Archive for April, 2011

POET’S PROFILE

Kenyan flag

Kenyan flag

The Kenyan poet Jared Angira was born in 1947 and studied commerce at the University of Nairobi where he was also the editor of the journal Busara. He has spent much of his working life in the Kenyan civil service, and published seven volumes of poetry, which include Juices (1970), Silent Voices (1972), Soft Corals (1973), Cascades (1979), The Years Go By (1980), and Tides of Time: Selected Poems (1996).

He was once hailed by Wole Soyinka and lauded by Ezenwa-Ohaeto as “one of the most exciting poets in Africa.” As with many of his contemporary African poets, he has not received the critical acclaim many think he deserves. Deeply meditative, Angira’s work is deceptively simple and his choice of words may occasionally seem at odds with the gravity of his subject. As a Marxist poet—he once proclaimed: “Karl Marx is my teacher; Pablo Neruda my class prefect (when I am in the classroom) and my captain (when I am on the battlefield)”—his poetry evinces a critical concern with social injustice in post-independence society. Like his fellow Kenyan, Ngugi wa Thiongo, he is very critical of political and social developments in Kenya.

NO COFFIN, NO GRAVE

He was buried without a coffin
without a grave
the scavengers performed the post-mortem
in the open mortuary
without sterilized knives
in front of the night club

stuttering rifles put up
the gun salute of the day
that was a state burial anyway
the car knelt
the red plate wept, wrapped itself in blood its master’s

the diary revealed to the sea
the rain anchored there at last
isn’t our flag red, black, and white?
so he wrapped himself well

who could signal yellow
when we had to leave politics to the experts
and brood on books
brood on hunger
and schoolgirls
grumble under the black pot
sleep under torn mosquito net
and let lice lick our intestines
the lord of the bar, money speaks madam
woman magnet, money speaks madam
we only cover the stinking darkness
of the cave of our mouths
and ask our father who is in hell to judge him
the quick and the good

Well, his dairy, submarine of the Third World War
showed he wished
to be buried in a gold-laden coffin
like a VIP
under the jacaranda tree beside his palace
a shelter for his grave
and much beer for the funeral party

anyway one noisy pupil suggested we bring
tractors and plough the land.

REVIEW

This is a scornfully sarcastic poem by Angira and many reviewers claim that it also mirrors his style. The poem is a chronicle of events that marked the death of a traitor-ruler who was “buried without a coffin” (line 1) and whose post-mortem was carried out by scavengers, vultures in the open, outside a place where people go to celebrate and have fun. A night club! (line 6). This gives a sense that his death may have been wished and when it came, it was a necessary party for his people.

Angira goes on to say that “stuttering rifles” (line 7) gave the salute when he died. The same two quoted word are used in Wilfred Owen’s poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth” where he discusses the scene before a war, intimating that the soldiers on the field are doomed to death by the shots from their own stuttering rifles. As is signal of state burials, prominent people are given a uniform salute by a regimental gunshot of a section of the army. But our politician only received a stuttering rifle’s salute, to give us a hint that his gun salute was probably the bullets that killed him; ununiformed. And confirmation reaches us, when we read that his car knelt – came to its knees, literally – in a defeatist action and wrapped itself in its master’s blood (lines 10-11). He died in his car and the car came to a grinding halt.

Angira quotes the colours of the Kenyan flag (red, black and white- line 14) as testament to the true nature of the politician whose deeds alone were correct. So since there wasn’t any yellow, he asks “Who could signal yellow” or contradict the politicians? After all, politics was for the “experts” while the common man was cursed to brood on books, think about schoolgirls and hunger, sleeping under torn mosquito nets (lines 15-22). And if our politician should step into a bar, he is the lord (line 24) and woman magnet (line 25) who speaks the language of money; the people’s money. And what can the cursed common man say? He can only cover the darkness of his mouth and tell his prayers to the devil for all the politician cares.

