Graham Burchell’s The Chongololo Club

 
 
  
Graham Burchell was born in Canterbury and now lives in Dawlish, Devon. He has lived in a host of places in between including Zambia, Saudi Arabia, Tenerife, Mexico, France, Chile and the United States. He has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. His collection Vermeer’s Corner was published in the United States by Foothills Publishing in 2008. He frequently gives readings and runs poetry workshops in the West Country and further afield. You can find out more at his website: http://www.gburchell.com.
  
 
 

 
 
The Chongololo Club is a compelling recreation of the poet’s time in Zambia in the 1980s; a series of vivid snapshots that captures the people, the wildlife, the politics with colours ‘brash enough’ for this ‘dark continent’ as we slide down it alongside him – ‘glass in hand, whisky gone, just a melting ice-cube cold’ against our teeth.”
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
“These poems have the virtues of close observation and personal engagement in their accounts of living and teaching in Africa. Flora, fauna, loneliness, culture-shock, compassion and humour all contribute to making this collection haunting and coherent. The poet sustains triumphantly the demands of his particular subject material.”
 
– Penelope Shuttle
 
 
 
“Graham Burchell’s The Chongololo Club is a wonderful book. Full of the sights and sounds of an Africa he clearly loved, he is not blind to its occasional horror; nevertheless he convinces us of its beauties through his careful observation, his ear for its many languages and his eye for telling detail. His style of writing serves his subject matter, but he is not afraid of demanding forms such as the pantoum. If you want your poetry to be pleasurable, you will enjoy this book.”
 
– Ian Duhig
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Crossing the Sahara
 
 
Night is a black drone in an aeroplane’s throat,
hidden sand below, pricked with occasional orange stars.
 
There are things I’ve forsaken already.
This is the dream between being awake and being reawakened.
 
I slide down this continent, glass in one hand,
whisky gone, just a melting ice-cube cold against my teeth.
 
There are fires down there, remote, winking,
I dream but I cannot sleep.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Lundazi
 
 
I.
 
 
They’ve dropped me in this compound –
a village fenced inside a town.
Left me in the middle of a terrace
of one-bed flats; bachelor hutches
with a veranda and steps down
to a frangipani bush I’ll come to like
for the butterflies it draws.
And there’s a flowerbed,
already washed away by rains.
 
 
 
II.
 
 
Thoughts ferment under the drill
of cicadas and crickets. Spiders
work for food in carports; design
pluckable webs with a tensile strength
that makes us chuckle. We chat, wave
to passing Indian nurses, smile
at old Horace sat outside.
His houseboy serves him Saturday brunch.
 
 
 
III.
 
 
The house in the corner is like an ark.
Photographs of wild creatures
line the inner walls. Peter lives there.
He attracts nature – St Peter of Lundazi
who brought me a chameleon
on a bamboo stick.
 
We gather in his garden;
a circle of ten to thirteen to eat,
drink the watered light
and eventual chill of evening.
 
A stray dog is drawn to the scent
of cooked meat; a weathered mutt
like a butterfly with tattered wings.
 
It makes for Peter directly.
At his touch, one stroke, it gasps,
and dies happier, at his feet.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Tanganyika
 
 
I.  The Gestalt of Experience

 
 
I cannot stay still. There are new butterflies,
possibilities, a lake bigger than a country,
deep as a mine. There are fish to pull from it
and fresh faces to fish with. A couple
join me day by day. We three are cooped
in a boat with a sun that cooks my feet raw.
Together we ride the skin of indigo water
or hug the lake’s southern edge.
 
She is English. He is South African.
As wild creatures watch us from a rugged shore,
he tries to teach me Afrikaans; tells me
how their words are built from smaller parts
(little fire sticks, vuurhoutjies, matches)
that are so much more than the sum of the stitch of them,
like the gestalt of experience;
the warm absorption of life, here.
 
 
 
II.  From the Underworld
 
 
The fish we hook are corkscrewed
through dark water lightening: Lake Salmon,
Nile Perch, Nkupi – fins and tails resisting,
finally grasping the folly of a shiny bait
inside their mouths. They battle until
their eyes balloon through decompression.
 
The fish we catch, we’ll eat. They grill
on our boatman’s fire of small sticks
picked up from above this shave of beach
that rims mile-deep Tanganyika.
 
The fish to eat have blackened skins.
On plastic plates we prise them up like lids
and fork from bone, bland flesh imbued
with subtle hints of hidden depths.
 
 
 
III.  Ndole Lodge – The Dark Side
 
 
Bring a torch, the brochure said. I did, but forgot
to take it to evening meals, or afterwards
 
to the big round outside the bar, lit like Christmas
for all the moths to circle.
 
The Lodge’s generator was a trembling heart
with a time switch like my own.
 
At nine it shut off without warning or slow fade.
We’d had light to laugh into each other’s faces.
 
Then that sub-aural rhythm stopped, dead –
a swamp of dark. Moths melted into their other night
 
and I had to feel for the path beneath my feet;
test a reckless route through string-balls of wild fig
 
to rondavels tucked in, numbered.
I stroked the doors for a figure four, fingers as eyes,
 
and fiddled keys until I was in, arms stretched,
brushing mosquito-net, fingers reaching
 
for a torch on a bedside cabinet in which
I kept collected butterflies. Ants knew.
 
Those body snatchers came in ordered lines –
from door to cabinet door as if by right.
 
They’d cut my frail gatherings down to wings,
spread legs, scraps of antennae, rolling heads …
 
Torch grabbed, switched on. They’d crawled my boots
and up. Instinctively I stepped to my bed, wobbled,
 
felt for the pyramid of net, but found
a praying mantis there instead.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Border Control (North)
 
 
They call it Zaire now. Sometimes they change the name.
It’s still settling after being shaken like an abused child;
a country just up the road from where I live.
I go there with two others to see it.
It has large banknotes in colours that match its mystery.
It has beer in beautiful brown moulded bottles
that can be made into lamps.
 
We drive as far as Lubumbashi, to a mine camp
where we eat and drink with other expatriated faces.
We speak French as impure as the copper
that comes out of that ground. It is all good
in a town two thousand kilometres from the sea.
 
Glowing, we return to the border. The guard takes
my passport. His fingers block the guardant lion,
unicorn and Latin words. He looks at me – indifferently,
and ambles across a flaky space to his bit of a tin –
takes his time – ignores me because he can.
He pulls out a rusting hypodermic thing.
Lets me see, tells me in French that I must have injection
against cholera, administered by him.
Is that pond-dirty water rocking back and forth within?
 
I went there with two others. One has her fingers
over the face of a president on a bank note
in colours that match the mystery. It is offered, taken
in a blink. The hypodermic is returned to its tin.
I may pass into the no-man’s-land between
two border posts. Au revoir – visit us again.
 
 
 
 
from The Chongololo Club (Pindrop Press, 2012).
 
Order The Chongololo Club.
 
Visit Graham’s website.
 
 
 
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