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Don Mattera: The poets’ poet forgotten by the canon

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If there is a common denominator between the poets not silenced, it is the way in which anything resembling adornment is ruthlessly expunged from their work. I was reading Paul Celan while I started putting together the pieces of the puzzle that compose the present article, and I promptly realised that the late German poet and Don Mattera have a lot in common: both poets were persecuted by heinous regimes, they share an obvious preoccupation with racism and totalitarianism, and recurred to poetry as a means of resistance against oppression.

Like Celan’s, Mattera’s poetry is rooted in experience, and occupies a prominent, isolated and anomalous position within the body of his country’s literature. But here is where the similarities end: Celan’s poetry confronts us with difficulties and paradox and an (apparent) emotional detachment and political disengagement; its authenticity and fascination come from the condensation of images, the dislocation of grammatical and syntactical units, the cryptic allusions, the enduring tension between the chaotic material and the clear-cut form.

Mattera’s poetry, on the other hand, is typically confessional, opts for “low diction”, employs plain language and sharply-etched images, makes extensive use of mimetic realism and relies heavily on direct social commentary.

Mattera is one of the major South African writers, and was a fêted poet, journalist and activist during the struggle against apartheid. However, not unlike South African views in other fields, this opinion changed abruptly and drastically after 1994: the black consciousness ethos he embraces was over-shadowed by the more congenial (to the new ruling elite) rainbow nation narrative and, as a consequence, he went out of fashion.

As Jean-Jacques Rousseau might have asked: “how did this change come about?”. The following paragraphs attempt to offer possible explanations to this question.

Exclusion from the canon

“Given Mattera’s ‘fame’ […], one would think that he would be the subject of numerous studies by now. This is clearly not the case”, writes Sitoto in his fascinating dissertation on Mattera and Islam (Sitoto 2016: 26). In fact, delving into the history of South African literature as it is narrated in anthologies, scientific studies and official tributes, one struggles to find the name of the writer we are hereby celebrating.

“Revolutionary lyricist Mattera… [has not attracted] in-depth scholarship” laments poet, scholar and publisher Vonani Bila (Bila 2021: 63); “What is ironic about Don Mattera” Sitoto adds, “is that while he is one of the most famous poets and writers of the Sophiatown and post-Sophiatown eras, he is the least written about… South African scholarship and literary scholarship in particular are thin on Mattera… popularity and academic accolades have not necessarily translated into any significant scholarly work on Mattera” (25-26).

Sitoto notes how Mattera’s marginalisation is also due to the fact that he has used poetry, and not novels, as his primary medium of expression (Keorapetse Kgositsile, another iconic bard of the same period, has received the same critical mistreatment, for the same reason). “Street poets” like “Bra Don” and “Bra Willie” are those who suffer the greatest ups and downs within the gaps of criticism of the (neo)colonial canon, which incorporates them only when the weight of their work makes the refusal of the court circles impossible.

They remain in the limelight for a time, side by side with the “classic” poets and those of the supposed “avant-garde(s)” but, while the “classics” are immortalised and the “new voices” glorified, they disappear from the pantheon as soon as their poetry does no longer serve the dominant academic theory/ies of the moment.

Perhaps because of his systematic critical views on the powers that be, or because of his unorthodox “racial”, religious and political profile, Mattera has been placed into a shadow cone by the establishment. Startlingly, this erasure is not only restricted to literary research: it also extends to the editorial market.

