Book Reviews

 

light-and-after

 

 

 

Light and After, by Kobus Moolman

Deep South Publishers (Grahamstown: 2010)

ISBN: 978-0-9584915-7-0

 

 

 

Book Review by Dike’ Okoro, PhD

Light and After (Grahamstown: Deep South, 2010) is a South African poet, playwright, and editor of Kobus Moolman’s fifth collection of poetry. The majority of the poems assembled in the book, with exception of the few long pieces, are reminiscent of the short poem or lyric poem associated with Moolman’s previous collections of poetry.  In this collection, which is divided into four sections, Moolman uses considerable narrative content and ideas sometimes dramatized to capture moments and images that are philosophical, historical, and memorable.

If we must agree that one of the profound and pivotal functions of quality poetry is to give any reader a fresh perception of the world in which we exist, then Moolman deserves to be commended for sharing with us such a beautifully written and assembled collection of poems, even though I personally would have loved to see a few of the short poems developed into lengthy pieces.

Light and After opens appropriately with “Moving,” a haunting poem that uses a collage of images and an observant narrative voice to unravel the mystery of a dream. In this poem the elements of hope and fear work together to leave a lasting impression on the reader.  The poem focuses on a new homeowner’s obsession with his new home, even though the sequence presented occurs in a dream state.  The poem shares with us the promise that comes with owning a new home, stating, “It was their new house / With all the lights on / Their shiny, new, empty house / With large rooms/ And that peculiar, slightly sinister, echo that all empty houses have / Houses that have not been domesticated yet” (10).  This description leads us to the sudden but foreshadowing character of the same house that described as “The untamed silence / Of the new / And then it happened / The electronic motor-gate suddenly opened. / All on its own /…Something was coming in /…Something he sensed only. / With the hairs on his skin / The way animals sense danger.”  Although the moment captured here reflects an event in a dream state, it also shows the power of nature, for the poet uses the strength of the wind to illustrate the dictatorial means of power in the creation cycle. Humans, like the rest of the animal kingdom, are supposed to feel the power of the wind when it rushes across the skin. One wonders what the message is here, if not for the effect one experiences when one moves into a new home and suddenly makes hay to fix whatever needs to be fixed so everyone finds it to be a place of shelter.

I enjoyed reading the poems in this book, especially the ones in which the author’s expression through the senses (taste, touch, sound and sight) evoke strong effects for the reader. In these poems I noticed the virtuoso of a poet dealing with a range of emotions that create art that is memorable and pleasing.  A poem that fits this description is “Old Town.”  The images in this poem are both tactile and dactyl.  This is the kind of poem that also appears like a sketch in the mind, and for the reader, the end result is definitely a lasting impression:

Sky closed over
grey slate cold stone
brown hills black tar
rock buried beneath

Thin light cold hands
rusted old steel trees
stiff wind small birds
exploding leaves (24)

Without a doubt, Moolman’s poetry illustrates the power in language and richness in content that one would expect of any poet addressing contemporary realities in South Africa and Africa and beyond. Thus, poems such as “Umfolozi,” “False Bay,” “Hunger” “Theft,” “Burial,” “Boy,” “That Day” and “Winter Dawn,” for obvious reasons, articulate ideals that can be both local and global. Yet, their significance to the poet’s thematic concerns share with Moolman’s readers his sensibilities to issues and reactions to real life matters.

Similarly, Moolman’s gift for utilizing metaphor and personification remains a strong feature of his poetry. His employment of literary devices certainly helps in stirring his ideas while also making them vivid to readers.  The poem “Loxton-Karoo-Dusk” uses personification to build effect, as in the lines “All day the wind / has carried the light on its back / across the cracked stones” (25).  The fourth section of the book, which is titled “Anatomy,” presents to us images that easily remind us of someone with disability.  For example, the poem “The Foot (the other one)” reads “The other foot is stupid. / And small. / And not worth talking about” (51). This brief narrative is insightful, since it does elicit myriads of interpretations for critics and readers.  Whether the author is writing about himself or reflecting on a particular memory, we are bound to approach his images and message with clarity and unreserved appreciation.  If this poem addresses the condition of a person with disability, then it clearly shares with us the disappointment the person feels about a body part.

Clearly, Kobus Moolman, in this book, shares with us some of the finest contemporary South African poems addressing personal, philosophical, and public concerns. His fondness for natural elements such as trees, sky, wind, sea, light, stone, etc are definitive associations presented to us as tokens for consumption and meditation. The same too can be said of the longer poems that build on intense topics, gravitate toward ideals that arouse emotion, and yet leave us with individual thoughts about the man behind the creative process and brilliance that is at work in Light and After.

DikeOroko pic

 

Dike’ Okoro is a poet, short story writer, sculptor, photographer, editor, essayist and critic.  He received his PhD in English/African Diaspora Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and his MA in African American Literature and MFA in Creative Writing from Chicago State University. Okoro is the editor of the recently published Speaking for the Generations: Contemporary Short Stories from Africa (Trenton: AWP, 2010).  Widely published in online and print journals, he is professor of world literature and creative writing at Olive-Harvey College, Chicago.