The succeeding verse tells of how our politician’s diary reveals that he wanted a stately VIP burial, with a gold-laden coffin at his palace and with so much beer. Angira earlier in line 12 says that the diary revealed itself to the sea, to say that it was found there in the sea. And now, in line 30, he calls the diary a submarine of the Third World War. This is interesting analogy. It could mean that the diary was found in the sea as a submarine, it is content was a destructive weapon as a submarine that brought the poverty and hunger of the people, or that it had enough power in its recommendation to dump the world into a Third World War. This is beautiful use of language.

So, it has come to pass that Angira’s politician has passed away, with much celebration from his people. And with little dignity too, having been denied all the pleasantries that he wished to be accorded his death. The people care less and in the last line, one boy Angira calls noisy, even suggests that they bring tractors and plough the land, ostensibly to purge it of the desecration that this our politician’s blood may have caused it. And why is the boy even called noisy unless it means that other people have already said the same thing?

This is a beautiful protest poem and I can see a lot of African leaders past and present fit Angira’s politician well, in deed.

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POET’S PROFILE – DENNIS BRUTUS

Brutus-Poetry and Protest

Brutus-Poetry and Protest

Dennis Brutus campaigned for freedom in apartheid South Africa and as was normal, he was persecuted by the apartheid government. He tried to flee from detention after being handed to the South African authorities by the Mozambiquan authorities and was shot in the back at close range. On partial healing, he was sent to the notorious Robben Island where he was kept in the cell next to Nelson Mandela’s. According to the apartheid code, he was considered a coloured person.

Dennis Vincent Brutus was a South African activist, educator, journalist and poet best known for his campaign to have apartheid South Africa banned from the Olympic Games. He lived between 28th November 1924 and 26th December 2009. He was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and had ancestry of mixed French, Italian and South African.

His activist life likens him to a crusader for his country. A knight on duty for a mistress; and this has so often appeared in his poetry. He loved South Africa deeply and did everything to win its freedom. In his poem, It Is The Constant Image Of Your Face, he closes the first stanza by saying “my land takes precedence of all my loves”. This was his passion. While he was in prison, news broke that South Africa had been banned from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as he had campaigned for.


A TROUBADOUR I TRAVERSE…

A troubadour, I traverse all my land
exploring all her wide flung parts with zest
probing in motion sweeter far than rest
her secret thickets with an amorous hand:
5 and I have laughed disdaining those who banned
enquiry and movement, delighting in the test
of wills when doomed by Saracened arrest,
choosing, like unarmed thumb, simply to stand.

Thus, quixoting till a cast-off of my land
10 I sing and fare, person to loved-one pressed
braced for this pressure and the captor’s hand
that snaps off service like a weathered strand:
– no mistress-favor has adorned my breast
only the shadow of an arrow-brand.


REVIEW


“A troubadour I traverse…”
is a poem written on chivalrous themes. It is a Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet, made of a full octave (rhyming abbaabba) and a sestet (rhyming abaaba). First off, a troubadour is a medieval European poet-knight whose duty it was to ride alongside and defend a mistress. Until the troubadour retires from service, his duty is to die defending her. And he often praised her high unattainable love in his lyrics.

But Brutus is a troubadour for his homeland, seeing South Africa as a mistress for whom he must live and die. In the title and first four lines, Brutus talks about his romantic traverse (or travel – line 1) across the land, exploring its wide-flung, spread-out or exposed parts in a movement that is sweeter than any other that he knows. He does so with zeal and with his “amorous hand” (line 4). And in this ecstasy, he has laughed at all those who have sought to stop or question him even though he knew that a crusade in the name of love for South Africa under apartheid meant that he will die protecting her or be doomed to Saracened arrest (line 7). Saracens were Muslim Arabs against whom Christian knights fought the wars of the Crusade. Significantly, South African police armoured cars were also called Saracens. And in the face of this threat of arrest, he chose only “simply to stand” (line8) unarmed.

