Adonis in conversation with Kaiser Haq at Dhaka Lit Fest 2017- Interview

Editors Note: This article was first published in the Arts and Letters Segment of The Dhaka Tribune (Title sponsors of the Dhaka Literature Festival). Republished with permission of the newspaper  and editor for The Luxembourg Review audience.

If you wish to read more on the Dhaka Literature Festival coverage, please visit their page by clicking here: Arts and Letters.

In an invigorating conversation, Adonis shared his thoughts about poetry and the Middle East on the opening day of the Dhaka Lit Fest 2017

Note: Due to some technical glitches, the first two questions and Adonis’s responses to them could not be retrieved. In consultation with Kaiser Haq, we have decided to provide readers with a summary of the missed responses. The first question was about his name which originally was Ali Ahmad Said Esber. In response, Adonis explained why he adopted the name of a Greek divine figure. According to the mythological story, Adonis, the handsome young hunter, is killed by a boar. Shelley had turned this myth into a mythopoeic representation of the Romantic poet Keats “butchered” by critics. Ali Ahmad too saw himself as Adonis and the newspaper editors as boars that tried to destroy him. The second question was about his first collection of poetry that catapulted him as a prominent voice in Arabic literature. In response, he shared that after doing his mandatory military service in 1955-56 in the Syrian Army, he was imprisoned because of his political affiliation with an opposition party. On his release he and his recently wedded wife, Khalida Said, a literary critic, crossed over into Lebanon and settled in Beirut, where they devoted themselves full-time to literary activities. The first of Adonis’s 20 plus poetry collections appeared in 1957; soon he became the leading innovator in Arabic poetry, exploiting the resources of prose poetry to extend the thematic and emotional reach of poetry. – Editor of Dhaka Tribune- Arts and Letters.

 
Kaiser Haq, left, asking a question while Adonis, middle, looks on Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

 

Kaiser Haq: Elaborate your ideas on the Arab world.

Adonis: Religion has a strong influence on politics, so that’s why it’s been corrupted. Politics is corrupted these days. The best thing would be the separation between religion and the state. I propose a rereading of the Quranic text from a more secular perspective. At the same time, I believe that the reading should not be against religion but that religion should be an individual practice and it should not intervene in any other religious practices. The society should be based on three things: Human rights, liberation and liberty of women. The society or the individual attitude should not be based on religious confessions; rather, it should be based on secularism and at the same time civic sense.

My poetry is a kind of rupture from the past tradition and it announces a kind of modernity in the Arabic world. It launches a new tradition. Before that many things were not allowed to be expressed. There was a kind of constraint on alternative thoughts. So, what I did was I created in my poetry a character, who worked as a kind of mouthpiece for the articulation of my thoughts. So, through literature I expressed my ideas. It was a kind of roundabout way that I invented myself. Through my intellectual, political and literary voice, I wanted to change the society.

Kaiser Haq: You are a critic of your own society and religion. And at the same time historical events impacted you. You also responded powerfully to the debacle of 1967, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. So, how did you create poetry out of this extreme experience of a war?

Adonis: The Quran is not against creativity like poetry. However, in my society poetry and writing were creative output that was eyed with suspicion. So, I opened up a new journal and the purpose was to open up those creative faculties of different Arab people. And this journal gave us a chance to write poetry, to express our thoughts creatively. One of our main problems was reading. There was a project to reread all those texts from a different perspective and when one rereads a text out of a mediocre perspective, the text itself becomes mediocre. An importance was put on the culture of rereading our tradition and the literary texts emanating from it, and the meta-narrative as well. We should look at the poetic tradition from a new angle and we should reread the whole of our cultural tradition. What we found through our rereading was that the literature we liked was marginal due to its opposition to power. Literature connected to power was less important, less poetic and less creative. Marginal literature is more interesting and more vibrant. We had begun a movement and this movement gave us a new concept of the world: The first one was the conception of God and the second one was the conception of our cultural identity. We found out in the process that identity is not something we inherit from our generations; rather, identity is something that we create. So, there is some sort of existentialist connection here. My own self is not competing with itself, so I need other selves to communicate; I need other selves to enrich myself because my own self is the whole constituted of different other selves.

Kaiser Haq: It is by now clear that you are interested in mysticism. You also say that Sufism and surrealism are similar in many aspects, and you have written a book on this. So, how do you think Sufism and surrealism are similar?

Adonis: There is a debate about the relationship between poetry, national tradition and internationalism or globalisation. We have said that we want to be open to all other cultures and all other traditions. And what we also found that the very mysticism we find in surrealism existed 1000 or 1500 years back. The west is not the inventor of surrealism; rather, this kind of mystic tradition is something that goes beyond our nationality that has existed in the Arabic culture for centuries. The mystics used to believe that there was a reality beyond reality, and reality does not have to be something that is visual or visible. It can be something invisible. And that’s the connection between mysticism and surrealism.

Kaiser Haq: Surrealism has had a connection with leftist politics. You also have had a long association with left politics. In fact, now you claim that you are a leftist. I would like to know how you define leftist politics today and how things have changed.

Adonis: I believe humanity constitutes the essence of leftism. And this essence lies in change. Human beings are not a static entity. There should always be prospects for a change in the future. The future is basically constructed by human beings.

Kaiser Haq: You said that the perfume of poetry should be able to combat the dark forces. What do you mean by that?

Adonis: My poetry has its own force. For example, if we consider the door is rectangular, it’s a very simplistic and linear expression. But if we say that the door is like a woman who is opening her arms, then it gets some different meanings and different nuances. There is an interesting chemistry between the world, the word and the self. And there is also a kind of triangular connection between the world, the word and the self. It is important to me to create a world of images. The Arabic language is very corporeal. It has got some sensorial charm. So, it is always important to me to create a world of images through language, which I call “the world of images.” If we consider the whole world to be a flower, then we can consider poetry to be the perfume of that flower.

Kaiser Haq: Do you think people are more interested in a flower than its perfume?

Adonis: I think the American society and the American politics could be that flower we are always looking for. This is the flower of money, this is the flower of politics and this is the flower of power. The American politics distorts the smell of this flower.

Kaiser Haq: The recent events in the Middle East have provoked sharp comments from you. Would you share your thoughts on that?

Adonis: The Arab Spring opened up a new horizon for the Arab people. But at the same time, it was a kind of American creation the way they had created Osama Bin Laden. The Arab Spring has destroyed some of the Arab countries, such as Libya, Iraq and Lebanon.

Kaiser Haq: In literary festivals, one topic that keeps coming up is the increasing difficulty of circulating literature and the declining readership and the declining reading habit in the younger generations.

Adonis: I am not really worried about the new generations because they read more than readers of the previous generations. Different media that have emerged are helpful for facilitating the act of reading and also, the documentation process.

————————————————————————————-

Adonis has graciously given permission to The Luxembourg Review
to publish his poem in the next issue of the review.

