Greg King and Sue Woolmans, The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World (2013)

June 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

Greg King and Sue Woolmans, The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World (2013).

David James Poissant, The Heaven of Animals

June 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

The first time Brig saw her, he was sure she was Kate.  She had Kate’s dark hair, Kate’s eyes, Kate’s taut swimmer’s build.  She was not Kate.  Kate was long gone.  Were Kate here, she wouldn’t look like this girl, or Brig didn’t think she would.  Three years change a person, and who, at thirty, could still pull off twenty?  Brig couldn’t.  He hair was the give-away, sideburns silvered, the gray spreading like racing stripes over his ears.  He needed to dye it.  He needed glasses.  He needed to lose the gut that had lassoed his middle.  Would Kate know him now if she saw him?  Would he know her?

The girl who looked like Kate but was not Kate sat on a curb, her back to a lamppost, hair gauzy beneath the bulb.  She wore denim shorts and a red sweatshirt, the pullover kind with the kangaroo pouch in front.  There was no moon, but lamps lined the sidewalks and lit up the U of the apartment complex.  A pool glowed blue at the horseshoe’s center.  It was late, the parking lot crowded with cars. (“Amputee,” p. 28, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Short stories, even more so than novels, can deceive readers with their opening lines.  A story that begins with such description-filled expository prose as that quoted above can turn quickly into something not expected, something more gut-wrenching than navel-gazing.  In David James Poissant’s debut collection, The Heaven of Animals, the majority of the 15 stories deal with characters who possess some crucial flaw, something that denies him or her their desires.  No, that does not cover the extent of these characters’ personalities and experiences.  There is a quality to them that forces us, the readers, to confront our own expectations and to contrast those with what Poissant presents in his stories. 

“Lizard Man” and the eponymous “The Heaven of Animals” bookmark this collection of stories originally published between 2007 and 2013.  In these two tales, a father, Dan, has thrown his then-teenaged son, Jack, through a first floor window after learning that his son is gay.  The repercussions of this event are what drive the two tales and in them, we see anger, frustration, resentment, confusion, and hesitancy spin rapidly through Dan’s head as he tries to make sense of how he feels about his son.  Some writers might have taken the easier path and shown a rapprochement; Poissant, however, shines a light on character motivations that many readers might find to be uncomfortable, if not distasteful.

These moments of expectation confrontration/twisting are not just limited to these two tales.  In others, including “Amputee” and “Last of the Great Land Mammals,” acts that typically would be viewed with scorn and disgust, if not then followed by a call to the police, are shown with such tenderness that the actions that are engendered by the characters’ desires for something else, something beyond their perhaps-wretched existences become somewhat more sympathetic for the reader, albeit something that would not perhaps be condoned.  It is a testament to Poissant’s skills as a writer that his characters, no matter how flawed they may be, contain just enough sympathy to them for readers to latch onto. 

There are very few “misses” in The Heaven of Animals.  There are four flash fictions that differ in style from the longer narratives and perhaps are the most fantastical tales, but they are interspersed and do little to break the rhythm of reading the stories in successive fashion.  Thematically, many of the stories are united by the specter of death and how it looms large in the lives of those dying and those who have lost loved ones, especially infants.  The two-part “The Geometry of Despair” may be the highlight of this collection, as it traces two episodes in the lives of a married couple following the sudden death of one of their infant children.  Poissant writes these two parts, “Venn Diagram” and “Wake the Baby” in such a fashion that the parents’ grief and their moments of anger and guilt feel palpable.

The Heaven of Animals‘ mixture of realism with a few moments of surrealist qualities (especially seen in “The Baby Glows” but also in more mundane tales) makes the majority of the tales stronger for this mixture of elements presented in such a personal fashion.  While the characters on the whole do not find answers or solutions, enough space is left at the trailing moments of their stories that the reader can envision several realistic paths that they may follow.  This, too, is a strength of Poissant and coupled with his keen ear for dialogue makes The Heaven of Animals one of the strongest collections I have read so far this year.  Highly recommended.

Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea

June 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore.  We think, Why bother?  Except for a lucky few, everyone is from someplace, but that someplace, it turns out, is gone.  You can search it, you can find pix or vids that show what the place last looked like, in our case a gravel-colored town of stoop-shouldered buildings on a riverbank in China, shorn hills in the distance.  Rooftops a mess of wires and junk.  The river tea-still, a swath of black.  And blunting it all is a haze that you can almost smell, you think, you don’t want to breathe in.