So he continues the protest, enjoying the romance with his land while tempting the apartheid regime for an arrest, quixoting till he is cast-off from his land (infer line 9). Don Quixote was the protagonist of the Spanish novelist Cervantes’ book and he spent his life fighting imaginary monsters and enemies, earning him a laughable reputation. So Brutus makes himself a quixotic fool for his homeland by a love that presses him (line 10) and which makes him prepare for an imminent arrest (captor’s hand – line 11) till he is snapped off service (line 12 – killed for his mistress South Africa or made incapable by detention). No mistress-favour or emblem of service adorns his breast as is usual for a troubadour but only the shadow of an arrow-brand (lines 13 and 14). The arrow-brand is the standard British symbol for a convict and Brutus’ reference to an arrow-brand could be the scar he keeps on his back from a gunshot for trying to flee from detention.

It is amazing how romance, the story of a man’s life and apartheid themes can be merged into this one poem of fourteen lines. Brutus is an African hero for giving us a chronicle of the fight against apartheid through the eyes of an African poet.

POET’S PROFILE – SYL CHENEY-COKER

Cheney-Coker

Cheney-Coker

Syl Cheney-Coker (born 1945) is a poet, novelist, and journalist from Freetown, Sierra Leone. He has Creole backgrounds. He was educated early in Sierra Leone and then in the United States and he has a global sense of literary history. He has introduced styles and techniques from French and Latin American literatures to Sierra Leone. Most of his life has been spent away from his native country and through those eyes he has written extensively (in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction) about the condition of exile and the view of Africa from an African abroad.

He has taught both African and Latin American literature in a number of countries, having learnt to speak Spanish fluently after sojourning in Argentina, Chile, America and the Philippines. His volumes of poetry include Concerto for an Exile (1973) and The Graveyard also has Teeth (1980). Cheney-Coker has written of his love for the continent of his birth and the agony of having to live away from it since he could not tolerate the one-party government of then President Siaka Stevens. In many of his works, he shows the passion and love for the continent that is innate in all true African poets.

PEASANTS
The agony: I say their agony!

the agony of imagining their squalor but never knowing it
the agony of cramping them in roach infected shacks
the agony of treating them like chattel slaves
5 the agony of feeding them abstract theories they do not understand
the agony of their lugubrious eyes and battered souls
the agony of giving them party cards but never party support
the agony of marshalling them on election day but never on banquet nights
the agony of giving them melliferous words but mildewed bread
10 the agony of their cooking hearths dampened with unused
the agony of their naked feet on the hot burning tarmac
the agony of their children with projectile bellies
the agony of long miserable nights
the agony of their thatched houses with too many holes
15 the agony of erecting hotels but being barred from them
the agony of watching the cavalcade of limousines
the agony of grand state balls for God knows who
the agony of those who study meaningless ‘isms and incomprehensible languages
the agony of intolerable fees for schools but with no jobs in sight
20 the agony of it all I say the agony of it all
but above all the damn agony of appealing to their patience
Africa beware! their patience is running out!

REVIEW

This poem is a protest poem which identifies with the down-trodden African peasant who does most of the work that drives his country yet paying him insignificant rewards. In the lines of the poem, Cheney-Coker identifies many points of “agony” of the peasant and illustrates singular experiences of these men left poor by their politicians, that makes for pondering. In the lines of the poem, he has disregarded the correct use of grammar in first-letter capitalisation except in the first and last lines…and even the last line has a second sentence that disregards the rule too. This is a statement of his anger; when people are angry, their respect for the rules is usually close to nothing.

Cheney-Coker seems to bundle this long list of complaints for the politicians of Africa. He enumerates how they marshal these peasants at election time (line8) and forget them at banquet nights; how they are treated like slaves, left in roach-infested shacks and being used as labour for the many luxuries that the politicians enjoy. They are scornfully given party cards but never part support. They have little to take care of their children who develop projectile bellies (line 12) and for whom intolerable school fees (line 19) are paid to study meaningless languages and ‘isms ready for non-existent jobs. This looks like a tall pile of complaints which are building up anger one after another. To be able to appease the peasant, you must appease him layer by layer and agony by agony. A tall order, this.

