Title: Splinters of a Mirage Dawn: An Anthology of Migrant Poetry from South Africa
Editors: Amitabh Mitra & Naomi Nkealah
Published by: The Poets Printery, East London, South Africa
Reviewer: Kole Odutola
Since there is no right way to craft a book review, I intend to take the law into my text before I get down to reviewing Splinters of a mirage Dawn: An anthology of migrant poetry from South Africa edited by Dr. Amitabh Mitra and Dr. Naomi Nkealah. These kind souls cooked the textual broth from the ingredients of those who have wandered before the South African soil accepted their soles. So, I crave your indulgence to first serve you an appetizer of sorts by throwing my own poetic honey into this delicious broth in the hope that my mind and theirs will become one.
Immigrants at Trafalgar Square
By Kole Odutola
In large numbers they are seen feeding the pigeons
And picking ‘made- in-Taiwan’ wares at London joints
Seeking the imaginary gold that lines the streets
but avoiding the biting cold enveloped in the winds.
It was not me you saw at Trafalgar Square,
I swear by the revolver that killed the April 22nd group
Who planned a coup and ended in Presidential soup.
It was not me with a festering sore at the loop
that enters the square; the fear I scoop
from the entrails of the immigration Corps
sends me too far from the famous Square
The birds fed by tourists now carry cameras
Which record roaming intellectual terrorists
Who wish to speak back to the empire
With the intent to inspire impressionable British minds
and fire the imagination of their girls.
The new Dell I bought at Trafalgar Square
has been transferred to another owner
whose eternal sign is “body no be wood”
A soulless debt collector with white wool
as heart and a palm that morphs into puke
Now that I have satisfied myself, I can attend to this 20-course delicacy served within the colorful jackets of the collection. The picture on the cover by Arpana Caur is a 1947 oil on canvas painting aptly titled “Memories.” Nearly every experience of immigrants is like vomit because it involves a throwing up or out of undigested food. It would not be out of place to suggest that the main ingredient of exilic literature is memory and its (problematic/partial) recall. To recall is to remember and to remember is to re-present a past shaped by present pains or pleasures.
In the process of the reconstruction of a past or a lived experience, language intervenes in how the little stories in the poems are set down for readers. However, when human beings go through their share of trials in life, some express their triumphs in abbreviated testimonies to be read in text while others may find harmonies as the most apposite mode of expression. In both modes the narrator’s voice may be hidden or explicitly seen.
I can say without equivocation that the twenty poets in this collection are what my friend calls “feet voters”. To vote with one’s feet, he tells me, is to relocate when the condition of existence at home is in total or partial dislocation. These poets have left their places of birth to cities, towns and countries where they are just immigrants or irritants depending on which part of their present location is in contention. This collection offers a broad range of experiences to the extent that each poem is like a house within the mansion of our fathers; fathers from different cultures and climes linked by the post-colonial umbilical cord and tortured by this new global economic disorder and system. To support my long introduction, I only need to press into service the contribution of Rodwell Makombe and his “Crossing the Limpopo” (page 19) as evidence to the “burning heat in the sky, the blisters under my feet.” This poem in about 30 lines captures the pain most immigrants have to go through as they cross rivers and immigration posts. To those who have walked this path, the line “we tiptoe, we avoid hustling with our feet” will easily resonate.
Should the words of Rodwell not present you with the pain and pathos of leaving behind loved ones, then I offer to you the poems of Raphael d’Abdon described on page 86 as an Italian scholar, writer, editor and translator whose essays and poems have appeared in local and international journals. To those who have been blessed by this man’s presence you will appreciate that this is a very serious man writing funny things. I urge you to read “Sunnyside nightwalk” with caution so as to connect with the many layers within the poem. You will be confronted by a mixed metaphor of a “rusty lamp” that “throws a weary towel over the street corner” and at the same time be forced to reflect on the life of Alain who is “trying to make a living and raise his two kids” (pg.24).
Raphael’s poems are not to be accessed with the proverbial kid gloves, but with an understanding that a lot is hidden between the lines which the reader must pull out for a complete (or partial) understanding of the text and its layered context. Can there be a poem just for its sake? If there was one, I would submit that the next set of poems which caught my attention were included in the collection to further amuse readers. Naomi Nkealah, a lecturer of English Literature, deploys humor to recreate those endless questions Westerners are known to ask Africans far from their homelands. What do you think of someone who looks at another and blurts out questions like “do people wear jeans in Cameroon?” or “do they have cars to get to the shops?” As we all know, the questioner may not be interested in the answers and may just be bringing pre-conceived notions about the far away land you must have “dropped” from to the fore. Still, along the humorous and dramatic class of poems is where one would place Naomi’s “metaphorical guillotine” without drawing blood. If I know Nigerians well enough, some would accept it as part of the growing corpus of works that give Nigeria and Nigerians hard knocks in the mythical creative boxing rings. Christiane Fioupou, a French scholar, who has done tremendous work on Niyi Osundare’s poems, frames some of the poet’s works as short stories sprouting from alter-native traditional soils. It is with that notion in mind that Naomi’s “My Nigerian flatmate” (pg.76) should be read and enjoyed as long as you remember that what appears funny is not usually to be laughed at. Consider this an ‘excessive laughter’ advisory: this conversational poem is a textual painting of how others see Nigerians at their worst and Nigerians have learned to live with such jokes from other Africans. The punches packed in the poetic lines are as racy as any narrative pace in a thriller novel. If you like the light hearted stuff, add “A case of backs and bags” (pg. 18) by Adebola Fawole to the pile. It subtly makes the point about how the accents of immigrants come in the way of effective communication and understanding. The entire twenty lines will make for very good comedy.