So what does it matter if the town was razed one day, after our people were trucked out?  What difference does it make that there’s almost nothing there now?  It was on the other side of the world, which might as well be a light-year away.  Though probably it was mourned when it was thriving.  People are funny that way; even the most miserable kind of circumstance can inspire a genuine throb of nostalgia. (p. 1)

Chang-rae Lee’s latest novel, On Such a Full Sea, is set in an environmentally-devastated United States hundreds of years in the future.  Urban cores are all that remain of certain American metropolises, with the former suburban communities now walled-off sections called Charters and the rural areas now known as Counties.  Within these remnants of the urban cores are labor settlements, where the descendents of imported labor work making products and raising food for consumption in the affluent Charters.  While some might be quick to label this a “dystopia,” it is but merely a setting through and around which the themes and action of On Such a Full Sea occur.

At the heart of the novel is a disappearance of Reg, a young man who seems to have a natural immunity to a number of genetic disorders, known here as C, and a young woman’s, Fran, search for him.  It is not, however, a quest narrative, at least not in the sense of Character A seeking out clues to Character B’s whereabouts, but rather a search for understanding on several levels, whether they be personal or societal in nature.

In the link I provided above to a commentary I wrote several months ago regarding a particular review of On Such a Full Sea, I devoted part of the article to discussing how this novel should not be evaluated along the lines of a genre SF novel, despite the commonalities between it and certain SF novels, especially those of a “dystopic” nature.  Months later, those points largely stand.  Readers accustomed to reading works set in a dilapidated future setting might presume certain things about that setting that would make such a novel “work”; On Such a Full Sea diverges from those expectations.  Below are two snippets from my earlier comments on the book:

What Lee does within his book is question several premises:  how do those living within a stratified system that is gamed against them adapt to their environs?  Why do we seek change when there is the possibility of personal failure at best and fates worse than mere death at worst?  Do we have even the illusion of free will in these settings?  How do we narrate our lives when we are ignorant of so much?  Does religion have to lie at the core of matters?  These are questions that have been addressed by several other writers over the centuries, of course.  Yet what Lee does here is raise them within a multi-faceted story in which place/environment does not matter as much as the humans that are living within these bounds.

***

 This raises a larger question:  does the setting within a presumed dystopia have to be meticulously constructed in order for the story to be effective?  In stories that aren’t strictly dystopic, such as Charlotte Gilman’s Herland or Voltaire’s Candide, the settings/premise frequently take a back seat to human interactions and development.  If one examined their “worlds” too carefully, no doubt there would be inconsistencies and dodgy “world” dynamics that would “ruin” the “realism” of these imagined places.  Let me say that again with greater emphasis:  would “ruin” the “realism” of these imagined places.  Ay, there’s the rub.  Lee is not as interested in the “realism” of his imagined setting as he is in exploring concepts within the framework of Fan’s search for Reg (and the ancillary issues discussed by the anonymous narrator who jumps back and forth in literary time to address certain points from a variety of viewpoints).

This does not mean that On Such a Full Sea is a perfect novel.  On the contrary, the narrative loops in and out of the “literary present” in such a fashion that narrative momentum is often lost in the digressions.  There are times where the characters could have been developed better in order to achieve Lee’s desired effect.  Yet his balance of searching questions with well-articulated prose and halfway-interesting characters makes On Such a Full Sea a satisfying read.  It may not fit others’ criteria for a dystopia, but its questions about our own lives and how our present inequalities may be carried forward into the future does make it a thought provoking read.  Sometimes, that is all some might ask of a tale and Lee here manages to provide that and extra.

Jesse Ball, Silence Once Begun

June 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

The story of Oda Sotatsu begins with a confession that he signed.

He had fallen in with a man named Kakuzo and a girl named Jito Joo.  These were somewhat wild characters, particularly Sato Kakuzo.  He was in trouble, or had been.  People knew it.

Now this is what happened:  somehow Kakuzo met Oda Sotatsu, and somehow he convinced him to sign a confession for a crime that he had not committed.

