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Elvis Gbanabom Hallowell: A Tribute

22 September 2022 at 17:28 | 1266 views

Elvis Gbanabom Hallowell: A Tribute

By Lansana Gberie

In the early 1990s, as a civil war raged in parts of the country, a budding group of young writers began to meet, once every week, at the United States Information Agency (USIA) in Freetown to read their (unpublished) poems. Soldiers had seized power with a promise of ending the war quickly but, despite early successes, that war continued grinding on. Frustration over this state of affairs provided, so to speak, a rallying point for the poets.

Elvis Hallowell, as he was then known (he dropped the Elvis and later used only his African name, Gbanabom), was important in bringing this group together. He was at the time a librarian at the USIA; he certainly helped provide a forum for the group. And he was one of the most promising and distinctive voices in the group. He had a deeply melodious voice, and I thought that he was by far the best poetry reader in the group.

We had become friends at about this time; this friendship remained anchored almost entirely on our shared love of literature. Like me, he was a voracious reader. He was the first to recommend that I read the American novelist Saul Bellow, a winner of the Nobel Prize. He had me take a copy of the book from the library, but I found it a disappointment. I couldn’t penetrate Bellow: his Chicago Jeeish experiences were alien to me. I tried Bellow again recently with greater success, but his appeal remains very limited for me.

Sometime in 1994, Hallowell (who passed away on Tuesday this week) showed me a manuscript of his first poetry collection. It was resonantly entitled Hills of Temper. I found it to be a wonder of acute observation and passion. The ongoing war and the distemper of praetorian rule were the background; the young poet, wonderfully knowing and unafraid, gave voice to a growing national anxiety. Hills of Temper was published in 1996. It still feels fresh and complete and lyrical, the musings of a deeply sensitive and intelligent young soul.

Hallowell subsequently published several books, including, I believe, a novel or two. Then in 2017, he sent me the manuscript of a collection of poetry entitled The Art of the Lonely Wanderer. The collection contained 40 poems. ‘Elvis’ as his first name was missing; it had been replaced on the title page by ‘Gbanabom’. The voice had become more mature and reflective, more adventurous and didactic, the music more attenuated. My conclusion, which I shared with him, was that The Art of the Lonely Wanderer was a series of philosophical musings by a poet who, once discussed as promising, was now indisputably a master of the craft.

The poems depict a world of illusions, of the anonymity of ordinary people lost in the maze of global capitalism; the old romantic canard about the boundless freedom or liberty of the poor rendered meaningless in a world dominated by greed and moneyed power:

Despair seems to rot society; and the little man’s motion of prayer is overpowered by a mind more

Set on the woman last night he couldn’t bed than it is on God.
He contemplates sex in the form of a prayer and curses the woman
Under his stained breath. His mind takes a leap and clutches the beer
He had drunken last night between his teeth.

This poem is entitled “Of Sex, Exile and Longing” – but it is far from being louche, as some might hope. There is indeed little love and really no sex. Instead, like many of the poems in this collection, the poem turns out to be a meditation on what might be called the pathos of betwixt and between, of the crushed aspirations of sensitive people in a world dominated by grosser men with power and money. At least this was how I understand it and the rest of them. The point is that the profundity of Hallowell’s thought is expressed in similarly profound ways. When the poet evokes Romeo and Juliet, we expect a meditation on the purity and innocence of love in an extremely adverse situation. There are hints of love alright; but the meditation takes on race, the great Pushkin (Russian but descended from an Ethiopian), the place of Africa in world history, Rome’s forays on the continent (though no Roman conqueror, not even the adventurous Emperor Hadrian, ventured beyond Egypt):

Universal Romeo! Two lovers remained perished in affection for each other.
A sword kept the torrent between their bleeding hearts.
In suicidal affection their love shouted against the silent organ of their throats.
The hour of love honored the seconds spent in waking a sleeping Juliet
The body waited in death for love to touch a hand on the cheeks of trust.

Pushkin had the ordinary sorrow of being born black in Russia, brother
To the moor. Serpent of the color of thirst, he was a man with
An enormous love and a big eye for poetry shaped in the blonde
Of his black looks; Romeo gave him a hand for sword and a pen for love,
Then by his own want, he took the heart of Othello and swallowed it whole.

WH Auden, that most profound of modern poets, said that poetry cannot be effective as a political weapon. “The social and political history of Europe would be what it has been if Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Mozart, et al., had never lived,” he said. A poet, he continued, “qua poet, has only one political duty, namely, in his own writing to set an example of the correct use of [language] which is always being corrupted. When words lose their meaning, physical force takes over. By all means, let a poet, if he wants to, write what is now called an ‘engagé’ poem, so long as he realizes that it is mainly himself who will benefit from it. It will enhance his literary reputation among those who feel the same as he does.” By the time he wrote this, Auden had long transitioned from a celebrity left radical to a conservative though deeply humanist grand man of letters. And his world – Europe and America – long arrived at their resolution long before he was born; it was very much a settled world, at ease with itself and one which had inflicted itself on other worlds.

Hallowell wrote for and about the world that Auden’s world still dominates. He had to be political; and his voice both gave pleasure and instructed.

Sadly, his life was cut short. But the work lives on. We must celebrate that work.