Friday, August 10, 2007

Adrian Onyando on Otieno Amisi’s poetry

Adrian Onyando reviews Otieno Amisi’s poetry

East African publishers and their readers have made the personal anthology something of a literary anathema.

With the few exceptions of the so-called established poets like Taban lo Liyong', Micere Githae Mugo and Jared Angira, poets generally do not enjoy seeing their works in print.

Consequently, Taban's diagnosis of literary barrenness in East Africa still holds true especially in the realm of poetry, and particularly in the sub genre of the personal anthology.

Part of this predicament is attributed to poor readership and the resultant small market for such works. The East African literary market is largely school textbook oriented, and by some kind of strange logic, editors and educationists have decided that only anthologies of mixed authorship can meet the criteria for set-books.

Apart from denying us the rewarding study of a single, imaginative development and behaviour, this practice also creates myths for its own self- justification. Foremost in this myth -making process is the assumption that only a mixed anthology is representative geographically as well as thematically. It is not always the case.

Commended himself

Otieno Amisi has commended himself to us by presenting to us the consummation of the merits and pleasures of a personal anthology. Back to the Future is hardly individualized: It is the kind of collection which proves that the personal is also societal, and that a single collection can grapple with so many issues as to be representative of the continent's poetic concerns.

The first poem in the anthology, Thirty Years of Africa opens the ground for the critical assessment of post independence Africa. Thirty years of independence are crucial for they point to the direction Africa will take in the new millennium, basing our judgment on how well we have dealt with our manifest problems, which include the after effects of colonialism and the side effects of modernity.

In Amisi' s realistic estimation, not only have thirty years of dismal performance failed to eradicate the banally publicized problems of poverty and strange diseases, but have also ushered in new sets of problems heard in the resounding of heavy boots, guns and bombs, and also seen in the plight of refugees (A Refugee Song).

For a sensitive poet like Amisi, it is appropriate to present Africa in a series of unflattering metaphors like the disorderly law making parliament, a ring of mightily fit bully boxers, a jungle, and of course that other name for disorder -the Kenyan matatu taxi.

The misrule in our leadership of course, will for long stand as a monument of shame and degradation in Africa's troubled history. Amisi does not hesitate to show the leaders in their true picture: hypocritical, arrogant and even downright silly.

If only beggars would brush their teeth juxtaposes the erratic leadership (ironically on an urgent nation -building mission) with the self-created social problems manifest in the begging "'street families" and the squalor of their condition.

The insensitivity of the government official's self assurance and the pride of his destructive activities ironically climax in his flight from the reality he has created to a posh home and a deceptive future:

My dear Musso,
Take me home
To the other city
Where I belong.
The city of the future

If lack of vision is a hallmark of African leadership, so is tyranny, which is designed to prop it up against the possible popular uprising. In Elephant Song the poet uses that jungle symbol of absolute rule -- the elephant -- to give hope to the repressed masses. One can detect Martin Luther King JR' s hopefully prophetic message in Amisi' s song:
Free at last, free at last,
We are free at last!

Streaks of Hope

It is these streaks of hope that make Amisi' s works more than just poems of protest or victim narratives. The evils and their perpetrators are seen more as belonging to an ephemeral stage in our history marked by something akin to labour pains preceding a new birth.

Thus while a poem like The Grand March ends not in the intended freedom but disillusionment borne out of compromise of principles. Elephant Song is indeed a victory song, consonant with the mood of optimism which graces even the bleakest poems.

What emerges here is clear: the poet reserves the right to prophesy doom, but is also observant enough to point out the first gleam of light in the morning of a new era. While the struggle for justice and social freedom may be long drawn out, there are other concerns, which require immediate action.

Both A Tough War and Save Lake Victoria are wake-up calls against a dreaded disease and the disruptive water hyacinth weed on Lake Victoria. The tone of urgency and rhetorical devices indicate the fight should be underway and that the poems should be transformed into work songs:
It is a tough war, a tough war
And a global thing
'tis now we can fight,
Fight right now' or never

It is informative to read the author's preface that such a poem as "Aids" was composed in a workshop situation and later presented as a choral verse in the schools music festival.

Talking of functional poetry, one would ill afford to gloss over these work(shop) songs, however few they are, for they provide the link between the poet as an initiator of and mobilizer for social action and the poet as an active participant in the events of his day.

