Reviews

Delta Blues & Other Songs — Tanure Ojaide

Kraft Books (distributed in UK by African Books Collective )
Price £10.95

The poems in Delta Blues & Other Home Songs were written in the 1990s, when Nigeria was under the 'government' of General Abacha. The regime's corruption, brutality and ultimately its weakness were thoroughly exposed by its execution of the writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995, and it is his ghost that hangs heavy over this book.

There are railings against the execution: After presiding over the last primitive act of the century, / he still called out his livery to dance on nine mounds / as if human sacrifice to prolong his rule wasn't enough (Immortal grief). There is praise of Saro-Wiwa: His vision, that of a crocodile that would not be caught / by the steel net thrown over his lifescape (Journeying). There is also what looks like a continuation of the dead man's protest against Nigeria's home-grown villains and those from elsewhere who have desecrated the Niger Delta: Then Shell broke the bond / with quakes and a hell / of flares (When green was the lingua franca).

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)

 

The Defence of Lawino — Okot p'Bitek, trans. Taban Io Liyong

Fountain Publishing (distributed in UK by African Books Collective )
Price £10.95

Anger and celebration are recurring themes in much of the African poetry I’ve 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.

The Defence of Lawino, originally written in the Acholi language, is a work of celebratory anger, or the other way round. It's made up of 14 'submissions' by Lawino, a woman who knows Acholi culture intimately, in response to accusations of ignorance and uselessness made by her increasingly Europeanised husband, Ochol. P'Bitek himself wrote a version in English, but it wasn't faithful to the original, so Taban Io Liyong took up the challenge. Liyong went for literalism over poetry, and there are some lumpen lines: The malakwang sauce that has received a generous sesame paste / And is infused with tomato paste, is eaten in mouthfuls. But, still, you can't keep a good poet down, and this is the work of one of the greatest African poets. The later sections are fantastic:

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 )
Price £20.95

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
like
an Old AncestralHeirloom
hidden away
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

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.

 

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