New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Nne)
“a thing of beauty, and reading it is an experience not to be missed.”
It is easy to be impressed with the way the editors and Akashic Books have assembled this strikingly beautiful collected set of chapbooks from ten African poets. The artwork by Eritrean artist, the late Ficre Ghebreyesus, encapsulates movement and an esthetic that brings a delightful sensibility to each book. Right away, a reader will want to touch the books to find an alternative connection to the written words within their covers.
To quote the editors of this set: “This is an annual ritual that we are committed to carrying until we arrive at the tenth year of publishing the chapbooks of a new generation of African poets.”
To guide a reader through the chapbooks, the editors have included their own chapbook, New Generation African Poets (NNE): An Introduction in Two Movements. Within this introduction the editors lay out language that will gently lead readers as they roam the uncharted ground of the books. “We are not discovering poets,” the editors say. “This should be clear from any brief look at the poets we are publishing here. All of them are serious writers who have been engaged with the world of publishing . . . Yet, for many of them, their presence in this singular gathering of African poets is an important step, and there is something extremely exciting about seeing the ways in which they have engaged this complex idea of Africanness with their work.”
The collection begins with Bone Light, by Yasmin Belkhyr. In a work that is narrative, Belkhyr brings a sense of deeper narration—almost a ghost-image—from the words found on the page. It is an uncanny hollowing that carries a visual echo. This sense shines through her poem, “Surah Al-Fatiha”:
“In my earliest memory, a man slaughters a goat in my bathroom. In Rabat, I am nameless, another Moroccan girl to be looked at but not seen. When goats cry, it sounds just like a baby. I couldn’t list all the terrible things we do to one another. I remember the goat kicking out, frantic. The shattered mirror. The stumbled prayer. I was sick every visit: my stomach heaving dirty water. I would cry and everyone else would tsk, murmur American. Once, I kissed someone and I’m afraid it ruined the world. I’ve learned that it’s not what you do with the knife—it’s how you hold it after. But how do you hold something like that? Something that never stops baring its teeth; a voiceless dog, all bite, no bark. I remember very clearly that I never saw any blood. Honestly, I wouldn’t even know what to do with a knife. I didn’t even know what to do with that mouth.”
Story overlaying story carries this narrative beyond simple narration. In looking at the elements of the poem, Belkhyr introduces her layered narrative in a voice of uncertainty and nervousness, but that combined voice is what works to advance the depth of the poem and bring its separate parts to an accessible surface. What is delightful is how quickly the poet establishes her sense of layered narrative in the book and the effect it exerts on her poems. Throughout the book, Belkhyr influences through this kind of manipulation, which transforms her poems into vehicles that draw readers in, as water is attracted to travel through every crevice it ultimately passes.
Victoria Adukwei Bulley is a British born Ghanian poet. Her poetry reflects her dual cultural influences, as “What It Means,” from her chapbook, Girl B, shows:
The campus nurse offers up pills
like penny sweets.
Means it when she says
it’s just one less thing to worry about.
There are many freedoms.
In the first world,
freedom from bloodshed
between the legs.
I don’t judge.
How would she know
I have come to love
the cup spilling over:
the floor of the bath
a Rothko on fiberglass,
an opening ceremony,
a private showing
circa this month.
There is little like knowing
I am an orchestra—
Bulley plays a strong rendition of a counterpoint within this poem, opening a window to a view of the third world through the privilege of life in the first. When the poem says, “I don’t judge,” it allows the reader to enter into a personal judgment, which plays more significantly than if the poet were to wag an accusatory finger. This kind of subtle poetic intervention seems to be a hallmark of Bulley’s work. Her poems have a well-articulated staying power that all poets strive to grow within their work.
The significant thing about poetry is the diverse possibility of its expression. What is unique about this chapbook collection is that the poets all write their Africanism in some way, yet there is such lack of congruity in how that expression finally forms that the collection functions as kaleidoscope, allowing a reader to sample well-crafted poems expressed in many different ways, yet sharing a common thread.
Look at Nigerian poet Ejiofor Ugwu’s “The Plague”:
And they hurried him away
and so will his blood
and the millions still blazing out
all over the Sahara.
I am curled up here in Ajaokuta
atop a rock
where the sun has gone to bed,
my chin heavy in my hands
as the blood pursues us and
the diseased earth
till the world is eaten away
so that we can live.
There is life in our dust.
The desolation and aloneness evident in the words the poet has inked across the page is tangible, but the work is stylistically different than the expressions of the other African poets in the collection. Despite such differences, each shares the helix of a people in the commonality that binds the writing of these poets, and that showcases that this work can be linked in the way the editors have devised and furthers the sense that the association of these ten poets is profound.
Yet the things that separate the work of these poets is equally profound, for when one reads the words of Chimwemwe Undi, a poet hailing from Manitoba via Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa, one hears the melding of continents without the removal of any component of any of their disparate spaces, as in these first two stanzas of her poem, “Listing (V.)”:
In dog years, I am dead. In Black years, alive,
so: exceptional, increasingly so. I ask strangers
for directions on pocket scraps & build myself
a map home as cohesive as a litany
I am having trouble remembering.
I am having trouble remembering.
There are too many bodies in this room built for bodies.
We are magic typecast as disappearing acts, history
whispered into memories.
Again, it can easily be seen: there is a commonality that binds the work of these poets, regardless of the uniqueness of each poet’s work, and each has captured a voice and has replayed that voice for the reader as only he or she could, presenting original work in all of its brashness, attempting and succeeding in a breaking through of the veil that can separate poetic expression from a reader’s psyche.
In engaging in the reading of this collection, a reader may well discover difficulty in putting the work down and may even sense a separation anxiety when other life events get in the way of engaging with New Generation African Poets. But the ten poets whose chapbooks are contained within the collection each have an answer, or some individual view, or some remembrance, or a duality that asks a reader to understand the responsibility we all share in the global space we inhabit. One way of finding psychic resolution can be found in the lines of South African poet Ashley Makue’s “peace offering”:
i have decided that
love may no longer
summon me to war
i have laid off my troops
blood-bathed my body
clean of all sin
i will no longer kiss
like breaking my law
or make love
like being broken into
i will clear my eyes
of all my specks
and then i shall see you
these are the days
of the sweet treaty
Is it possible to imagine a better way to look at the world than the way expressed in these stanzas? Is there reason to stretch imagining beyond the limits we ultimately impose upon ourselves? A reader will have to find those answers unaided.
But there is one maxim that holds its value across every border in every culture: If one seeks with determination, one will find. The ten poets of New Generation African Poets have searched diligently and found resolutely. The editors and Akashic Books have collected an amazing assemblage in this set of ten chapbooks. The entirety of it—the books and the language, the art and the binding—is a thing of beauty, and reading it is an experience not to be missed.