Adonis with Autumn 2016 volume of The Luxembourg Review
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An interview with Ben Okri

Ben Okri was born in 1959 in Minna, Nigeria. He is considered to be one of the best novelist of the postmodernist era. His list of accolades is vindicated with the sheer volume of honours conferred  upoun him, with  governmental recognition, gaining an OBE in 2001 and Fellowship into the Royal Society of Literature (1997) and he is also the recipient of some esteemed literary prizes, most notably the Man Booker Prize in 1991 (making him the youngest ever winner) for The Famished Road. He has produced 10 novels and 9 books of poetry, The Age of Magic (2014) and Wild(2012) being the last in the two categories respectively.

Ben signing autographs at Dhaka Literature Festival 2017

I had the chance of catching a truly mesmerising discussion with Jerry Pinto at the Dhaka Literature Festival in 2017.  His assertion on the spiritual nature of writing was a true and encapsulating insight into his own literary philosophy and his revelation that each writer dies after producing a significant novel and is then reborn anew was a concept I had to further explore. At the author lounge of the DLF I managed to sit down with Ben in order to delve further into his literary psyche and influences. Did he consider himself primarily a poet or novelist? From where did he derive his inspiration from?What ignited his love of literature? What significant event in the modern landscape compelled him to write?Ben was keen and gracious enough to provide The Luxembourg Review with these answers and more.

Syed Shehzar M Doja
Founder and Editor-in-Chief

INTERVIEW

Shehzar: Hi Ben.. first of all a big thank you for doing this interview with The Luxembourg Review. In lieu with the talk you had given today, how many lifetimes ahead do you feel you have?

Ben: I think I have as many lifetimes as I have significant books.You have to understand that a strong book takes life but it also gives life. Every strong book that you write you lose something of yourself into it but it gives you secret energy. So it is both creative and destructive.

Shehzar: And would you say that it is a cycle continuously emanating from within a writer?

Ben: It is a cycle continuously emanating from a writers psyche. But it also comes out of a health. It comes out of your spiritual health and the health of your imagination. Some writers don’t recover as well after significant books.

Shehzar: What would you attribute that to?

Ben: Insufficient spiritual nourishment.

Shehzar: You said you were a lot different growing up. As a writer, what were the axial thoughts? The pivot from where your thoughts gyrated from? What were the central elements that distinguished  you?

Ben: An absolute sense that life is infinitely richer than we realise. The central thought for me is that life is constantly self generating. That life is concealed from us, that life is a mystery to us. Life is a revelation to us. Life is a house of many mansions. Life is a house of many universes.That’s where it comes from.It is this feeling I have about something immeasurable about life itself.

Shehzar: And that compels you?

Ben: It keeps me going upwards and inwards.

Shehzar: What would you say are the external factors that recently invoked your writing?

Ben: Many things. One of the things is the Grenfell disaster.

Shehzar: You had written a poem about that.

Ben: The Grenfell tower disaster moved me very very deeply in a way that I’ve not been moved for almost 15 years. It moved me very much because it made me aware that there is a gaping hole in the centre of capitalism and that hole is called humanity.

Shehzar: This reminds me a bit of that famous Yeats poem. The opening of The Second Coming ‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer’ and I feel that movement away from that spirituality is reflected a lot in your writing

Ben: We human beings are many things.we are flesh. We are shadow. We are moonstone. We are tree. We are spirit. We are forgiveness, we are love. We are many things. And where spirituality of one kind or another disappears from the human story we become smaller and we are able to condone all sorts of monstrosities happening to one another.People can still lose spirituality whilst being religious.All you have to do is look around the world right now.Most of the terrible things taking place are taking place among religious people.

Shehzar: As an excuse?

Ben: Not as an excuse but as a blindness. I think sometimes peoples religion gets in the way of their humanity. Or that humanity should come first.  A religion without humanity is an insult to God.

With Ben after the interview.

Shehzar: You seem to have borrowed from what I understand a lot of the traditional stories. How deep is this embedded in you?

Ben: Stories are deeply embedded in me. I grew up with stories. My mother was a great storyteller. Told me stories all the time. My culture, where I grew up in Nigeria, all the different places are storytelling places, we told stories to one another as kids. Africa is a storytelling land so stories are part of how I breathe, of how I think. But the writing I do, I am interested in oblique stories, in indirect stories. In stories that have more angles that you suspect. I’m interested in secret stories, stories people carry in them and they don’t know they carry. Stories that sometime destroy and sometimes liberates them, sometimes ruins them and sometimes lifts them up. We are always carrying these unknown stories and I think its one of the most important things about novelists and poets, that they bring out these unknown stories in their people, in their times and age. They bring it out so people can see it, face it and begin to deal with it. Grenfell was one of those stories.

(The Grenfell Tower poem by Ben Okri on Channel 4 News)

Shehzar: You had written a poem about it as opposed to writing a novel or short story, in general you are regarded very well as a novelist and as a poet but which one do you feel closer to? Spiritually do you feel your stories are created as a novel or as poetry?

Ben: Everything I do comes out of poetry, I am primarily a poetic being. By poetry, I do not mean metre or syllables and beats. For me it is also angles of seeing, ways of being, the relationship between things, the tangents and spaces, suggestions, the pressure and space around things.

Shehzar: That reminds me of Khalil Gibran’s ‘Let their be spaces in your togetherness’. One of my favourite single lines.

Ben: Thats lovely. I know it very well. There should be spaces in our imagination to. We have gaps but not enough spaces. Big difference.

Shehzar: So what next for you? You had alluded to the success you had with The Famished Road, how it wasn’t there initially but after the Booker prize, things changed, but now when you write a new story, do you still go in with that original feeling of it being not so great. How do you feel about that?

Ben: I don’t particularly care what people think when I start to write. And I don’t particularly care what people think when I finish.I care really, mainly about the truth of what I am trying to say. I care truly about the truth of what I am trying to say and how deeply I can touch one person through this work. One person at a time.

Shehzar: Thank you Ben.

Ben: Pleasure

 

 

The Luxembourg Review at Dhaka Literature Festival 2017

What is the significance of a literary festival?  Celebrated in abundance across many countries, it is becoming a more pronounced and regular feature of the Asian landscape only over the past decade. Whilst Jaipur holds the distinction of hosting the largest and most globally prominent one in the region, other areas in India are striving to replicate its overwhelming success. The importance of these literary arenas has subsequently spread to places like Karachi, Singapore, Bhutan and beyond. However, in Dhaka, this much needed momentum and gap was addressed with the birth of the Dhaka Literature Festival in 2012. In a press conference I attended for the 2017 edition, the directors expressed their desire for the festival to act as a starting point of important regional and global discussions.  In spite of the haze of censorship in the subcontinent via political clout and overt intimidation blurring open dialogue, the DLF stands united as a focal point in addressing these concerns to expand dialogues and minds with exposure to some of literature’s great modern luminaries. This is evident with a prestigious line-up over the years with authors like Nobel Laureate Sir V.S Naipaul, Pulitzer Prize winning Vijay Seshadri, Man Booker Prize winner Deborah Smith, highly acclaimed poet Sudeep Sen and more. This uncompromising ambition carries onto this year with the inclusion of Adonis, the greatest living Arabic poet, Booker Prize winner Ben Okri , Oscar winning Tilda Swinton, Playwright /BAFTA winner Sir David Hare etc among a distinguished host of Bengali writers and poets.

