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Lesego Rampolokeng: Ranting at fat arses

photos by Mark Waller

photo Mark WallerWe need the poets these days. There's so much more bullshit going on. Now poetry is less the feeble voice of disengaged contemplation, endlessly relating life's personal dilemmas to things like trees or the sea. There's a more thoughtful edge. The poets are taking the stage and people are responding. At its best it's an uneasy relationship.

Lesego Rampolokeng, the South African poet, known for his 'rants' performed over reggae-style dubs, fires both imagination and fury. What pisses people off is his refusal to celebrate the sentimental image of the 'new' South Africa, the rainbow nation, beloved of tourist companies and propagandists in the country and emoting miracle-seekers worldwide.

knock & lock-down phoney miracle politic-crony-oracles begins his latest collection "the second chapter" and throughout the following 17 exquisitely worded poems he delivers. They're not easy going, despite the pace and motion of the verses:

the shell of sham-calm a Pavlov bell become makarov welcome
                                                                              in poem form
crawl walk then run is the line but hyper-kinesis here
i had & have to learn NOT to be in motion

Rampolokeng says the collection is a departure from his previous work. At first glance it's hard to see how. There's the same visceral-faecal-genital imagery pinning descriptions of torn lives and gross deceptions. There's the same 'wall of sound' effect, the piling of images. Yet when you compare the new poems to earlier ones there's a marked change of gear, a faster tempo and deeper sense of urgency.

(elite renaissance rebirth drama
declares no trauma in poverty's dusty veins)

the sun rises between fat arses
sharks descend from high rises

Recall all the pontificating among South Africa's leaders about the need for an African Renaissance, and you see part of what Rampolokeng has in his sights. Now more than ever he's lambasting the establishment, exposing the 'miracle' as a smokescreen concealing greed and exploitation.

"People have become psychological slaves," says Rampolokeng. "They are slaves today shifting their black asses in these high-rise offices, who do not photo Mark Wallerpossess any power whatsoever. What they are is a bunch of rubber stamps who are growing fat and who are very willing to defend the status quo, because for them it means a full stomach and a German limousine and a house where previously they would have had a hard time even finding a job as a gardener - but today they own those houses so it makes sense that they should be first in line in that buffer zone between the poor people of the country and the people who were the economic power of the land."

No wonder some of his audiences get uptight. But it's not just in South Africa he stirs up antipathy. He says he gets pretty much the same reception in Europe.

"I've been brutally attacked on so many occasions, and I couldn't understand why. I just thought if these people are being offended, then I don't know because if I do decide to offend them they would just kill me. Because I have never intended to offend anyone. That's not what I'm about. I've got a struggle to wage and I don't think that it's going to end at all. It's some kind of Sisyphean struggle that I'm engaged in, a battle I know I will never win."

His work has strong parallels with that of the late, iconic Zimbabwean poet Dambudzo Marechera, and there's something similar in his and Marechera's experiences as provocative outsiders in a harsh post-liberation setting. But Rampolokeng's voice is his own.

Though he stresses the aggression his work provokes, he's more popular than he either admits or realises. There's a growing interest in his work and stance as poetry itself is in much greater demand everywhere these days. He's a regular at poetry festivals in South Africa and Europe, and he's had a number of his works translated into German. He also has a large following of imitators among aspiring South African poets.

One reason is that his work strikes a chord that reverberates far beyond the circumstances of his country, and one reason for that is that those circumstances - the chafe of poverty and expropriated wealth, the relentless violence, the complacency of all elites and authorities - typify the world as a whole. And so does the 'struggle' Rampolokeng shoulders.

He is not a political poet, though his work is laced with political realities. He's not offering a way forward, a solution, which is probably why he frustrates so many people, especially those in need of the South African miracle with to point to some form of hope.

And yet reading his poems is never a depressing experience. The witty, fleet lines, the sharp ironies and caustic observations come together to hold your attention and make you think. That's the subtle paradox of all the apparent negativity; it works the other way. There's beauty in it and it wakes you up. That's why the poems resonate so well, when we need to make sense of all the hell going on.

"I don't spring from a negative zone, says Rampolokeng. "I was not born of negative spaces. I've never celebrated nor embraced negativity in my life. Every single thing I have tried to do or written has come out of a need to actually eradicate or wipe out whatever it is that could seek to stand out there and destroy the soul of other people."

He keeps referring in his talk to overcoming simple existence, to the life we seek beyond it. Most of the situations in his works are depictions of that wretched existence, filled with filth and pain.

i survive where decomposition thrives
my inspiration for this composition
this SPACE existence's strife's insurance
life's pretence      a death instance

"I need or have been trying to move from merely existing to being able to say to myself that I'm alive." He says that this is why he doesn't think he has ever yet written a poem, that he's been going through life trying to reach for it, and that all he's written are just steps on the way. "The day I do write a poem is the day I die."