Poetry can be a voyage of discovery, can’t it?
You might remember the special edition of The Wagon devoted to African poetry. Recently I borrowed from the library the Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry and found that it opened my eyes and my ears to a continent that I have not yet visited.
The book is in English, either because the poems were written in that language or because they’re there in translation – from French, Portuguese, indigenous languages and so on. There’s always a problem with poetry in translation so I found myself concentrating on those items written from the outset in English and of course there were many of these.
One of the poets I looked out for was the Nigerian writer and Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka. One of his I found especially moving: ‘Death in the Dawn’ from 1967. These lines seemed to me to be magical:
Traveller, you must set out
At dawn. And wipe your feet upon
The dog-nose wetness of the earth.
They speak to men and women anywhere and at all times and with a wholly unexpected image that is exactly right. The subject of setting out on a journey or a quest is one that speaks to me particularly because I am slowly completing a second volume of my own poems on just this underlying theme.
Another Nigerian, the younger writer Ben Okri, caught my attention with a poem entitled ‘On Edge of Time Future’. This line was just one of several that distilled the essence:
everywhere stagger victims of rigged elections
So powerfully put and in today’s world of fake news a message that could come from many countries around the world. I have to say however that the reader of the Penguin Book of Modern African poetry is left with a strong impression of political conflict, repression and protest. Sadly this confirms impressions given by news reports of the continent over many years.
I had expected political poetry from South Africa, given the tumultuous struggles of that country in recent times, and I have to acknowledge my own country’s role. Among other, the book included works from the prize-winning writer Mongane Wally Serote – naturally so given his significant status, his imprisonment for nine months without trial in 1970, his long years of exile in Botswana and England and eventually his position as the ANC Head of Arts and Culture.
Similarly, from Kenya, there were poems by Maina wa Kinyatti – remarkably understated poems I thought given his six years in prison there. The introduction to the book spoke of conditions in prison ‘of which his poems offer only a glimpse’.
One illustration of this came from his restrained and allusive poem ‘The Bride’ with its nighttime scene in prison. It is both touching and disturbing and talks to us not only about injustice and suffering but about the human spirit and the enduring presence of love:
The couple in love
But from what human depths was it born?
There were poems from Uganda – especially by Okot p’Bitek that, I learnt had enormous influence throughout Africa writing ‘vigorous and direct poetry’; Poems from as far apart as Senegal and Malawi and of course, from the Congo and other Francophone nations and elsewhere.
Politics are far from the only theme. Daily life and love and death are as handsomely represented as one would wish. I was impressed by a subtle poem called ‘A Leopard Lives in a Muu Tree’ by Jonathan Kariara of Kenya in which an ageing man frets over his declining strength as he surveys his household:
The upright post at the gate has fallen
My women are frisky
The leopard arches over my homestead
Eats my lambs
That caused me some wry amusement, as an ageing man myself now, but it is also very touching. Are there poems by women, though? Yes, but not so many. The editors recognise this and I detected an implied promise to do better in future editions. Here, however, are a few lines from a beautiful piece from Stella Chipasula entitled ‘I’m My Own Mother Now’, also a reflection upon ageing:
But, mother, I am mothering you now;
new generations pass through my blood,
and I bear you proudly on my back
where you are no longer a question.
Stella Chipasula I understand lives in the USA (with her husband the writer Frank Chipasula) but comes from Zambia. Looking her up on the internet I find that she is the editor of the Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry.
There is evidently much more to be discovered.