Walt Whitman, Poetry and Prose (1855-1892; Library of America edition 1982)

June 18th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond
     to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the
     charge of the soul.
Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own
     bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they
     who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do full as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
– opening section of “I Sing the Body Electric” (p. 250, Library of America edition)
Every so often, there comes along a literary genius who makes a genre sui generis.  Shakespeare, talented as he was, was in his lifetime merely one of several gifted English playwrights.  Goethe was a master of many trades, yet his impact on prose, drama, and poetry, while profound, did not mark as much of a break with German literary tradition as did the singular work of a 19th century American poet, Walt Whitman.  What Whitman accomplished over the course of thirty-six years of revisions of his seminal Leaves of Grass is truly remarkable.  Although there were other, earlier American poets, such as Edgar Allan Poe, who created memorable poems, there were none who captured the collective ethos of the burgeoning American republic to the depth and breadth of Whitman.
Reading Leaves of Grass is more of an experience than a passive activity.  It does not follow older poetic traditions of metre and rhyme; it often contains clashes of styles and insights within its verses (not for nothing does Whitman state in section 51 of “Song of Myself” the following:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) (p. 246))
 Yet there is something within this occasionally bombastic collection that makes such poetic conventions seem restrictive, if not outmoded.  Whitman’s poems are at once personal and epic, yet without an over-reliance upon Greco-Roman or English historical themes.  One example of this can be found in “O Captain!  My Captain!,” which dealt with the assassination of President Lincoln.  The opening stanza is full of metaphors for his leadership during the American Civil War, yet there is nothing that immediately rises to the grandiose:

O Captain!  my Captain!  our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart!  heart!  heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead. (p. 467)

In reading this poem, at first I saw not a myth, not an Olympian figure that might be found in the Romantic poetry of the 19th century, but a man, one chained by duty to something that afflicts him.  Lincoln’s conduct of the war, this “vessel grim and daring,” guided by his steady, unrelenting demeanor, is presented in a vivid, yet grounded fashion; Lincoln is merely a worker, albeit one who has achieved greatness not due so much to any preternatural gifts but because of a steadiness to him that reflects the character of the young, divided nation that he helped guide through the turmoils of the War of Secession.

Yet as moving of an elegy as “O Captain! My Captain” is (and certainly it has been referenced frequently in the following 150 years), I think it is an outlier compared to the other poems that appeared in the various editions of Leaves of Grass.  It (and by extension, the other poems in the section “Memories of President Lincoln”) is more somber, less full of the joie de vivre found in earlier sections, such as the more erotic Calamus poems.  Those, such as “We Two Boys Together Clinging,” in content and form presage the works of the Beat Generation a century later:

We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,
Up and down the roads going, North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying, elbows stretching, fingers clutching,
Arm’d and fearless, eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,
No law less than ourselves owning, sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening,
Misers, menials, priests alarming, air breathing, water drinking, on the
turf or the sea-beach dancing,
Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing,
Fulfilling our foray. (p. 282)

This perhaps is not one of Whitman’s more famous poems, but within this litany of rakish acts I sensed a spirit of raw newness, something that isn’t shaped by societal conventions or past models as much as it is testing those bounds, yearning to burst free and to live and by so living create experiences different from those that came before.  This yearning quality in Whitman’s poetry does not always work (there are several poems that feel more like sketches of great works than anything substantial), but I would argue that even these relative “failures” make Leaves of Grass a staggering work, precisely because we can see the poet’s work not as a polished work but instead as something whose flaws and virtues have blended together to create something that feels almost alive, replete with its own literary warts and scars.

The second half of Poetry and Prose, Whitman’s numerous essays, letters, and various ruminations on contemporary events and the experiences that he distilled later into his poetry, is a fascinating read in its own light.  Whitman does not shy away from making strong comments about other writers (see his comment on Edgar Allan Poe in “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads):

Toward the last I had among much else look’d over Edgar Poe’s poems – of which I was not an admirer, tho’ I always saw that beyond their limited range of melody (like perpetual chimes of music bells, ringing from lower b flat up to g) they were melodious expressions, and perhaps never excell’d ones, of certain pronounc’d phases of human morbidity. (The Poetic area is very spacious – has room for all – has so many mansions!)  But I was repaid in Poe’s prose by the idea that (at any rate for our occasions, our day) there can be no such thing as a long poem.  The same thought had been haunting my mind before, but Poe’s argument, though short, work’d the sum out and proved it to me. (p. 665)

But more so than his literary commentaries Whitman’s diary of his time as a nurse during the Civil War makes his prose works a worthy read in their own right.  He notes several conversations with wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict, with several entries presenting in just a few lines deep insights into these soldiers’ lives and their world-views.  Almost the entirety of Specimen Days is fascinating to read and consider at length.