Inaugural Press Conference for Dhaka Literature Festival 2017 held at Bangla Academy

 

This year will also see the festival announce the winners of the DSC prize for the first time. A truly prestigious award of 25000$ presented for the best South Asian book, comprising of names like Booker winner Aravind Adiga, Anuk Arudpragasam, Anjali Joseph, Karan Mahajan and Stephen Alter making the 5 person shortlist.

What I find wonderful about the festival is the fact that local established and aspiring authors now have the opportunity to engage with and learn from authors of various genres without any distinguishing formalities. This cross pollination of ideas will hopefully lead to increasing the prominence of Bangladeshi writers worldwide. Access to world class literature is imperative towards this dream and the inclusion of literary agents like Kelly Falconer and Granta magazine may help expedite this vision.  This is not a literary festival that panders only to the elite of suburban Bangladeshi society with exorbitant fees;in fact, the festival and all panels remain free of any cost (allowing in the satiation of  any budding intellectual curiosity).  Another topic that was reiterated during the initiating press conference.

Karthika V.K (Former Chief Editor of HarperCollins India) in conversation with Pulitzer Prize winner Vijay Seshadri at Dhaka Lit Fest 2016
(Photo:Syed Wasama Doja)

Last year I had the opportunity to be invited to the Dhaka Literature Festival  to launch my book and spread word of the review. It holds a special place in my heart because growing up in Dhaka during my formative years I never would have envisioned seeing a Pulitzer prize winning author casually strolling along the lawns of Bangla Academy in conversation with a host of other critically renowned writers. I am certain this simple yet exuberant sense of joy was replicated in the hearts of many attendees, now able to claim such moments not as some vague mirage from an obscure festival review online but to savour the opportunity  and relish it instead as a first-hand experience.

In conversation with Bangladeshi Cultural Minister Asaduzzaman Noor – Dhaka Lit Fest 2016
(Photo: Syed Wasama Doja)

 

 

Serendipity is often a neglected muse.  However, this year I am hoping to honour her as I find myself coincidentally in Dhaka during the tenure of the festival alongside Luxembourg Review Columnist Ikhtisad Ahmed and with our global team we plan to cover various aspects of the festival whilst eagerly engaging in the festivities and panels.

A link to the official Speaker List can be found here: DLF  2017
A link to the official Programme can be found here: DLF Programme

The Luxembourg Review at DLF 2017 events:

Words of conscience? Poetry and activism
Nausheen Eusuf, Kaiser Haq and Sophia Walker with Syed Shehzar Doja–   16th November 3-4 pm (Lawn)

The Bengalis: A race divided
Sudeep ChakravartiKushanava Choudhury, Ikhtisad Ahmed and Ananya Kabir with David Davidar 16th November- 3-4 pm (Vaskar Novera Exhibition Hall)

From page to screen

Sharbari Ahmed with Ikhtisad Ahmed 16th November – 5-6:30pm (Cosmic Tent)

Ceaseless Chatter of Demons

Ashok Ferrey with Ikhtisad Ahmed 18th November – 11:15-12:15 (Lawn)

 

¬ Shehzar Doja
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Luxembourg Review.

 

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong; A review.

Ocean Vuong
To Purchase the book click on the image.

Editor’s Note: Vuong was awarded the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection at the Forward Prize 2017

In living with Ocean Vuong’s book over the last week or two I have on occasions mistaken its title for Night Sky with Exile Wounds. It will become obvious why. But it has also been hard to ‘see’ this collection because of the accumulated material – interviews, awards, perhaps hype – that already surrounds it in a way that affects none of the other Forward First Collections this year. Vuong has already appeared on the cover of Poetry London and been interviewed by The New Yorker. He has been nominated as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers. Such recognition is even more extraordinary given that Vinh Quoc Vuong was born in 1988 on a rice farm outside Saigon and, at the age of two, he and six relatives emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut, where they lived together in a one-bedroom apartment. On learning that ‘ocean’ (in American English) is a body of water that touches many countries – including Vietnam and the United States – his mother renamed her son.

Ocean Vuong is also gay. Hence his exile – the word that kept coming into my mind – is one not only from his birth country and culture but also from the mainstreams of his adopted country. It’s no surprise there are several Ocean Vuongs in this book in terms of subject matter as well as in its use of a variety of poetic forms. This might – reflecting his given name – be an essential, protean, shape-shifting style or it might reveal the kind of casting around in the sea of form and content one might expect from a first collection. I think it is more the latter than the former, though the thrashing and contortion involved in such self creation (we used to refer to ‘self discovery’ – the book title has ‘self portrait’) is now a topic of such ubiquity in Western culture that Vuong’s personal struggles may come to be considered as representative in themselves.

Though 13 years before his birth, ‘Aubade with Burning City’ portrays the American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975. Apparently, Armed Forces Radio played ‘White Christmas’ as a sign to commence the withdrawal and the poem assembles a montage of the song lyric, events on the streets of Saigon and a sinister, coercive-sounding male/female dialogue. The result reflects the chaos of such a moment of violent transition (though the ironies of the sentimental song are a bit obvious) and introduces a recurrent thread in Vuong’s work, the uneasy alliance between power and sex. ‘A Little Closer to the Edge’ seems a reminiscence, perhaps of his own conception (Cape’s cover image of the young poet encourages this biographical approach). Among bomb craters and anticipated domestic violence, a young Vietnamese couple are at first “hand in hand”. Then:

He lifts her white cotton skirt, revealing

another hour. His hand. His hands. The syllables

inside them. O father, O foreshadow, press

into her –

 

For his mother’s part, the narrative voice asks her to show “how ruin makes a home / out of hip bones” and also to “teach me / how to hold a man”.

Once in the USA, there are poems that treat both parents with some tenderness. In ‘The Gift’, the son teaches his mother the alphabet. She can hardly get beyond the third letter, the fourth, gone astray, appearing only as

a strand of black hair – unravelled

from the alphabet

& written

on her cheek

Several portrayals of Vuong’s father suggest violence and drinking but in ‘In Newport I Watch my Father Lay his Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back’ he is seen to express concern for the creature, “the wet refugee”, though the poem is fractured by bullets, Huey helicopters, shrapnel and snipers as if to suggest the root of the father’s violence and his inability to express affection for his own family.