That he should sign a confession for a crime that he did not commit is strange.  It is hard to believe.  Yet, he did in fact sign it.  When I learned of these events, and when I researched them, I found that there was a reason he did so, and that reason is – he was compelled to by a wager. (p. 12 iPad iBooks e-edition)

This quote, taken from the opening page of Jesse Ball’s fourth novel, Silence Once Begun, immediately grabs the reader’s attention.  Just who is Oda Sotatsu and why in the world would he ever agree to sign his name to a confession after losing a bet?  More importantly, to what did he actually confess?  It is with this little mystery that a fictional Jesse Ball begins his interrogation/interviewing with those who should have known Sotatsu and yet whose various accounts paint conflicting images of a man who became silent after his false confession led to his conviction.

Silence Once Begun could be described as a crime/procedural novel.  So too could Franz Kafka’s The Trial.  Although Silence Once Begun bears very little surface similarity to Kafka’s acclaimed “unfinished” novel, there certainly is the sense in both novels of reality coming to stand for something else.  Here in Ball’s novel, with its meticulous reproduction of a faux set of interviews and statements, the verisimilitude serves to underscore the very trappings of “reality” that the interview/deposition structure has created.  Just who is this silent guy and what has he confessed to?  Ball very skillfully teases us with snippets of answers, of events that lead to public outrage when Sotatsu is arrested for his (false) confession.  Just as K. is confronted with a stream of testimony against him for acts he himself does not understand, Sotatsu’s acquaintances provide all sorts of conflicting testimony as to the sort of person he may or may not have been.  These contrasting reports simultaneously muddy the composite image of Sotatsu that we may have formed and they sharpen our view of him and the reasons behind not just his signature to a flase confession, but also to his subsequent silence.  Below is an excerpt from an interview with one of the key people in this case:

I believe in discovering the love that exists and then trying to understand it.  Not to invent a love and try to make it exist, but to find what does exist, and then to see what it is.  I believe in trying to understand such love through other loves, other loves that have existed before.  Many people have made the records of these loves.  These records can be found.  They can be read.  Some are songs.  Some are just photographs.  Most are stories.  I have always sought after love, and longed for it.  I have looked for all the kinds that may be.  I am writing to you now to talk about Oda Sotatsu, who is a person I loved, and who loved me.  Although I know there are others who will say things about Oda Sotatsu, who may say things about me, who may know about this situation, although they are few, perhaps there are some who can speak about these things, yet what I know is what I felt and what I saw.  I am not writing this for any comparison or for any other sort of understanding, but as a record of love, for use by those who love and who hope to love.  I am not nimble and I cannot hide things well.  I will write what I felt and how.  You may see how I do. (p. 180 e-book)

Ball very carefully develops Sotatsu’s character through these character deposition/interviews.  While he himself may be silent, those around him are not, even if their comments may be at odds with one another.  This approach toward characterization takes a lot of work, as not only is the character himself largely absent from the actual narrative, if there is a single false note, a singular time where the words are not placed just so and the dialogue not pitch-perfect, then the entire enterprise would collapse like a deck of cards.  Ball, however, manages to weave his way through this narrative labyrinth, creating a fascinating character stuck in a nebulous yet increasingly dangerous situation (sometimes, what certain characters left unstated or edited out of their comments say much more than their actual words).

Not only does Ball manage to plot well, but the prose does several things.  Look at the passage quoted just above.  The way this character voices her feelings, there is the sense that she is saying something that may prove to be opposite of what she professes.  It is easy to accept the claim that she is “not nimble and I cannot hide things well” at face value, but there is that niggling sense that she may be covering up something, perhaps something very vital to understanding what has been transpiring ever since Sotatsu signed his name to that false confession.

Silence Once Begun is not a novel to be read quickly.  Its seeming forthrightness belies the layers of deception that are occurring underneath.  Due to Ball’s carefully constructed interviews, the plot is very intricate and requires some attention to detail from the reader in order for the mystery to be interpreted, if not completely solved.  Yet the effort more than amply rewards the careful, patient reader, as Silence Once Begun is one of those rare novels whose form and structure are so well executed that they, along with the narrative and plot, can be appreciated for just how well it all comes together by the end.  Highly recommended.
 

Teju Cole, Every Day is for the Thief

June 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

Another man, sitting to my right, fills out forms for his children.  He informs me that he recently had his passport reissued.  I ask him how long it took.

– Well, normally, it’s four weeks.

