Archive for November, 2011

POET’S PROFILE

Agana

Agana

I’m particularly elated to be reviewing this poem by my very good friend from our days back at Presbyterian Boys’ Secondary School. Agana Agana-Nsiire has been, like me, something of an art lover even though we shared our high schools days in the highly competitive science E-class. We have had many good times past comparing exciting poetry discoveries, writing same and representing our school on the debate team. Of course, he was a better debater but our other occupation with the Writers and debaters Club as well as with the school’s Editorial Board, made sure that we were almost everywhere together. Cap that with the fact that we were both student leaders whose paths crossed at high decision-making instances and you have a poet whose style I know very well. And I forgot to mention that we used to read poetry at Open Air Theatre on Mondays at Radio Univers on the University of Ghana campus, hosted then by the hard-working Martin Egblewogbe.

Agana’s writing is evidently influenced with an American style he unconsciously cultivated by reading many foreign poets. Sometimes, that was our conflict. I was pro-African in choice and writing while he wrote more accentuated and regal. The poem he’s allowed me to review today is one of his more pronounced diversions into some sort of British cockney or Caribbean creole. He wrote this poem at a sitting and ever since he read it to me in class, I have loved every single line of it. That was about eight years ago. I remember the look on the faces of the crew at Radio Univers when he read it there too. This is an amazing poem.

For Ghanaian Literature Week, (you can find all posts for the week aggregated here at Kinnareads) it is most appropriate that I highlight this budding (Agana, you’re budding until you publish, don’t throw up a storm already!!) gem who is one of the exciting poets I see on the next frontier of Ghanaian literature. He is a graduate of the University of Ghana and blogs at www.cerebralsparks.wordpress.com.

A Bird in Me Heart
There’s this here feeling me has in me bones,
Every time me sees this here lass,
And every time me hears those tones,
Of her sweet voice me breaks like glass.
So the streets me dares no longer walk,
But sits and cries on this here rock.

There’s this here itch me feels in me skin,
Every time she passes me by!
And me speaks the truth me tries to grin,
But runs away, says I.
So no longer t’ the park goes I,
But sits me down t’ cry.

So me old man sits me down one day and says;
‘Come off it, you’re a man now, Chum!’
But every time me sees her face,
Me heart beats like a drum.
Last Sunday morning mass,
She comes and sits reet next t’ me perch!
Now I don’t know where me gets the gas,
But next thing me knows, me’s runnin’, screamin’ out t’ church.
And now t’ whole town thinks me’s a right old bloke;
Yesterday me heard a lad say me’s an egg without a yolk.

So what can an old sailor say,
Who’s only wife, was the roarin’ ocean!
Me hopes me’ll speak t’ her one day,
But till then the pain’s me heart’s lotion.
Me ain’t felt nothin’ this way about nothin’ I say,
But there’s a bird in me heart, and it’s peckin’ me away!

REVIEW

This poem is a beauty. The story is warped in a satirical, elegiac intonation giving us a sort of an opportunity to both laugh at the writer as well as share his pain. The first stanza introduces us to the misery of our poet who says he has this feeling ‘in me bones’ (line 1) anytime he sees a certain lady; a ‘lass’ (line 2). Her voice is so sweet (line 4) that whenever he hears it, he ‘breaks like glass’ (line 4). This line uses the word ‘glass’ to allude to the fact that hearts get broken sometimes and the lady’s voice could both be so overpowering in emotion as well as be high in amplitude, enough to cause the shattering of that glass, which in this case, is our poet. His sorrow has caused him to abandon walking on the streets for fear he might see her, and instead sit ‘on this here rock’ (line 6) to cry.

In the second stanza, our poet confesses that, when he sees her, he feels ‘this here itch’ (line 7) in his skin. Note his constant use of the phrase ‘this here…’ since the first stanza. This gives us a sense of pointing, as though he is indicating the objects that he describes after the phrase. The effect that this achieves is that it throws us right into his situation and emotion. Where he feels an itch, we are tempted to feel same. So the second stanza tells us onwards that he ‘tries to grin/But runs away…’ (lines 9-10), so much that he has stopped visiting the park as well. He only reclines ‘t’ cry’ (line 12).

