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).
Review by Nathan Hassall
The poems reviewed are found here: Translations
A Review of English translations of Paul Valéry’s “Les Pas” and “Le Cimetière Marin” by David Leo Sirois
French Post-Symbolist Paul Valéry’s masterful—even obsessional—crafting of consistent patterns of meter and rhythm presents translators with the daunting task of preserving the integrity of his poetic architecture while upholding the precision and polyvalence of his diction. Translator-poet David Leo Sirois performs this balancing act artfully, if not entirely with ease. Sirois’s translations of “Les Pas” and “Le Cimetière marin,” both published in Valéry’s talismanic interwar Charmes (1922), veer towards literal fidelity to the French originals mingled with gleams of more creative approximation.
Published in 1920 by Émile-Paul Frères before its inclusion in Charmes, “Le Cimetière marin” is likely Valéry’s best-known poetic work. Sirois’s translation of the poem, a quasi-histrionic progression of twenty-four sextets planted on the page like as many tombstones, fails to transmit the richness of Valéry’s decasyllabic rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration. However, Sirois’s English version holds strikingly true to the original’s shrill and clamorous tone, drawing readers into the metaphysical drama at the heart of the poem. Sirois’s encapsulation of the poem’s imperative to live in spite of the inevitability of death—and its revendication of the poetic process as a creative act that defiantly embraces life and its struggles—is particularly strong in the final three stanzas.
Certain lexical decisions in both translations strip key lines of the ambiguity they carry in French, closing off open ends. For example, Sirois’s translation of the title “Le Cimetière marin” as “Cemetery by the Sea” significantly narrows the breadth of an adjective akin to the word “marine” to a description of location only. In the case of “Les Pas,” Sirois translates the leitmotif of “les pas” as “the footsteps” where it appears in the poem’s title and first and last lines, although he opts for the more literal and less concise “steps,” which might more loosely refer to footsteps as the steps of a doorway, flight of stairs, or choreographed dance, in line six. His translation of the poem’s second quatrain substitutes the superlative “purest” for “pure” in line five.
Other choices result in awkwardly stilted language not present in the French poems’ turns of phrase. Most markedly, Sirois translates line 31 in “Le Cimetière marin,” “Beau ciel, vrai ciel, regarde-moi qui change!”, as “True sky, handsome heaven, see me! I change.” Without apparent justification, Sirois radically fragments Valéry’s syntax and inserts a disruptive first-person singular declarative statement where there ought not to be one. In the same line, Sirois sacrifices Valéry’s poetic repetition of “ciel,” inverts the order of the poem’s adjectives, and leaves readers to grapple with the odd selection of “handsome heaven.” Likewise, in his translation of “Les Pas,” Sirois maladroitly retains the literal “nude feet” for “pieds nus.” Here English idiom would favor the more familiar expression “bare feet.” Likewise, the choice of “hurry” for “hâte” in line thirteen has a jarring effect that mars the smoothness of the poem’s syntax. In English we do not commonly use “hurry” in clauses that contain direct objects; we tend to lean towards “rush,” or, in more formal contexts, “hasten.”
Such uneasy moments aside, at many points Sirois takes creative liberties with his translation to more effectively reconstruct Valéry’s tone and rhythm for readers in English. For instance, Sirois’s rendering of the final line of “Les Pas” as “My heart nothing but your footsteps,” while omitting the imperfect verb found in the French, astutely conveys the tormented anticipation and yearning of the poetic subject—and of the poem as a rumination on Lacanian lack avant la lettre. Sirois’s mindful translation of this line has the additional merit of mirroring the octosyllabic form maintained throughout Valéry’s poem, anchoring this allegory of poetic inspiration with an eerily calm and measured declaration of desire and expectancy.
Review by Adele Okoli
November 2015 brought with it tentative autumnal showers that kept winter firmly at bay in London, and news of the latest tragedy from home. On the last day of October, as children in London were donning generic and specific costumes to prompt a sugar high, publishers were being butchered by religious fundamentalists in Dhaka. A year of similar fatal attacks on freethinking, rationalist writers claimed another life. The incident was weighing heavy on my mind when I met Ahsan Akbar, a fellow Bangladeshi writer, with a third of the penultimate month of the year over.
Ahsan is a witty poet currently at work on a debut novel that is eagerly anticipated by his reputable writer friends – and he has many of them. He is also one of the directors of the Dhaka Literary Festival. He has befriended the distinguished men and women of letters in the course of fulfilling his responsibility of bringing them to the capital of Bangladesh for the annual celebration of literature for the past half a decade. We were attending a reading by one of them. Meike Ziervogel, like me, was due to travel to Dhaka in the following fortnight. She, like me, trusted the team behind the festival to have our best interests at heart, and remained committed to attending it. After a rendition of her precise, haunting prose, she reiterated this as she signed copies for waiting fans. She echoed the defiance of another guest, the esteemed Jon Snow: Now was the time to stand with Bangladesh, to show solidarity with those who were fighting for the soul of the country.
These were the two memories – one deplorable, the other inspirational – with which I boarded the plane on the eve of the festival. I had opted for the functionality of the Abu Dhabi airport over the ostentation of the one in Dubai as my stopover. I sent a few messages to friends and family over WhatsApp and Facebook before departing for Dhaka. Upon arrival, I checked for replies repeatedly, but none came. The government had blocked most social media and messaging applications as a security measure following the murders and as a prelude to the imminent hangings of convicted war criminals. The religious right had called a hartal – political strikes that had steered so far from Gandhi’s principles of peaceful protest that success was measured in casualties and the number of vehicles burned – in response to the sentences, on the first day of the festival. This was especially problematic for me since I had to travel the length of the city to get from my parents’ residence, where I was staying, to the Bangla Academy, the historic location of the festival.
I relied on my knowledge of safe modes of transport during hartals, and arranged an ambulance. This proved to be an unnecessary precaution, taken by an expatriate whose knowledge was showing some signs of rust. The famous resilience of Bangladeshis was in full display on the streets, flouting the inconsiderate, senseless moves of supposed politicians to go to work. The violence of hartals, the full force of which was felt in 2013 when they claimed more than a thousand lives, had also abated. I was greeted by a police roadblock when I reached the festival premises. The road on which sat Bangla Academy had been closed at the behest of the organisers. I walked past patrols of bored policemen sprinkled throughout the closed road, up to the entrance and, after being given a VIP pass, made my way to the Main Stage for the inaugural. The ambulance had collected me only after ferrying the hospital staff, which meant that, according to the schedule I was handed as I entered, I was late. The minister who was declaring the festival open, however, was running on Standard Bangladeshi Time. Therefore, despite my best efforts, I was early.
Once it started, the first three hours, encompassing a musical recitation that I had missed, the inaugural and an opening plenary, set the tone for the rest of it. K. Anis Ahmed, a well-known Bangladeshi writer and publisher, and another festival director, delivered a succinct and comprehensive address in English and Bengali, establishing firmly the multilingual nature of the event. He touched on the absentees, as did Ahsan in his address. There are two types of writers in Bangladesh. The first is diligent and dedicated, constantly developing and contributing significant pieces, often with no reward. A handful of them had paid with their lives during the year, as their predecessors had during the independence movement. Their numbers had already been dwindling, arguably even skipping a generation since the new nation emerged. The second wants the fame without the work, the superficiality over the substance, the label that has not been earned. The growing English-language scene has seen more of the latter, the frauds, crawl out of their holes and multiply, believing their English medium education and overseas university degrees have equipped them to string two sentences together and pass themselves off as writers. They succeed at conning their way to the limelight because Bangladesh has simultaneously revered writers as intellectuals – dating back to the language and independence movements, and those who were slaughtered by Pakistani agents, to silence them – and had low rates of literacy and education.
A pratfall of these charlatans did not leave their Gulshan and Baridhara palaces in support of the written word and the freedoms of thought, speech and expression. At a time when these fundamental freedoms that make us human are under threat in Bangladesh and the region, when luminaries from foreign shores did not hesitate to show solidarity with us, the reprehensible actions of those who dare call themselves writers and Bangladeshis were conspicuous, were criminal. A few of the foreign guests had similarly absented themselves, citing security concerns. They should be reminded of what it means to be a writer. “We need to celebrate literature, and it is especially important to celebrate it in these troubled times when it is under attack in so many parts of the world…[W]e all belong to the country of imagination, and when an iron curtain comes down on our imagination, then it is time to act, and to act as writers,” said Nayantara Sahgal in her effortlessly eloquent keynote speech at the inaugural. The festival had begun, its special significance and greater duty to the world and literature underlined.
The opening plenary, vague and imaginative in equal measure in its title, “The World is Round”, set its sails to the wind unleashed by the inaugural. No sooner had the first question been asked by the moderator than the discussion took on a revelatory political flavour that audience participation at the end encouraged rather than dampening. Jon Snow, Jude Kelly and Ramachandra Guha represented the fair, rational and brilliant truth-seeker, the reactionary whose single-minded worldview is expressed in every sentence uttered, and the artful centrist that lend sensible political discourse the perfect blend of information and entertainment. Appetite whet, I raced to the Lawn, another of the six locations used for concurrent sessions – there were at least three running at the same time for the rest of the festival – for a quick look at the launch of Himal Southasian’s special issue on Bangladesh, before interrupting it to take in a tete-a-tete about culture and performance art through the ages between two of Bangladesh’s most celebrated actors, Aly Zaker and the effervescent Asaduzzaman Noor. The former, especially significant as one of two international magazines that had dedicated entire issues to Bangladesh for the very first time, kept the political flame that had been lit alive, while the latter delivered on its promise of mirth. The organisers had performed a minor miracle by getting the schedule back on track by then. I took a break to avail myself of the Authors’ Lounge’s hearty lunch service.