– Four weeks?  I am traveling in less than three.  The website assures applicants that passport processing takes only a week.

– It should, normally.  But it doesn’t.  Or I should say, it does, but only if you pay the fee for “expediting” it.  That’s a fifty-five-dollar money order.

– There’s nothing about that on the website.

– Of course not.  But that’s what I did, what I had to do.  And I got mine in a week.  Of course, the expediting fee is unofficial.  They are crooks, you see, these people.  They take the money order, which they don’t give you a receipt for, and they deposit it in the account and they take out cash from the account.  That’s for their own pockets. (p. 11, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Graft.  The greasing of hands.  The lining of pockets.  These are but a few of the euphemisms given to the system of paying bribes and various other “unofficial” fees in order to speed up government progress.  While it is far from foreign even in countries such as the United States that purportedly outlaw these practices, it is especially endemic in emerging economic states such as Nigeria.  In Teju Cole’s second novel (or rather, the revision of a story written before his debut novel Open City), Every Day is for the Thief, he shows how these practices have become woven into the fabric of quotidian Nigerian life.

Like Open City, Every Day is for the Thief utilizes an ambulatory plot device.  As the narrator travels, sometimes by foot, through his native land after fifteen years living in the United States, he narrates small encounters like witnessing police officers arguing where each should be stationed in order to best collect money from commercial vehicles or the “yahoo yahoo” who occupy Nigeria’s internet cafes in order to perpetuate their “419” advance money scams.  Each step of the way, it becomes readily apparent that in order for life to proceed without many interruptions, that the adage of “every day is for the thief” must become true:  without the “informal economy,” Nigeria’s official economy would suffer greatly as most of its civil servants would fall under the international poverty line.

Cole’s narrative captures well the differences between foreign and domestic perspectives.  His narrator straddles the line between the two, being a national who has lived for fifteen years in the US, and he notices things that natives would not think twice about while foreigners would be too quick to blast them as nefarious.  Take for instance this observation:

Money, dished out in quantities fitting the context, is a social lubricant here.  It eases passage even as it maintains hierarchies.  Fifty naira for the man who helps you back out from a parking spot, two hundred naira for the police officer who stops for no good reason in the dead of night, ten thousand for the clearing agent who helps bring your imported crate through customs.  For each transaction, there is a suitable amount that helps things on their way.  No one else seems to worry, as I do, that the money demanded by someone whose finger hovers over the trigger of an AK-47 is less a tip than a ransom.  I feel that my worrying about it is a luxury that few can afford.  For many Nigerians, the giving and receiving of bribes, tips, extortion money, or alms – the categories are fluid – is not thought of in moral terms.  It is seen either as a mild irritant or as an opportunity.  It is a way of getting things done, neither more nor less than what money is there for. (p. 18)

This sanguine observation sets us other musings about daily life.  At one point, as the narrator talks about a fight he had witnessed, he makes an interesting connection between writing and social life:

Just one week later, I see another fight, at the very same bend in the road.  All the touts in the vicinity join in this one.  It is pandemonium, but a completely normal kind, and it fizzles out after about ten minutes.  End of brawl.  Everyone goes back to his normal business.  It is an appalling way to conduct a society, yes, but I suddenly feel a vague pity for all those writers who have to ply their trade from sleepy American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolized by the very slow washing of dishes.  Had John Updike been African, he would have won the Nobel Prize twenty years ago.  I feel sure that his material hobbled him.  Shillington, Pennsylvania, simply did not measure up to his extravagant gifts.  And sadder yet are those who haven’t even a fraction of Updike’s talent and yet must hoe the same arid patch for stories.  No such aridity here, but that doesn’t mean I can just move to Nigeria. (p. 49)

This quote I think strikes at the heart of why Every Day is for the Thief makes such a profound impression upon American readers.  We are familiar with Updike’s clones, those writers who try, often very artfully, to narrate the minutiae of American suburban life.  For many readers, however, the plethora of these type of stories has led to a sort of narrative fatigue, the sense of “great, another divorcing professor in a mid-life crisis hooking up with a nubile yet fragile co-ed,” with little in the way of actual life for the majority of readers being captured in prose.  So in reading tales set in other lands, with different social customs, there is that quality of the “exotic” that many readers expect.  But Cole’s narrative is not “exotic,” it is not written for those who want to read something just to experience something out of their ordinary experiences.  Instead, Every Day is for the Thief narrates a particular experience in a fashion that is not so different from what an Updikean narrator might observe, if only that narrator were transplanted in Lagos instead of Shillington, PA.