Or perhaps such things innate to a man? Another major theme in the book is masculinity itself as expressed through father figures and a young gay man growing up. The former is seen in two poems involving guns. ‘The Smallest Measure’ has the father instructing the boy on how to handle a Winchester rifle (it reminds me of a photograph of Hemingway and his son). ‘Always and Forever’ (Vuong’s note tells us this is his father’s favourite Luther Vandross song) has the father substituting himself with a Colt.45 in a shoe box: “Open this when you need me most”, he says. The boy seems to wonder if the gun might deliver a liberation of sorts: “[I] wonder if an entry wound in the night // would make a hole wide as morning”. This image of an aperture being made in darkness – most often through an act of violence – to let in light recurs in these poems. I can’t quite see what is intended here but there are again links to the erotic/violence motif. Later, the gun barrel must “tighten” around the bullet “to make it speak”, making further obscure, but interesting, links to violence and the ability to speak (or write).

aseq

What it is to be a (young, gay) man is explored in the second part of the collection. Andrew McMillan’s physical comes to mind in reading these poems (McMillan interviewed Vuong for Poetry London recently). ‘Because It’s Summer’ is a more conventionally lineated poem in the second person singular (some distancing there) of slipping away from a mother’s control (and expectations) to meet a boy “waiting / in the baseball field behind the dugout”. It’s particularly good at conveying the exciement (on both sides) of a desire, previously played out alone, being mutually gratified: “the boy [. . .] finds you / beautiful because you’re not / a mirror”. ‘Homewrecker’ evokes the energy of erotic discovery as well as the ‘wreckage’ it threatens (to some) in the “father’s tantrum” as much as the “mothers’ / white dresses spilling from our feet”. ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ is particularly inventive in its form. The poem – set as prose, but with line break slashes included (a baggy, hybrid form Vuong uses elsewhere) – appears as a series of footnotes. The footnote numbers appear scattered across a blank page. The poem deals with the murder, by immolation, of two gay men in Dallas in 2011. The mainstream silence is cleverly played against the passionate love poem only recorded as footnotes.

Elsewhere, Vuong hits less successful notes and styles. There are some dream poems – like ‘Queen under the Hill’ – which don’t always escape the hermetic seal around an individual’s dream world. On other occasions, he wants to use mythic stories to scaffold his own. ‘Telemachus’ is probably the most successful of these (the materials again feeling dream-like to me) as the son pulls his dead (shot dead) father from the ocean. Elsewhere we find allusions to Orpheus and Eurydice (and to Lorca’s ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’ and Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’). Certainly, Vuong is not fearful of taking on big subjects such as JFK’s assassination (‘Of Thee I Sing’), the murders of Jeffrey Dahmer (‘Into the Breach’) and 9/11 (‘Untitled’).

But actually I think ‘ordinariness’ and those poems which show the influence of O’Hara and the New York School prove a more fertile direction. In an interview, Vuong has discussed the Rilkean imperative to look, what the young poet calls the “inexhaustibility in gazing”, something with which we might “resist the capitalist mythos of an expendable gaze”. So ‘On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous’ (I do hope Vuong thinks, as I do, of Jay Gatsby whenever he uses that last word) the fragments of vivid perception amount to more than the sum of its parts. ‘Notebook Fragments’ – which appears to be precisely what the title says – works better than some more crafted poems in the collection. And ‘Devotion’ – with its concluding placement suggesting Vuong knows how good it is – rises out of the sometimes conflicting biographical currents that by his own admission have buffeted him. It’s a beautiful lyric (the form, tripping, delicate, this time not drawing attention to itself) about oral sex; its debatable claims made with utter conviction:

there’s nothing

more holy than holding

a man’s heartbeat between

your teeth, sharpened

with too much

air

The lilting lineation, the brush-strokes of punctuation, work better here than in some of Vuong’s more Whitman-esque streamings of consciousness. The enviable, insouciance of youth – “& so what” – is thrillingly conveyed. Yet, it turns out,  this is not really about the provocative challenges of a variety of states of exile and  ‘otherness’, but about the need to feel anything “fully”, however transient it may prove to be:

Only to feel

this fully, this

entire, the way snow

touches bare skin – & is,

suddenly, snow

no longer.

 

______________________________________________________________________

Martyn Crucefix’s recent books include The Time We Turned (Shearsman, 2014), A Hatfield Mass (Worple Press, 2014) and Daodejing – a new version in English (Enitharmon, 2016. Just published is The Lovely Disciplines (Seren, 2017) and forthcoming are limited editions of O. at the Edge of the Gorge(Guillemot Press, 2017) and A Convoy (If a Leaf Falls Press, 2017)

This article is republished with permission of the author. To find more of his reviews, click here: Martyn Crucefix

Welsh Poetic Forms and Metre- A History

Translations:

Welsh Poetic Forms and Metre

 

A History and a Little Bit More

 

The language of Wales is vivid and vivacious. To hear it spoken is to listen to music and to understand it is to be part of a culture that has existed for centuries. There is more to Wales than its language (and I’m not talking about food), Welsh poetry has been influenced and written in the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd since at least the fifth century.  It is a part of our culture that has evolved directly under the influence of the Welsh language.

 

The cerdd dafod (Welsh poetic forms) and cynghanedd (Welsh metre) remains in use throughout modern Wales, with the most notably example being the annual Eisteddfod. The cerdd dafod comprises of twenty-four poetic forms that involve internal and end rhyme with many stanzas ranging from two to four lines. The cynghanedd is made up of four metres that use alliteration, rhyme and consonantal harmony to balance the sounds within a line. These twenty-four poetic forms and metre date back to when Wales was an independent nation and the courts of the Princes of Wales were informed by the poetic voices of master craftsmen.

 

One of the most famous and earliest examples of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd in Welsh medieval poetry was during the fifth and sixth century where poets such as Aneirin and Taliesin, the great bards of Wales, wrote in these forms and metre. There is no known beginning of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd but it is certain that as the Welsh language evolved Welsh poetry matured alongside it. During the following centuries the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd underwent a critical transformation but it wasn’t to be formally codified until the thirteenth century.

 

The most striking transformation took place during the twelfth and thirteenth century amidst the battle for Welsh independence. Prior to the death of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282, poets were afforded the privilege of being a respected member of court. These poets were known as the Poets of the Princes (‘Beirdd y Tywysogion’).

 

The highest position that a poet could hold in a royal household was that of the ‘Pencerdd’, a literal translation would be ‘master craftsman’. It was a great honour for a medieval poet and the position would have brought with it many benefits as well as responsibilities: through the patronage of his prince, a poet could trust to receive a formal pay structure, swords and other weaponry but, counterbalancing this great luxury, he would have been expected to participate in battles as a warrior fighting by his prince’s side. It is of little surprise that medieval poetry during these centuries focused predominately on the reality of the battlefield, often describing the aftermath with horrific accuracy.

 

When battles were not being waged the ‘Pencerdd’ held a chair in court. Religion and superstition empowered the medieval court poet: they were believed to be able to predict the future (prophecy) as well have a strong connection with God. The ‘Pencerdd’ would use his position to advise the prince; before battle he would declaim a poem to God and another that would honour the prince or his ancestors’. Royal blood in medieval Wales was cherished. Many held the belief that a prince was chosen by Divine rule and by composing verse that praised his ancestors’, the poet was still honouring the living prince. This form of praise poetry is common in medieval Wales with its practise commanding a great deal of respect. That is not to infer that a ‘Pencerdd’ was a corrupt figure, indeed, many were fiercely loyal to their patrons choosing to risk their life on the battlefield. The elegy was a widely used poetic form during this time. It depicted absolute grief at the loss of a patron. The most beautiful example of an elegy poem was written by Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Coch entitled, ‘Llywelyn ein Llyw Olaf’.

 

“See you not the way of the wind and the rain?

See you not the oak trees buffet together?

See you not the sun hurtling through the sky,

And that the stars are fallen?

Do you not believe God, demented mortals?”