A steady trickle of people was beginning to grow the sparse audience of the morning – a result of a working day and the trepidation of a hartal – by the time I made my way back to the sessions on offer. The first day saw the festival stretch its poetry muscles, showcase Bangladeshi writing, and delve into science, courtesy of Harold Varmus, an American Nobel Laureate who had defied his State Department’s overly cautious travel advisory. I met Naushad Ali Hussein in between sessions, a primary school classmate I had last seen almost two decades previous. Naushad, it seemed, had veered away from his mathematical inclinations at school towards the arts. He, along with the ever-exuberant Rajib Rahman Johney and Karina Zannat, was leading an energetic, enthusiastic and incredibly helpful team for Jatrik, the production company behind the festival. Headquartered inside what appeared to be a box office encased by glass converted into an office, the three were called on to solve problems of varying magnitudes – a jetlagged guest needed to go to the hotel, another needed a mobile phone charged, yet another needed to know where best to get jamdanai saris and how to get there, while another was nowhere to be found – during my poor attempt at catching up with Naushad. I was approached by a smiling volunteer, identifiable by the distinct purple “DLF 2015” t-shirt she had on and a similar badge to mine which gave her a different designation, who asked if someone had been assigned to me. When I answered in the negative, she promptly rectified the oversight. Progga Noshin is a bright, cheerful student from the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, one of the private universities that have grown in the country since the turn of the century, to try to make up for the egregious shortcomings of the state institutions. She made the remainder of the festival both enjoyable and considerably easier to navigate.
Dhaka may be unfashionable compared to some of the exotic hosts of literary festivals, but the emphasis on programming in 2015 made it a standout event. The main motivation behind the attending public was the quality of the programming and the topics of discussion, to learn from and be inspired by substance, not superficiality. An example was the session on science fiction on the second day. None of the panellists were household names in Bangladesh, but the interest in that particular kind of writing had resulted in all the seats being taken, people cramming inside and standing where they could, and two small queues outside the KK Tea Stage’s ajar doors. They caught the Cuban rock-star and writer, Yoss, explain how his mother cries when she reads his stories, and when she asks him how he can keep a dry eye, he replies, “My tears are on the page.” The hunger for science fiction had been met with a constructive dialogue between him, Marcel Theroux, Ranbir Singh Sidhu and the Bangladeshi writer Saad Z. Hossain, and the audience that plumbed the depths of the genre’s standing as more than pulp-fiction, as being relevant to understanding life through the ages, the human condition, even politics.
The second morning had already brought a pleasant surprise. Scholastica, one of leading Bangladeshi English-medium schools, had arranged a school trip to the festival on the Thursday. The hartal had forced them to cancel. The students were not to be deterred, however. They had forsaken their weekend sleep and convinced their teachers to reschedule the trip for Friday. Some had had to wake up at five in the morning to join the group that arrived at Bangla Academy before its doors had opened. Their hunger and determination gave the lie to the age of media sensationalism that constantly reminds us of the erosion of values and digitalisation killing literary and intellectual pursuits. Identifiable by their uniforms – white shirts and navy blue trousers for the boys, white shalwar-kameez with navy blue dopattas for the girls, the white in each case carrying the multi-coloured school logo – I spotted them listening intently to Sandip Roy, Mahesh Rao and myself discuss short stories with the Nepalese journalist Bikash Sangruala. Mahesh’s likening of short stories to flings and novels to long-term relationships was exemplified the former pair’s irrepressible wit and verve that entertained a largely young audience shaking off sleep. I later learnt that students of some of the other established schools had joined those from Scholastica, their civilian clothing allowing them to blend into the crowds thronging sessions on Palestine, Cuba, translation, feminism and the minor languages of Bangladesh.
Jon Snow, Kunal Basu and Zafar Sobhan were especially generous with their time when approached by the young minds in between sessions. The latter is the editor of Dhaka Tribune, a formidable English-language daily that was the festival’s title sponsor. En route to a session, I stopped by their stall to see what they were doing. Rumana Habib oversaw a warm, spirited and accessible team. Their planned activities included a poetry booth – a highbrow version of the carnival kissing-booth – and several workshops. This hands-on involvement with the festival was a refreshing change from the elitist approach adopted by Dhaka Tribune’s predecessor, The Daily Star. In an effort to live up to the high journalistic standards set by its British tabloid namesake, its coverage of this significant event in a country where freedoms and the space to exercise them were ever-shrinking was reminiscent of the government’s approach to said freedoms: denial, rejection and refusal. I was amused to see the supposedly most widely circulated English-language newspaper displaying the pettiness of a Hindi soap opera villain while its successor showed why it had been left at the altar for the other.
There had been an air of elitism and nepotism about the festival in its previous, imperialist form, which was absent in the reborn version. While the director past walked with a permanent spotlight hanging above, the directors present opted for bringing Bangladesh to the world over self-promotion. The Wasafiri special issue on Bangladesh, brought into focus in the warm early-winter afternoon of the second day, epitomised this. The only independent nation to emerge from Bengal, the crown jewel of British India and the region most coveted by the kings that preceded it, has failed to live up to the heady heights of its cultural heritage. Those within the country, spurred on by false senses of patriotism or nationalism and delusional pride, cling to that heritage with the zeal of a convert. They have not provided those without with a reason to have faith. Bangladesh remains absent in global conversations because the wealth of its Bengali literature has not been translated and its sparse English literature has not been communicated to the world. The Wasafiri issue is a step towards rectifying decades of negligence on part of the self-appointed gatekeepers and doyens of Bangladeshi culture. In that regard, it was a personification of the festival.