This keen, observant narrative style is what makes Every Day is for the Thief such an enjoyable read, not its depictions of graft and corruption.  Barely mentioned so far in this review is how native Nigerians interact with the narrator.  I have held back on this because the engrained societal graft is the part that non-Nigerian readers are going to notice first.  But as interesting as that plot element is, it is dependent upon how the narrator and those around him react, and more importantly, live in this society that makes this short novel a good read.  The Nigerian synthesis of (corrupt) capitalism and religiosity is illustrated in an understated yet ultimately profound fashion.  One powerful scene involves the narrator visiting one of Lagos’s museums and after noting its neglected state and musing on the sordid history of slavery in the region, he makes this observation:

This history is missing from Lagos.  There is no monument to the great wound.  There is no day of remembrance, no commemorative museum.  There are one or two houses in Badagry that display chains and leg-irons but, beyond that, nothing.  Faulkner said:  “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  But in Lagos we sleep dreamlessly, the sleep of innocents. (p. 81)

However disturbing this realization may be, it is but one facet of Nigerian life.  If the people can “forget” their past, or rather just shoulder it and bear it without comment, much less complaint, then there are those, like those living in the capital city of Abuja, who embrace the trappings of “modern life” in the midst of competing religious monuments, such as the National Mosque, described as “a gigantic sci-fi fantasy, like a newly landed alien mother ship” (p. 99) and the National Cathedral, “a spiky modernist confection” (p. 99).  But religious life, like other elements of Nigerian life, evokes some harsh comparisons between the apparent and the real, between aspirations and everyday life:

But it is as yet a borrowed progress and it is happening in the absence of the ideological commitments that can make it real.  The president of the Federation is unable to get away from constant God talk, and in this he is very much like his constituents.  President Obasanjo’s hobbyhorse is the “image” of the country.  He believes that the greatest damage to Nigeria is being done by critics.  These unpatriotic people are, in his opinion, the ones spoiling the country.  He insists that the only real flaw is in the pointing out of flaws.  One should only say good things.  After all, no society can claim perfection.

While the buildings and roads of the capital city suggest a rational, orderly society, the reality is the opposite.  Supernatural explanations are favored for the most ordinary events. (p. 100)

With each step, with each observation of Nigerian life and how it connects to the petty and brazen attempts to extort money, a country of contrasts arises.  Yet where another might use these observations to lambast the country and its citizens, Cole goes in another direction.  He notes and occasionally laments these elements, but he also focuses on the ability of its people to persevere, to find joy and happiness in life that often surpasses those of citizens from Western countries.  This quotable book, full of anecdotes that make it a powerful reads, contains one more that I would like to cite:

It is an uncanny place, this dockyard of Charon’s, but it also has an enlivening purity.  Enlivening, but not joyful exactly.  A wholeness, rather, a comforting sense that there is an order to things, a solid assurance of deep-structured order, so strongly felt that when I come to the end of the street and see, off to my right, the path out of the labyrinth and into the city’s normal bustle, I do not really want to move on.  But I know, at the same time, that it is not possible for me to stay. (p. 115)

It is this sense of wholeness, of being able to integrate the good and bad of life into something complete, something to be celebrated, that makes Every Day is for the Thief more than a catalog of abuses and prejudices.  It is indeed a narration of life, and life is, I suppose, what you choose to make of it.  The lives described here feel real because their flaws and adaptive qualities are shown in such an illuminating fashion that the craft behind these scenes is lost within the spirit that readily shines throughout.  Truly a worthy companion to Open City.

David Grossman, Falling Out of Time

June 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Some of the most powerful writing can be born out of suffering and deep personal grief and anguish.  In 2006, Israeli writer/poet David Grossman learned that his son had died while fighting in the Second Lebanon War.  In response, he wrote a book, Falling Out of Time, that combines elements of drama and poetry to tell of a father’s grief and his journey to discover his fallen son yet once more.

