A map of the other world … An invitation to discovery with Nondwe Mpuma    
Tue, 10 January 2023

Each time we gather ourselves for the challenges of a new year, we instinctively try to see the world with new eyes and reimagine what is possible for us. As we contemplate the turning of the clock, the AVBOB Poetry Project turns to a young poet whose poems are full of what has been called “an open-eyed wonder at the entirety of existence”, teaching us to experience our preconceptions for the first time again. 

Throughout her debut collection Peach Country (uHlanga Press, 2022), Mpuma’s delicate yet provoking poetry invites resonance and reflection. A lecturer in the Department of English at the University of the Western Cape, she uses precise, understated imagery to evoke the rural plains of the Eastern Cape where she grew up. In these poems, we are guided through a landscape in which people and things are always about to reveal hidden possibilities. In ‘History of the Year’ she begins by evoking hardship in the line: “We are a people at war against dry lips and grumbling tummies…” 

But by the end of the poem the horizon has expanded:

We are of the stars, the brightest in the universe
We are of the Old Man of the South Pole, the Golden Earth
Navigators to the Nile
We know weathering seasons from the sky…

Reading these poems, it sometimes feels as if we are part of an unfolding ritual. In ‘Initiations’, for instance, a woman emerges, transformed, from the christening waters of a river: “Her knees become a starless sky and her feet are a map of the other world.” At other times, events are described from a slight distance. In ‘Three Ceremonies’ a wedding is described from different angles. We are reminded unexpectedly that loss and betrayal are always possible, even in the midst of celebration. Mpuma notes that the point of view in each poem is born of her own encounters. “I have only experienced marriage from watching people, but I have known aspects of what I write about in poems like ‘Initiations’.”

Mpuma’s infectious curiosity connects all these poems like a golden thread. There is an account of her family singing rousing Christian hymns, “our uneven voices… capable of breaking windows.” But there is also room here for Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of fertility, beauty and love and space too for Cupid’s arrows. She notes that the three beautiful poems evoking Eden were partly inspired by a documentary she saw, which tried to prove that all humans could be traced back to a single ancestor. This documentary stayed with her for many years and stimulated her fascination with all beginnings. “Beginnings are mysterious. There is so little that we know. Through writing about Eden, I could imagine different kinds of origin stories.”

In one of these poems, she wants to create a world that would be forever green and finds that the environment refuses to cooperate: “But the breeze is disobedient, and the leaves fleet away like dust.”

At times her voice is playful, almost irreverent, as when she describes an old woman at a ceremony warning young girls against the dangerous practice of chewing bubble gum. But Mpuma’s voice is always tinged with wonder, with reverence for different ways of believing and being. Even in the midst of waiting expectantly for rain, she notes:
Let us not let the grey cause us pain.
The flowers are open
and bees drain pollen.
The horses run across the mountains.
We must look at all these lives without stains.

As 2023 approaches, we hope the poetry muse beckons you. We encourage you to read Nondwe Mpuma’s collection. Perhaps her metaphors will help you return to a sense of wonder and possibility that supports your fullest creative expression!
The AVBOB Poetry Competition reopens on 1 August 2023. Follow us on social media for news and opportunities.