The next stanza sets up a host of images that make us both laugh and sorrow away for this our poet. His father – the ‘old man’ (line 13) – sits him down and tells him to man-up! Face this shyness, discomfort of seeing the lady and just be bold with how he feels. His father tells him ‘you’re a man now’ (line 14). But our poor poet cannot beat it! His ‘heart beats like a drum’ (line 16) whenever he sees this lady. He tells us how bad it was, when she sits next to him in church on Sunday, and ‘Now I don’t know where me gets the gas’ (line 19), he sees himself screaming and fleeing the church hall, to the amazement of all gathered. He goes on to say that the whole town now thinks he is a ‘a right old bloke’ (line 21), when only in this stanza, his father was just even now trying to convince him that he was a man. He has aged foolishly for his own silliness! A beautiful, beautiful piece!

Bird

Bird

The final stanza tells us who our poet is! He is not exactly a young man but ‘an old sailor’ (line 23), ‘Who’s only wife, was the roarin’ ocean!’ (line 24). He looks forward to the day he will be bold enough to talk to her, but resigns to the fact that for now, his heart must bear the pain as a ‘lotion’ (line 26). He confesses that, regardless of the sturdiness we know of sailors, he has never felt anything so strong for anything, and wraps up by telling us that his present predicament is as a bird in his heart, ‘and it’s peckin’ me away!’ (line 28).

The beauty of this poem lies in so many things: the candour, the drama, the language and the untiring effort of an artist to paint for us a picture so vivid that we cannot but applaud him when he is done. Bravo, Agana!

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POET’S PROFILE

Brew

Brew

This year’s Ghanaian Literature Week began yesterday and will run to the 20th of this month. Started by Kinna Reads, it is in its second year and plans to highlight Ghanaian works of literature. It is a hugely laudable project and I have decided to review a few Ghanaian poems that I can, through the period. The poem on review today, A Plea for Mercy, was written by Kwesi Brew. He was born in 1928, at Cape Coast, Ghana and grew up in the eye of the independence struggle. Some of his poems have reflected that sense of strife. A Plea for Mercy is a classic example. He was educated in Ghana and then he travelled widely in the service of the nation. He was orphaned early in life and was raised by a guardian. He remains one of Ghana’s foremost poets and his passing away in 2007 still ranks as a low for the Ghanaian literary landscape. He was a true gem.

A PLEA FOR MERCY
We have come to your shrine to worship
We the sons of the land
The naked cowherd has brought
The cows safely home,
And stands silent with his bamboo flute
Wiping the rain from his brow;
As the birds brood in their nests
Awaiting the dawn with unsung melodies
The shadows crowd on the shore
Pressing their lips against the bosom of the sea;
The peasants home from their labours
Sit by their log-fires
Telling tales of long-ago.
Why should we the sons of the land
Plead unheeded before your shrine?
When our hearts are full of song
And our lips tremble with sadness?
The little firefly vies with the star,
The log-fire with the sun
The water in the calabash
With the mighty Volta,
But we have come in tattered penury
Begging at the door of a Master.

REVIEW
Even though this is one of Kwesi Brew’s more popular poems, the literature that exists to try and clarify its meaning is divergent. That is okay though, since the beauty of understanding poetry lies in the reader’s response to it. Everyone’s review is correct, subjectively.

The poem opens with a line that invokes the presence of a deity at whose shrine ‘the sons of the land’ (line 2) have come ‘to worship’ (line 1). After the first two lines, Brew masterfully weaves the poem through a series of melancholic lines, evoking sadness and pity. He describes the scene, a typical village setting where he talks about ‘the naked cowherd’ (line 3) who has brought the cows home safely and now stands ‘silent with his bamboo flute’ (line 5). In Ghana, a bamboo flute is used to play accompaniment for dirges, in times of sorrow. The use of the flute here carries this image strongly even though Brew tells us that the boy is not playing it. He stands silent!

