface of a deeply traumatised society, such as in Indulgence, in which she asks: “Mother teach your daughter/ that a grief/ that sets itself loose/ in the middle of a busy highway/ is not madness.”

But it is in Collective Amnesia’s final chapter, Postmemory, where the reader senses the full weight of Putuma’s rage, as well as her passion. In this chapter, Koleka truly rolls up her sleeves and clutches at the dark and difficult questions that the past has left so many of us with.

Here, she unleashes her fire on themes such as violence and homophobia in Memoirs of a Slave & Queer Person, patriarchy in revolutionary movements with On Black Solidarity, gender-based violence in Oh Dear God, Please! Not Another Rape Poem and, most famously, on the state of post-apartheid race relations in her 2016 PEN South Africa Student Writing prize-winning poem, Water.

But what is grounding and powerful about Putuma’s rage is how closely she pairs it with tenderness. In Lifeline, a poem made almost entirely of the names of black women (a poem she revealed to be her favourite), Putuma stitches a spine of support that amplifies the voices and work of the people who hold her up, the people who chant “Black girl /Live!” and the people who are also committed to the work of joy and justice.

Collective Amnesia is a work of immense power, from a voice that is sure only to grow louder as Putuma steps deeper into the light she has already begun to cast.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Achmat Dangor: On writing and change

Celebrated author and political activist Achmat Dangor died on Sunday at the age of  71. Here, in a 1990 interview published in Staffrider, he speaks to Andries Walter Oliphant about his work and aspects of South African literature and culture

Myesha Jenkins: A sister who always said it with feeling

Poet and activist Myesha Jenkins (1948-2020) took her craft, including her teaching, extremely seriously

Review: Biodun Olumuyiwa’s ‘In a Journey of Dreams’ is both timely and timeless

Biodun Olumuyiwa has been writing since the late 1980s, but has only recently published his debut poetry collection

Linton Kwesi Johnson gave poetry back to the people

The 2020 winner of the PEN Pinter Prize, LKJ’s poetry puts the ignominy and hardship of the black experience in Britain front and centre in words that echo across the decades

Review: Macingwanes’s salutations to the cosmos

Pleiades: Isilimela, the latest poetry collection by Vusi Mchunu — who writes under his clan name, Macingwane — is a deeply personal meditation

South Africa’s poets write of our new struggle for freedom

Today’s battle is for economic and social freedom, in particular women’s freedom from violence

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Entrepreneurs strike Covid gold

Some enterprising people found ways for their ventures to survive the strictest lockdown levels

Ithala backs its embattled chairperson

Roshan Morar is being investigated in connection with KwaZulu-Natal education department backpack sanitiser tender worth R4-million and a batch of face masks that vanished

Inside the illicit trade in West Africa’s oldest artworks

Nok terracottas are proof that an ancient civilisation once existed in Nigeria. Now they are at the centre of a multimillion-dollar, globe-spanning underground industry — and once again, Nigeria is losing out

Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza: Liberating Africa from land of liberté

The cultural and political activist is on a quest to bring looted treasures back home

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday