Live Life before You Leave It

By Omotola Otubela


  • Title: Matric Rage
  • Author: Genna Gardini
  • Publisher: uHlanga Publishers
  • Number of pages: 88
  • Year of publication: 2015
  • Category: Poetry

‘Trust the fact that it is alright for you to be telling your story if it is not hurting anyone who did not hurt you in the first place. In addition, I think that when you write something, you need to hear what it sounds like to see if it works. If you do not hear the rhythm of it then it’s dead. It’s flat’. – Genna Gardini

Genna Gardini won the 2012 DALRO New Coin Poetry Prize. She was also chosen as one of Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans for 2013. Her plays, WinterSweet (2012) and Scrape (2013), both won the Standard Bank Ovation Awards. Her poems have also been published widely.

Matric Rage is a collection of thirty poems, including an introductory one titled ‘The Pot’. The collection is divided into four sections – ‘Junior’, ‘Senior’, ‘High’ and ‘Matric’ – comprising eight, six, ten and five poems respectively. Even though these poems were composed when the poet was between the ages of 19 and 28, the story they tell matches and even surpasses what one expects of a conventional bildungsroman. The poet does not shy away from discussing thought-provoking and controversial issues as they affect individuals on a personal level. Key subjects such as body shaming, sexual identity, youthful exuberance, self appreciation, love, heartbreak and so on are given very detailed, yet concise, exploration.

Matric Rage is a growing South African festival that many South African school-leavers attend as part of their post-examination vacations in order to celebrate the conclusion of their secondary school career. For local residents and other holiday makers, the period of the festival is viewed as a period of social disruption and unnecessary congestion.

Not many literary writings do as much justice to the issue of body shaming in a modern society as Gardini does in this collection. She reveals the kind of treatment plus-sized people are subjected to: stigmatisation, verbal assault and the societal restrictions that they have to put up with on a daily basis just because of something as inconsequential as being ‘fat’. In the poem titled ‘Fat’, Gardini outlines what the society is basically saying to those who fall under this category:

You cannot be liked
You cannot be loved…
You cannot think properly because there are many layers blocking your brain
You cannot be so cushioned and say you are in pain
You cannot do anything but write because you only have to use your fingers for that…

The poet provides a kind of backing and support for the self-esteem of these individuals beforehand. In a previous poem, ‘In Whale Watching’, she writes:

The concept of size can never exist for a whale
because the sea will always scale to accommodate it…
This is why when you say, “Don’t you think—hey!
Don’t you think so-and-so looks like a beached whale?”
what you’re actually blurting about isn’t blubber
burnt to bone, but a lament against context…

In many African societies, sexuality or sexual identity is not something that is debated, that is the ideal is for opposite sexes to be attracted to each other or be romantically involved. Hence, any situation contrary to or different from that norm is unaccepted and frowned upon. However, it appears that the poet does not belong to that school of thought, as she reveals in an interview:

I was already in a lesbian relationship but I just had no sense that lesbians had a history. It was such a validation. It was my first entry into a whole world of academic and art writing about homosexuality that I hadn’t known was there.

She dedicates an entire poem to this. In ‘Out’, the poet-persona says of another girl:

…her skin is packed like a fresh steak
of rubber. Like a piece of untreated whalebone. Like a fin.
Turning me left as I wouldn’t aim in to wanting to touch the place where her clothes had lifted.

She further reveals:

When I think of us as younger, as fourteen,
I think of your small but forever body causing something in me
to stir, which I called (and wrote) maternal so I had an excuse
to touch it, monitoring my hands but never my mouth, loving you
and terrified of you because your judgement was like your face,
both pocked and cynical.

More than a place of utmost relaxation, the sea in Gardini’s Matric Rage symbolises freedom from the four walls of an academic institution, freedom to explore youthful fantasies without caution, thus:

On the day we wrote our last exam
we took off to the sea…
Here, all of a sudden, was the real arm-haired business of sex.
Sitting separate from us. Staying the night.

The subtleties of style that Gardini adopts in this collection are interesting and hardly go unnoticed. The poems are replete with numerous comparisons that paint mental pictures to accompany the issues being dissected. The language used is also quite accessible.

In ‘Mister’, the poet-persona sheds more light on hidden situations where grown adults become inappropriate and indecent with precocious children. The ‘Methuselahic’ mister in the poem creates a platonic relationship at first:

hip-replacement-in-the-attic arm,
you sit me slap on your knee. “How old are we?” say “Pretty,
pretty in your yellow dress!”

(And, of course, you can guess the rest)

But then:

with a little time to spare,
and I find your tweed hands itching and
plying my two dumpling knees apart
as if to trace by heart a start on a sore
that isn’t even a scab, yet.

Gardini clearly opines in ‘Sharks Board’ that one should not be too quick to judge the contents of anything based on its appearance or snippets of it, thus:

He jimmies out a tooth,
holds it up
like a jeweler would a diamond…

But:

Now look what she eats
…the contents are all plastic.

Emotions are not to be bottled up. As humans, we are encouraged to vent as much as we want and express our moods freely. Be it anger or happiness, one should let it out. The poet-persona tries to tone down the intensity of her temperament by comparing it to food:

You say my anger squats and rises in me
like a stale loaf, half-baked
on the low rung of a broken oven,
its steel trays slamming and wincing
through the hinges,
like so many mouths in braces

But actually:

My anger does not irritate or itch.
Because it is a fact, you see, not a glitch.
Comforting, it folds and separates,
like sheets, like a duvet,
and in it I stuff each dismissal away.
I press the push buttons to seal it…

Gardini uses this poem to enlighten and educate her readers about standing up for themselves. She refuses to be relegated to the position where she always has to be the one apologising.

‘How I Hate You’ is a poem that goes beyond the cliché feminist struggle in modern society. It shows that even among females one person is just as important as the other. In this light, the poet-persona bursts forth:

Imagining me soaking at your shoulder
like it is a desert and my apology is the hose.
I am not some rubber attached to a tap.
I am the tap.
I am the whole fucking hydration system.
I am the reservoir dug low in your thinking
and piped back through your brain…

It is pertinent to note that some poems in this collection are not as straightforward as others, and one may find it difficult to comprehend the connection between these poems and the entire poetic narrative. However, beyond recollecting her secondary school encounters and experiences, the poet-persona is simply advocating that one lives life to the fullest while one still can. Regardless of the numerous restrictions or obstacles that may come one’s way, the most important thing is that one should not live by the dictates of other people or the society at large. Life, they say, is too short. Gardini’s Matric Rage is recommended as an engaging and delightful collection that treats sensitive issues.


Photograph: ‘Rhenish Girls’ High School’ by Angus Willson


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Omotola Otubela is a 200-level student of English from the University of Lagos. She is a lover of literature with an eclectic taste. She also has a Diploma in English Language from the University of Lagos. She aspires to become an On Air Personality alongside being a writer. She is a Wawa Book Review Young Literary Critics Fellow.

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