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This review is taken from PN Review 164, Volume 31 Number 6, July - August 2005.

TRUE SONGS OF EXPERIENCE JACK MAPANJE, The Last of the Sweet Bananas (Bloodaxe) £9.95

This is a large-scale Selected Poems drawn from Jack Mapanje's four collections, the first published in Malawi in 1971, the fourth in 1998, and there are twenty-one new poems to complete the book. A good proportion of the poems are impelled by his incarceration in Mikuyu Prison from 1987 to 1991. Half of the poems in both The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison and Skipping Without Ropes are prison poems in the form of recollections (Mapanje had nothing to write with) or poems composed in his head and written down from memory. Any discussion of Mapanje's work has to take into account the privations, to use a relatively neutral term, that he endured during these four years. His earlier poems indicate that he has always been a polemical poet and his imprisonment has intensified his range of concerns. An early sequence, such as Cycles, takes its imagery and rhythms from the village where he grew up, Malawi creation myths and colonial history such as the Chilembwe Uprising, and might seem to be a satisfying pot-pourri of the exotic and political for the liberal reader. However, the sequence is equivocal about 'our glorious past' and already warns of 'Batons, buggers and bastards rife' in Doctor Banda's new state. The use of Malawi creation myths introduces animal figures, particularly the chameleon, that recur in various beneficent (but usually powerless) or malevolent guises in Mapanje's later, harsher work. These later poems are true ...

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