But Cheney-Coker says the height of it all – the supposed icing – is being asked to being asked to be patient about it all. And he calls it “the damn agony” (line 21). Who can bottle up such intense frustration with a slick of patience? It won’t be long before the patience is broken.

I chose this poem as a tribute to the revolutions that started in Tunisia and spread to Egypt and the Middle East, albeit being suppressed this very minute in Libya. This poem is a prophecy of all those happenings in a way, pre-informing African leaders that their people want them to know that “their patience is running out” (line 22). If only African leaders read African poetry!!

Rings of Uncertainty

Rings of Uncertainty

I wrote this poem on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the US World Trade Centres in 2007. The theme is slightly unrelated but I was wondering if we may have been too disobedient to the natural order. A lot of scientific reasons have been given for the supposed logic that there is no God. Could we have challenged an obvious truth and by some ensuing chaos, been probably jolted back to the realisation? I don’t know. The terrorist destruction of the Twin Towers alludes to the biblical linguistic chaos that characterised the building of the Tower of Babel. Yes, I already said unrelated, but somehow, these two events make me shudder when I think about towers. But poetry has meaning whether the poet intentionally puts it there or not. So this poem will make meaning to the issue to which it relates and the person who identifies with its story line will find it someday. It was written for a slow, religious, questioning chant. Shall man dare play God?

INCANTATIONS

Has the wind ceased
to fan my fire
and the rain to quench
the parched earth?
Does the matchstick belittle
the sun
And sleep mock eventual
death?
Will the snail duel the deer
And game dare the hunter?
Will nature bow to man
And man,
the man born of that old temptation
“You will be like God”
dare God to a duel?
Will he?

POET’S PROFILE – KOFI AWOONOR

Awoonor

Awoonor

Kofi Awoonor is one of Ghana’s leading poets and wrote previously under the pen-name George Awoonor Williams. He is cousin to Ghana’s other poetry great, Kofi Anyidoho and both of them have shared poetry in which they were talking to the other. Awoonor was born in 1935 at Wheta, in the Keta district of Ghana and had his schooling variedly in Ghana, the UK and the US. He taught literature also in the State University of New York, Stony Brook and the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. He has acted on stage, written for radio and been the director of a film company. At one time, he was Ghana’s ambassador to Brazil.

The distinction Awoonor’s poetry makes is its strong use of vibratory and rhythmic Ewe pronouncements. He is credited with popularising Ewe poetry and folk songs and many of his English poems have been twined with Ewe words in the right places. That is his open invitation to all who read his works to come to the understanding of his roots. He shows that primarily, he thinks in his local lingua and then in English, if it so requires. His published works include Rediscovery and other Poems and Night of my blood.


THE JOURNEY BEYOND – KOFI AWOONOR

The bowling cry through door posts
carrying boiling pots
ready for the feasters.
Kutsiami the benevolent boatman;
5 When I come to the river shore
please ferry me across
I do not have on my cloth-end
the price of your stewardship.

REVIEW

This poem is an appeal. The first line tells us that there is a cry and so we know that all is not well. People are crying as they carry boiling pots ready for feasters. It is most likely a funeral and if Awoonor’s Ewe background is to be well considered, this tells us of a typical burial occasion among the Ewe people where feasting is a norm too.