Any significant attention is given to Mattera even in the treatment of the so-called “protest poets”, “Soweto poets” or “poets of Black Consciousness”, and a panoramic view of anthologies of South African poetry clearly indicates how prominent editors have often glossed over his works: Michael Chapman’s A century of South African poetry (1981), The new century of South African poetry (2002 and 2018) and Voices from Within. Black Poetry from southern Africa (1982, co-edited with Achmat Danghor) systematically ignore Mattera (while occasionally featuring poets of dubious historical and/or literary merit); this absence is repeated in de Kock and Tromp’s The Heart in Exile: South African Poetry in English, 1990-1995 (1996) and, even more surprisingly, in Couzens and Patel’s The Return of the Amasi Bird. Black South African Poetry, 1891-1981 (1981), in the didactic Blue Black and other poems edited by Saunders, Segatlhe and Leshoai (1990) and in the recent Years of Fire and Ash: South African Poems of Decolonisation edited by Wamuwi Mbao (2019); fortunately, the late Stephen Gray – hats off to him – acknowledged Mattera’s contribution to the history of poetry in South Africa by including three of his poems (“For a Cent”, “Remember” and “Singing Fools”) in his Modern South African Poetry (1984).

As Foley (2016) illustrates, the process of anthologisation is not linear, and is shaped and influenced by representational, aesthetic and market dynamics. Yet, the crucial question remains unanswered: why have these anthologisers snubbed a primary figure in the history of South African literature, a writer who, according to Es’kia Mphahlele, “makes music with his poetry?’’ (Mattera 2007: vii)

Mattera is a coloured/Griqua/Italian/Muslim/politically non-aligned poet, and his identity politics is unfit to aprioristic academic crystallisations, a factor which often determines one’s exclusion from canonical spaces. One can safely assume that Mattera’s work is not detracted for literary reasons, but for the poet’s elusive individuality and rebellious attitude, and for having chosen the disenfranchised as the subject of his poetry.

After all, it is the mass of upper class readers that determines the relevance of a writer in South Africa’s academia and editorial market, and Mattera’s nonpartisan criticism and uncompromising politics are hardly expendable in that niche.

Another element to consider is the diction Mattera chose to express himself with. He uses the language of the common people and the culture of “inundation, deluge, excess, surplus, or overabundance” (Arora, 2017: 185) that informs postmodern poetry does not find shelter in his verses. Incorporation becomes more difficult when one rejects the erudite language of the poeta doctus and opts for the vernacular, as this choice tends to be interpreted as a voluntary desire to challenge the status quo both linguistically and thematically.

Little by little an explanation of an ideological nature is insinuated for Mattera’s obscuration in the public eye. With Credo Mutwa, Dennis Brutus, Vonani Bila, Kgafela Magogodi and Lesego Rampolokeng, he is one of the great whippers of post-apartheid South Africa: is it just a coincidence that all these outspoken poets have been pushed to the fringes of the literary community?

Desolately, one cannot fail to place their invisibilisation against the backdrop of the fanfares granted to today’s “Instagram poets” (Rupi Kaur, Amanda Gorman, and their replicas), whose one-dimensional poetry and inoffensive political profiles can comfortably be accommodated within the perimeters of popular culture and mainstream scholarship.

Examining the (aesthetic? political?) reasons for the recurrent absence of Mattera from the classic texts mentioned above goes beyond the scope of this article, but these examples corroborate and expand Sitoto’s pertinent observations on his marginalisation. Bra Don has certainly suffered from a relative lack of patronage from the ruling party, the academia and eminent poetry editors; yet, his impact on post-94 poetry is deep, and he is generally regarded by the youngest poets as one of the pivotal figures to emerge from the muddy waters of apartheid. This topic is scrutinised in the section below.

Mattera and the young poets

As the lengthy interview with Gray (2006) shows, Mattera is revered and widely published overseas, but he is still a sort of “underground cult poet” in South Africa (as the Latins said: nemo propheta in patria – no man is a prophet in his own land). In the attempt to partially fix this discrepancy, this issue of BKO brings to the readers’ attention that a revaluation of Mattera, accentuated by young poets, is currently taking place outside the walls of the South African Ivory Tower.

