16 November 2018

Happy birthday, Chinua!

Chinua Achebe
The novelist Chinua Achebe, a fine stylish and an astute social critic, is one of the best-known African writers in the West and his novels are often assigned in university courses.

Nigerian novelist and poet, whose works explore the impact of European culture on African society. Achebe's unsentimental, often ironic books vividly convey the traditions and speech of the Ibo people. Born in Ogidi, Nigeria, Achebe was educated at the University College of Ibadan (now the University of Ibadan).

He subsequently taught at various universities in Nigeria and the United States. Achebe wrote his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), partly in response to what he saw as inaccurate characterizations of Africa and Africans by British authors. The book describes the effects on Ibo society of the arrival of European colonizers and missionaries in the late 1800s.

Achebe's subsequent novels No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), and Anthills of the Savannah (1987) are set in Africa and describe the struggles of the African people to free themselves from European political influences. During Nigeria's tumultuous political period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Achebe became politically active. Most of his literary works of this time address Nigeria's internal conflict (see Nigeria, Federal Republic of: Civil War). These books include the volumes of poetry Beware, Soul Brother (1971) and Christmas in Biafra (1973), the short-story collection Girls at War (1972), and the children's book How the Leopard Got His Claws (1972).

(for Niyi Osundare)

Something in altitude kindles power-thirst
Mere horse-height suffices the emir
Bestowing from rich folds of prodigious turban
Upon crawling peasants in the dust
Rare imperceptible nods enwrapped
In princely boredom.

I too have known
A parching of that primordial palate,
A quickening to manifest life
Of a long recessive appetite.
Though strapped and manacled
That day I commanded from the pinnacle
Of a three-tiered world a bridge befitting
The proud deranged deity I had become.
A magic rug of rushing clouds
Billowed and rubbed its white softness
Like practiced houri fingers on my sole
And through filters of its gauzy fabric
Revealed wonders of a metropolis
Magic-struck to fairyland proportions.
By different adjustments of vision
I caused the clouds to float
Over a stilled landscape, over towers
And masts and smoke-plumed chimneys;
Or turned the very earth, unleashed
From itself, a roaming fugitive
Beneath a constant sky. Then came
A sudden brightness over the world,
A rare winter’s smile it was, and printed
On my cloud carpet a black cross
Set in an orb of rainbows. To which
Splendid nativity came–who else would come
But gray unsporting Reason, faithless
Pedant offering a bald refractory annunciation?
But oh what beauty! What speed!
A chariot of night in panic flight
From Our Royal Proclamation of the rites
Of day! And riding out Our procession
Of fantasy We slaked an ancient
Vestigial greed shriveled by ages of dormancy
Till the eyes exhausted by glorious pageantries
Returned to rest on that puny
Legend of the life jacket stowed away
Of all places under my seat.

Now I think I know why gods
Are so partial to heights—to mountain
Tops and spires, to proud iroko trees
And thorn-guarded holy bombax,
Why petty household divinities
Will sooner perch on a rude board
Strung precariously from brittle rafters
Of a thatched roof than sit squarely
On safe earth.

13 November 2018

On reading Vonani Bila’s longer poems, a poem by Rethabile Masilo

My father was born the same year as Vonani’s,
and died a few years after his: old age? Diabetes?
The weight of a heart swollen from atrocities.
Their blackness is the skin of an encyclopædia
to the continent. They speak about us
when the sky throws boulders in our path,
and we duck and seek a means of cracking
those impenitent stones. Our mothers
live there with them, even as they remain here
breastfeeding the unfortunate of the world,
the luckless who populate the streets of history.
How to be men is how to love. The day I read
Vonani’s book of longer poems under my breath
as I staggered home was a day of miracles. I put
its pages in front of me and went from La Défense
to Porte Maillot without an accident, without
some driver swerving to avoid me and yelling fils
de pute! to the cold shoulder of my ears. I flew
from Paris to Polokwane that evening, aware
of the scent of home, aware this was my chance
at cutting the long goodbye, and was whisked
off, when I landed, by another dream that put,
between the distance of my life and the return
home, my childhood and the chance to regrow
into a tree that houses birds of prey and knows
the world. I did know the world; but not the one
looked at so cautiously, the way a child observes
life, the life in Vonani’s book of longer poems.

Vonani Bila

12 November 2018

The name, a poem by Rethabile Masilo

the name descended when you came so I would be
able to give it to you
with all the lives in you,
without knowing what poems your head
knows by name, or namesake, or nickname,
above a rise of the churchyard
where I will utter your name.
You are the one on whose head that name
will hang, a name in which I am well pleased.
I know it won't be the same
as what the locket on your neck contains,
far from eyes but dangling near the heart
beyond any number of doubts that are in this place.
Because in mystery it comes, you see,
one length of time that separates
and then nothing, a meal that arrives
with all the grains of its salt in place,
hours before the first light born to dawn.
Its sound gnaws me today, this which will not be
a word by which you are designated,
but instead the sweat of love placed in you,
and more: the joy of naming you.
One wants to say: this will hurt, beware—
yet it must be done: I must excavate you to find you.
It will not be like pulling a dove out of a hat
to please the yelping crowd, but only that
I must pull all of you out of yourself by the root,
extract you like a tooth, hold you like a lens to the sky
in order that you may see why you have the right
to burn us with your name, wear it against the cold.
You shall be summoned by toil as by love
to a place that is reserved for people like you
who still have only a name to their name,
and you shall stand and walk through doors
that resist before you, knowing that only we
believe in the power of your name. And that
my child, is perhaps the main everything.

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