A kalimba is an African instrument consisting of a wooden box and fingerlike metal tines which are plucked by thumbs, and an acoustic hole, which can also be used to make a sound, by hovering one’s thumbs over the hole. Watching it being played, I was struck by the handiness of the instrument, held in two hands like a mobile phone, the tines plucked as though the player is sending a text message.
It is easy to see the appeal of this instrument to a poet, particularly a poet deeply interested in music, like Petero Kalulé. The collection’s dedication reads ‘for all my friends: that these notations may vibrate close in y/our hands’. The physical book is shaped like a kalimba, and the cover is designed as one. The conceit is that, as we read Kalulé’s poetry, aloud or in our heads, we are playing an instrument. Whether Kalulé wants us to play his music or use his poems like notes with which to make our own music, is unclear. The difference is that either the poetry book is a music book, with pieces with notes to be read and obeyed, or it is like the instrument itself, simply to be played with.
As the instrument conceit suggests, Kalulé’s principal focus in his poems is sound. Like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Kalulé’s poems indulge in the rich sounds that words strung together make, alongside directions of dashed and parentheses which are not unlike musical notations. Words are split and divided, by line breaks or using letters which, when spoken, sound like a syllable. This excerpt is from ‘Sahara’:
sun, ocean, islets cowries, manatee, manity, scope, memory, glee
vision s, minarets, spires
-orders, planets, poems, music, spells, serpents, shells, piss,
It un does tXture
The typography, like the verses, is a law unto its own. One word becomes another; Kalulé draws out surprising links between words, either semantically related or seemingly unrelated, purely by the way they sound. Words are manipulated in this way such that the poems, more like music than poetry, are sequences of sound with a tone and a mood, but no other direction.
In a certain mood a reader can allow the sounds and words to roll over their tongue and mind in a pleasing way, meaning almost whatever one wants it to mean.
Kalulé’s aesthetic, his structure-breaking structure, feels rigid by virtue of its forcefulness. A word can mean a myriad of things, but strangely, Kalulé’s attempts to push and pull words, to familiarize and then defamiliarize, rather seems to be an attempt to imprison or pin down words. For example, the word ‘borders’ is almost forced into meaning borders as in the border of a country, by the very fact it is forcibly divided, and the word ‘order’ within the word, is attenuated. Almost only, because it is of course impossible to force words to do anything. It is like Kalulé wants his words to have more than one meaning, but no more than the three he is thinking of. His unconventional, aesthetic approach to the practice of poeticizing, rather than being liberating, felt like a harness. Words in chains, and their chains were these erratic, driven, structures. This quotation from Cecil Taylor is included as foreword to the collection: “Part of what this music is about is not to be delineated exactly. It’s about magic, & capturing spirits.” There is tension here, in the freedom of escape from restrictive ‘delineating’, and the desire for ‘capturing’. Experimental structures and manipulation of lyric traditions, by calling attention to the way they can be formed, seem to do exactly this: delineate. These structures, to me, felt less playful than paranoid.
I enjoyed the rush of sound which Kalulé releases into the world, delicious and intriguing, signs and significations that rear their heads like fish between the waves before vanishing or transfiguring. Nevertheless, after reading these poems, I was left with the resounding sound of the futility and frustration of a poet, who finds his words less like an instrument to be played and more like a horse to be reined in. Whether by accident or on purpose, Kalulé’s musical conceit impressed on me the realisation that words are not like musical notes. They are neither consistent in their sound, nor played and silenced by the touch, or untouch, of a thumb.
Yvette Dell 3rd April 2020