Falling Out of Time possesses a central narrative, that of the grieving father’s search for something, anything, that will bring at least some semblance of his dead son to life again, and through the media of poetry and drama, lines, beautiful as they may be, that otherwise might be lost in a more traditional series of meditative poems gain a greater poignancy in this more unified verse-prose-drama.  Below is a scene taken from early in the story, as the father and mother realize that their son’s death may have driven a stake through their own relationship:

MAN: 

I can remember
you without
his noneness – your innocent,
hopeful smile – and I can remember
myself without his noneness.  But not
him.  Strange:  him
without his noneness, I can no longer
remember.  And as time goes by
it starts to seem as though
even when he was,
there were signs
of his noneness.
 

WOMAN: 

Sometimes, you know,
I miss
that ravaged,
bloody
she.
Sometimes I believe her
more than I believe
myself.
 

MAN: 

She is the reason I take
my life
in your hands and ask
you a question
I myself
do not understand:
Will you go with me?
There –
to him?
 

WOMAN: 

That night I thought:
Now we will separate:  We cannot live
together any longer.  When I tell you
yes,
you will embrace
the no, embrace
the empty space
of him.  (pp. 20-21 iPad iBooks e-edition, translated by Jessica Cohen)

Grossman’s distillation of grief into such short, sharp lines benefits greatly from the recasting of the Man’s grief into dramatic poetry.  There are no wasted lines, nothing but raw, visceral emotion behind his confession of his loss of his son to “noneness.”  Equally, the Woman’s realization that their son’s death has driven a wedge between them is said succinctly and yet with great emotion behind those few words.

And yet Falling Out of Time is much more than the separations caused by death.  As the father/Man sets out to discover answers, he becomes in his walking a symbol of the peripatetic traveler, that stock character of so many classical tales.  But wanderers are not always alone and his particular case, he finds gathered around them other grief-driven pilgrims to places to which they do not comprehend.  One such companion is a centaur who has tried to capture his grief in words and has found those words to fail:

CENTAUR:  You’re back.  Finally.  I was beginning to think you’d never…that I’d scared you off.  Look, I was thinking:  You and I, we’re an odd couple, aren’t we?  Think about it:  I’ve been unable to write for years, haven’t produced even one word, and you – it turns out – can write, or rather transcribe, as much as you feel like.  Whole notebooks, scrolls!  But only what other people tell you, apparently.  Only quotes, right?  Other people’s chewed-up cud.  All you do is jot it down with a pen stroke here, a scribble there…Am I right?  Not even a single word that’s really yours?  Yeah?  Not even one letter?  That’s what I thought.  What can I say, we’re quite a pair.  Write this down then, please.  Quickly, before it gets away: 

And inside my head there’s a constant war comma the waspskeep humming colon what good would it do if you wrotequestion mark what would you addto the world if you imagined questionmark and if you reallymust comma then just writefacts comma whatelse is there to sayquestion mark write themdown and shut upforever colon atsuch and such time comma inthis and that place comma my soncomma my old child comma agedeleven and a halfperiod the boyis gone period (pp. 67-68 iBooks e-edition)

In this passage, Grossman expands the grief, makes it more universal without ever reducing its intimate, personal pain.  And as the wandering man/father continues his journey, he comes upon a profound realization, one that does not lessen his sorrow but it does at least provide an understanding he did not realize he was seeking among the other understandings he has partially grasped by story’s end.

Falling Out of Time moves the reader because Grossman’s dialogues within the poetic stanzas feels both realistic and something more profound than the banalities we often utter when expressing our (sometimes half-hearted) words of condolence.  The imagery evoked is simple, but its directness cuts away at our protective layers that shield us from strong emotion, leaving the reader bare and receptive for the raw power of the dramatic poetry.  The result is one of those narrative poems that show that even today, long after many have presumed the poem to have lost its power to move souls, that poetry can tell a story even more effectively than prose and that in its imagery and expressions, meanings can be found that do not require anything more than empathy for them to work their wonders upon our hearts and souls.

Kofi Awoonor, The Promise of Hope

June 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

The fact of our lives,
full of achievements
vilification, praise
or contempt from those
who surely do not measure
eternity becomes a quotation
posted on the billboard of a single life.
Passions are exhausted
love, renewed again
and again
to satisfy a basic longing,
journeys made, departures recorded
deaths foretold again
and again
 

– from “What More Can I Give?”, p. 23

The late Ghanian poet Kofi Awoonor, who died at the hands of terrorists in Kenya in September 2013, is perhaps one of Africa’s most celebrated poets.  This collection of a half-century of verse, The Promise of Hope:  New and Selected Poems 1964-2013, was planned before his murder and yet there is a sense of death lurking in his most-recent poems.  But it would be a mistake to construe this as being a wholly negative affair, as Awoonor’s poems here address a wide spectrum of human emotions and reactions to that nebulous thing called hope.