 

There were two lower positions within a royal court for a poet still learning his craft. The ‘Bardd Teulu’, the literal translation would be ‘poet of the household’; the lowest was that of the ‘Cerddor’, the literal translation would be quite simple ‘musician’. All positions within the household would have had formal and informal duties, although the role of ‘Cerddor’ is not completely known but it is safe to assume that they would have required the ability to play the harp or lyre. The ‘Bardd Teulu’ was one of twenty-four officers at court. He was expected to perform his poetry before battles and to entertain the Queen. The duties of medieval court poets would have included the role of chronicler, oral archivist and entertainer, three vital responsibilities to a society that depended on oral traditions for its religion, history and entertainment (which would have most likely been a concoction of praise poetry, history and morality).

 

A court poet did not originate from a position of privilege although they would have been of noble birth. Their training was long and arduous. If they did develop an attitude of self-importance then they could hardly be blamed. It would take nine years to master the necessary skills to become a court poet and upon completion of training a ‘Pencerdd’ would demand twenty-four pence and the right to the ‘amobr’ (the virginity of the ‘Cerddor’s’ daughter). A court poet would be required to recite extracts from the Bible and famous verses from memory; he was also expected to be a master at composing verse written in the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd within his head and at the whim of his prince. For all its requirements and demands, a court poet still held an enviably position within medieval Welsh society.

 

After 1282 and the loss of Welsh independence, the Poets of the Princes suffered a great indignation: they became uprooted and dispersed, thrown out of their royal residencies and into the age of the Poets of the Gentry (‘Beirdd yr Uchelwyr’). To survive they began a tradition known as ‘clera’; this demanded that the poet undergo an expedition, wandering from manor to mansion seeking food, coin and anything else that would assist in their survival. These expeditions enabled them to continue receiving the patronage of their princes, now demoted to gentry by English rule, keeping the practise of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd flourishing within Welsh culture. If the twelfth century established the practises of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd, then the thirteenth century defined them.

 

A Little Bit More…

 

The tradition of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd remains vibrant throughout Wales. It is far from being forgotten, evidenced by the continued popularity of the Eisteddfod. My study, entitled Translations: a poetry project, researches how Welsh poetic forms and metre could be used to reconsider, engage and accurately represent the changing cultural identity of modern Wales. It does this through two considerations, firstly, a critical analysis of three relationships: the coastal and industrial landscapes of Wales; Welsh, Anglo-Welsh and English speaking poets; and, mainstream and grassroots publishing. Secondly, the creative response translates the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd into the English language and applies that translation practically in the shape of two poetry collections each with an accompanying epic poem of substantial length.

 

The project has two aims: to engage with a wide readership by promoting the use of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd through myself and modern poets; to discover all the voices that define the modern Welsh cultural identity; to challenge mainstream and grassroots publishing and by doing so establish a national platform where all the voices of modern Wales have an equal representation.

 

The study is in its primary stage and in order to remain loyal to its values and principles, the project researches and experiments with the ideology of direct translation. It uses a Welsh perspective to inform these translations through interviewing Welsh speaking poets who have knowledge of and write in these forms and metre in Welsh and English. My MA thesis, Grandiloquent Wretches (then titled Hiraeth) translated the cerdd dafod into the English language. It is a poetry collection that combines history, mythology and Welsh poetic forms to create an urban fantasy. It doesn’t focus exclusively on Welsh mythology and history; instead, it draws from a wealth of international identities, all of whom live and contribute to the social, economic and culturally wealth of modern Wales.

 

The cerdd dafod’s twenty-four forms are made up of two to four lined stanzas. The collection reconsidered these forms to develop a modern variation that had a more visual relationship to that of a sonnet. This supported the use of poetic devices, such as an octet and sestet, which provided a formal narrative structure. Grandiloquent Wretches achieved this by experimenting with the stitching together of two complementary and, at times, conflicting poetic forms to create a sound that a modern readership would appreciate. For example:

 

Justice*

 

 

Let us just play this arid game,

if we lose then you should not blame

them, you got cocky, let bedlam

dictate where the pious venom

strikes in righteous indignation;

 

 

war sought the tired Thracian

lilt, invoked wrath from lethargy

and called it justice. Liturgy

transformed from sacred to mundane,

fudged fingers gouged out his left brain.

He had cold justice on his side;

least the Imp took the time to chide

 

 

him with keen doe-eyed promises;

justice lobotomises…conscience.  

 

*Poetic form: Cyhydedd Fer (Welsh sonnet).

 

The Wolf’s Honey**

 

 

The rat snatched the wolf’s honey;

sore, he tore its soft, bunny

flesh into a gunny mess, bejewelled

he bugled an umbrae

with sugar-snapped bayonets;

laced with perse, cloud silhouettes

will make the plaster sweat; hope to previse,

incise these mottled webs;

the spider drank flaxen cider,

drunk, the piper used the barrels

to play a sniper’s tune, cipher

tasseomancy from pyre ashes;

hope that it was not your fault.

Suck a lolly dipped in salt,

thwart their strikes with rumour, club her cries

to equalise and escort

her moans with guided patience,

mistake twists for gyrations

of pain, stained laces tremble at the scream,

cetirizine harks, chases

the tussles that burst the bubbles

as convulsions spilt drooling

from silver buckles, sand knuckles

with piteous justice mewling.

 ** Poetic form: two stanzas of Englyn Crwca; two stanzas of Rhupant Hir; two stanzas of Englyn Crwca; two stanzas of Rhupant Hir.

 

 

The collection is unapologetically baroque in language and style, revelling in its past through the use of Welsh poetic forms whilst firmly set in the present. Translations: a poetry project places a higher value on a cohesive narrative but it does not deviate too far away from its grandiloquent nature. See the poem below taken from The Silver in the Water, Chapter Three.

 

 

Swathes of Empyrean Heather***

 

                                                   Wyled**** curdled the stomach;

                                           Cistern snagged the Bittern co…pse.

                                              Scourge dirge steep like Icarus,

                                                  periwinkle him; skim milk

                   to the broth,                              froth                 this relief;

        temper                                                     this heather                    charnel****

                                                                                                                           with carrion,
virion******

river

     malingers

       and infers

                                                                                                                          sea.

 

 

***Poetic form: Cynghanedd Sain. Seven syllables per line. The poem uses a rhyme scheme between the first and second caesura of the line; the second bar decides the consonantal harmony for the third bar and third caesura creates a bridge over additional consonants to create a harmony with the two. For example: X X dog | bog | B (N D N) B. The final syllable in the second and third is stressed.
 ****“Wyled” means to deceive or entice; it also means sorcerer.
 *****“Charnel” short for charnel house; associated with death.
 ******“Virion” means the complete, infective form of a virus outside a host cell.

 

These poems use internal and end rhyme along with consonantal harmony that has been demonstrated by the use of alliteration. Swatches of Empyrean Heather follows the pattern of cynghanedd sain. The writing of Welsh poetic metres has a strong similarity to a line of music: the line is broken into caesuras ( | ). These sections dictate where the rhyme, stress and consonantal repetition fall. See the example below for a visual breakdown of the poem’s structure:

 

Swathes of Empyrean Heather

 

                                                   Wyled | curdled | the stomach;

                                           Cisternsnagged the Bittern | co…pse.