I carried this optimism into the final day. Conscious of its impending end, the festival paraded its greatest hits. Jon Snow charting his life and its intersection with key moments of contemporary history was a delectable breakfast, Nayantara Sahgal’s liberalism and activism a luscious lunch that came with a dessert course comprised of lively discussions about London and Kolkata. Tea came in the shape of cricket, the passionate nation’s favourite sport, and science with Harold Varmus. I satiated my palate, having already enjoyed my personal highlight the day before. I had spent an hour and some change in the company of Jon Snow. What was supposed to have been an interview became one of the most inspirational, enlightening and awe-inspiring experiences of my life. The wisdom he had imparted with deft articulation was admirable, but being in his presence had reminded me of what it really meant to be human, and that was invaluable. As twilight approached on the last day, a travelling troupe of performers whose bus had broken down, delaying their arrival at the festival by a quarter of a day, gave a mesmeric folk-drama rendition in the Lawn that was painfully beautiful. They had not eaten since breakfasting at dawn, and the rural-dwellers were in the cultural heartland of the classist urban capital, but their discomfort was absent as they entered a trance and exploded onto the stage.
I slipped away to the Main Stage, to hear the closing remarks of Professor Emeritus Anisuzzaman. His name, like those of many others celebrated at the festival, was on the various hit lists released by the fundamentalists, and he had received death threats in the days leading up to it. His speech was one of defiance and endurance, one of the need for Bangladesh to converse with the world through its literature, one of what it can mean to be a Bangladeshi. I stepped out into the Dhaka dusk, the spell cast by his powerful words reverberating within me defining the festival. I saw a rush to the exit as rumours about the hangings of the war criminals and the response of the fundamentalists in their aftermath abound. Dhaka Literary Festival had ended, but it was not over. A microcosm of the nation that was birthed by indubitable hope and, despite being pushed towards becoming a failed state, remained full of promise and indomitably hopeful, it was necessary. A country that would not have been born had it not been for words now sees people killed because of them. Although the millions who were Charlie Hebdo value brown lives less, there is a home-grown platform of thoughts and ideas that demands the world take notice of Bangladesh, and demands Bangladesh fight for its soul.
BY IKHTISAD AHMED
To neglect poetry is to neglect a fundamental aspect of the Human Condition. Poetry is a tool used to reflect this, a means of meshing together abstractions to create an experience of continuity. Kiriti Sengupta’s The Earthen Flute is a carefully constructed collection of poetry which fearlessly exposes the Human Condition – brought to life visually with illustrations by the talented Tamojit Bhattacharya.
Sengupta has published eight books of poetry to date, as well as two translations. His proficiency has catapulted him into recognition in India and various international writing circles. The Earthen Flute is Sengupta’s most recent collection of poetry and prose, which focuses sharply on the emotional aspect of the inner consciousness, using a mix of mythology and personal meditations.
On the one hand, The Earthen Flute plays out like a precarious melody sitting on the threshold of our perceived “World” and the “Other”. This articulate collection employs intriguing whimsical poetic techniques which swing the reader into a “Higher State of Awareness”. For example, in the first poem, “Keep an Eye”, Sengupta references the Hindu goddess Durga, whose left eye connotes desire, right eye action and the central eye knowledge. The central eye is fundamental to this particular poem. Sengupta describes the eye as, “… kept open / full or half” (Keep an Eye, p15), which leaves the reader contemplating a world beyond the limitations of their sensory experience. This poem is accompanied with the image of Durga by Bhattacharya, whose interpretation of the third eye is a white void; an open, inviting space which can only be filled by “Knowledge”. This can be seen as the answer to humanity’s spiritual vacuum, where one can awaken to “True Awareness”. In this poem, Sengupta encapsulates delicately a statement from Plato, who believed that “Human behaviour flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowledge.” The eye is a key component of The Earthen Flute. It is referenced consistently in a myriad of metaphorical surroundings, as it takes on an omniscient quality, “trust me, the eye can see” (Cryptic Idioms, p37). “My soul seeks, but the eyes fail to see” (Seventh Heaven, p40).
Occasionally, the work in The Earthen Flute feels overly calculated and does not suit the lucidity prominent in the rest of the collection. However, halfway through the collection, Sengupta’s “Dreaming Eye” plunges the reader into an exciting chimera of surreality. In the poem, “Clues to Name”, Sengupta captivates the reader with ethereal yet powerful prose. Each piece is merely titled “#” and manages to remain serene in the context of a chaotic dream. This poem is the most cryptic of the whole collection, a genuine exploration of the Self and its liberation, “Water has no call, no décor either; it floats the bone and the mortal flames free!” (Clues to Name, p33).
Though not often, there are times when airy overtones make it difficult to follow the flow of the poetry. I found the poem, “Womb” – a journey both personal and uncomfortable referencing the concept of birth – difficult to digest, “World, you may comment on material loss / Only the mother understands rupture pain” (Womb, p17). Other times, the poetry can lack the core essence of expression, with occasional cliché phrases like,“We continue to live being frightened”, (Gateway to God, p25) or “I don’t call it a feeling, / I would rather name it / My experience (Experienced Personified, p23). These appear seldom, but are still disruptive to the reading experience. Nevertheless, these are pickings against a backdrop of otherwise authentic work.
This collection pulls the reader through Sengupta’s daily life as he tunes a fine juxtaposition between the outside world and the emotional side of the inner self. The strongest work which juggles the outside world and inner experience is in his short poem, “Envy”, where Sengupta transcends his experiences into a metaphysical observation, “Jealous– / A Dentist can say if you are one // Your teeth deviate from / The occlusal table / And thus, lips suffer from bites” (Envy, p.26). This poem appears lighthearted but honest, connoting a fear of falling short of perfection – an imagery-laden treat.