 

 

Messages Left Behind

 

 

Messages Left Behind, by Lupenga Mphande

Makanda, Illinois. Brown Turtle Press. 2011.

ISBN 9780982166062


 

 

Book Review by Dike’ Okoro, PhD

In Messages Left Behind, Lupenga Mphande’s second collection of poetry since the debut of Crackle at Midnight (1998), Mphande uses language rich in style, skilful thematic exploration, and concrete experiences to capture readers’ attention. Divided into six sections titled “Nature,” “Love,” “Political Poems,” “Traditional,” “Spark of Judgment” and “Children of the Kalahari”, the book owes much of its strength to Mphande’s effective use of diction and literary devices as he explores several themes including nostalgia, love for nature, respect for human relationships, African political history, and African cultural traditions.

With this book, Mphande returns with the kind of poetry that won him acclaim in the circles of reputable scholars of African literature, and established him as one of Africa’s most accessible poets. The high level of craftsmanship on display in these poems brings to mind distinguished African scholar-poet Tanure Ojaide’s declaration in his book review of Crackle at Midnight published in World Literature Today, that “If readers (especially African) should come to poetry by way of Lupenga Mphande’s Crackle at Midnight, they would not complain that poetry is difficult, obscure, dull, and only meant for academics in the ivory tower. Rather, they would find poetry a very interesting subject.”

Mphande uses language like a paintbrush and carefully draws the reader to visually experience what he is describing. As with Mphande’s debut collection, most of the poems assembled here illustrate his deep reverence and love for nature. In the poems dealing with nature Mphande consistently references plants, lakes, woods, animals, birds, mountaintops, and hills almost as if they were living entities in a symbiotic and cyclical ecosystem bound in a mutually-dependent relationship with mankind. The opening poem titled “Thorns of Cactus”, for example, shares Mphande’s nostalgic reflection on his Malawi homeland. In this poem Mphande takes the persona of the exile voice as he remembers his Malawi homeland from his home in the US: “Wherever you may be/Even miles away/You keep coming back to me/Thinking of you/I feel I never left home…/And my obsession with nature and the mountaintop” (1). Here the poet rekindles the bond he shares with the place of his birth. Also, he is, in a way, declaring that the physical homeland that seems to be far away can never be distanced from the emotional and spiritual attachment he harbors for it from his exile home. In essence, Mphande carries Malawi with him in the US, a reality that can also be viewed as an illustration of his being anchored, comfortably, on either side of the Atlantic.

Other poems in book, though equally pleasant in imagery, evince Mphande’s sadness as he remembers childhood friends who died young. In “Friends Lost in Youth”, for instance, he laments the death of a childhood friend while also recalling childhood events leading to the deaths of two bosom friends: “Every time I drive across Liwonde bridge/I pick up speed, thinking/Maybe if I accelerate long enough/…I’ll catch up with you Vuso/a friend nipped in the bud somewhere near here/by a drunken motorist” (32).  The stretch of road in this poem, a point of remembrance, seem also to symbolize Mphande’s struggle to cope with unfortunate events that occurred in his life, and expresses his feelings about how life has so much to offer. Here Mphande’s recollection of Vuso is an indirect examination of how forces such as modernity, auto accidents in this case, determine human destiny. This point is made clearer at the end of the poem as Mphande, tending to be philosophical, also notes how, with another of his childhood friends who also loved life and died young, they dreamt of their future service to mankind. He further notes that, because of their youthful promises, his friends would not want him to dwell on his loss but to continue in the path of life they were intended to do: “I’ll then journey on along the sandy path to Mtowole/and do the same for Tichafa, the medic/another dear friend lost in youth/But I know they will both turn and say/don’t dwell too long on yesteryears/go back through the path you came/and tend to the living…”(32-33).

By and large, this book succeeds in bringing to readers familiar with Mphande’s poetry the unquestionable love for nature that critics of African poetry have always associated with his poetic writings, even though some of the poems assembled appear to be shorter than those included in his debut collection. But poets evolve and often change in style and diction. This might be the case here. Nevertheless, this collection is strengthened by the author’s signature emotional, philosophical and spiritual attachment to his Malawi homeland, African history and traditions, and childhood memory/friends. In view of this, therefore, Messages Left Behind is a welcome addition to the staying legacy of a continent whose literatures continue to enrich the world, and a fitful addition to college libraries.

 

DikeOroko pic

Dike’ Okoro is a poet, short story writer, sculptor, photographer, editor, essayist and critic.  He received his PhD in English/African Diaspora Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and his MA in African American Literature and MFA in Creative Writing from Chicago State University. Okoro is the editor of the recently published Speaking for the Generations: Contemporary Short Stories from Africa (Trenton: AWP, 2010).  Widely published in online and print journals, he is professor of world literature and creative writing at Olive-Harvey College, Chicago.

