Every Deathly Flower and its Stem: the gentle rigour and exacting language of Maneo Mohale

It is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless. About to birthed, yet already felt.

Audre Lorde

The work of Maneo Mohale is a family affair. An invitation to and invocation of so many of their far spread kith and kin of black and queer and femme lineage. Through Mohale’s writing one cannot help but notice how many voices they carry with them. How many voices they invoke and invite to take a seat at their table. Whether to eat and make merry or to sit in silence and deep breathing, Mohale has made a space for as full a spectrum of emotion and experience as one body can contain in a single sitting.

Poetry as illumination

dear reader
are you still there?
take a second, now.
breathe //
with me.

Morapa-Šitšane
for survivors

In their debut collection of poetry, Everything is a Deathly Flower, Mohale “reckons boldly with the experience of- and the reconstruction of a life after- a sexual assault”. In rendering this experience into writing Mohale oscillates between the extremes of their own individual subjectivity and a communality invoked through the words of others, writing alongside and through the words of others in the form of glosa; a poem from of Spanish origin wherein the writer quotes four lines of another poet’s work as an epigraph and then proceeds to write a poem of four stanzas of 10 lines each, each stanza ending with one successive line of the epigraph. In order to speak the unspeakable, to illuminate the night room, Mohale invites onto their pages the words of others; to stand vigil, to bear witness and to harness their words as lighthouses to navigate the torrid waters of violence, blackness, queerness, femininity, ancestry, memory and the unending labour of healing, undoing and becoming.

Throughout the anthology Mohale litters the poems with the names of flowers, inviting the reader to meditate on the juxtaposition of the hard and heavy content of the poems with the soft and fragrant connotation of the floral imagery that abounds. The result is a sickly sweet mixture of an erotic decay. Something overripe and left out in the sun, fermenting in its own sweet and stick. Mohale invites the reader to sit at the table where violence and tenderness become strange bedfellows.

Until you arrive. In all your silent menace
you are keeping watch. Your night vigil brief,
searching for a moment when my sleep dips deepest.
You sneak into the moss and touch me without my consent.
In place of no, my leaking mouth spills foxgloves
-excerpt from Everything is a Deathly Flower

This juxtaposition is the primary motor behind the titular poem, Everything is a Deathly Flower (and much of the anthology as a whole), steering the reader further and deeper into a field of slowly wilting bouquets. Here, we encounter the central quiet violence around which the anthology pivots. Mohale uses the poem Closet of Red by the poet Saeed Jones as a frame through which to recount, remember, revisit and fabulate an alternate ending to the story we imagine they know all too well.

…and suddenly I am safe. Everything
is different in the dream. In the dream, I am safe
forever. I leave my moss bed with bare feet.
-excerpt from Everything is a Deathly Flower

The Words to Say It

In Mohale’s writing one would be remiss to overlook the choices in language they make. The specificity of each word and turn of phrase cutting to the bone of a thing in a way singular to the poetic. The choice to, by and large, make use of the Latin names of the flower titled poems (Phalaenopsisde; Dionaea Muscipula; Lobelia etc) gives the sense of reading a kind of scientific glossary; an exacting and analytically deconstructive text. In this case the poetic dissection of a singular, temporal moment detailed in the titular Everything is a Deathly Flower leads to the revelation of everything that this moment touches on. Mohale refuses to singularise this moment and insists on taking it apart.
Slowly.
With a rigorously gentle hand.
They insist on finding the words to give shape to every contour that comes into sharp relief as a result of this paradigm shifting moment. In 16 Days of Atavism (or: my therapist asks me for another name, besides victim), Mohale gifts us with a more exacting language that is both beyond and operating within and alongside the gender binary:

5. boy hiding a girl hiding a boy under a rib
excerpt from 16 Days of Atavism (or: my therapist asks me for another name, besides victim)

Mohale’s writing endeavours to look unflinching at the many fractals that a singular moment of trauma can hold. Holding it up to the light and turning it ever so slowly and gently in the exacting hands of their language. Mohale not only shines light on the fractals and intersections of their own identity but uses this to go further and utilise these intersections to facilitate encounters. In Sandton Skye we encounter the contradictory intersection of the privilege of “a bought safety” that having the money to rent a living space of one’s own can afford and, yet, how even in having this space patriarchal violence can still, unbidden, find its way in:

… Unknown to me
uBaba has been watching us both. Glint

of a silver star on green felt, I feel my steps
quicken despite myself

The poem is dedicated to Karabo Mokoena who, we later learn in the notes of the anthology, was murdered by her boyfriend in April 2017 who also set her body alight.

In an interview with the City Press conducted by Nickita Maesela when asked “Why this story?” Mohale pushes back against and complicates the narrative of “being brave” for sharing this particular kind of story. They talk about the complexity of the loneliness and joy that the distillation of such a complex set of themes that pivot around such a difficult central trauma can raise:

I think the bravest thing for me was not to sit on it. Or not to let it rot and fester inside of me, which it threatened to do
-Maneo Mohale in an interview with the City Press

We can only sit in humble appreciation of the mammoth feat that Mohale has invited and held us through. Realeboga.

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