Not all the poets of the new generations are depoliticised and domesticated: Sitoto acutely observes how Mattera has greatly influenced today’s most vibrant poetry circles, superficially pictured as the “subcultural world of hip-hop artists and young budding poets” (Sitoto 2018: 25). He reports how Mphutlane Wa Bofelo calls him “an institution” (49), and mentions Ntiski Mazwai and Lebo Mashile as his closest associates within that world. However, he fails to report how Mattera has also mentored an important wordsmith like Vangile Gantsho, and has collaborated with numerous acclaimed “post-1994 poets”, including Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, Natalia Molebatsi and Maakomele Manaka (just to name a few).

In the last 20 years, new poetic styles known as spoken word poetry and slam poetry have gained momentum in urban South Africa. They are fashioned by several previous traditions, including North American hip hop and local poetic traditions such as izibongo and black consciousness poetry, amongst others (d’Abdon 2016).

With their emphasis on plain language, punch-lines, social criticism and theatricality, spoken word and slam have refreshed the panorama of South African poetry. The all-female Johannesburg-based poetry collective Feela Sistah were pioneers of the spoken word scene in the late 90s-early2000s; their members (the late Myesha Jenkins, Napo Masheane, Ntsiki Mazwai, and Lebo Mashile) are leading post-94 poets, and keep Mattera in high consideration. The same applies to younger but equally significant poets like Afurakan, Sarah Godsell, Quaz Roodt and Ayob Vania who have contributed considerably to the growth of the poetry community in Johannesburg and beyond. And the list is much longer…

For autobiographical reasons, I am interested in how Mattera engages with his “Italianness”, an obliterated aspect of his liminal identity. Mattera tells the story of his Italian and indigenous ancestors, forced by history to either emigrate or be exiled in their own land; in doing so, he brings within all the complexities of this eccentric encounter.

Sitoto observes that “if South African scholarship and literary scholarship in particular are thin on Mattera, there is almost nothing substantive written on him and his identification with Islam” (Sitoto 2018: 25). The same can be said about his identification with Italy, but little can be achieved within the limited scope of a short essay, and studies more articulated than this will be required, to adequately explore this topic.

Presenting Don Mattera as “The Godfather of South African poetry” would be a cheap shot: firstly, it would give credit to the predominant narrative that stresses the accent on his past involvement with gangsterism; secondly, it would reinforce the hollywoodesque stereotype which portrays Italians only as mobsters, passionate lovers, boors, buffoons, bigots or bimbos; finally, it would belittle the legacy of a towering figure of South Africa’s literary, intellectual and political landscape.

Davie (2002) asserts that “his heritage is important to him. He considers himself Italian – his full name is Donato Francisco – and can understand the language although he doesn’t speak it”. Italianness appears in his writing as an issue to be brought out quietly, even timidly: it is part of the gradual emergence of a multi-layered identity consolidated via peaks that are not impromptu traumas, but represent the sedimentation of the emotions, reflections, disappointments, frustrations, travails and dreams that dot his complex existential experience, and that of his family. Alvarez-Pereyre recalls how

The Mattera family cast roots in South Africa in 1904 when Francesco Mattera, then 26 years old and a sailor from Naples, jumped ship while in Cape Town and married a Griqua woman. He went to work in the Kimberley mines, made some money there and eventually founded one of the first bus companies for Africans in Johannesburg. He settled in near-by Sophiatown where the family, through inter-racial union or marriage, became as cosmopolitan as the city. Don Mattera, Francesco’s grandson, was born in 1935. Mattera remembers his beloved grandfather (who adopted him as his son) with these words:

My grandfather, Francesco Paulo Mattera, came to South Africa from Naples, Italy, in 1904 […]. His parents were farmers and his taste for adventure, which began with street singing, led him to the shores of Cape Town. (Mattera in Alvarez-Pereyre, 7)

