KR Reviews

“Be no longer resemblance”: Warring the blood in Thabile Makue’s ‘mamaseko

Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2020. 144 pages. $18.00.

When the blood of your ancestry—that same which flows within—has been contaminated, harboring life alongside violence and disorder, there may be no other choice but to do battle with it: to hold charges against your own blood, to rebuke or to redeem it; to consider, in agony, turning any present weapons against even yourself. Thabile Makue presents this challenge throughout ‘mamaseko. Titled after the poet’s mother, this collection invites readers to haunt the body as a practice of knowing. Makue asks us to contend with the inner wilds using our hidden intelligences, to connect to shadowy places of perception with the insights we inherit. It is blood that becomes the vehicle for entry into these poems. Makue insists that we travel the body through the activated power of blood, directed to note first, perhaps the shape of the mouth. Next, the proficiency of the nose. Then, to have empathy for what the heart must endure, where the most forceful rushes of blood surge past.

It is through the body that ancestry comes home, where it finds earthly reincarnation in details: to carry your mother’s smile and hairline along with her delusions. In the poem “outside,” these forceful onsets are acknowledged with caution, as they bring with them uneasy reckonings:

by accident
i have my mother
in my lungs
my grandfather breaks
out of his torso
onto the floor
my grandmother trips
over him
she bleeds out
into my mother’s ear

The body, that ever-queried, ever-provoked sigil, evades regulation even in Makue’s lyrics. Their speakers wield their anguished bodies without indignity, turning the scorn from an externally oppressive world inward, where pain is taught to settle in for long. Generations long. Where damage is left to degrade the host body, where it now does harm without consciousness. Providing both reprieve from familial ills while living on as remainders of it, mothers, grandmothers, and other wizened elders appear throughout, lingering relentlessly to tell their own sorrows, given as guidance and as warning: beware your husbands, your fathers, your blood, which all conspire to corrupt you. From “grandmother’s womb”:

          my grandmother suffered a mental problem
twice in a jealous fit she let the dogs out on her daughter
she said she had a wolf in her heart
eight times the wolf in her bed watched her ravage herself
the tenth time was a niece
          noosed on a tree
          four times castor bean in a cup
          each time missed the boat
almost run out of chest
but did not run the wild thing out of body

Predecessors who have mothered are granted the status of the divine due to their acumen, their utterances from the realms of the interior esteemed as highly valuable in this landscape. Perhaps Makue seeks to become—willfully, at times—a conduit through which these mothering elders have permission now to speak, their voices emerging because of their possession of a viable vessel. A body that will now bear them. Still, Makue—poems are written at this particular locus of a loaded lineage—arrives with their own expertise, proclaiming confidently in “root body,”

i know the root
the house the mass
the body the bone
to barter with sea
the brown and penance
the digging and dung
the libation above
i know the root
the awe and quick abhorrence
the years beyond

Makue’s skill as a spoken word poet lends these poems a sharpened attention to rhythm; they take on a musicality that is heard across hollers, shouts, dirges, and ballads. A delicate and forceful witnessing occurs as a result. The poet purposefully disregards punctuation; with it goes pause. These poems are experienced often as torrential, and soon as light drizzling, as steady streams, always blood pouring without beginning or end, language replicating such a flow as it undertakes passage through the body. Sound becomes engaged somatically, in the healer’s custom. Repeated words and phrases become compulsive incantations, as Makue’s “bodies” call upon the potency of their blood for protection against every encroaching harm.

Makue’s work relates well to the subversive and expansive traditions of Black Femme Poetics in which our expression is made further dynamic through a tenacious tending of our vulnerability. To encounter wounding, curses, and offense; to make room for them alongside sheer opulence and pleasures deeply unearthed. This is one such exercise. Already contributing their own to this cosmology, Makue’s practice is readily dynamic and freely thinking.

In “ghosts,” the city of Hiroshima speaks from an afterlife, the gesture being perpetuation beyond annihilation:

          no one has forgotten how a city on fire engulfs itself
          she says you can come with me
through the night you watch her thunder
the way hatsotelo womxn keep their husbands
under their tongues until their mouths are ghost towns
under her breasts
a country has split itself

In this poem, as in many throughout the collection, there emerges a wandering curiosity that knowingly disavows filial order and its implied quiet femininity. Through a desire for regeneration, there is a disavowal, too, of the obligations of relating. Though there is cause to fear depths of these sorts—opaque, alien—Makue makes their work from piercing the waters and harvesting intention from these places. In “uncreation,” the gesture is toward self-actualization and the resolve it necessitates:

there will be no more echoing
no more dittoing
you will not be bridge
be noon
if the boys be mourning
and the girls be eventide
you will not parrot
will not sound an entire sky

The nine sections that structure the collection take Sesotho names, and Makue generously provides a glossary of many of the Sesotho words present throughout ‘mamaseko. In this way, we are further included, accessing a tongue that the blood uses to converse with the poet.

Though English dominates, in the collusion of the two languages, Sesotho effectively Blackens English, bringing forth truer and richer colors to Makue’s unique craft. Movement with and through modes of understanding is an authority the poet is willing to brandish, allowing their lingual hybridity to be another usher towards the path of exposure. In the prelude, Makue’s tells us to “make-believe there is ownership of words in a language in transit.” In transit alongside language is the poet themself, as Makue traverses mothered lands in these poems, taking us from Cape Town to Japan to Los Angeles, where they are now based. Bringing along also: their loving, their martial vigilance, and long-held want. In “not to die alone,” they ask softly,

quick passing
a year of a million short despairs
many many little tortures
oh home
won’t you call for me just this once

Can we imagine, yet, what these grand/mother/home/lands might call out? What shrewd instructions? A possibility: a will to speak and live with one’s heart showing, the blood rushing; to expunge what does harm, knowing that to do so risks doing harm to oneself, lest the bloodline remain vexed. In keeping counsel with the dead and living, the voices in Makue’s ‘mamaseko come to recognize that through blood, love vacates, though it may later return; the terror of hunger becomes transformative, destructive; pleasure, too, rises and spreads blissfully throughout. Precisely because of the agonies of the blood, a queer body is beget, drenched in red, and made newly alarming.