Poetry and Prose is ultimately one of those works that is virtually impossible to review in depth in a single article under 2000 words.  There are so many poems that are worthy of deeper investigation than was possible in a short review such as this.  In composing this post, I decided that perhaps it would be better to just quote a few snippets of works that intrigued me and to discuss briefly things within them that I liked.  Hopefully those who have not read Whitman’s poetry (or at least not beyond the usual suspects reproduced in literature survey anthologies) will find themselves wanting to read more.  Those who have read and enjoyed his works but who have not yet read his prose (such as myself before earlier this year) will want now to investigate those as well.  Whitman certainly is an American literary treasure, one who consciously refused to follow contemporary literary conventions.  In breaking with the literary past, Whitman ended up creating works that differed significantly from those of his peers and his influence on American poets over the past 160 years has been immeasurable.  Poetry and Prose is an excellent one-volume collection of his literary output, as it is an edition that presents the entire breadth and depth of Whitman’s writing without overwhelming readers with too many citations and footnotes.  It certainly is worth the time and money spent.

2014 National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature: Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming

November 3rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

There are white men working at the printing press
beside Daddy, their fingers blackened
with ink so that at the end of the day, palms up
it’s hard to tell who is white and who is not, still
they call my grandfather Gunnar,
even though he’s a foreman
and is supposed to be called
Mr. Irby.
But he looks the white men in the eye
sees the way so many of them can’t understand
a colored man
telling them what they need to do.
This is new.  Too fast for them.
The South is changing.

Sometimes they don’t listen.
Sometimes they walk away.
At the end of the day, the newspaper is printed,
the machines are shut down and each man
punches a clock and leaves but

only Colored folks
come home to Nicholtown.

Here, you can’t look right or left or up or down
without seeing brown people.
Colored Town.  Brown Town.  Even a few mean words
to say where we live.

My grandmother tells us
it’s the way of the South.  Colored folks used to stay
where they were told that they belonged.  But
times are changing.
And people are itching to go where they want.

This evening, though,
I am happy to belong
to Nicholtown.

– “at the end of the day,” (pp. 53-54)

Jacqueline Woodson’s National Book Award-nominated Brown Girl Dreaming is an autobiography of her life growing up in Ohio, South Carolina, and New York City during the eventful 1960s.  Instead of writing a more traditional prose memoir, Woodson recasts memories of her childhood in a series of poems that cover a wide variety of issues, from racism to food, from family bonds and parental disunity.  This choice of utilizing poetry instead of prose allows Woodson to describe in great detail certain memories of her childhood with great economy of words.

Brown Girl Dreaming is divided into five parts, each of which chronicles key moments in Woodson’s childhood.  Some of the earlier poems, such as “second daughter’s second day on earth,” use historical events, like the planning of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington, as a backdrop to her life and the expectations that have been placed on her by others.  Others, like “a girl named jack,” concentrate on the more intimate issues of self-identity, such as the argument between Woodson’s parents over what name she should have.  Identity is an issue that Woodson revisits several times over the course of this collection and for the majority of the poems dedicated to exploring these questions of self-identity, she manages to create vividly-described passages in which the doubt and uncertainty which plagued her at times come to the fore and are presented well.

In later sections, particularly in the shift from Ohio to South Carolina (and later to New York City), Woodson focuses more on differences and how diverse perspectives affected the younger her.  Of particular interest was the poem “training,” in which a cousin, Dorothy, voices the apprehension that many in the civil rights movement had regarding nonviolence:

But Lord, Cousin Dorothy says.  Everyone has a line.
When I’m walking
up to that lunch counter and taking my seat,
I pray to God, don’t let
anybody spit on me.  I can be Sweet Dorothy
seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day
as long as nobody crosses that line.  Because if they do,
this nonviolent movement

is over! (pp. 76-77)

If there is a major flaw to Brown Girl Dreaming, it might be that it is too full of images and scenes from Woodson’s past.  This is not to say that individual poems are poor or even mediocre, no.  Instead, there are times that it felt as though a similarly-themed poem was presented too close to another, weakening the effect that either might have had if they were separated by a greater space.  Also, there were some poems that seemed to be lacking on a technical level, as though a metaphor could have been added or dropped, or perhaps a descriptive scene could have been shortened to make for a more effective poem.  Yet in saying this, I am hard pressed to think of specific examples; this is more of a general sense of the collection as a whole rather than individual lines or poems.  Again, this is not to say that the poems as a whole were mediocre, but rather that there were times where the effect was less than what Woodson seemed to desire to achieve.