Although Sengupta is not too concerned with strict rhyme schemes, the clearest use of rhyme appears in the poem, “Cryptic Idioms”, “A flute sounds along the serpentine track / Breath tunes it from mute to high . . . to crack! // For eons religion or its absence / appears back-to-back . . .” (Cryptic Idioms, p.35). Sengupta continues the modern tradition of free verse, not limiting himself to stricter forms of poetry. There is delicate wordplay which bring to life images in a spiritually dormant world, as memory is used as a vessel, “Memories unveil themselves / Through snapshots, even / The moon has its glory / Pinned in poetry” (Moon – The Other Side, p18).
The Earthen Flute is a book of poetry for the spiritualist, or for someone looking to connect with their “Essential Nature”. Its digestible style makes it an inviting collection for both the poetry neophyte and veteran to read. The mix of experience in the context of mythological fantasies form the basis of this intriguing collection. Sengupta begs us to use vision beyond our eyes, awareness beyond our senses, before the abruptness of our part of the Human Condition ends:
“Like an inevitable death / An enormous God steps in” (Gateway to God, p25).
A Review by Nathan Hassall
Disclaimer: This is an Opinion based essay. The views expressed herein are purely based on the author’s perspective. Agree or Disagree with the sentiments? Have a thought on this very topic? Why not comment below.
There can be little doubt that the ravages of technology are taking their toll on human society and human nature. Caught up in a maddening rush for material gain resulting from the unchecked advances in science and technology, man has little time or even an inclination to smell the flowers. The flowers in this case are, of course, the arts. The demeaning and diminishment of the arts as a measure of our humanity represents a distinct threat to that humanity as it was meant to be. It is no overstatement to suggest that the very survival of the race may lie in the balance.
Just as the arts define a social culture, the lack of art suggests a lack of culture. There are myriads of definitions, purposes and forms for art, but for the purpose of this article, I would ask that we consider art not as an act or an object, but as a disciplined creation emanating from the mind which brings balance, meaning and beauty to life. I would ask that we consider culture as a measure of what it means to be human. Humanity is the only form of life capable of creating art, creations that go beyond any utility. It is therefore through our art that we are defined as being human. As human beings, cursed or blessed with a self-awareness that brings us into confrontation with the mystery of our very existence, we find ourselves in a most uncomfortable situation: we are by nature bound to question our why and wherefore. In my attempts to do so, I have come to the conclusion that it is only through the arts that we are afforded an occasional glimpse into the otherwise incomprehensible. Attempts to avoid the question with a myriad of other pursuits only adds to the angst and insecurity we seek to overcome, which in reality may prevent us from becoming truly human. This being the case, one would think the inquisitive human mind would drive us to a veritable obsession with the arts. But such is not the case. Those other less than satisfactory pursuits often become our cultural obsession with material gain that has relegated the arts to a periphery of our concerns at best.
The rapid changes in our society, resulting in rapid changes in the priority of our values and following on the equally rapid advances of technology has raised a serious question of just what it means to be human. The question for debate then becomes whether or not art as such has any real value or purpose. Caught, on the one side, between the ranting of a religious right wing conservative segment that would do away with all administrative funding for the arts, assuming them to be both frivolous and superfluous, and on the other hand the political machinations of a liberal left who would make a travesty of the arts in their efforts to politicize them, is the third side, whose position was best stated on a bumper sticker proudly displayed on a pick-up truck which read, “The arts are not a luxury. They are a necessity.” This side faces a continual struggle for survival.
Ironically, the battle being waged is between two of the sides, neither of which has any real understanding of or appreciation for the arts. The thought of the arts as a product of disciplined and creative minds bringing luster and emotional well-being to our lives is completely foreign to many of those of the religious/conservative right. In fact, in many respects, the liberality of artistic thinking may represent an actual threat to some of the questionable moral convictions they often hold. On the other hand, the politically motivated left, all too often, will with malice under the guise of art produce an array of often offensive and manipulative works under the banner of multiculturalism or political correctness whose purpose is not to enlighten but obscure.
Should the extreme right prevail, they could extinguish the light of aesthetic creativity in favor of a rigidity and stagnation. The whole concept of beauty for the sake of beauty could be lost. Should the extreme left prevail, with its false guise of multiculturalism, the very opposite might be achieved, with the pitting of one enclave against another, as opposed to the universal need for tolerance and a unanimity of purpose to be found in the arts.
There is no greater threat to a pluralistic society than these two warring factions who, in the arrogance of their ignorance would subvert and ultimately destroy any ability we might have to live harmoniously together. Without a universal understanding of our human condition, continually rediscovered through the arts, we could be splintered into any number of self-serving races, genders, sects, religions, ethnicities or ideologies. We need the arts, and we need a better understanding of what constitutes art as defined above, an internal appreciation of the balance and beauty in life. The purpose of art thus defined is not to preach old truths but to open the doors to new truths. The purpose of art is not to indict injustice but to help us understand the causes of injustice.
Have no fear; the arts will survive. Their demise has been predicted over and over again, but we could once more lose countless generations to the ignorance and stagnation that beset the human race during the Dark Ages. Only our enlightened voices speaking loud and clear can counter the alienation and depression that is certain to follow with a continuation of our present trend toward cultural deprivation.