                                              Scourge | dirge |steep like Icarus,

                                                  periwinkle him; |skim | milk

                                                   to the broth,                        |froth |   this relief;

                                temper  |                                                      this heather  |                  charnel

                                                                                                                           with carrion,|
virion |

river

malingers  |

                                                         and infers  |

                                                                                                                            sea.

 

Ultimately Translations: a poetry project ensures that the forms and metre continue to evolve into modernity. Preserved, not like a museum artefact but as a living organism; an organism that is open to failures as well as successes and, most importantly, informed by its history and culture, constantly evolving, harmonising to the needs of its society.

___________

Rhea Seren Phillips is a Ph.D student at Swansea University. Rhea specializes in the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd (Welsh poetic forms and metre) and is reconsidering them through the English language for a modern Welsh readership.

Twitter: @MissRheaSeren

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/grandiloquentwretch

Website: https://rheasphillipspoet.wordpress.com/

The Sad Part Was- Prabda Yoon

the sad part was
The book is available to purchase here – The Sad Part Was


The Sad Part Was – Prabda Yoon

 

“They catalysed my consciousness as though it had been struck by lightning, and I briefly became abnormally perceptive, able to absorb information about my environment instantaneously and effortlessly. Thank god I stopped just short of Nirvana.” – Prabda Yoon, “Miss Space”

 

Prabda Yoon’s collection of short stories The Sad Part Was (Tilted Axis Press, 2017) invites the reader into a world of idiosyncratic characters often confronted with the impermanence of experience and the choice of how to view and remember each moment. A short definition of the term “ploang” – to be at peace with letting go of past events, without assigning any negative or positive emotions to them – announces the collection’s most important theme. Many of Yoon’s characters are confronted with situations beyond their control (just as the text itself is beyond the reader’s control), but their emotions and reactions determine how they will cope.

The stories in The Sad Part Was pull us into their various worlds, distilling information about characters that seem both familiar and utterly baffling at times, before pushing us out again to reflect on the act of reading itself. What right have we to assign meaning to a writer’s words? What purpose does it serve?

Yoon’s unusual approach is clear from the beginning. “Pen in Parentheses”, the very first story, immediately subverts expectations by placing the bulk of the text within parentheses, thus creating different levels of reading. “Miss Space” stands out through its narrator’s almost hysterical need to understand a young woman’s penchant for leaving large spaces between words when she writes. Every time he sees her, he launches into an in-depth analysis of all the possible causes for her behaviour, but rather ironically, he never gives her the opportunity (or space) to speak. He is more invested in his own line of questioning than whatever she has to say.

The same occurs in “Shallow/Deep, Thick/Thin”, where a traveller discovers a secret from outer space. The whole world begs him to reveal it, because there are no other secrets left, but the traveller soon realizes his audience is more interested in exploiting the sense of mystery than the knowledge itself. No one cares about the insights he has to offer. People look to others to teach them, when they should be looking inside. They should seek experience, rather than the passing on of second-hand information. Yoon puts forwards the idea that knowing everything does not bring happiness, because then only the absence of knowledge seems interesting… and once it is broken, it cannot be reversed.

Yet the author himself is not exempt from this rule. Cleverly placed near the end of the collection, “Marut by the Sea” acts as a tongue-in-cheek reminder not to take Yoon and his ideas too seriously:

“Don’t waste your precious time with his nonsense. Granted, he might say or do things to amaze you. He might write words that tug on your heart strings. You might find his unusual perspective charming. He might lead you to believe that he has something important to say. But believe me, every single thing that you think you learn from him in fact comes from you yourself.”

Yoon plays with our natural tendency to experience excitement upon discovering new and intriguing ways of understanding and experiencing life. He warns us of the fleetingness of such a sense of revelation and tells us not to trust even our own impressions. This of course calls into question everything we have read so far, but if we do indeed adhere to the notion of “ploang”, we come to realize that judgement of a thing does not change the thing itself. Yoon’s words are there for us to do with as we please. We can draw our own conclusions, without feeling right or wrong.

“The Disappearance of a She-Vampire in Pattaya” is the perfect example of this. The reasons given for Rattika the She-Vampire’s sudden absence vary widely and contradict each other more than once, yet it is still tempting to come away believing one version or the other. At the very least, we understand that something dramatic has happened and that the people interviewed are explaining it in their own way. Truth has nothing to do with it.

As for the language Yoon uses in his stories, it is deliberate and precise. It serves to build an atmosphere in which we must find our own balance, our own understanding. The texts are peppered with Thai words, deliberately left in by Mui Poopoksakul, who translated the book into English. The sense of setting (all the stories appear to take place in Thailand) is thus reinforced in a subtle but effective way. The stories carry a sense of national identity (foreigners, Westerners in particular, are described with a distinct sense of “otherness” and are never given names) while at the same time veering away from more traditional Thai literature, as Poopoksakul explains in the Translator’s Afterword.

The result is an intriguing collection where words and form matter more than coherence. Yoon doesn’t seek to persuade the reader; rather, he invites us to examine his stories without passing judgement. We may find some funny, others sad, but we are free to draw our own conclusions and move on.

____

Zoe Perrenoud was born in Switzerland in 1987. Her work has appeared in Aesthetica’s Annual Creative Works, Crossing the Lines, Delano Magazine (online) and Stardust, Always. One of her short stories was shortlisted for the 2016 Bridport Prize. She has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Bangor University and currently lives in Luxembourg.

The Woman on the Other Side – A Review

To purchase the book from Doirepress, click on the image
To purchase the book from Doire Press, click on the image

 

TS Eliot once remarked:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time” (Little Gidding)

Stephanie Conn’s debut collection “The Woman on the Other Side” is a book of exploration. The poetry invites the readers into a world of fragments, between physical and internal landscapes. The collection is set in various locations and timelines, beginning from the opening passages inspired by the Dutch countryside and drawing a subsequent inspiration from its’ historic painters. However, Conn manages to superimpose her own vision and interpretation onto the paintings and leaves her written version lingering distinctly, like a melodious mid note hanging unobtrusive, in some corner of the readers mind…”He painted the lands lies below -/led us through small windows, into narrow interiors,/half-lit rooms draped with silk and shadow”( Vermeer’s Nether Land). The use of half-rhymes is used masterfully throughout the book to accentuate the significant pause for the readers to appreciate the same vivid details which was emanating from her spurts of inspiration. This reinterpretation is also given to other prominent painters in other locations, such as Chagal who resided primarily in the village of St Paul De Vence in the south of France; “Tell me of the green fields mapped in your mind/and the winding paths that always lead you back,/how your father held a scythe in his dark hands,/” (The Village)

In a 2016 interview with the Irish Times, Stephanie stated:
“Consumed by grief after my mother died, I felt terribly isolated and poetry offered comfort. The fact others had experienced this pain and survived also gave me hope” and the residue of this haunting grief and the resolve of hope can be seen and felt in the simplicity of lines like “it is June/but the curtains are pulled/and the candles lit/ … in an empty room/a fourteen year old girl/pores over her mothers diary” (Her Diaries).

