Posts Tagged ‘Kwesi 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.

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.




Growing up, I always found that Kwesi Brew’s poetry resonated with my kind of style. He writes crisply, not using any unnecessary words. He knew what words were right to condense the right emotion. He was my favourite poet and I always wanted to meet him. I never did. And found out only late last year that he passed away in 2007. The literary world paid him less tribute than he deserved.

The Mesh is one of his more popular poems. And rightly so, looking at the beauty of its construction. The man himself was born in 1928, at Cape Coast, Ghana. He was born in the eye of the independence struggle and 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. The reason why he continues to be my favourite Ghanaian poet (though Atukwei Okai’s rhythm slays me too) is the control his words have. They are on point and simplistic. His works will endure as some of the greatest Ghanaian pieces ever.

We have come to the cross-roads
And I must either leave or come with you
I lingered over the choice
But in the darkness of my doubts
5 You lifted the lamp of love
And I saw in your face
The road that I should take.

This is a love poem, but as every great poem is, the meaning can be transcribed to the other political ways of men.
Brew is at a cross-roads of love with his partner, a point we all reach in our lives in our quests to find happiness. His words are plain. They are conversational as well as reported, as though he were talking of times gone by. The striking feature in this poem is the mixture of tense. In the first line, he is speaking in the Present, as though the cross-roads have just been reached. But in line 3 onwards, the tense changes to the Past and he seems to be talking about an event that is long gone.

The switch in tense is a testament to his confusion at that cross-road. Presently, he is confused!! When his mind is made up, his confusion is in the Past. The power that this nuance carries is powerful, and a fitting tribute to Brew’s trademark.
The story of the poem concludes that as his lover lifted a lamp of love (line 5), he was able to see where he ought to be going. Ostensibly, in the lover’s direction! That is a glowing tribute to the emotion of love itself. And a more intriguing twist, when you look up again and see that the title of the poem is THE MESH. The confusion. The perplexity. Love takes it away.

Rest in peace, Kwesi.