The imagery of ill-boding continues in the poem because he says now that the birds stay brooding in their nests with ‘unsung melodies’ ( line 8 ) while they await the dawn. This is the first time we know that the poem is being written at night, in a period of darkness. That in itself also signifies misery. But after that, Brew tells us of many more things that happen in this night. ‘The shadows crowd on the shores’ (line 9), and when the peasants have finally come home from their day’s toil, they ‘sit by their log-fires’ (line 12). What could it mean now when you compare line 6, which says that the cowherd wipes ‘the rain from his brow’? It is raining outside and so the peasants must stay in to keep warm by the fires? The use of both the rain and the fire gives us images of dejection. Somebody is left cold in the rain and those who seek comfort find it in no one but by the log-fires. More melancholy.

We haven’t forgotten that this poem is speaking to a deity and Brew quickly reminds us by using for the second time, ‘We the sons of the land’ in line 14. His case is defined when he says that they have come pleading ‘unheeded’ (line 15) at the shrine. For what? That is the title of the poem. They are pleading for mercy. He summarises their state, saying that their ‘hearts are full of song’ (line 16) but they cannot muster the heart to sing those songs, since their lips ‘tremble with sadness’ (line 17).

The last six lines of this poem should have given us a clue as to whose shrine the sons of the land had come to but that is where reviewers are most confused. Different reviewers have acclaimed different ‘deities’ to whom Brew talks. Some have said he was talking to the earth, for reason that he uses ‘sons of the land’. Others have said he was talking to the white man because in colonial times, the locals called him ‘Master’ as in line 23. Again, reading through the poem, you could say he was talking to a sea deity because in lines 9 and 10, he makes it clear that ‘the shadows crowd on the shores/Pressing their lips against the bosom of the sea’. These same lips that tremble in line 17. If the shadows gather at the shore and Brew starts the poem by saying ‘We have come to your shrine’, then he would definitely have been talking to the sea.

But Brew was a Christian even though he believed in traditional values as well. In the larger Christian sphere, his speech would then have been to God. And this is what I want to agree with because in those last six lines, he compares ‘the little firefly…with the star’ (line 18), ‘The log-fire with the sun’ (line 19) and ‘The water in the calabash/With the mighty Volta’ (lines 20-21). The Volta is a huge river that courses through much of Ghana. His comparisons are of like with like. What he compares are two things, one smaller in size and power than the other. This is what drives my conviction that if he was calling God ‘Master’ (line 23) at whose door they have come begging ‘in tattered penury’ (line 22), he was only showing the greater Christian picture that man was created ‘in God’s image and likeness’ (cf. Genesis 1:26, Bible). This idea will agree with the earlier comparisons he made and make all other religious images used in the poem concur with the idea of one supreme being.

I love this poem by Kwesi Brew. He takes our emotions hostage, rides them through a series of gloomy pictures of nothingness and brings them begging at the door of a Master. This is a masterpiece and a worthy review for Ghanaian Literature Week.

POET’S PROFILE

Peters

Peters

I discovered this poem on recommendation and I can tell you I’ve enjoyed reading it over and over again. It was written by the only Gambian poet I have reviewed so far on this blog. And the issues in the poem somehow reflect today’s changing scenes.

The poet, Lenrie Peters was born (1st September 1932) Lenrie Leopold Wilfred Peters in Gambia to a Sierra Leonean Creole of West Indian or black American origin and a Gambian Creole mother of Sierra Leonean Creole origins. He schooled in Sierra Leone where he gained his Higher School certificates and then went on to a BSc. from Trinity College, Cambridge. He was awarded a Medical and Surgery diploma from Cambridge in 1959 and then he worked for the BBC on their Africa programmes from 1955 to 1968.

At Cambridge, Peters baptised himself in Pan-Africanist politics and became the president of the African Students’ Union. He also started work on his only novel, The Second Round, which he later published in 1965. Among other medical and professional associations including the Commonwealth Writers Prize Selection Committee 1996 and the Africa Region of the Commonwealth Prize for fiction, judge 1995, he served as the head of the West African Examinations Council from 1985 to 1991.

Peters is considered one of the most original voices of modern African poetry. He is a member of the African founding generation writing in English and has shown extensive pan-Africanism in his three volumes of poetry although his single novel received critique as being more British, accusing of African cultural decline and less African overall. His poetry was mixed with medical terms sometimes and his later works were angrier at the state of Africa than his first volume of poetry.
Peters passed away in 2009.