As if to counter-balance the playful but biting pain from Naomi’s jibes, Femi Abodunrin makes his poems walk readers away from the ordinary to very heavy issues that return us to where the rain started to beat us (as Chinua Achebe would say). In “Whatever I hang” (pg.67), the poetic bus stops along the way as it nudges readers to contemplate how we got to where we are as Africans. In the first movement we theorize about the Middle passage and in the second we are tied to a “colonial baggage” which (un)fortunately meets the readers at the point of arrival and leaves at the terminal of departure, if we are to take liberties with the metaphor of the layout of a modern airport. The poet – in recounting the condition of his arrival to his new ‘home’ – tells of the antics of “post-apartheid Customs and Excise” and the shabby treatment given to in-coming passengers from oil rich Nigeria. The allusions in this poem are very well directed to a South African audience who can decode acronyms like ORT and ABSA. To the Nigerian readers, the scene presented and expressions like ‘Ghana-must-go bags’ and the local food ingredients in the poem will no doubt help to decode the subliminal messages in the work. The other two poems from Abodunrin move deeper into philosophical terrains. In one of the poems, appraisal of privatization of God becomes the point of departure in interrogating the differences in living standards and conditions of existence between the natives and those who trekked miles from Kano via Kigali of the Hutus and Tutsis to finally arrive in Kwa-Zulu Natal. To conclude, the poet makes it clear that the pursuit of happiness is not just a bread and butter matter alone. The problem (and I dare suggest the solution) goes deeper than a case of what to eat. Inequality from the perspective of an immigrant is more structural and fundamental than mere palliative fixes natives are wont to focus upon.
As you know it is not possible to do justice to all the poems in this collection in a limited review, but it is my wish to heed the suggestion in Mark Reid’s seminal book on “PostNegritude visual and literary culture” when he suggests that a critic should “pose different questions when assessing the artistic and political merits of any work” (pg.80). My first question would be to ask how one recounts gloom in very flowery words, yet leaves the bite of the reality intact for readers. The question is not that profound if one turns to Tendai Mwanaka’s contribution where he shows the way in “Journey to South Africa” (pg. 31). In seven stanzas the reader is taken through mystery, history and a no victory in sight. Please do not weep as you read the 7th stanza – “We are another one among these marauding herds/Limpopo river is now a mixture of silt, blood, bones, and scars/where other traumatized adults giggle chorus of grief.” If like me, you could move on with mixed feelings and ask your inner head how Africa the continent of riches and resources arrived at this sorry pass. The poet has done a part of the job; I guess the rest is left to readers who are friends and relations of Refugees whose voices (from) exile must be heard. Hope is even mortgaged when the poet enjoins us that “it may be too late for us/to start our own definition/This is not the life we dreamt of/But it is the life we have/for life at this place it is called/ everyone’s life is a burden/and the raven has left us to our disastrous methods” (pg.34).
To those who do not just want to read these poems for fun, I would recommend that they apply the theory of mind which enables consumers of text to put themselves in the shoes of producers of the text so as to appreciate what goes on in the minds of these poets. Doing that may render the works clearer and the places featured in the poems may become nearer. Poetry may not be facts as they happen, but the well-chosen words allow readers to “interpret people’s actions using words that describe their mental states so often that we cease to think about what it is we are actually doing” (Paula Leverage, et al 2001, pg. 1). So when a scientist like Sharon Moeno puts pen to paper or sits in front of a computer screen, the cry “Far from home” reaches the very epicenter of the reader’s heart, just as the wandering feet of a sojourner’s pain comes and goes and all those whose doors are open to pain and suffering are wont to ask “might it be here to stay?” (pg.27). Should you meet Sharon, tell her my heart is with her and I share in the sounds of those harrowing tunes.
As you would have noticed that the title of the collection is as cryptic as an abstract poem can be. You are left to imagine how dawn, that familiar door to everyday, can be a mirage and then this mirage is not only a piece but in pieces (in splinters). I came to a tentative conclusion that although a collection of poems cannot replace a textbook on migration, it must serve as a small piece in the larger puzzle for those who put this collection together. They should be given credit for expressing in very flowery words the immigrant’s common pain and struggles. “The migrant experience in a global fraternity is as ancient and ageless as the earth we tread upon” says Mitra, the medical Doctor. His words resonate with me because I am surprised that the earth which is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, has been divided and partitioned in a way that Nationals of one country are treated as unwanted strangers in another.
As I gracefully raced from one poem to the next, the words of one of the editors served as my navigational tool. He wrote to me in a private correspondence that “We [the publishers] are into abstract, experimental and new age poetry publication. I would give an example of Poetry of Mxolisi Nyezwa.” Those words have hunted my wakeful state and poked me at night. I searched all the pages including the two editorials included in the collection for what he could mean. My conclusion comes in the form of questions about the audience of a collection of poetry by immigrants on the deeply pathetic condition of other immigrations. I also wanted to know if White and Black South Africans would think of me as a Nigerian brother and accord me all the dignities my humanity deserves after reading some of these works.
I am no more wondering about the “dynamics of the migrant experiences of many foreign nationals resident in South Africa” now that I have read this collection over and over again. South Africa, with its cry for an elusive rainbow nationalism, is not a simple geo-political space, but if nothing else it can be at least tolerant of those who have voted with their feet or those who crossed River Limpopo for the sake of survival. I hope the “war within and the war without” alluded to by Amitabh Mitra, who I am not scared of referring to as one of the immigrants-in-chief, in his editorial, would one day have a resolution and all children of African and Asian continents can live in harmony as the pigeons live in nature.