The quote above captures this multifaceted quality excellently.  From the “facts of our lives” being vilified or praised by those who do not merit the poet’s consideration to the renewal of exhausted passions, all leading to deaths foretold again, quite a lot of emotional ground is covered in one stanza of a poem that concludes:

I did not know it will return
this crushing urge to sing
only sorrow songs;
the urge to visit again
the last recesses of pain
pluck that lingering hair with a wince.
how long shall my God
linger in a brass pan
the offertory unreceived? (p. 24)

This sorrowful conclusion, however it might represent the dominant theme of his 2013 era poetry, does not capture the width or breadth of Awoonor’s poetry.  The interesting thing about The Promise of Hope is that unlike most anthologies of a single poet’s work, it does not begin in 1964 and conclude with the 2013 poems.  Instead, it operates in reverse, as we see the poet through younger, more fiery selves, concluding with a poet beginning to find his voice.  It is an unusual choice, but it works very well here, as the downbeat quality of his last poems is offset by the outraged optimism of the younger Awoonor.  Below is a sample from the second-presented section,  1992’s “Latin American & Caribbean Cookbook,” the last two stanzas from “Of Home and Sea I Already Sang”:

Let the dream not die, master;
Let the dove coo at dawn again,
Let the masthead rear its head
out of the storm
and share the night with me on this sea.
Let me sing the song you gave me.
 

Before death comes, master,
Let me dance to the drums you gave me.
Let me sit in the warmth of the fire
of the only native land you gave me. (pp. 43-44)

While the death element is still present (the poem references an 1980s American military shooting down of an Iranian civilian plane), there is more of a pleading tone, of not letting a dream not, of permitting a song given to be sung.  It is more plaintive than the latter poems, but even within this somewhat-begging note, there is a sense of hope burning under the surface, a sense that the other poems in the 1992 collection provide, mostly through the guise of outrage over socio-political injustices, many of them perpetrated by the United States.

From 1978’s “The House by the Sea” comes this poem written in memory of Henoga Vinoko Akpalu, called appropriately enough “For Henoga Vinoko Akpalu”:

You said once
You said the tear
was the pear of the soul
food for gods at sacrifice
Huge now the platter
like the music of crumbling walls
fools and poets
are the same mother’s children.
 

I fled to America
in blonde pleasures
reliving my cosmopolitan
nay international dreams
new, new man, my voice
my manners
so I lost the faculty
of defecation
with the miracle of the wild lily
 

I sailed my own ship
to Byzantium to see the youth
for elders in the reversal
A young man Hasidic to his skull-cap
eyed me nervously
mistaking me I hope for my beard
for a panther.  So I march now
with the armies of Caesar on Rome
a companion now of Hannibal
freshly out of Africa ex Africa aliquidsemper elephantes
for the alps the alps
Europe the Sartrean negritude
and Dantesque lower region
My Africa the bullshit concentric
     circle
For a song please vomit Blood
in Capetown, murder me Vorster
and Allende in Santiago
For a dance give me Christ Castro’s
     head since the Baptist died
of American bullet in Bolivia
 

Who said the work of man is not done (pp. 151-152)

Here the post-colonialist voice is strongest, here comparison of the US to Byzantium, with its decadent, hollow nod to multi-lingual gatherings, is constructed.  Awoonor mixes in ancient Roman, medieval Italian, and modern 20th century events to create an arresting image of a middle-aged man seeing that in order for a dream to be achieved, a lot of work and suffering lay ahead.  This is perhaps one of the more biting poems in the collection, but it does represent a way station along Awoonor’s journey, via verse, from a frustrated man to an elder who has come to accept his mortality even before it was violently taken from him at a Nairobi shopping mall.  It is fitting to stop here and let the reader ponder just how this “promise of hope” has driven the poet over his last fifty years of life.  For myself, it was a very moving and excellently-constructed collection, full of memorable stanzas and poems.

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