THE FENCE
There where the dim past and future mingle
their nebulous hopes and aspirations
there I lie.

There where truth and untruth struggle
in endless and bloody combat,
there I lie.

There where time moves forwards and backwards
with not one moment’s pause for sighing,
there I lie.

There where the body ages relentlessly
and only the feeble mind can wander back

there I lie in open-souled amazement

There where all the opposites arrive
to plague the inner senses, but do not fuse,
I hold my head; and then contrive
to stop the constant motion.
my head goes round and round,
but I have not been drinking;
I feel the buoyant waves; I stagger

It seems the world has changed her garment.
but it is I who have not crossed the fence,
So there I lie.

There where the need for good
and “the doing good” conflict,
there I lie.

REVIEW

In the whole length of the poem, Peters describes conflicting scenes or instances and his indecision on them all. In fact, the title of the poem alludes to the English expression ‘Sitting on the fence’ which most surely supplied the inspiration.

In the first verse, he talks about ‘the dim past and future’ and makes it apparent that he lies at the mingling point of their ‘hopes and aspirations’. He uses two words that make emphasise a general sense of uncertainty – ‘dim’ and ‘nebulous’. He ends the stanza with a crisp ‘there I lie’. He has plunged himself in the middle of the confusion.

In the next stanza, he lies at the place where ‘truth and untruth struggle’. He uses the word ‘untruth’ because it would create an unintended pun if he says ‘truth and lie’. But for us the readers, we can extrapolate this idea to affect the last line of the stanza where he says ‘there I lie’. The pun is created without intention. He lies. What exactly does that mean? He is telling a lie or he is lying down at a point? The antagonism between truth and untruth here is referred to as a ‘combat’, both ‘bloody’ and ‘endless’. He may have made the right choice to abstain.

The next stanza draws a parallel between time moving forward and backwards with no stop. I have little idea what he means by time moving backwards but he may have used this to highlight the greater conflict that makes him decide to stay on The Fence. Time moves back, time moves forward. What can he do than stay aloof?

Now he personalizes the conflict and claims that it is like the body aging ‘relentlessly’ and only the ‘feeble mind’ can bring back memories of youth. His soul meanwhile is amazed.

In the fifth stanza, Peters tells us that he stands in a point where all the opposites meet. In that meeting, they confuse him and plague his inner senses. He cannot make a decision and his irresolution eats him up. He tries to control his spinning head, to find some sort of reason in the midst of all the confusion. He tells us ‘I have not been drinking’ but he goes on right afterwards to use words that churn up the thought of a drunk man – ‘I feel the buoyant waves; I stagger’. His supposed drunkenness should be coming from his many worries! He is drunk on his troubles. A look at the larger structure of the poem, written in a centred format, should give a picture of his confusion. The writing style mirrors the state of his mind as the sentences come and go.

The stanza that unlocks the meaning behind this poem is the sixth. Peters reveals that everything around him has changed. The world as he knew it is no more. ‘The world has changed her garment’ is his claim. But he tells us that it he who has not crossed the fence. The indecision comes from a conflict between his past and his present. The world as he knew it and the world as it is now. This conflict affects a lot of people today in its most nuanced form. Most vivid is the difference in a family where parents were born and raised in a far-away village and now are raising their children in a cyber-world. The conflict may be pronounced for a man who knows not how to use these gadgets and stares blankly as he is confronted with them. This may not be the best picture but it is a mirror enough of the kind of conflict that Peters draws our attention to. ‘So there I lie’, he concludes.

After explaining his conflict to us, Peters goes back in the last stanza to his complaining ways. I like to think that final stanzas should bring out more intensely what the poet is saying – the denouement. So in the middle of this stanza, Peters enlightens us. His whole misunderstanding with the world comes from the world’s noble intents for all things ‘good’ and the actual ‘doing good’. Many people know what is right, talk about what is right and advocate for what is right but never actually do what is right themselves. The need for good and the actual doing good! There he lies.

The poem is a brilliant piece. I wouldn’t call it melancholic or protestant. It reflects more of a mental junction than about anything to worry about. Strangely, I find it a bit humorous. A masterpiece it is.