Desolation and Resolution, a constant tug of war between the senses, ephemeral and empirical, act as a constant motif throughout the book. Attempts to balance between allowing the audience to gaze into her psyche and creating barriers play off each other in a manner that is truly remarkable. In Eclipse for example; “They said it would happen,/warned not to observe the sun/directly. I had been indoors” and “June.Again/ There have been too many/ birthdays and deathdays” (Abacus). The lines mimic the motion of a heaving breath but upon its release, we are left to somehow simmer in its bittersweet resolution.

Stephanie Conn was the inaugural winner of the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing, a prize awarded to her for the poem “Lavender Fields” .The line from the poem that could truly encapsulate the mesmerising quality of this book is summed up here;
“All this grew from a small bag of aromatic seeds”

___________________________________________________________________________

Review by Syed Shehzar M Doja

This review was published in the inaugural print edition of The Luxembourg Review.

THE WORDS OF MY MOTHER – A REVIEW

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To purchase  the book, click on the picture

 

Chukwudi Okoye’s anthology of poems is steeply didactic. A greater portion of it is also retrospective, Eurocentric, and, in some lines, pantheistic; although, the breath of metaphor conjures up a panoply of imagery plumbing deep the African core. In his book, one finds the “Niger” and the “frogs”; the “broken bamboo” and “black columns of ants”; “flutes” that are “urged to speak”, and “palm fruits ripe with fear”; “divine secrets from stones”, “sorrowful psalms of birds”, and “the rustling anguish of falling  leaves”.

The technique of the poet is to make these landmarks the vestige of a lost story, “the ancient rhythm of the land”, which suffers repression from the acts of “scavengers”. In The Music of the Flute, a long poem which preludes the collection of twenty-three poems, there is the lyrical and gruelling canvassing for a people’s awareness against a season of anomie. The apprehensions of the speaker, densely woven into a revue of parables and allusions, are based on the socio-cultural progression of his society; of its coming-of-age from a pilfered identity, a “plundered soil”; and of the need to, as the Music of the Flute urges, “remember” and “speak”.

. . . Shadows wait at the corner of evening.

Shadows pay homage at the feet of decay (82).

This first poem is a story of Shadows, and the poet is generous with the defining details of their essence: they came from a “distant” and “foreign land”; are devious, “come from the corners of the evening”; are “organised”; they “infiltrate the watchmen’s bones” and, “giving life to them” as stooges, “become the watchmen we know”. These Shadows are also portrayed as the “scavengers” who are everywhere, entrenched among the people, perpetrating common anguish.

The western wind has blown us away

The eastern waves have torn us apart (152).

The poet’s knowledge of colonial history is evident in his lines and filters into his stream of consciousness. His retrospection is most likely inspired by—as the title of the book points—the words of his mother, one who certainly must have lived in the time he has chosen to philosophise about.

Ezeamalukwuo; the name you gave

Me, Dearest Mother, so that I may speak (4).

His account of the Shadows speaks volumes about the imperial divide-and-rule system the English devised to colonise the poet’s native Ibo land in Southeast Nigeria in the early part of the twentieth century. This system placed absolute power in the hands of warrant chiefs who spoke for the black man and conquered for the white man. The fruit thereof was a pseudo-aristocracy, a subversion of the democratic political structure of the Ibo, one which turned the land against itself. Connotative words and phrases such as putrefaction, infiltrate, watchmen, outline of the land, strange voices, and plundered soil illustrate colonialism. Okoye’s choice of the evening as the fateful period of the day when the Shadows invade is symbolic; as that period is associated with rejuvenation, a time when a community is reformed to vacate its toil. His description of the western wind is reminiscent of Okonkwo’s discerning frustration in Chinua Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart: “The white man… came quietly … and we have fallen apart.”

It goes without saying that the effects of colonialism were extremely evident in the Ibo region of Nigeria, as after the entry of the White ensued a dramatic evisceration of the people’s cultural values and political institutions which were a sharp antithesis to the culture of the colonists.

. . . Green hopes of our generation

They fall on the cemetery of dreams,

To die and decay,

To reincarnate in time (270).

In the latter parts of The Music, there is an inquiry into the roots of redemption (of “land” and of “self”). It is asked, “Who knows the significance of the frog/Running about in day-time?” “It is not for nothing,” the flute replies (214). The poet strikes a stoic re-affirmation at the core of a reparative spirit.

The palm fruits have come of age

Not in the perennial passage of time

But in the sprouting of the spirit (319).

At the heart of his proposal for redemption, Okoye stages “a second coming”. It is not the literal apocalypse of the Bible that he refers to, but a political allusion to a revolutionary Day of Reckoning against the corrupted watchmen of the void, “butchers of dreams” and “betrayers of day”; a day which, according to him, would emerge if ignorance of the past be banished from the land, and actions for originality enthroned above intentions.

Biblical allusions, parallelisms, conceits, and repetitions are major devices of the poet. His repetitions engender an incantatory rhythm which enriches the epic voice. He uses parallelisms, conceits and allusions to strike emphases and embellish his storytelling; though artfully, yet to a point of near-weariness. Somewhere, there is a reference to the biblical Rachel in Ramah, “weeping for her children”; and the poet compares her mourning to that of his, for his native land. Elsewhere, “it is not by power, it is not by might/But by the sprouting of the spirit” (311); and “on enlightenment pathways of meandering roots/The flesh is weak; the flesh is weak” (325). However, it is those who heed the Music of the Flute that “shall possess the riches of the land”. His verses are also rife with indigenous aphorisms; the reader could pass them for a compilation of proverbs than a spontaneous flow of poetic thoughts.

But, as the pages turn, “Mother” is not always Mother, in the literal sense of the word. In Ezeamalukwuo, a poem on patriotism, Mother is Country; a nation the poet belongs to, but is, in a way, regrettably estranged from.

. . . Oh Mother! My eyes were little and blind. . .

No I did not understand you at all.

All I saw was your nakedness, Mother!

All I knew was wars, famine, death and dust

Your harsh sun, your Harmattan and your rain

That beat constantly on our leaking roof. . .

Thus I abandoned you, Dearest Mother (25).

In The Discovery, with a sombre tone as in Kofi Awoonor’s Songs of Sorrow, Mother is Life itself: “Oh Mermaid, oh Mother/In your presence alone have I come to see/That all my quests and questions/Are but a chase after the wind” (47).

Okoye explores a humanistic array of themes with the poems that emerge in the second section of his collection. They are, one time, a tribute to pensive joy; and, at another, a song of questions from a stricken heart. His language is unhappy, but his vision is bold.

Little Child, I Wish, and Remember, Soul Brother are poems on youth and innocence. In them are “the brownish recollections of a child” to a distant season of equality and freedom; and a hundred noble wishes to, with simplicity, “cross-pollinate the flowers of every mind”. I Love to Take a Walk, I Shall Go, Little Cherry Gold, The Bicycle Repairman, and A Plea for Paradise are powerful statements on the subject of death and origin. The poet’s position on death is a stoic and open-minded one, as he illustrates it to be an important mystery which is the punch-line of life. In two poems, he uses stories of bereaved characters to also mirror the stunning transience of human life. One is “a little ebony child”, “a sweet girl” whom the poet says was “stolen in Harmattan’s whim”. The other is “the bicycle repairman”.

