How to Euthanise a Cactus
Keguro Macharia reviews Stephen Derwent Partington’s poetry collection, How to Euthanise a Cactus, the work of a poet with an unrelenting voice and an ability to do that often illusive thing– make the public personal. In this collection, Partington brings his gift to find words describing what we all feel, which alas, many of us don’t have the gift to put down in verse.
Imagining Utopia in Stephen Derwent Partington’s How to Euthanise a Cactus
By Keguro Macharia
How to Euthanise a Cactus opens with the word “Nightmare” and ends with the word “war.” For a collection that takes Kenya as its focus, this strategy is risky. Risky because it could appear to replicate popular discourses on Africa: a place where nightmares are realized in wars. Taking Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence as its point of departure, the collection takes another risk. It dares to be a poetry of witness. By now, it is a cliché that poems focused on African locations witness and discuss war and violence. A poet-scholar, especially well versed in Africanist and postcolonial thinking, Stephen Derwent Partington is aware of the risks he takes, and subverts clichéd (mis)representations. And, as he proves throughout the collection, the risks he takes are worth taking. How to Euthanise a Cactus is sensitive to the histories it invokes and attuned to the politics it engages, respectful, but never diffident or shy. Partington is not the ‘white writer’ in Africa who romanticizes or condemns the continent, but neither is he one who is so paralysed by the history of colonialism that he finds himself silenced.
As the word “euthanise” might suggest, Partington is interested in the ethical burden of technology, especially the technologies that create and disseminate history. The powerful “Lethe”, a post-election poem that obliges us to remember and contest events rather than slip into amnesia, takes on government-sponsored ads that attempt to re-write history by circulating print records at odds with lived experience. Ending on the ominous word “cutting,” the poem suggests the mutual implication of discursive practices and bodily mutilation. History can be as readily cut from texts as it is cut on bodies, and often the cuts on bodies are erased from texts, cut from history. “Lethe” exemplifies Partington’s interest in how we create history, how we remember, and how history and memory intersect and interact.
“Lethe” is the first in a category of media-focused poems that sputter at TV images, yell at newspaper headlines, grieve at the unsaid, and create counter-memories. “Media Framing, Eldoret IDP Camp” affirms that we can choose to read media-circulated images against the grain. Although “Some producer was determined we should weep,”
It seems one toothless homeless woman
wasn’t briefed: top left, off focus
she was doubled up with laughter
like a woman half her age,
her bright tears streaming. (16)
Such “off-focus” figures texture our views of history and contest the affectively simplistic memories offered by official, media-framed narratives.
Although rooted in a traumatic moment in Kenya’s history, the collection is optimistic. It details the practices of happiness that add richness to our lives. “Romantic” features imagined snowballs, angels, and an “avalanche of laughter” on the equator. “Dot.Commies, Like NGO-ers” captures a multi-generational moment, where the storied richness of a grandfather’s face in a photograph, an image the speaker takes as testimony of hardship and endurance, is reinterpreted by a granddaughter’s question: “Dad, way back then, there wasn’t lotion?” We laugh at her interpretation, even as we acknowledge that the stories and histories we hold sacred change across generations, gaining new meanings and significance. Futurity is palimpsestic, and becomes richer as interpretations sediment onto each other.
These intimate portraits become meaningful through their juxtaposition against national and transnational histories. Their pleasure is bittersweet because they suggest possible trajectories for lives that have been truncated through violence or rendered unbearable through displacement. In dedicating this collection to “the displaced,” and devoting poems to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), Kenyan citizens living in government camps following the post-election violence, Partington asks us to recognize contemporary privations that make such intimacies impossible, but also, to imagine the intimacies of legacy and genealogy, of story and action that continue alongside privation.
While Kenya remains the scene for most of the poems, it also serves as a standpoint from which to engage the world. “The Troubles” reaches back to a British childhood that is unfamiliar to Kenyan readers, raised as we were here on Enid Blyton’s anodyne fantasies of children who solved mysteries and drank ginger beer while playing with their ‘African dollies’. Partington’s childhood poem features “the grammar of partition” and “the politics of bowler hats,” distinctions between Northern Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants, their clean shaven and bearded chins, and plastic bullets that kill. Directing our gaze to global practices of violence, “The Troubles” refuses to spectacularize Kenyan violence as somehow unique, as expressing an African propensity for destruction.
“Post-1960s Britain; or Pamphlets in the Rift” continues this project of locating how violence is transmitted. Partington teaches us to read “BL*CKIES AND P*KIS / GO HOME,” the xenophobic utterances that secure certain conceptions of Britishness, as kin to similar statements in Kenya. Again, he refuses any easy distinction between British modernity and Kenyan savagery, folding these histories into each other. Not only does Partington force us to refract Britain through Kenya, changing our interpretations of both places in the process, he also demands that we put aside easy pieties. Like Patricia Smith, whose poems frequently adopt the voices of hate-mongers, forcing reluctant readers to empathise with such characters, Partington asks us to “imagine being them,” “the criminal or victim,” “the either or the both of them.” Doing so requires stretching out of convenient moralities, understanding, but not condoning, how fear over scarce resources and unexpected intimacies manifests itself in unexpected and painful ways.
Moving from Arcadia to Kenya’s Kakamega, from Greek mythology to IDPs, from deadly violence to family romances, How to Euthanise a Cactus renders the complexities of an overwhelming world, offering glimpses, snatches, brief meditations, and provocations. It moves through multiple levels of affective intensities, from overwhelming rage in “The Dead Woman of Naivasha and Her Crying Baby” to incredible tenderness in “Present at the Keelhauling”, a poem about the birth of a child. In a series of poems that focus on the Kenyan landscape, Partington offers an alternative vision for what Kenya is and can be: a place of great wonder, but also a place where quotidian rituals such as drinking tea affirm and celebrate our shared humanity. Yet, this collection ends with the poem, “Finis”, which reconsiders the simplistic ‘clash of civilizations’ debate, and on the word “war.” Its ethical imperative, its deep morality, refuses easy resolution, and reminds us we are not yet resolved, no matter what official political and development discourses might suggest. It ends on an ethical provocation, a responsible conclusion to a fine collection, that dares us all to create the utopias we crave.