Archive for November, 2011




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

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!


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!



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!




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.

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.

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.