Despite these occasionally flat poems, on the whole Brown Girl Dreaming is a moving story of the author’s early life and how her and her family’s experiences in the 1960s helped shape her as a woman of color.  It is a good poetry collection, but not a great one; the power lies more with the story unfolding within the poems rather than in the poems themselves.  Nevertheless, it is a collection well worth reading and it is a worthy nominee for the 2014 National Book Awards for Young People’s Literature.

2014 National Book Award Poetry longlist: Linda Bierds, Roget’s Illusion

September 17th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I will never contain the whole of it, he said,
the mirror too small for the long-necked lamp
floating swanlike near the angle of incidence.
Never, he said, stepping back from the lectern

and long-necked lamp, the mirror he held too small
for the swan.  To reflect the object entirely,
he said, stepping back to the lectern,
the glass must be half the source’s height.

To reflect the object entirely – the lamp,
or a swan, or my figure before you –
the glass must be half the source’s height.
Unlike thought, which easily triples the whole.

– from “On Reflection,” p. 60

Although for generations of benighted English/literature students he is most well-known for his thesaurus, Peter Mark Roget was a multi-talented person of science who also invented the slide rule and who wrote an 1824 paper on the illusion of forward-moving wheel spokes seeming to spin backwards.  It is this illusion of backwards forwardness that is both the title and major theme of Linda Bierds’ 2014 National Book Award-longlisted poetry collection, Roget’s Illusion.

Divided into three parts, each prefaced with a “Roget’s Illusion,” the majority of the poems in Roget’s Illusion are akin to that found in the excerpt from “On Reflection” quoted above.  Breaking down the beginning half to “On Reflection,” we encounter a narrator who is convinced that he is unable to position things just so in order to capture an image of the whole in a reflection.  The mirror, apparently “too small” for the swan-like lamp casting light, is itself a reflection, as seen in the second stanza, where the lamp has apparently become the swan, and the reflection/mirror has to be half the source’s height in order for it to work.  But then there is another element, thought, that comes into play and which destroys and amplifies the reflection/illusion through its treple quality.  If the mirror, as the narrator goes on to claim, is “bound by harmony,” then what is thought but a transformative quality that reflects back perceptions and appearances, until it is lost in the impossibility of never quite being able to “contain the whole of it.”

This is a deceptively complex series of metaphors transpiring within the simplicity of a lamp, an image, and a source.  Utilizing Roget’s theorems on distance and light casting illusive images, Bierds here has made that disorienting sense of backwards forwardness palpable, eloquently presenting the artifice before the trick, catching us thinking of it all, only for us to complete the illusion in its totality in our minds.  Yet despite seeing just how it all unfolds, despite it all being explained to us, there is still magic in the event.  There is a similar quality to discussing Bierds’ mechanics here, as she lays out her approach for the reader to discern, yet in considering the wires and framework, the reader still gets caught up in the thrill of the unfolding image, seeming spinning backwards as it moves forward in poetic space.

Although this seemingly paradoxical quality is explored in several of Bierds’ other poems, they are not refracted in the same fashion.  Take for instance “Details Depicted:  Insect and Hair,” which begins with these lines:

In the prison of an unnamed century,
on paper coarse as sackcloth,
someone has written No reason exists
and the innocency of my actings
in the midst of the late revolutions.
Then stopped – and circled two perfect artifacts,
caught years before in the damp plup:
in the margin beside his curving s,
a single fly wing, dried to a gauze,
and far down the page, an arc of amber beard hair. (p. 73)

Here is another natural object, a single fly wing, to serve as a point of comparison to another intruder, a strand of amber beard hair.  As the narrator continues to write his political tract, he circles back to that singular wing and that solitary hair, seeing in their placement a sort of transcendence of order.  It is this illusion of placement, of how chance is turned into an engine of order, that creates the illusory effect here.  There is a slight echo of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” here, at least in the sense of how choice’s tryanny comes to hold sway over us all and how we often wish it were not so, but Bierds’ take centers more on the illusion of that control, as the political screeds embedded here serve as a reminder of how ethereal it all really is if we were but to provide a Johnsonian kick to this metaphorical rock.