Hal O’Leary, now at age 90, has been published in 18 different countries. He lives by a quote from his son’s play Wine To Blood, “I don’t know if there is a Utopia, but I am certain that we must act as though there can be.” Hal, a Pushcart nominee, is a recent recipient of an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from West Liberty University the same institution from which he became a college dropout some 60 years earlier. He currently resides in Wheeling.
The author writes this article “In Honour of Ashraf Fayadh”…
It is simple enough to recognize the poet as a being, as no glamorous exception to that entity of human flesh. We can, of course, eschew variant cases of Shakespeare or Ovid to whom evidences of actual portraitures are lost. One cannot completely discard the wild possibilities of alien mutations. But then, we merely depict ‘WILD’ to push forth such staggering notion. Somehow, the poet is an embodiment of this curious wildness; and it is, in most instants, not simple to recognize him as such. In other words, it is easy to gaze upon a poet, relish conviction and say, ‘This is a man!’ Yet, it is oft a herculean task to demystify the motif around the next evaluation which is: ‘What sort of man is he capable of being?’
This abstract nexus of inquiry is perhaps the essential gulf that lies between the poet and the poem, between one area of identity and another. It is impossible to probe this space without fortuitous inferences from the primal debate of beauty as a poetic component, of whether knowledge spawns imagination or vice versa. In the case of concrete self, it is the debate of whether the poet breeds the poem or vice versa! Such rumination—as is expected of any serious artist to accommodate—begets resolutions which, in turn, beget the very foundation upon which poetic artistry must be consecrated.
Usually, it is a complex phase, one where the poet either steers away from hubristic overtones as escape from that restrictive sedition for logic or surrenders to intuitive powers and risk self-willed severance from real life. And yet the poet does not, for that reason, fail to distinguish between himself and his energies, between his realm and the realities, or sacrifice his aesthetic independence on the temple of a hysterical and heterogeneous audience. After all, poetry is beauty. Beauty is self-terming. To co-opt Lisa Samuels—perhaps, one of the fiercest critics of the vintage Bysshe Shelley—I like to poise the poet on the same axis with the very nature of beauty. The duo are resistant structures, imaginative structures that present an impenetrable model of the unknown. Beauty, like the poet, is therefore endlessly talk-inspiring, predictive rather than descriptive, dynamic rather than settled, infinitely serious and useful.
In morally fragile societies, while every possible effort is made to thaw the pen, to glaze fissures on that creative cauldron of cosmic powers, poets must understand that the communal journey to conscience is not a smooth passage of rapid rectifications, but prone to the penchant of cynics and invasion of monsters. A firm reconciliation with one’s own ‘ideo-poetic’ choices is thus imperative to transact the business of identity from external interrogations. That principle of reconciliation is every bit as important as the impulse that nerves the aesthetic faculty. The most passionate impulse has not resolved stylistic instabilities, alienation, lingual dissonance and strictures for the poet, not even essentials such as virtues. How then can anyone answer the question of what sort of man a poet is capable of being, or prescribe limited definitions for his limitless artistry if the poet himself has not asked his heart, reconcile demarcations between concepts and non-concepts?
What gives hope for reconciliation is the very unique capacity of the mind for self-dialogue, and the budding poet must indulge. I use the word ‘indulge’ deliberately, because this act of inquiry is internal and inculcates definite methodologies of questioning. These are found within the precincts of what I term the ‘trilogy of poetic identity’. You must exonerate the overreachingness of that coinage. It is amazing that contemporary poetry has contented itself with merely trivializing established valuations—a blind concession to determinism—since it cannot altogether comprehend the ‘rigidities’ of conceptual forbears. Even within the liberal festivities of contemporariness, it is vital to teach identity, to impart the need for poet and poem to reconcile themselves upon the makeup of rebellion, genesis and refuge.
So, what are these terms? What are these stances? What exactly are their imports and how precisely have they sprung into existence as sole determinants of poetic identity, or say, reconciliation?
Well, there are no superfluous denotations to these except that I, a poet, have only asked myself: why are you a poet? Is it fostered or genetic? Assumed, perhaps? Fortuitous ordainment from an anonymous divinity? A poet should be as fascinated with himself as his audience! That self-impelled curiosity leads to direr revelations: I am a poet because I must be; and because I must be, I must also become a rebellion against life’s reality, a genesis against life’s mortality and a refuge against life’s hostility!
So there it goes – the triple bulwark of inevitable circumstance. Should a poet deform his daily challenges or should his daily challenges form him? Should he be a creator of experiences or should experiences create him? Should he console or be consoled?
The poet only begins to exist—that is, transcend the basic recognition of “being”— after he has answered these questions. I have answered mine.
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.
Born in Cardiff in 1937, Gillian Clarke is The National Poet of Wales since 2008 and a remarkable figure in British poetry. She is a poet, playwright, editor, translator, lecturer and translator. Her work – including Poetry Book Society Recommendations, Letting in the Rumour (1989), The King of Britain’s Daughter (1993) and Five Fields (1998) as well as her T.S. Elliot Prize shortlisted Ice (2012) – are emotionally laden with feminism, politics, life events, and are heavily centered around the theme of Place. Clarke is a poet who’s cultural upbringing in Wales shines through her work. Her work is studied in the GCSE and A-Level curriculum and she was on the panel of judges for the poetry competition named Anthologise, where school students aged 11-18 sent anthologies of their own poetry. Her contribution to the arts are widely recognised. She received the Wilfred Owen Association Poetry award in 2012.
