Review: Smoke that Thunders by Eveline Pye

Mosi-oa-Tunya – the Smoke that Thunders, also known as the Victoria Falls – straddles the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. From its broad, smooth-flowing course across a flat basalt plain the Zambezi river suddenly plummets down a fissure in the rock, foaming and churning into the narrow gorge over a hundred metres below. I remember visiting in my childhood: the roar of water, the arc of rainbows in the drenching spray, the smell of wet vegetation, the unprotected edge.

Smoke that Thunders is the title of Eveline Pye’s slim volume of poems drawing on the years she spent working in Zambia. ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’, at the heart of the collection, begins with a long focus, describing ‘horizons flat as summer seas’ and a distant ‘tower of spray’. Gradually we are drawn closer to the river through a succession of acutely observed sensory details until we arrive at the spot where the Zambezi ‘plunges deep/ into a wound in the earth’s crust’. This visceral image helps to prepare us for the intense physical experience of standing beside the falls as the ground trembles and ‘solid water/explodes up in your face’. The concluding tercet follows the water’s course downstream through the twisting gorges. The final image, at once surprising and oddly satisfying, is of a pool in which a dead hippo ‘bounces up like a rubber ball’.

The waterfall itself symbolizes one of several tangential points of contact between the poet’s life and my own. Born in Scotland, Eveline Pye moved to Zambia in 1975, the year I left Zimbabwe (or Rhodesia as it then was); and she returned to Scotland in 1983, the year I first arrived in Aberdeen.

The opening poems in this collection describe her introduction to life in Zambia – the welcome basket, with ‘sweet mangoes packed in tissue,/ bitter lemons, dire warnings’, the pig’s heads in the butcher’s shop, the ‘fast-moving wrist’ of the pickpocket, the casually dismissive treatment of a house servant in a room filled with hunting trophies. Each detail is finely observed, and her ear for phrases and sounds is precise: I well remember the ‘suicide month’ that she describes so vividly in her poem ‘October’, its suffocating heat relieved by violent thunderstorms, rain like ‘a barrage of stones on corrugated iron’ and in the aftermath the jacaranda trees ‘stripped of flowers’. She notes the cultural differences relative to her native Scotland: the newsreader, live on air, weeping with grief for his dead father; the young mother relaxed and happy as she breastfeeds her baby outside her house; the silence of a Glasgow tenement compared to the lively sounds of an African village.

It was her background in statistics that brought Pye to Zambia – she was employed as an operational research analyst in the mining industry. ‘Chingola Tankhouse’ is a delightful testament to the practical application of statistical testing, written with deadpan humour and ending on a quietly triumphant note.

Towards the end of the collection there is a subtle shift towards a darker, more reflective tone, hints of disillusion and domestic violence. The final poem, ‘Leaving Africa’ concludes with the vivid image of a snake shedding its skin and the haunting line: ‘I am quietly peeling off years of love’.

In these spare, elegant poems Eveline Pye shares her experience of Africa with unflinching clarity, tinged at times with wistfulness for her native Scotland. They are poems to read and reread, offering a sensory immersion in southern Africa, its landscapes, flora and fauna, with vivid portrayals of people and sharply observed cultural insights. Like all good books, at the end we are left wanting more.

Eveline Pye (2015), Smoke that Thunders, Edinburgh, Mariscat Press. 34 pages.

Posted on 20th December 2019.

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