But who is the dead man? In line 4, Awoonor calls a man by the name Kutsiami. This is a word that translates literally as Death-Linguist (for Ku-Tsiami) in Ewe. And this linguist is supposedly a benevolent boatman who must needs carry the dead man across a certain river. This is traditional among Ewes to say that “someone has crossed a river” as a euphemism for “he is dead”. By line 5, we know that Awoonor is talking about himself as the dead man. He makes a plea to the supposed linguist to take him across without asking a price for the duty, for “I do not have on my cloth-end/ the price of your stewardship” (line7-8). It is very common to see many old and poor Ewe folk in Ghana tie their money in a small bundle at the end of their cloth. This is invocation of a traditional ideal also and pitiful to know that the man for whom a whole feast is being commemorated is too poor to pay a boatman. Typically, ferry charges along the Volta River are very reasonable and this baffles. Perhaps, Awoonor is stating his displeasure at the fact that money is spent feasting at the dead man’s funeral after he is gone than is thought to be shared with him while he is alive. So much so that he lacks even the trifles to pay his journey to the other side.

I have found that the best way to appreciate poetry is to respond to it. On the 6th of September 2007, I wrote this response upon reading Awoonor’s poem.

BEFORE THE JOURNEY BEYOND

I, the hunter
I, the hunted
I, the jailor
and the jailéd
5 I ask no wage
nor expect same
I,
Cursed unto this servitude
I, Kutsiami.

My response is simple. Kutsiami himself, who is a hunter of souls, is also hunted. He jails dead people in another world, but he himself is jailed. So in response to Kofi Awoonor’s plea to ferry him across the river without a charge, he tells Awoonor that he himself “ask no wage/Nor expect same” for the disquieting reason that he has been cursed to do this ferryman’ work. This servitude. Death itself is bound to its service. The title I gave it is a conversation with Awoonor’s title. He has come to The Journey Beyond and he talks to Kutsiami. Kutsiami responds to him Before The Journey Beyond. The scores are settled and terms are agreed before the final journey is undertaken.

POET’S PROFILE – ANTONIO JACINTO

Jacinto

Jacinto

The man Antonio Jacinto was born a white Angolan in 1924. He schooled in Angola and became an office worker. But I have realised, and in fact it is true, that most of his poetry reflected an identity with the down-trodden black Angolan colonial subjects of the time when the Portuguese ruled. Jacinto was a critic of the Portuguese inability to educate the Angolan people and he was loud in this regard. He was arrested for his activism and sentenced to a fourteen-year prison term served in the Cape Verde Islands. He was released in the eleventh year of his jail term and sent to serve the Portuguese government as an accountant. He escaped and returned to Angola where he joined the independent struggle, becoming Minister of Education and Culture and later, Minister of Culture. This line from his poem: POEM OF ALIENATION is a summary of what he stood for in his work; “my poem is the suffering/of the laundress’ daughter”. Of all the Lusophone poets I have read, his poetry appeals to me most. I am always falling to the left of popular opinion, I know, as the greatest Lusophone poet in Africa is touted to be Agostinho Neto.

LETTER FROM A CONTRACT WORKER

I wanted to write you a letter
my love,
a letter that would tell
of this desire
to see you
of this fear
of losing you
of this more than benevolence that I feel
of this indefinable ill that pursues me
of this yearning to which I live in total surrender …

I wanted to write you a letter
my love,
a letter of intimate secrets,
a letter of memories of you,
of you
of your lips red as henna
of your hair black as mud
of your eyes sweet as honey
of your breasts hard as wild orange
of your lynx gait
and of your caresses
such that I can find no better here …

I wanted to write you a letter
my love,
that would recall the days in our haunts
our nights lost in the long grass
that would recall the shade falling on us from the plum
trees
the moon filtering through the endless palm trees
that would recall the madness
of our passion
and the bitterness
of our separation …

I wanted to write you a letter
my love,
that you would not read without sighing
that you would hide from from papa Bombo
that you would withhold from mama Kieza
that you would reread without the coldness
of forgetting
a letter to which in all Kilombo
no other would stand comparison …

I wanted to write you a letter
my love
a letter that would be brought to you by the passing wind
a letter that the cashews and coffee trees
the hyenas and buffaloes
the alligators and grayling
could understand
so that if the wind should lose it on the way
the beasts and plants
with pity for our sharp suffering
from song to song
lament to lament
gabble to gabble
would bring you pure and hot
the burning words
the sorrowful words of the letter
I wanted to write to you …

I wanted to write you a letter …
But oh my love, I cannot understand
why it is, why, why, why it is, my dear
that you cannot read
and I – Oh the hopelessness! – cannot write!