 

 

 

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Novel Title: Harmattan Rain

PENCIL TRIBE SCORE: 6/10 (Good)

ISBN: 978-2-911928-12-1

Author: Ayesha Harruna Attah

Pages: 434

Publishers: Per ANKH Publishers

 

Harmattan Rain is a bold first step by Ghanaian-born writer, Ayesha Harruna Attah, into the fresh-voice-starved canon of modern African literature. The novel tells the interwoven stories of three generations of Ghanaian women, Lizzy-Achiaa, Akua-Afriyie and Sugri, as they struggle for freedom and serenity in a male-dominated society. The narration covers a time span of about half a decade; from the era immediately before Ghana’s independence in 1957, into the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Given that Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe’s seminal novel and perhaps the greatest classic in the African literary canon, is around 224 pages long, Harmattan Rain, at 434 pages, is rather ambitious in its scope and theme. Perhaps overly ambitious, since its hard-won coherence of feminist, political and historical strands is compromised in parts by flimsy narration and superfluous detail. Given its length, a narrative burden is immediately placed on the author to justify every line, page and chapter.

Regrettably, the excessive length of the novel somewhat subtracts from its quality as there are several parts that could be usefully excised or reorganized. An intelligent reader comes away feeling somewhat short-changed since the author leaves nothing unsaid and occasionally indulges the reader in authorial intrusions that do not further the plot. At various points, a cynical reader is left with the suspicion that many of the authorial intrusions are in fact bitter rants about the author’s own life experiences.

Overall, Harmattan Rain is an engaging novel from a promising new voice, one that will have important things to say in subsequent literary works. Given Miss Harruna Attah’s unique voice and ability to articulate broad issues in creative ways, one can only yearn for her next work which will hopefully disinherit some of the flaws in this debut.(PT)

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Novel Title: The Sun by Night

PENCIL TRIBE SCORE: 7.0/10 (Very Good)

ISBN: 978-1592213504

Author: Benjamin Kwakye

Pages: 320

Publisher: Africa World Press, Inc. (November 15, 2005)

The Sun by Night, the second novel by Ghanaian author, Benjamin Kwakye is a crime thriller layered with political subplot and a fair dose of sex and mystery. Although, the narrative revolves around a crime—the killing of Akwele Oddoi, an Accra prostitute—it is not a whodunit in the normal sense. It is a veritable exposition of post-colonial Ghanaian society through an audacious narration that stands out from others in the African literary canon.

Koo Manu, an affluent local businessman and respected politician, is arrested and tried for the murder of Akwele Oddoi, a discrete prostitute. But before he is convicted, a male journalist reveals another twist to the case, one which unravels the mystery the reader is made to sense all along. Reputations are at stake, as are the normal lives of almost the entire cast of characters.

The novel is developed in three main parts (‘books’) which are sandwiched between a lyrical prologue and an equally articulate epilogue. One of the interesting features of the novel is its unconventional narration: it constantly shifts points of view and even extensively uses a second person narrator (you) in much of the first section; a true rarity since most novels, especially African ones, conventionally narrate in the first and third persons.

The principal characters—Ama Badu, Koo Manu and Nii Lamptey—present the main strands of the narrative but there is a lacunae that is filled by an omniscient narrator, one who professes to be “everywhere, but stealthy like odourless air.” Despite the rather intricate narration, the reader gets a sense of coherence, especially with the legal aspects of the narrative even though the legal system in question is a fictitious hybrid of American and British law practices. The author’s career as a lawyer appropriately informs the legal context of the plot and establishes a decent amount of credibility if not authenticity.

Ironically, the features that make the novel stand out are also among those that detract from it. For example, the constantly shifting points of view and experimentation with narrative voices, makes the novel read like a loosely organized compilation of three novellas rather than a unified piece. The second part in particular, where Koo Manu is fully characterized, is only loosely related to the overarching plot and reads more like a cultural expose than a bridge between the other two parts as is to be expected. That section is also bogged down by excessive treatment of peripheral characters like Pastor-Lawyer John Amoah, even as important puzzles like the murder of Araba, the death of the Red Peugeot driver and Araba’s AIDS infection are left untreated. These untreated puzzles are plot holes and present loose ends that fail to be tied.

Other minor stylistic issues were the pedantic use of language in parts as well as the seemingly dry dialogues in others. My favourite illustration is the following courtroom interrogation between the prosecutor, John Amoah and a witness, Madam Beatrice:

“Madam Beatrice, would you bestow on us for informational purposes the non-ambulatory geographic site of your habitual domicile?” Lawyer Amoah began.

“Pardon Me?”

“Where is the territorial situs of your physical habitation?”

“I’m sorry I don’t understand you, sir,” Madam Beatrice said, her frown betraying her confusion…

“Where is the locative presence of your habitual abode?”

“Huh?”

Notwithstanding such nail-biting moments, The Sun by Night is an engaging novel and strongly displays literary craftsmanship despite its Nabokovian contrivance . (PT)

 


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