Saturday, 6 February 2016


‘Please would you lead a session on African poetry?’

‘Yes, of course,’ I said, inwardly wondering what I was going to do.  The reading group had asked me because its current theme is Africa.

Africa consists of 54 countries (55 if you count Western Sahara, which Morocco doesn’t), of which 21 use English as the official language of government and/or business, and 11 are predominantly Arabic speaking.  There are thousands of indigenous African languages.  I felt like the person on Mastermind who has chosen far too wide a topic.

I wondered about choosing one poem from half a dozen eminent poets in different regions of Africa, but this felt too bitty.  Instead I decided to base the poetry on examples of colonialism, post-colonialism and identity and chose one poet to represent each section. 

Last week we discussed the poems.

For colonialism I chose Natal-born Roy Campbell’s ‘The Zebras’ and ‘The Zulu Girl’.  Roy Campbell’s reputation plummeted when he supported Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War and it has never really recovered but he did write some fine nature poetry, including ‘The Zebras’:

   ‘The zebras draw the dawn across the plains,
    Wading knee-deep among the scarlet flowers.’

The richness of the (now shrinking) African plains and the beauty of the zebras (now diminishing in 
number) comes over strongly.   

‘The Zulu Girl’ we found more problematic.  It’s a poem that crops up in anthologies but while some people saw it as simply descriptive, to others (including me) there’s a white male voyeurism to the poem and an unfortunate likening of the child to a puppy.  I feel angry that this girl labours in the ‘sweating gang’ hoeing the crops instead of resting to build up her strength to feed her baby.  It reminds me of the unease I felt at seeing John Bell’s sculpture of ‘The American Slave’ (1853) at Cragside in Northumberland some years ago.

For Post-colonialism I chose the Nigerian Nobel-prizewinner Wole Soyinka.  His adult writing life has coincided (and collided) with Nigerian independence since 1960.  I chose his poems, ‘I think it rains’, ‘In the small hours’ and ‘Telephone conversation’.  Wole Soyinka is also a dramatist and this comes out strongly in ‘Telephone conversation’ in which the first person narrator of the poem, an African coming to London, tries to rent a room.  The group found it amusing but also razor-sharp in 
the way the poem satirises the racist attitude of the landlady. 

‘In the small hours’ is set in a smoky surreal bar where the cocktail mixer is a dancing ‘silvery fish’ and ‘the band plays on’.  The ending of the poem is fantastic –

  ‘... Night turns
    Homewards, sheathed in notes of solace, pleats
    The broken silence of the heart’.

None of us really understood 'I think it rains’ but we admired the form with two short lines sandwiching two long lines in the middle of each verse.  In a place where tongues need to ‘loosen from the parch’ the rain takes on a strange allegorical quality.  No wonder there is ‘mirth’ at the end of the poem when the ‘rain-reeds’ finally fall (with all the rain we’ve had recently in Cumbria it is hard to imagine drought).  

My third poet, and one who is very much concerned with identity, was Jackie Kay.  I’ve heard her read at Keswick a couple of times and also been to one of her inspirational workshops.  She was born in Scotland and brought up by adoptive parents in Glasgow.  Her prose memoir Red Dust Road and her associated collection of poems Fiere document her search for her biological parents - her Nigerian father and her Scottish mother.  So with the group I shared ‘Ukpor Market’ in which the poet thinks she is being accepted as a local (Igbo) woman, only to discover that the word the market women keep repeating is ‘a pigeon word / for white woman’.   In her memoir she writes, ‘I spent some of my childhood wishing I was white like the other kids and feeling like I stuck out like a sore thumb; and now, in Nigeria, I’m wishing I was black and feeling like I stick out like a sore thumb.  It’s the first time in my life that I’ve properly understood what it means to be mixed race.’ 

‘Burying my father’ is a poem in which the poet comes to terms with having found her biological father:
   ‘For I must, with my own black pen – instead of a spade –
    ashes to ashes and dust to dust,
    and years before you are actually dead,
    bury you right here in my head.’

We ended with Jackie’s beautiful poem ‘Road to Amaudo’.  Amaudo, which translates as ‘the village of peace’, is not a geographical location and the road is symbolic.  The poem was inspired by the Amaudo charity for mental health care in Nigeria (Jackie is a patron of the charity).  It’s a road where people heft ‘the load / of hope on their backs’ and carry ‘the frail weight of peace / on their shoulders’.  To the poet it is ‘the road to my heart’.

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