Sophiatown, the legendary township outside Joburg, was inhabited by a “great cosmopolitan population of people including Italians, Scots, Jews… whatever European tribe” (Gray 2006), and it is well known that this primordial and unusual “micro-rainbow nation” was toppled by the same apartheid regime that built it, to be re-placed by the white suburb of “Triumf”. Describing how the July 1962 demolition contributed to his fractured Italian identity, Mattera writes:
Dust. I looked beyond the dust, and I was a child once more. Pushing the old wheel around the house, under the plum and fig trees, beneath the grapevine. A child… listening only to childish noises, then stopping to hear familiar Neapolitan songs, the fragments of Italian heritage. My people. All there, behind the blinding bulldozer. (Mattera 1978: 7)

Mattera speaks fondly and nostalgically of his hometown in his autobiography Memory is the Weapon (Mattera 1987) and in poems such as “Sophiatown” (Mattera 2007: 3), “The Day they came for our Houses” (Mattera 2007: 5), “No children” (Mattera 2007: 75), “Man to Man” (Mattera 2008a: 32), “Perfect Day” (Mattera 2008a: 40) and “Song for Yesterday”, which ends with the archetypical verses that follow:

O Sophia, Sophiatown
you speak to me from the ashes of broken days
and from the twilight mist I hear a song rolling softly
softly rolling
a song for yesterday
(Mattera 2008a: 22)

Very few poets of Italian descent have left a mark in South African poetry: the ones worth mentioning are Mario d’Offizi, Anita Vitacolonna, Genna Gardini and Claudia Fratini. Because of what briefly discussed above, I have always considered Don Mattera the “alpha poet” of this vivacious, yet largely unknown sub-group of poets, the one who has indelibly put “Italianness” on the map of South African poetry. The most romantic, nostalgic and optimistic Italians often describe themseleves as a popolo di poeti, di artisti, di eroi, di santi, di pensatori, di scienziati, di navigatori, di trasmigratori (“A people of poets, artists, heroes, saints, thinkers, scientists, navigators, transmigrators”).

This popular saying is sculpted on the façade of the Palazzo della Civiltà, in the Eur district of Rome, and is a remain of the Fascist propaganda which pompously celebrated the glories of the country’s past in urban architecture… For me, an Italian adopted by South Africa, Mattera is the embodiment of the above motto (cleansed of its rhetorical and historical incrustations): a compassionate poet, a liberation hero, an inner-city mystic, a free thinker, the grandson of a twentieth century navigator, and the transmigrator par excellence.

Poetic style

For Mattera poetry is the place of communal speaking, a way to enter the substance of language, which becomes the space where a ruptured being can be re-constituted. Instability is sought by the rebel writer, and identity fluidity is understood as a rejection of the commonplaces which poetry has the task of sublimating and healing.

Being an outsider is an experience of detachment based on the acute awareness of the loss of one’s centre, and Mattera develops a “poetics of the trace”, of writing as a system of response to the outcast’s existential condition.

The recurrent elements of unrest and anguish interrogate the poet’s fractured self as both a pain and a value; or, perhaps, even as the condition of survival which sustains his humanness, and allows him to produce discoursive practices of resistance.

Scrutinising three collections of poetry published in the last two decades, Azanian Love Song (2007), The Moon is Asleep. Poems of Love (2008a), and Longing and Faces of Trees. Poems of Struggle, Freedom and Kin (2008b), one finds it difficult to isolate a canon of indispensable pieces. It must be admitted that Mattera’s greatness is only intermittently conveyed in these texts but, as Mphahlele agreeably notes, it is the musicality of these poems that cannot go unnoticed, coupled with the strength and forthrightness of their emotional expression. The books read sequentially draw a narrative trajectory: each piece tells a story that smoothly merges into the next one, creating a symphony of fluctuating moods and tones. The poems are short, terse, direct, and emotionally charged: the laments that emerge from the depths of the poet’s spiritual wounds are harmonised in an elegant arrangement of lyrical units. While maintaining a sustained tragic decorum, these poems are attuned to the speech of the common people, in all its emotional shades: style and content are perfectly matched.

