Autumn Smoke by Andrew Hartnack

Autumn Smoke by Andrew Hartnack

If You Don't Stay Bitter for Too Long
by Charles Mungoshi

If you don’t stay bitter
and angry for too long
you might finally salvage
something useful
from the old country

a lazy half-asleep summer afternoon
for instance, with the whoof-whoof
of grazing cattle in your ears
tails swishing, flicking flies away
or the smell of newly-turned soil
with birds hopping about
in the wake of the plough
in search of worms

or the pained look of your father
a look that took you all these years
and lots of places to understand

the bantering tone you used with your
grandmother and their old laugh
that said nothing matters but death

If you don’t stay bitter
and angry for too long
and have the courage to go back
you will discover that the autumn smoke
writes different more hopeful messages
in the high skies of the old country.

---------------------------------------------------

If You Don’t Stay Bitter for Too Long is one of my favourite poems. It was written by Zimbabwean poet Charles Mungoshi in 1975 at the height of Zimbabwe’s war of independence, when the rural areas of the country were a bloody battleground between Ian Smith’s army and guerrilla forces and most villagers had been rounded up into ‘protected villages’ where they were unable to carry on with their normal social lives or economic activities. 

Perhaps the poem is set in an area closer to what was Salisbury, where the war was not as intense and rural life continued in a more normal fashion. For the poem has a wonderful personal quality about it. It is not about the War, but about an educated and seemingly urbanised young Shona man’s struggle with understanding his rural home, the older generations and the way they perceive the world.

It’s about coming to terms with differences of opinion, and learning to appreciate the positive things about something you may have rejected totally before you tried to understand it. It’s about learning to treasure the small things that you may have taken for granted.

As the last stanza so beautifully expresses, it is about having the courage to go back and make peace with people and places that may have been battlefields in the past.
As personal as the theme is, the poem speaks profoundly of the country Zimbabwe – in a context where countless people have left over the years, many finding it too painful to go back – both physically and emotionally. Many have washed up on foreign shores and remained very bitter and angry with what the ‘old country’ has done to them. But many more do long to return.

The last few lines of the poem offer a wonderful image of hope. Autumn in Zimbabwe is the start of the six-month dry season, and yet the autumn smoke seems to promise that beyond the winter, the rains will come, and everything will turn green again. Anyone who has spent some time in Zimbabwe will appreciate the unique quality about the skyscapes and the air which Mungoshi has captured so poignantly in his description of the ‘high skies of the old country’.