Saro-Wiwa's work is also carried on in the book's assertion of indigenous culture, of the value and power of the environment that the dictatorship forgot and the oil companies never knew:
I carry no weapons or fetish on me, / Uhaghwa clears the way with my songs.
The similarities between Tanure Ojaide and Saro-Wiwa's are of shared concerns. However, Ojaide is his own man, and when he's on form his poems break out of what could be dismal protest poetry into exciting, affirmative writing. Sometimes the 'message' does take over, but Ojaide is much better than that:
And jail has been his home
more than his self-built house.
They drop him at will in the desert
for sand dunes to bury him alive,
but his soles sanctify the sands
that fortify him to come out of the dead.
(from The prisoner)
Anger and celebration are recurring themes in much of the African poetry Ive read. If you want to see how close anger and celebration can be to one another in African poetry, look no further than Okot p'Bitek.
My man has read deep and wide
But this very reading has also destroyed him
In the cultures of his own people he is in the dark
His left eye and his right eye are both dead.
If you wanted, you could write whole books of sociology about this poem, and about Lawino. Even stripped back to statement in this version, she comes alive, funny, intelligent, defending herself with spiky genius:
Whoever said charcoal was for cooking?/Perhaps it is for cooking jackals / And all sorts of beasts women don't eat!
Ochol is just as interesting, a cultural moron but not a hopeless case:
Listen, Ochol, if you're still within reach
If your thread of life is not yet cut
If the blood still courses, however slowly,
If the love for life is still with you, take heart, have some porridge.
This is great writing, with something very significant to say:
The culture of your people you do not abandon.
PraiseSong for TheLand Kofi Anyidoho
Sub-Saharan Publishing (distributed in UK by African Books Collective )
PraiseSong for TheLand is a book and a CD. It's expensive, but it's brilliant.
Kofi Anyidoho, one of West Africa's most prominent poets, takes anger, takes celebration, and makes something else from them:
We harvest Tears
from laughter's Eyes.
We even sow some Joy
In sorrow's deepest Soul.
We are Dancer and The Dance.
(from Memory & Vision)
He bases a lot of these poems on Ewe dirges – I don't know much about that, but I do know that lines like these feel different from much other writing, not least because you can hear them on the CD at the same time. Anyidoho knows this – his introduction doesn't exactly hide his light under a bushel: “print can no longer carry the full burden of my voice”, he says. But he's not wrong. On first reading, you wonder where all the random capital letters come from, and where the spaces between words have gone:
He wore Her Memory
an Old AncestralHeirloom
from greed of UsurperGods.
(from Her Memory)
The CD makes everything clear. Here, the poems are set between pieces of music from the Ewe culture (although all people of African descent, and probably all people in the world, are “My People”). His voice really does boom as it glides stately through the lines, and as he recites you understand why the page is typeset as it is. It makes perfect sense for a senior African poet to speak and write at the same time about song:
And I have followed
The ancient DirgeSingers.
I've stammered and suffered hiccups.
I've groaned and yearned and moaned
I've cried a storm & wept riverfulls of joy.
(from PraiseSong for TheLand)
Things do sag a bit in the middle of the book, when there's an outbreak of 'someone's died, better write a poem about it' material. It's deeply felt, but the poetry goes off the boil, making the tributes less complimentary than they could have been. But, and it's a very big but, it would be a shame if that and the price were to drive people away from work like this:
If she were a GodDess
We could have placed
Her throne Up on KilimaNjaro's Brow
Her FootStools Down Bosoms of RiftValleys.
And Giants among our Men
Would weave a chain of SoldierAnts
To scale her slopes for Crumbs of Love.
(from Twilight Blues)
Mark Leech won the Stephen Spender prize for poetry in translation in 2004. His most recent book of translations, Anglo Saxon Voices , is published by Pipers' Ash.