These two poems serve as exemplars of Bierds’ concerns and her ability to manipulate image and rhetoric to create these illusions.  The rest of the collection is largely on par with these two and it was a delight to consider each of them at length.  Roget’s Illusion is a powerful collection, one that can surprise readers with its depth and artifice, and it certainly is well-deserving of its place on this year’s Poetry longlist.

2014 National Book Award Poetry winner: Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014)

September 13th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

First divesting ourselves of worldly goods, as St. Francis teaches,
in order that our souls not be distracted
by gain and loss, and in order also
that our bodies be free to move
easily at the mountain passes, we had then to discuss
whither or where we might travel, with the second question being
should we have a purpose, against which
many of us argued fiercely that such purpose
corresponded to worldly goods, meaning a limitation or constriction,
whereas others said it was by this word we were consecrated
pilgrims rather than wanderers:

– From “Parable,” p. 6 iPad iBooks e-edition

There is a silencing quality to night that dims the day’s bright nights and muffles its outlandish roars.  The night is for lovers, or for the inconsolable, or those feverish saints and melancholy sinners.  It is where we lose ourselves and find ourselves again.  In Louise Glück’s newest collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night, all of these nocturnal attributes and more are explored in wry, sometimes detached, poems that combine to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

In the opening poem, “Parable,” the narrator muses on the Franciscan call to “divest[ing] ourselves of worldly goods.”  As we meditate on this, she goes on, the “word” becomes “translated as a dream,” something desired and yet not quite obtainable, while through it all, the weather shifts, with snow (and its blanketing quality) and rain (with its purifying quality) washes over these erstwhile pilgrims, changing them, making for them a purpose they had sought after, albeit one they had not expected.

This mingling of the natural and the mental, of image and desire, continues in the next poem, an adventure, where the night takes on yet another quality, that of passions and of death:

I was, you will understand, entering the kingdom of death,
thought why this landscape was so conventional
I could not say.

– from “An Adventure,” (p. 7)

The visions of this poem, with flesh evaporating into mist, of objects fading into insubstantial shadows, are haunting, yet here, like in other poems in Faithful and Virtuous Night, it is a sense of things lurking on the edges of our personal horizons rather than anything that can be perceived directly.  Silence lies at the heart of Glück’s poems, and at the end of the eponymous “Faithful and Virtuous Night,” she lays out one of the principal themes of this collection:

I think here I will leave you.  It has come to seem
there is no perfect ending.
Indeed, there are infinite endings.
Or perhaps, once one begins,
there are only endings. (p. 16)

This theme of indefinite, perhaps infinite, endings to stories is played out over and over again in various iterations.  In one, it is likened to a religious ceremony in which the congregation’s standing about waiting is the entire point of the ceremony, that beholding is the key, not any of the ancillary activities surrounding this.  In another, through the guise of a writer whose many lauded novels were much alike each other, the complacency that surrounds disguised suffering is the key to understanding the reflection of nature in art, of suffering encapsulated in formalized artifice.  And so it goes until this chilling question is raised in “The Story of a Day”:

But if the essence of time is change,
how can anything become nothing?
This was the question I asked myself. (p. 54)

The overall effect of these images, carefully embedded throughout the collection, is to create a sense of space, where answers die and contemplation of inscrutable life begins.  Night is the perfect metaphor for this and Faithful and Virtuous Night shows Glück in full mastery of image and metaphor.  It certainly is a poetry well worth reading for any who have any love at all for the poetic genre.

David Grossman, Falling Out of Time (2011; English translation 2014)

June 17th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

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:


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.


Sometimes, you know,
I miss
that ravaged,
Sometimes I believe her
more than I believe


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?


That night I thought:
Now we will separate: We cannot live
together any longer. When I tell you
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 wasps
keep humming colon what good would it do if you wrote
question mark what would you add
to the world if you imagined question
mark and if you really
must comma then just write
facts comma what
else is there to say
question mark write them
down and shut up
forever colon at
such and such time comma in
this and that place comma my son
comma my old child comma aged
eleven and a half
period the boy
is 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: New and Selected Poems 1964-2013 (2014)

June 16th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

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 aliquid
semper elephantes
for the alps the alps
Europe the Sartrean negritude
and Dantesque lower region
My Africa the bullshit concentric
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.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with Poetry at Gogol's Overcoat.