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.

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.