Rather than disdain or ecstasy, Mattera emphasises the importance of quietness and compassion as a prerequisite for creation, and his work does not attack, but observes, and celebrates. Naked in their honesty as in their sorrows, his stories express the poet’s feelings with candour, but also with restrain and tenderness.

“[P]olish my heart with the balm of compassion”, the poet pleads in the hard-hitting “Prayer for Deformity”, an invocation to God to deprive him of bodily “weapons” that could potential harm fellow human beings (2008a: 11). For most of his life, Mattera has felt the pain of being a stranger in his on motherland

(“There is no hurt / quite like being unloved, / unwanted / among one’s own / in one’s own land. (“Degrees”, 2008: 25);

yet, there is no rancour in his worldview

(“And yet, /
I cannot hate / Try as I want, /
I cannot hate” 2008a: 6).

Mattera has seen it all, and the poet/prophet reassures the readers that

“[t]he lacerated skin of dignity / wins back its beauty / the stifled blood surges up / to purge the prostituted land”
(“Because You Come” 2008: 30).

Visions of the future are thus pervaded by empathy and love: in “Dreaming was Never Free” he sings the musical lines

“a time will come, Beloved / when we will remember / dreaming was never free, / and that to love and live and believe / also meant we had to know and sing and die” (2008: 12).

When I asked “Bra Don” what was his primary recommendation for the writers of my generation, he answered with no hesitation: “Act!” Mattera’s message to his fellow countrymen, and to a global community undergoing a tumultuous paradigm shift, reverberates from the verses above: forgive, remember, dream, love, live, believe, sing… It is up to us to translate these words of wisdom into action.

Conclusion

This essay suggests that Mattera has sufficient merits to be in the canon: this is demonstrated by the simplicity of the lyrical period, the expository clarity, the elegant elocution, and the sincerity of his poetry. His poetic style magnifies issues of intersectionality, positionality, and displacement, and links Mattera’s experience to our contemporary imagination.

The writer has put his poetic sensibility at the service of the disenfranchised people of both the old and the new South Africa; he has formulated a compassionate vison of the local and global community, opening up new horizons for the poets that have come after him. “Pity reached me, and I was almost lost” (Schuman 2013: 51): the pain and the disturbance which assail Dante in front of the infernal apparition of the eternally damned lovers, pulsate in every movement of compassion.

Like Schopenhauer beautifully illustrated, in the presence of the pain of others, a proximity is established that is empathic resonance, perception, and cognition of the common belonging to the fragile dominion of sentient humans. Don Mattera follows the direct and oblique paths of compassion, explores the ambiguities and re-reads the mythographies of this sentiment in poems that reflect its truest essence.

The content of his poems is not escapist, and its form is largely emancipated from the prosodic conventions and linguistic “norms” of the academia. The language avoids both the elevated diction of the academic poet and the cheap rhetoric of the embedded one, and succeeds in being familiar without being colloquial, and simple without being ordinary.

There is a sense, however, in which his poetry could be said to have a tragic character: a vein of sadness pervades it, and it is tragic inasmuch as the existential riddle of the human condition finds no final answer in it. A mystical pursue of truth, a resilience in the struggle, an insatiable love for nature and mankind are its main themes. To read it, is to feel the pulse of the controversial times we live in.

Alvarez-Pereyre quotes National Poet Laureate Wally Mongane Serote’s famous poem “For Don M. – Banned”, published in his 1974 collection Tsetlo:

… it is a dry white season brother
only the trees know the pain as they still stand erect
dry like steel, their branches dry like wire,
indeed, it is a dry white season
but seasons come to pass.
and asks “how many more will have to pass before Don Mattera is free?” (1980: 2-3)

The common people’s appreciation of Mattera contrasts with his erasure in the national canon. While it is true that this usually happens with “street poets”, in this case an ideological prejudice has misrepresented the values of his work. And the same adverse judgments remain in effect in manuals used in schools and universities. However, his permanence in journals like BKO and Imbiza. Journal for African Writing allows hope to be maintained of a just vindication of him in the future.

