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Review: Mandible by TJ Dema

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Anyone who loves performance poetry knows that if TJ Dema is on the programme for the night, you will not be disappointed.

What sets her apart from most is her dedication to her writing, to the words and the images her words create.

She tackles subjects in nuanced ways, digging deep for the humanity of the stories.

So many performance poets, here and elsewhere, care more about the performance, my constant criticism.

Dema works hard at her craft.

You can see that her work is informed by what she has learned from others combined with her talent, hard work, and commitment to the piece.

The problem I have always had is that a poem performed goes by too fast for me.

I need time with the words. I want to wake up in the morning and read a poem and live with it all day, stopping what I’m doing to give it another look, and go to sleep that night with its images resonating in my head.

This can’t happen with performance poetry part of its magic for some.

So imagine my delight when I got a copy of Dema’s chapbook Mandible.

Mandible is part of a box set that includes chapbooks from seven African poets called Seven New Generation African Poets, a project from the African Poetry Fund Project.

Dema’s book is a fine collection indeed, with so many excellent poems to choose from. Where do I start?

On Not Taking the Waters is a sad poem about being without the one you love.

Dema uses such simple language and exact metaphor to provoke a powerful image for the reader, the last line especially is so beautifully sad:

…Now I pine,

And I hope you hear me weep,

As I have never before

Been this self with you.

I am taking on water

The way ships do.

Our Man in Gaborone is one of the poems set firmly in Botswana with stanzas like:

…We had been this way before

And knew there were no farms,

Not for miles, just acacia and sun….

And then it morphs into something all together different:

Just keep driving, he said.

Whatever happens don’t stop

And don’t look back.

One of my favourite poems in the collection is, Just Because.

Dema performed it at last year’s Maun International Arts Festival.

The poem is a conversation with a lover who wants everything, even the speaker’s soul which she will not give.

She’ll give a lot, divert his attention elsewhere, but in the end she will not give everything:

…Because I know you are going to ask

where I am,

I have long left the place I was,

To walk slow between the trees

Where your greedy eye cannot reach me.

Impetus for me is about that moment as a writer when you have this idea but there is a lot in your mind that can’t allow it to flow freely.

The poem advises to rid your mind of all of that, to allow the words, the poem, to take over.

The last line especially spoke to me as a writer:

…You are hessian,

a hungry hour glass for the dune wind.

The real work begins and ends with release.

What I love most about Dema’s poetry is her simplicity of language to describe complex human emotions and experiences.

A good example is in To Find a Child. It appears so simple: a child happily playing hide and seek.

It is the last stanza that packs the punch, that talks on the surface about the child, but reflects back on the narrator, and maybe even on the inherent disappointment that unlikely waits for the child too.

It is simple language that speaks to feelings not so simple at all:

…God, this baby bubbling at the mouth,

rapture frothing at the knowing

That someone will always come looking

For him.

Many of the poems in this book can be sat with the whole day, can be mulled and worried over.

That’s good. A good poem should do that if you connect with it, it should stalk you and you it.

As Matthew Shenoda says in the preface of Mandible, “Perhaps this is the most memorable element of Dema’s poetry- its ability to be inviting, to allow readers a way to hinge their mandible to her own.”

I think Dema believes this too, believes there must be that connection for a poem to work, she says as much in Neon Poem:

…Anyone, give me a neon poem;

a black, red, white, yellow, purple, pink, even lime poem

that will teach all wannabe poems

how to grow up and become real type poems,

because poems are bullshit

unless they teach;

they serve absolutely no purpose

unless they reach.

Mandible reaches and then some, a collection to savour.