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Book Review: Salute to the remains of a peasant

31 May 2007 at 03:40 | 851 views

PICTURES OF SHAME
PORTRAIT OF A WEST AFRICAN HOLOCAUST
A review of Oumar Farouk Sesay’s Salute to the Remains of a Peasant, a collection of poems published by Publish America: Baltimore, USA 2007, p.105

By Gbanabom Hallowell

When you read Salute to the Remains of a Peasant, do not congregate in your mind, the four million peasants existing in Sierra Leone. Do not picture the remains of any peasant in the miserable lives of us the wretched survivors of our civil war. This volume is not about survivors. It is not about the living. It is not about the dead. It is not about you. It is not about me. It is not about the past. It is not about the present. It is not about the future. It is not about our hopes. It is not about our dreams. It is not about our mistakes. It is not about our achievements. It is not about our failures-all because it is not a book of blames nor is it a book of praise. This book is about a single peasant, whose remains lies within and between us.

In reading Salute to the Remains of a Peasant, I am guided by a philosophical theory known as “the veil of ignorance” as propounded by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice. Rawls argues that (p.137) ‘First of all, no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status.” I allow myself to be led by a poet in his search for the cadaver of a peasant, one upon whose circumstance the greater circumstance could be understood; one upon whose demise is portrayed a fratricidal design Julius Caesar-like, with the poet pointing and identifying the several swords of the nobility that murdered the lion of Sierra. Oumar Farouk Sesay, in his several poems, shows me the remains of Caesar, the peasants’ peasant, pointing where the Brutuses, the Cassiuses, the Cascas and all other nobles stabbed the beloved lion.

Salute to the Remains of a Peasant is a collection of poems that focuses on a state of being. It is a work of still-life, the point at which our collective tension, mangle and pause forever! It is the artistry of the big bang, the theory of results. It is physics the elements of cause and effect. It is geography of human features as created by our love, our anger, our temperament, our attitude, and our power. Along came a poet on life’s pedestrian path. Oumar Farouk Sesay belongs to the generation of poets who happened on the road after the great Mangling. Born in the 60s, Sesay did not witness the meanderings that eventually showed him the skewed image of the life of a peasant in Sierra Leone. What he came upon was “a thatched hut of mud/On the fringes of the forest/an unmarked heap of mud/In the depth of the forest.”

Note the peasant world that took in Sesay. Juxtapose the images of “mud” and ‘forest”; also juxtapose “fringes,” “unmarked heap” and “depth.” When a poet shows great sensitivity to place like Sesay does, the reader is hooked. In these tight lines from the title poem, Sesay is whispering to his reader to tread cautiously on the temporality of the peasant so that before the thatched mud collapses, before the unmarked grave disappears, and before the forest closes in, someone, the unknown peasant whose “mortal mould of mud/Is laid to rest/After a life of unrest in the mud” is saluted. Sesay is reliving the minds of Picasso and Goya, using the genre of poetry to expose the gothic and the obscure brought about by a bitter experience fashioned long before the decade of climatic rebellion that consumed the soul of Sierra Leone. The poet wants you to witness how, after Sierra Leoneans have been made in the image of God, the nobles of this country then manufactured them in the image of a peasant. Sesay is our own Dostoevsky.

Perhaps the question is what kind of a poet then is Oumar Farouk Sesay. In the literary world, there is always the tendency for critics to search from the list of older poets in order to understand the voice of a new poet. I shall defy that tradition for many reasons, but only one deserves to be mentioned here: Sesay like many of us Sierra Leonean poets comes from an obscure poetic background, not having been exposed to the country’s literary tradition either in school or in his daily life. I shall instead determine what kind of a poet Sesay is from a creative angle. Sesay is a pacific as well as a tormented poet. It is rare to come across a poet with such antithetical elemental combination. Sierra Leone does not have a dearth of pacific poets, with Gladys Casely-Hayford heading the list, or a dearth of tormented poets, with Syl Cheney-Coker heading that list. One may be tempted to insert Sesay as the mean between these two poets. But Sesay is not a mean, not in any Aristotelian sense. Aristotle, in determining a mean, consented that two opposite extremes exist in human life; while Sesay in his poems does not quarrel with such a theory, he comes across as an unfolding, employing no more than the paintbrush of the fine artist as he lingers between several heavens and hells seeking the stillness of life in his country’s pictures of shame. Sesay therefore, should be approached from multifaceted pole angles. Perhaps among Sesay’s finest qualities, is his ability to compel anger while articulating reasoning. In the poem, “At Tellu Bongor,” Sesay writes: (p.13) “What prowls like hungry tiger in the Gola forest of my mind/Is rage nursed to puncture your heart for raping your mother at/Tellu Bongor.”