Mattera is a poet, writer, editor, journalist and activist who deserves to occupy a central position in the history of South African writing. A bunch of young poets, innovative scholars, imaginative publishers, plus the contributors of this issue of BKO have answered the call, and celebrated the legacy of this iconic figure. We hope that this community will keep growing, so that the life and words of this unsung hero will not be forgotten.

A #MatteraMatters campaign on Twitter, maybe?
Let’s spread the word…

 

References

Alvarez-Pereyre, Jacques. Does it Mattera? Matter About Don, Kunapipi, 2(1), 1980.

Bila, Vonani. Poetic Innovation and its Bottlenecks in Post-Apartheid South African Poetry. Imbiza. Journal for African Writing. Volume 1, Issue 3: 56-65.

Chapman, Michael (ed.). A century of South African poetry. Johannesburg-London: Ad Donker, 1981.

Chapman, Michael (ed.). The new century of South African poetry (2nd edition). Johannesburg-London: Ad Donker, 2002.

Chapman, Michael (ed.). The new century of South African poetry (3rd edition). Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2018.

Chapman, Michael and Danghor, Achmat (eds.). Voices from Within. Black Poetry from southern Africa. Johannesburg-London: Ad Donker, 1982.

Couzens, Tim and Patel, Essop (eds.). The Return of the Amasi Bird. Black South African Poetry, 1891-1981. Braamfontein: Ravan Press, 1981.

d’Abdon, Raphael. Teaching spoken word poetry as a tool for decolonizing and africanizing the South African curricula and implementing “literocracy”. Scrutiny2: Issues in English Studies in Southern Africa 2016: 44-62.

Davie, Lucille. Don Mattera: poet of compassion, October 15, 2002.

de Kock, Leon and Tromp, Ian (eds.). The Heart in Exile: South African Poetry in English, 1990-1995. Johannesburg: Penguin, 1996.

Foley Andrew. Anthologising South African poetry: historical trends and future directions, Scrutiny2, 21:2, 2016: 71-84.

Gray, Madi. Interview with Don Mattera. 9 April 2006. https://nai.uu.se/library/resources/liberation-africa/interviews/don-mattera.html.

Gray, Stephen. Modern South African Poetry. Johannesburg-London: A. D. Donker, 1984.

Mattera, Don. Azanian Love Song, Grant Park: African Perspectives, 2007.

Mattera, Don. Beyond Words. Imbiza. Journal for African Writing. Vol. 1, Issue 3: 40.

Mattera, Don. Faces of Trees. Poems of Struggle, Freedom and Kin. Florida: African Morning Star, 2008.

Mattera, Don. Memory is the Weapon. Braamfontein: Ravan Press, 1987.

Mattera, Don. Nomzamo Winnie Mandela. Imbiza. Journal for African Writing. Vol. 1, Issue 3: 40.

Mattera, Don. Scenes from a banned life. Index on censorship 5/1978: 3-8.

Mattera, Don. The Moon is Asleep. Poems of Love and Longing. Florida: African Morning Star, 2008.

Mbao, Wamuwi (ed.). Years of Fire and Ash: South African Poems of Decolonisation. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2021.

Poonam, Arora. Aesthetic of Poetry of Postmodernism Poets, International Journal of English Literature and Culture, Vol. 5(6), November 2017: 181-188.

Saunders, Walter, Segatlhe, David and Leshoai, B. L. (eds.). Blue Black and other poems. Randburg: Hodder & Stoughton Education, 1990.

Schuman, S. Freedom and Dialogue in a Polarized World. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2013.

Sitoto, Tahir Fuzile T. On Africana/Islamica Existential Thought: Don Mattera and the Question of Transcendence. Thesis presented for the degree of Doctor of philosophy In the department of religious studies, faculty of Humanities, University of Cape Town. June 2018.

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