Salient features in the history of Kenya do not escape the poet for their symbolic significance. Thus Saba Saba riots in Kenya (Saba Saba) is a local event but with universal ramifications, for it expresses the second wave of liberation struggle in Africa (which in Kenya led to the first multi-party elections).

Violence Without Robbery

The same universality claim can also be laid to Violence Without Robbery and For Robert Ouko, which talk of political murders bedeviling the modern African state, particularly Kenya. The poet probes into the riots and the murders, offering implications and publishing the authors of the hineous acts:

Now we know who killed him
Now we know who killed him... ...

To be in the know in such a context as the killing of a popular politician or clergyman (as were Dr. Robert Ouko and Bishop Alexander Kipsang Muge) is itself courageous, for the knowledge itself is an offence punishable even by death. And the victims acquire the status of a martyr on the altar of justice.

If African writers have made much of politics and society in their works, so has Amisi, but the thrust of his poetry also lies in another direction. Nature, with and without its symbolic value, provide a fertile ground for the poet's exploration of different moods.

Dispossessed, alienated and frustrated, the poet's heart finds sanctuary in nature, which is characterized, generally, as the vortex of beauty and tranquility (The Sea, Rainbow Song). invincible dignity and glory (The Rocks of Kit Mikayi) and the unfailing hospitality and protection of home (Mother Sango, and Nyandiwa).

Between being a lover of nature and being an environmental activist (as in Save Lake Victoria) is only a thin, blurred line; and the poet takes advantage of all the possibilities, emotional and thematic, offered by nature.

However, in relating nature to the society, the romantic appeal wanes and we come face to face with the slime and grime and the madness reflected in a single river (Nyandiwa). In a nutshell, the poet's love of nature, particularly in the water masses, is neatly tempered with his sensitivity to the evils in the society including environmental pollution.


It is in poems in which the poet defines his role that we again notice a convergence of different concerns. The poet's life is a dangerous one because of his fighting nature and the unpopularity of his profession. (The Artist Lives Dangerously). He is principled, and oriented toward a just cause, but is not immune to the frailties of the talented personalities:

Let poets heap unmeant praises
On tyranny and corruption
For leaders,
being God's choicest sons
Are hard to come by
And His Excellency is only one

(…Let poets sing)

Apart from being the conscience of the present-day society, the poet is also the custodian of a glorious past. So entrenched is the poet's love for the past that one could say that the only place to find authentic values and happiness is in the traditions.

The title poem "Back to The Future" argues for a return to the past- "Give the pumpkin another chance ' for the side effects of modem civilization far outweigh its advantages.

The poem entitled" Happiness" also emphasizes on the value of traditionalism, complete with its music, symbolized in the nyatiti. One could contrast the spontaneous dance of the nyatiti to the heavy, artificial and dreary dance of 0f development in the poem "The City".

As one who has found use of the rejected cornerstone of traditionalism, the poet leads the way in homecoming, rather like Okigbo in "Heavensgate". For instance, in the poem "Mother Sango" the poet is a prodigal returned to a watery presence.

Echoes of Okigbo's Mother Idoto" are all too obvious. Amisi's indebtedness to Okigbo is expressed in the poem 'To Chris Okigbo' in which he tries to immortalize the poet by paying tribute to his literary-cultural career.

Okigbo's Grandson

As a literary grandson of Okigbo, Amisi also engages in universal themes such as love and its precariousness, the values of sexuality and the warmth of human companionship.

These poems by Amisi are about Africa in all its aspects- politics, nature, emotions, society and culture. They ring with tones rich in melody and rhythm -sound is arguably Arnisi's strongest mettle. In the simplicity of the diction and syntax lies profound meaning to be gleaned through wit and irony. The language sometimes sounds like nursery rhymes even when the themes are serious.

My learned brother, he too sings
The song of the torah
Ten are too many
Ten are too many
Some appendages must go

(I. Hear My Mother Singing.)

But it would be unfair to fail to mention that Amisi' s language is in character and its oral ring reminds us that we have come closer borne, to Africa, with its troubled politics and vibrant culture. These poems will go a long way in introducing the student of African poetry to the rich
I variety of African poetic themes and styles all through one poetic personality -Otieno Amisi.

Adrian Onyando is a lecturer in Literature at Egerton University, Kenya.

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