The bicycle repairman was my friend

We bonded over a bicycle wheel. . .

Tomorrow we shall break more words and tears. . .

Someone was dead. . .

The next day I met a man pedalling his bicycle.

He looked familiar;

So I stopped him, and I asked:

“Who died yesterday?”

“The Repairman,” he replied,

And cycled away in time (20).

Yet, the poet would “prefer the wild uncertainties of life/To the deafening silence of certain death” (53). While his disposition towards death is enduring, his attitude towards life is adventurous. I Prefer the Wild Uncertainties of Life, All I Know of Life, and In the Midnight Hour are poems that undermine the “seriousness” of life, and, at the same time, celebrate its possibilities. The poet does not wish to make absolute sense of life; he is only interested in living it, open-mindedly and courageously.

. . . I walk the land of the living

In search of the secret of the dead

Before me is the fountain of hope,

But my path is covered in red (36).

Among other sarcastic poems on religion, science and the very fragile politics of identity; Okoye extols love as the bottom line of life. The Pilgrim Song, There is Something in a Song, and Woman of the Niger are love psalms. Through them, authorial assertion is vivid on the nature of love as a grand neutraliser; a plain where all philosophical waves of confusion are, for a moment, silenced.

You said: “Death is in the air. Death is on the earth. . .

I replied: “Life raised us up, then cut us down.

Death bound us to the underworld, but

Love raises us again, this time a zombie.” (59).

A glimpse of the grief that embodies the sensitive African soul is an achievement and cause for rejoicing at a postmodern evening of senile sensibilities. Chukwudi Okoye’s The Words of My Mother is, for this reality, and for the post-colonial African, a clamour for the restitution of lost Ideals on countless grounds.

—-

Oyin Oludipe, Nigerian writer, edits nonfiction at EXPOUND: A Magazine of Arts and Aesthetics. His poems and essays have been published in various national and international journals like Ijagun Poetry Journal and Sentinel Literary Quarterly (SLQ).

Bone of my bone- A Review

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To purchase the book, click on the image.

Cultural critic and media theorist Neil Postman once wrote, “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments… when, in short, a people become an audience… culture-death is a clear possibility.” He discussed the “Catastrophe of Trivialisation” as the constant stimulation of mind in a digitalised western world would end up a utopian apocalypse. Nicole Rollender has similar observations but her outlet is an austere dystopia, but the sentiment of culture-death remains the same…

Bone of my Bone is a deep plunge into the physical and existential predicaments of our collective “Flesh Existence”. It is a frightening, courageous and daunting journey which has the power to force its reader to scurry around the gritty recesses of their own subconscious. However, despite the bleak nature of the work, a fundamental truth about the morose side of human consciousness is discovered. This chapbook strips flesh down to bone and contrasts the classic quandary between mind and body as they form a collective “Primal Fear”, “… God, if it’s you who destroys / if it’s you who spits out ghosts / … then I swaddle you, Lord … / Even if my mouth fills with one hundred severed tongues” (Vespers).

The chapbook begins with the poem “Lauds” which drags the reader into a “Vortex of Uncertainty” as the ineffable juxtaposition between the cosmos and the immediate experience of consciousness are explored consistently, “Outside the birds are dying of cold on their branches, / and you’re looking for a way into heaven” (Lauds, p.1). Rollender burrows into the egotistical nature of humankind, the ignorant destruction of our “Neglected Earth” and all which inhabits it for the gain of personal salvation. She achieves this with trademark intensity and graphic imagery which uncovers the precarious modern fears of lost individualism in the swathes of a dying planet. Bone of my Bone not only exposes our deepest fears, but confronts them directly. Rollender writes with clarity despite her use of challenging metaphorical imagery. Her poetry flows from an anxious mind, “if I can’t speak more sweetly, will they cut my tongue from my mouth?” (Tongue, p.7)

Rollender has the skill and confidence to utilise grim, vivid and disturbing imagery to highlight her nihilistic philosophical persuasions. In fact, the macabre hopelessness forms the anchor of this collection. The “Morbid Fascination” prevalent in the human psyche is revealed through a darkened and catastrophic world – where one is a vicarious voyeur to the experience of lucid madness, as if visiting an asylum in Victorian Britain where inmates mutter scattered verses from T.S. Elliot’s Wasteland.

Rollender likes the reader to play “God” in Bone of my Bone. From the dismemberment of an animal by “God the Butcher” – “He can’t cut these split carcasses on the block – / a butcher must crack backbone and find the deepest vein / to drink” (Lauds, p.1) – or an insect with “God as Nature”, “Dropping the torsos / in the stream, the water performed the final kill” (Disassembling, p.6), Rollender manages to create a distinctive poetic experience. At the heart of the work is a pendulum which dangles on the threshold of humanity’s fragility, “even if my arms are cut from my torso, sing you / into being, // even if my mouth fills with one hundred / severed tongues” (Vespers, p.9).

The Universe in Bone of my Bone is a shadowy place – Rollender employs bleak symbolism reminiscent of Ted Hughes’ pinnacle collection, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. She employs mythological imagery – most noticeably Christian – to reference consistently body image and the way it reacts to an existential world devoid of a benevolent Power. She blends effortlessly theological and pantheistic concepts into her work, “What is the divine, but God- / light, thorn and scourge, blood let, that bone / shine? What is also the divine: There is no saint / without a past.” (Sext, p.3), “the one / who cracks my pelvis, / he-who-hollows between / mountains […] Hold me, Lord” (Driving to the Hospital, After My Water Breaks Nine Weeks Early, p.8).

The consistent onslaught of desolation through the eyes of womanhood is a moving experience for reader and writer alike. She highlights a world where bodies are seen as decrepit when mothers are unable to produce milk for their starving offspring, and similarly when their wombs are unable to provide a safe passage between pregnancy and birth. Rollender deals with gateways and passages, blurring the lines between birth, life and death, “A woman’s skin / is one world. The birth canal is another”, “The women who don’t bear children / are held down and singed with black lines before // they return to work in fields, skin a book / of illumination” (Marked, pp.11-12).

The murky philosophy of death and hopelessness are the predominant themes in Bone of my Bone but within it are the occasional glimmers of light which gives the chapbook its substance. The continuity makes it satisfying to read all in one go, as one world a short story – the familiar images sew the collection together into a memorable poetic tapestry. Rollender manages to echo Nietzsche’s persuasions that “All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth come only from the senses”. Bone of my Bone achieves this “Truth”.

Bone of my Bone challenges the reader to uncover the darkness beneath their veils. It reminds us to search for meaning in a world despite its harrowing destitution. This is an important poetic work which demands the reader to claw away their masks, to shock parts of their mind awake as they are too often placated by a digital world. Bone of my Bone is a dismal, chaotic yet worthwhile voyage into the “Concealed Blackness” of human experience, “You, the living / mother, shake salt from the table cloth, teach your / child to nest where it’s warm, tell your dead to head / toward whatever window is full of light” (How to Talk to your Dead Mother).


Review by Nathan Hassall

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