REVIEW

How could there be another poem of more beauty than this? Jacinto sums up all his mastery in these lines and they are enough to make him my favourite Lusophone poet, his other works notwithstanding.

A contract worker was an illiterate Angolan recruit whose duty it was to serve the colonial government on supposed contract terms in mines in South Africa. But the money was held by the government, with only a bit going to the worker to live on while the rest was purportedly saved for him. On his retirement from duty, the government deducts what it claims as tax and gives him the rest.

In faraway South Africa, he had no access to his family and they were not permitted to visit him either. So Jacinto, in the mind of a contract worker many miles from home, is writing this long lyrical piece to his love. He tells her of the longing he has to see her and the fear that she might belong to another man by the time he is back all in the first stanza.

In the next stanza, he compares her features to fruit and natural pleasures which he cannot even find where he is. He tells her also that the letter is about “intimate secrets” and “memories of you.” Evidently, he has missed his lover. In the continuing stanzas, he keeps on reminding her of some of the things they did in the past that highlighted their passion and how bitter it was to be separated. He claims that his letter will be so passionate that even if the wind loses it on its way to sending it to her, all the other creatures and trees, all sympathetic to his cause will pass it on, one to another, until it gets to her as hot as he wrote it. This is serious passion. Romance at the highest. But at the lowest too, a pathetic fallacy.

And we are just getting carried away when Jacinto brings us down quickly with the words, “but… I cannot understand” and the repetition that somehow confounds us “why, why, why”. These tell us that something is terribly wrong. And before we know it, he has confessed that it is hopeless that he cannot write and she too cannot read. Oh! What a waste.

This is a powerful poem by any standard. It reflects the single stories of men which were lost in the greater story of the independence struggle. If great men fought for independence, they surely had personal stories too and this could well be one of the many untold personal stories that died with the unheard colonial subjects. God bless Jacinto’s heart.

Mercenaries.

Mercenaries.

April is National Poetry Month in the United States. I am not joining the American National Poetry Month Write A Poem A Day Challenge because this blog is sinlessly African only. But I think it is a worthy challenge and writing a poem a day for a month may not be too difficult a thing to do. In place of missing out on the Challenge, I’ll do my best to flow with the spirit of poetry and blog more African poetry this month. Maybe, I should set a personal challenge to update this blog everyday of April. That is quite a Challenge in itself. I have written poetry for the first two days of April already, the first being my April Fool’s Post and then this one written yesterday. Hope you enjoy it somewhat.

LIFE AND DEATH

Life and death.
We trudge on
From one to another.
Mercenaries. Bound.

If only death was life
And life was death,
Then we’ll die first
And live forever

Still we rise..

We breath.
We live.
We live.
We breath.
We sleep.
We wake.
We live.
To die.

Yet we live still…
To die soon…

This poem is actually a response to the epidemic of lost lives the world has seen in only three months of this year. An earthquake in Haiti, floods in Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan, an earthquake and tsunami in Japan, revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and other countries across the globe, brutal after-effects of elections in Cote d’Ivoire and bomb explosions in Afghanistan and many other countries. The list is endless. I am sure I have missed something still. But it gives a though to the contemplative: how valuable is life today? We have collectively cheapened the value of life through our misdeeds. But even if we did not, wouldn’t we all die? The poem says it all that life and death are the cycle we all shall experience. We trudge towards death, whether by quake, tsunami or revolution, each day brings us ever close to our graves. Yet we trudge on. I hope it made for thought.