Clarke provides The Luxembourg Review answers to questions about life as the Poet Laureate of Wales, the inspiration of traveling and its effect on poetic practice and advice to young poets who are interested in practicing the craft of poetry.
How much does the natural world inspire you?
I live in Ceredigion, 900 feet up, 6 miles in from the Irish Sea, which is visible between hills. We have 18 acres of land, and live several miles from the nearest village. This is our life. Being alive is what I write about. Wales has a low density population, and most of our towns and cities are close to the coast. Even when I lived in Cardiff we were surrounded by the countryside, in sight of mountains, and the sea visible from everywhere I have lived.
Is poetry an extension of our relationship with the physical forces of nature which govern us in our day-to-day experience?
I am sure that is not true. Poetry is art, and like all art, it is about what human imagination makes of what we see, hear, think etc. A main characteristic of being human is our pleasure in rhyme and rhythm, and poetry in its simplest forms (nursery rhymes, song lyrics) is natural to all. Its sophisticated forms are refined versions of human language. It’s word-music?
How important is nationality in defining yourself as a poet as your work can be accessed across the globe by a multitude of cultures?
I am Welsh, and I don’t know a life as anything else. I never think of ‘defining myself’, and did not call myself a poet. Other people did. The attention my nation gives to poetry and poets is supportive and nurturing. My parents (not educated people) had a great love for words, books, stories and poetry, in both langages. However, being Welsh is just one way of being human. The best writers are true to their culture, and are most universal when they express themselves through their own culture. W.H.Auden says:
“A poet’s hope: to be, like some valley cheese, local, but prized elsewhere.”
Seamus Heaney is a fine example, most Irish, most universal. Small countries look outward. Because my work is on the GCSE and A Level syllabus, it reaches wherever English is studied. I receive a steady stream of emails from students all over the world, and I answer them all.
Do you find that travels away from your homeland – to countries such as Luxembourg and Bangladesh – help your poetry go in new directions? Do you find these experiences pave the way for new and varied inspirations?
Travel turned my focus from children, home and the domestic about thirty years ago. Every new place is fascinating, stimulating. I am an observer. I write what I know. It’s made me friends in many countries, taught me that the human being is the same everywhere, though coloured by a multitude of cultures, languages, ways of life. I must write from my own version of being human.
In 2008 you became the Third National Poet of Wales. What new challenges has this given you? Has this brought more pressure on you to write your poetry with Welsh readers in mind?
I like deadlines. That goes back to the weekly school essay! Over the past eight years I must have written well over a hundred commissioned poems and poems to support something. The commissioned, or requested poem is a tradition in Welsh culture that goes back to the 6th century. It is a ‘village’ tradition, here in Ceredigion, that poets rise to the occasion, as long as it’s an honourable subject. I write in English, but have ensured that all my public poems are translated into Welsh by a poet-friend whose first language is Welsh. So, on the Literature Wales website the poems appear in both languages. I have several poems placed on buildings, walls, pathways, as part of public places, and I usually use both Welsh and English in their writing – except the most recently completed work by an artist in a long wall in a car park, in Newport, Gwent, five 6-line verses on the Welsh Chartists. In English.
With social media and online blogs making it simple to share poetry across the globe, do you believe the Age of Information has been beneficial to the poet? Do you think this has saturated the market in a way that devalues the art of poetry?
I don’t use social media, so I don’t see these works. It’s an open space for expression, which is good. It will have no effect on great poetry, and its enduring value. The internet as a tool, an infinite library, is wonderful. As I don’t do Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and delete all invitations to connect, I can choose my correspondents, and my poets.
Some believe that poetic talents are innate or, at least, the potential is. Many fancy themselves as poets. What is your best advice to aspiring poets?
No, it is education, listening, reading, culture and family that make a poet. Had I been the daughter of painters, maybe i would have been an artist.
In a world where we are bombarded by so much information, what advice would you give young poets look to get their work out there and noticed?
Advice: read, and listen. Be alert to language. Forget being ‘noticed’. A real writer wants to learn and improve, rather than ‘be noticed.’ Submit poems for competitions. Book a week at a poetry course at Tŷ Newydd, our beautiful Writers Centre in North Wales, and be tutored by published writers.
Poetry is an art-form that most people believe they can take on. If someone pens a piece with a bit of rhyme and structure, there is a small potential they can claim themselves to be a poet. If someone were to sit at a piano and hit the keys without any prior instruction, I do not feel they would fancy themselves as a pianist. Do you feel the intrinsic nature of poetry is such that it allows people of all abilities to call themselves poets?
It is because language belongs to all humans, and a love of rhyme etc is a child’s natural way forward. Instead of taking the piano as comparison, take singing. All can sing, though not all are the greatest. If a person wants to write, I salute them, and welcome them aboard. Advice, apart from ‘read’: write to enjoy it, and don’t expect fame, money, publication.
Poetry, including nursery rhymes, seems to be loved in childhood. Poetry is read at life events such as weddings and funerals, through which can they leave a powerful impact. The emotional nature of poetry is not the issue, but people’s desire to read or listen to poetry outside of these contexts presents a significant problem in poetry’s popularity.
