The poem Stolen Rivers is by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, an award-winning South African poet whose work focuses mainly on race, sexuality, class, and gender within the context of living in South Africa. Though written in an easy-to-digest manner, the poem involves the weight of history and oppression. Let us discuss the meaning and poetic devices in this poem.
for Chiwoniso Maraire
We Africans came to Berlin to sing
and recite poetry. We had an agenda:
remembering our anthems of loss,
the pillage, the cries
like forest fires, like haunted children,
how can we, how can we even
begin to redress?
Enraged, we wanted revenge
and then, Chiwoniso, you stepped on the stage and
you opened your mouth and
every stolen river of platinum and gold
poured out of your mouth in song;
your voice etched us out of the night
and doubled the light in each of us.
You restored all the treasure-houses
from Benin to Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe to Cairo;
Africa moved its golden bones,
shook off its heavy chains
and danced again.
That night I thought
love could purchase bread,
Africans would not be hungry.
The first thing we need to know is who Chiwoniso Maraire is, as the poem is dedicated to this person and is mentioned in the poem itself. According to the website Poem Analysis, “The poem, Stolen Rivers, by Phillippa Yaa De Villiers, is a eulogy, dedicated to Chiwoniso Maraire, who was well-known as a Zimbabwean singer, songwriter, and an exponent of Zimbabwean mbira music. De Villiers was immensely inspired by Chiwoniso whose songs too like Phillippa Yaa De Villiers’ poetry revolved around politics, colonialism, and racism, and among other heavy topics. Chiwoniso died at 37 on 24 July 2013, in South Medical Hospital in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe…” (Green, William, et al). It seems that de Villiers sees a kindred spirit in Chiwoniso, and highlights her country’s plight and previous riches (material and non-material) through his singing.
I would say that this poem is filled with emotion and inspiration. And as I mentioned before, it carries the weight of a troubled history of oppression. These two factors make the poem startling, poignant, and impressive. The tone is mixed: it is a celebration and a cry for the current plight of South Africa. I believe this poem represents life in South Africa well: its citizens have a sense of renewed hope, but yet they live in the dominating shadow of their past.
There is a use of similes and metaphorical imagery in Stolen Rivers. Starting from “like forest fires, like haunted children” similes are employed. But the main image the poet concentrated on, and the most poignant, is the depiction of South Africa’s riches pouring out of Chiwoniso’s mouth as he sings. From this act, a celebration begins, but as the last four lines illustrate, even a performance of this level is not enough to alleviate the present horrors of the country.
The poem runs as one stanza like a river, which is appropriate for the context of the poem. However, a lot of punctuation was used. I think that though this poem flows well, the punctuation is needed for readers to stop and to consider the weight of the phrases. The line breaks seem natural, and almost as if the lines were written spontaneously in a surge of inspiration. However, with the conciseness and effectiveness of the language, I am sure the poet edited this poem as well. The trick, poets often say, is to make a poem seem like it was written easily. I think this poet has achieved this feeling.
An emotional tribute to a South African musician and hero, this poem bursts with pathos. With poignant imagery and an effective use of poetic devices, Stolen Rivers impacts a reader to a great degree. It is a fine addition to African literature that will be sure to be anthologized and treasured for years to come.
Green, William, et al. “Analysis of Stolen Rivers by Phillippa Yaa De Villiers.” Poem Analysis, 9 June 2017, poemanalysis.com/stolen-rivers-by-phillippa-yaa-de-villiers-poem-analysis/.
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