When I first saw poet Philani Nyoni performing, I was torn between my patriotic duty to feed him to police dogs and my immediate admiration for his densely allusive craft. A season of protest had just passed — smoke clearing away from the streets, and hashtag activists retiring into the fashion police — but Nyoni paced about the LitFest stage that night clearly determined to have the last word.
the storyboard with Stan Mushava
I had gone to the 2016 edition of the festival to write a harmless entertainment article, exchange numbers, and extort few review copies; but here I was, shaking my head as the angry young poet blasphemed President Robert Mugabe with a genre-straddling, high-octane, one-man soundtrack for the resistance.
The performance, titled A Diary of Madness, switched between four-letter words that would have turned even Acie Lumumba’s blood to water, and much longer words that can only be found in the dictionary of our learned friend, Thabani Mpofu. Regrettably, for my church-type scruples, there was also blasphemous shock value that would have belatedly qualified Lord Byron’s Satanic School for several beads on the rosary.
From Theatre in the Park to Copacabana, I discussed with two equally star-struck artiste friends the profane audacity and dazzling intertextuality of the performance, and went back and forth over art, politics and propriety. My resulting article, written with an unusual absence of political and religious feeling, still bore the precarious intensity that Nyoni always brings to his craft.
Almost exactly a year later, in November 2017, Mugabe left office in a hurry. Within a week of the universally disowned dear leader’s departure, Nyoni had a farewell present ready, a poetry collection blurbed: “I am looking for Robert Mugabe’s address. I want him to know what my poetry thought of his time in power. Asante sana. PAN.”
The title of the poetry collection, Philtrum, is helpfully annotated by the author as: “The vertical groove between the base of the nose and the upper lip.” Successive cover designs of the two editions, first a minimalist cartoon by Owen Maseko, and now, a gangster-like rendering of the former president by Daniel Rodriguez play on the famous feature we have always suspected to be the cartoonists’ guide in every newsroom.
At the time of going to press for Philtrum 2.0, Nyoni still had not found the elusive address, but rather sizeably sheafed up his collection with new poems about the “new dispensation,” reliably chronicling events such as the legalisation of weed, the ConCourt affair, the foiled Tendai Biti escape, and the shooting of civilians.
Nyoni is solidly invested in his craft. Philtrum 2.0 is packed with reread value, thanks to the varied rhymes — somewhere between Victorian schemes and fly-guy bars — humour, irony, political references, literary allusions and wordplay Nyoni brings to almost every poem.
His journalistic correspondence with events of political significance has its downside. Valourisation of moments, such as the Baba Jukwa (I am Baba Jubwa) and the Evan Mawarire (On Pastor Evan) spectacles, sparks clever pieces that nevertheless find life to compete against the cheated feeling that follows the transient political games.
Events of more historical shelf life, such as the brief joblessness of Emmerson Mnangagwa, are captured on the spot (“Coup De Grace”), only to be complicated as the saga unfolds, and Mnangagwa returns to form, by pieces such as “Coriolanus”.
“I allow myself to feel, despite the wisdom or lack of it in that moment, I allow myself to feel; so you will find praises for Evan Mawarire in On Pastor Evan, but when it comes to a piece like Madman’s Manifesto the words are unkind,” Nyoni explains in a note to the second edition.
At the close of the one-act play, I am Baba Jubwa, the reader is left locking into an impossible enigma. Suspects, who all confess to being Baba Jukwa out of political defiance, kill the commander-in-chief, but fight over the dead man’s badge. The slain ruler incredulously returns to announce that he was denied entry into heaven for being the actual Baba Jukwa.
Nyoni is not eager to shelter in any ideological compartment or to claim answers. His is an all-out, long-run war with power and the narratives that feed it. He is moving at his most sentimental (Membrane) and effective when he subverts persona (Sullen Spectre). The darker sins of power, from Gukurahundi (A Moment of Madness) to the killing of civilians by the army on August 1, 2018, (Cameroon, Harare; Zee Mabwe) are all brought up without forgiveness.
At his best, Nyoni steals the tools of the empire, mimics the language of the propagandist, and hangs the emptied narratives on the devil’s clothesline. Sex and religion are also detoured for political ends with no sense of restraint, a method that reads somewhat overdone in the more taboo-busting pieces.
Born in Bulawayo on June 30, 1989, Nyoni started writing prose at 13, and poetry at 15. He has published four poetry collections, Once a Lover Always a Fool (2012), Hewn from Rock (with John Eppel, 2014), Mars His Sword (2016) and Philtrum (2017), recently “upgraded” to Philtrum 2.0 (2018).
His second solo project boasts the world record for the most Shakespearean sonnets, with 306 pieces, compared to Shakespeare’s lifetime collection of 153. He has amassed a number of awards and recognitions, notably a National Arts Merit Awards for Once a Lover Always a Fool and a BAA (Bulawayo Arts Awards) for Mars His Sword.