This is an out-of date view. If ‘poetry’s popularity’ is a problem. how come so many Literary/Poetry Festivals in Britain flourish – more every year? Why do so many young people contact me, all year round? How are so many readings by the best-known poets sell-out events?
Does modern poetry do enough to connect new readers as well as stimulate the majority of existing readers?
I have no idea. It varies from good amateur to truly great poetry, as all art does. A poet has to write true to herself, himself, and if it is appreciated, that is an extra bonus. My emails from everywhere, those sell-out events, the two hour queues at Hay Festival signing books, the requests for a poet, special poems for events, buildings, public squares, tell how popular poetry is in Britain. It is a phenomenon, and the envy of many other countries.
Interview conducted by Nathan Hassall.
Attempted Speech and other Fatherhood Poems is a chapbook of fifteen poems written by Nigerian linguist cum teacher, Kola Tubosun. It was published by Saraba Magazine in September 2015 as the fourth title in its individual poetry chapbook series.
At first glance, a compilation around the theme of fatherhood promises marvels; although Kola’s claim to thematic divergence is essentially one of approach. In weaving a string of poems that “are not as much a dedication to this (fathering) process however as they are personal reflections on that”, one encounters a cryptic yet compelling passage of nostalgia, excitement and anxieties. With an embrace of fine language, Kola’s collection promises all of these.
While the bard’s caveat of impending tangents (in the course of reading) announces itself by the turn of each page, most of his poems embody the experience of the budding father—emotional and cognitive—around private orbits of hope and transitions. The motion is aesthetic and subtle; one is tempted to contemplate chronology, though directly no claim is made by the poet for such implement.
What gives, for instance, the foremost poems – “Macedonia”, “Greener Grass” and “Couvade” – their fervent, near-surreal melancholy is the fact that they may be poems of early bereavement. Moods of deprivation are imbued by hopeful desperation. To quote the bard: In “Macedonia,” his invocations are for a soul to rebound to life: “Speak you must… / As with a lost wing, flap on white winds.” In “Greener Grass,” a trance of loss later accosts his afternoon as “Hair strands / On my hands break / From my lover’s head.” In “Couvade,” “As a churning stomach, rumbles the dour sky / Of the morning, the news reaches me, cold” and then, “Bile pushed saltiness to the home of tears.”
One prominent quality of Kola’s poetry, as it is with Lola Shoneyin’s, Jumoke Verissimo’s and others, is that it is structured within a fluid framework which very effectively navigates the core of the sentiments of human consciousness. What ensues is a powerful interfusion of muse, thought and story.
“Five Days of Warmth” is a testimony to the above-said form, considering its titled stanzas and references to actual figures:“Jojolo”, a quiet child who is thought to be male in the womb of his mother; a hospital “diviner”; and then, a child who is again thought to be female, whose presence would be the “presence of light”, and of a feast, “ofada / On the palates of a famished guest.” It is commendable how Kola chronicles a five-day experience of looming fatherhood (in the preceding moments of childbirth, perhaps): he names the stages across the progression of “knowledge”, “warmth” (of womb), “dread”, “love” and “acceptance.”
Yet, waiting is also a part of fatherhood – a transient phase of fantasy that almost crushes the bard in the battle between hope and worry. This is what a wait feels like:
“Is like a knife, slowly cutting
A dead limb of recurring expectations…
(A Wait, p9)”
As the pages flip, an earnest message is brought to bear upon the reader; and it is the fact that there are lots of apprehensions for “A Father of a new son / In a new age with new knowledge (A Cutting, p11).” In a poem, Kola introduces rather interesting reflections on the subject of human choice, and that as it concerns the new-born. On issues of pleasures, beauty, tradition and difference, a big question mark is placed on the notion of a young human’s power to make free choices unconstrained by society, by the external “Wide constituents of entitled opinions.”
However, Kola believes that the child soon and always finds his own path; even though such path is a summation of a thousand existent ones; even though “each new step is a beginning into the cold wild, / With the certainty of the unsure steps of a walking child (Life, Like a Bus Terminal, p16).” For the bard, the discussion on the dynamics of his theme is inexhaustible: “I believe it quite unlikely that anyone is able to fully express fatherhood in words (Preface, p4).” Even more, the rumination of it as a mantle of guardianship is an extremely dicey trajectory for conclusions. In another poem, one finds a confession of honest wonder:
“What does one write on a
Brown slate of bouncing flesh
What poem of such complex
Rhyme will explain the colours
Of his new-found views?
(Blank Slate, p20)”
But all of this does not deprive a father of the joys of his child’s “Attempted Speech.” “The syllables arrange / Themselves into tones, like staccato beats / On a metal drum” and the exciting scene “charms the tears off his mother’s eyes.”
A deductive examination of the bard’s musings reveals that he is more likely to be a liberal father than a conservative one. The omens are overlapping and recurrent. It could also be that his sinuous lines of conscientious restraint are equally cries for broad-mindedness in parenting – a redefinition, too, of what it means to be a father. Kola’s “Fatherhood” is not afraid of temperance, neither is it troubled by discretion. Clearly, it is tolerant of change, not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or tradition. Or, at least, it most likely will be. A reviewer—like me—is far from being a prophet.
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.