A review of Beating the Graves by Tsitsi Ella Jaji

The African Poetry Book Series published each year by the University of Nebraska Press is always worth looking forward to. Having thoroughly enjoyed Mahtem Shiferraw’s Fuchsia last summer, I picked up Tsitsi Ella Jaji’s Beating the Graves when it came out in March. Jaji is a part of the Zimbabwean diaspora, and the poems in this collection stretch from the sun-baked southern African country to the rust belt of the Midwest. She begins her collection with a visually evocative picture of her homeland in “Drought”:

It is so goddamn hot in our country that blooms
_____________________–jacarandas, bougainvilleas, flamboyants–
erupt in a shock of fuchsia from pipes laced with rust.

Later on, in “Vindication,” she provides an equally well-crafted image of Youngstown, Ohio, a former industrial mecca that time has now largely passed by:

There was once a whole wall of my people
in the gym at Austintown-Fitch. Then
rust belted America down and steel sock-hopped
out of Youngstown on two left feet.

Jaji uses an economy of words to create small images that burst with color, as she does again in “Drought,” this time introducing a theme of ancestry and heritage that weaves throughout Beating the Graves:

Rhinos are shrinking.
Filthy crawfish bloat.
Our grandmother is just seated
as if death were a bus running late.

Jaji returns often to her grandmother, a near mythological character in her life, as she does to other women and gender-fluid individuals from her family. In one particularly clever suite of poems titled “Family Trees.,” she compares each family member to a tree species, using the characteristics and vocabulary of that species to draw out similarities in these individuals from her life.

Throughout the book, Jaji uses the form of Shona praise poetry, often in address to these same family members. In one of the final poems of the collection, titled “Liturgy,” she hopes that as she prepares to return to her homeland, she will still, in some way, belong to it. She writes,

Grant that the soles of my feet
Will still be thick enough to smother the flames of October suns
That toast the rain-grass a crisp crunching gold.

It in in these moments of combining gorgeous visual images with emotionally fraught confessions that Beating the Graves shows its power.

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