Using the word peasant as a metaphor to lament his Sierra Leone, Sesay comes across to the fratricidal brother on a deeply moralistic note. The opening line cuts across like the chase of an eight hundred pound gorilla but in the second line the diction, “nursed” softens the chase, with the prowling and hunger giving way to caution and strong dialogue. In pacifying his rapist brother, and to help him see reason, the poet creates a dual metaphor of the peasant country: Tellu Bongor the house of defilement and the greater country, Sierra Leone the defiled. In school, I was taught that the idiom, a thunderstorm in a tea cup is hyperbolic of reality, and yet in Sesay’s poetry of realism, a country can indeed be shamed in a tea cup in a non-hyperbolic sense. Usually, many a great poem is destroyed by bad closures and that is when the poet strays away from the thesis set in the opening lines. In “Tellu Bongor” Sesay’s thesis is to reason with the fratricidal brother; it is gratifying to arrive with him at such a successful closure when he reminds the brother that (p.13) “a hungry lion in the Kailahun of my mind is enraged/To snatch your galled heart at Tellu Bongor.” Remember that Sesay, in his book does not set out to alter the image of the remains of the peasant he writes about. His grand thesis as I stated earlier, is to show a state of being. In reading Sesay, I am reminded of the work of a contemporary American poet, David St.John. This is what St. John writes about his own work in an interview he gave to The Writer’s Chronicle:

I hope the colors act as a kind of musical/visual resonance that help to locate the reader, but I don’t want to predetermine a particular scene or vignette. And I hoped it wouldn’t limit the poem, so there could be degrees of red or green or blue, and the poems could be as soft and shifting as a prism of light on a wall.

I can picture Sesay articulating a similar concern about his poetry because Salute to the Remains of a Peasant has a rainbow of colors, a jamboree of musical instruments and a choral ensemble. In “The Cry” he writes:

The cry sucks strength
From the gull of her despair
Ebbs through the tides
Strikes her vocal cords
And explodes into the air
Drenching the cacophony of groans (p.24)

In this stanza, we are drawn to a galaxy of musical and visual images. At once the struggle to absorb in order to emit is seen through painful dictions like “gull,” “despair,” “explodes,” and “groans.” Sesay is convinced that any experience as bad as that in the quoted stanza is only capable of producing a faulty tune, hence, “...the cacophony of groans.”

But while the pain and the struggle of this peasant produce disturbing music to the air, a technique the poet uses to articulate the true meaning of being a peasant, the poet himself is a compelling lyricist, using concrete and action verbs to convey music to our ears. In “He Did Not Die That Day” he writes: “When the tale of the toll/Of the war was told/In the warmth of our room/My husband folded the sleeves of his Ronko.” (p.38) In “Driftwood” he writes: “The fading warmth of a feeble/Kiss is all I cling to.” (p.82) In “Rebels” he writes: “A specter of Gloom/Loomed over the horizon/As zombies zoomed/The nation to doom/With the boom boom of bombs.” (p.100)

Let us comment briefly on another of Sesay’s compulsive nature, his superb referential ideology. In his seminal work, Language and Self-transformation, Peter Stromberg writes that (p.2) “behind a subject’s language lies a set of events and emotions that the language transparently reflects.” Indeed language is an essential agent of the poet’s personality and therefore a fascinating experience. Sesay writes about what I will call, the peasantization of Sierra Leone and our individual selves, but that is not all, he seeks to discover what one writer refers to as “the real self from the spurious self.” Because the language and lyricism of Sesay’s poetry reminds me of that of e.e. cummings, arguably America’s greatest lyrical poet, I shall borrow from the words of Horace Gregory, a Cummings’ critic, to appropriate Sesay, a poet who sustains an aphoristic language he has called his own, “a language of sharpened images and verbal wit and action-and mastered with great economy of phrasing.”

As well as proving himself a master of closures, Sesay excels in enjambments, otherwise called line endings. Line endings require sound literary talent to construct a unique architectural poetry. In “The Child Who Danced” he writes:

I was the Poster child
Draped in rags
Adorned with hunger
Infested by pests
Consumed by ignorance
Who danced in celebration
Of the new dawn (p.28)

Being a poet of practical sorrow, Sesay hangs his verbs on a rather transitive edge, so that the reader, gliding unto a succeeding plane of landscape in the next line is embraced by concrete nouns-suggesting that the poet is keener on realistic experiences than on surreal ones. And if a line ends with a noun, especially so when that noun opens a sore in the heart, it often serves as an antecedent to succeeding lines of tactile images.

Among the poets of my generation, both within and without Sierra Leone, Oumar Farouk Sesay stands out as the most lyrical-reaching us more in sounds than in words. In this collection Sesay redefines the devices of onomatopoeia and assonance, poem after poem with new semantic flavor. The ten year war of his Sierra Leone and that country’s overall disastrous past serve as an accompanying instrument, helping him to dig deeper into the remnant of the life of the wretched, and indeed into our collective and often abused humanity wherever. Reading Sesay’s poetry is like witnessing the ebb and tide of human struggle in a past and present that will never again be a foreign country.

Photo: Oumar Farouk Sesay.
Photo credit: BBC.

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