Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tanure Ojaide, The Tale of the Harmattan

The Tale of the Harmattan is the first collection of Ojaide's that I've read in some time. I picked it up at last year's African Literature Association conference.

I have been, at best, ambivalent about Ojaide's poetry, at least from my encounters with his earlier works (as published). But I have always really enjoyed his readings, his performances, and the cover of this one was so appealing that I picked it up (and he quite graciously inscribed it to me as well).

I am not sure I would have picked up on the pose that the back cover blurb presents -- "Tanure Ojaide adopts the persona of a homeboy griot returning from travels" -- though perhaps I ought to have connected the poet with the cyclic return of the harmattan. No never-mind.

There are striking lines and some very evocative, almost heartbreaking passages:
At the wobbling Kaiama Bridge that holds the Delta
together, I see a procession of oil-soaked water spirits
wailing their way out. No boats of fishermen plying
the waterways; no regatta and no swimmers in sight.

"At the Kaiama Bridge" (34)
It is a little disconcerting to read what amounts to a paean "For the Egbesu Boys" though perhaps not surprising considering the horrors wrought on the Niger Delta and its people.

It is to the Delta that Ojaide returns, time and again. There is little abject nostalgia (Ojaide is far too adept a thinker, let alone poet, for that); and though not every verse works -- the call and response of "Dialogue" (43-4) just never snaps, for instance -- and there are pages where the relentless and sometimes far too repetitive imagery and cadence of corruption and abstracted oppression threaten to swamp all else, the collection as a whole holds up the promise of the cover: a minimalist, striking, stripped down poetic portrayal of a largely denuded landscape.

Harmattan is a strong collection, and one that will bring me back more readily to Ojaide's extensive offerings ( though I do wish his website were up-to-date and the links all functioning as they ought).

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Gabeba Baderoon, The Dream in the Next Body

I first encountered Gabeba Baderoon at the 2008 African Literature Association Conference in Macomb, Illinois of all places. She was completely new to me: as a poet, a critic, a commentator. But she captivated at a roundtable I attended and I picked up what was on offer at a reading later that night: The Dream in the Next Body.

I wasn't disappointed. She's a skilled poet and, for the record, a marvelous reader. Her voice blends wonderfully with her verse, and it's hard not to hear her reading to you as you read her lines.

It's a strong collection, but uneven. Let me quote one poem in it's entirety:
To come to this country,
my body must assemble itself

into photographs and signatures.
Among them they will search of me.

I must leave behind all uncertainties.
I cannot myself be a question.
"I Cannot Myself" (23)

Those first three lines, I think, are masterful. There's a distancing Baderoon creates with the use of "my body" that is telling. And yet abandoned in the denouement. It feels too... pat? too neat? Or just that she hasn't bridged that distance? It just breaks down at the turn.

If there is a weakness to the collection as a whole it's that -- taken in one sitting -- the poetry eventually comes to feel like so many set-pieces. There are no punchlines, these aren't gags, and she's not trying out various dramatic effects. But in aggregate I felt like I had just wandered among museum boxes or walked through a hall of dioramas. They were lovely. And evocative. But there was also something consciously-constructed and distant about them.

I do look forward to reading more of her work; and, with luck, hearing her read live again. There is a way in through her voice, perhaps, that I was missing on the page.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Hummingbird: Magazine of the Short Poem 19.2 (March 2009)

The arrival of a new issue of Hummingbird is always welcome. It went from 4 issues a year to 2 issues a year some time ago, so it's less frequent. And it's always been brief (fittingly). A quick read.

And, as all such collections are bound to be, hit or miss.

The last few issues have really been seasonally focused, so this issue sees a lot of pieces focused on Spring (which is still many months away for us here... unfortunately). Not exclusively, by any means though.

Perhaps the best summary of what I feel to be the ethos of magazine itself is Robert Deluty's (untitled) verse:
in her wheelchair
whipping three grandchildren
at croquet
For those bibliographers reading that's on page 3.

For me, the most striking lines belong to Marjorie Buettner: "There was a time when / you could not stop touching me / for all the world" (18).

Um... yeah... well...

It's a sweet local production, and worth supporting. $5 an issue, $10 for a 2 issue yearly subscription ($15 overseas). Payment for accepted submissions is a copy of the issue in which the poem/s appear. Here's the contact information:
Phyllis Walsh, Editor
Harbour Village
5600 Mockingbird Lane, Apt D103
Greendale, WI 53129

Hew Strachan, Clausewitz's On War: A Biography

This is a volume in yet another of those "little" series that I enjoy so much: this time, it's Grove/Atlantic with the Books That Changed the World (why Grove/Atlantic doesn't have a page devoted to this series on its website is beyond me). I really enjoyed the first book in this series that I read: Janet Browne's Darwin's Origin of Species: A Biography.

Um, yeah... well I understand that the above doesn't bode well for the book at hand.

I imagined Strachan's take on Clausewitz's On War to be a quick opening gambit in a war reading series: on America's current involvements and the ongoing war in the Congo. Ah, but as these things go, I too got bogged down, and the rapid, enlightening push to a theoretical grounding turned into a long, hard slog through a litany of troubles.

Which is not to say that it was necessarily a wasted effort. There are points Strachan makes about Clausewitz's understanding of war that jump out at you and, certainly in current circumstances, give pause. I stop, mark the page, close the book, and just think about it for awhile, trying to wrap my head around the ideas: "Strategy was what gave fighting significance; it exploited success on the battlefield and it created the conditions for the next battle, while victory itself was gained through combat and therefore was a matter of tactics" (107) and "At the heart of Clausewitz's mature appreciation of war's nature was its reciprocity" (142) among others.


At the heart of Strachan's brief consideration is the recognition that Clausewitz "was not consistent in what he said" (191). On War was a work in progress that Clausewitz revisited, rewrote, and edited over years and years, and was nowhere near completion on his death. Strachan seems intent on cataloging in great detail (referencing book and chapter number -- paragraph number where appropriate) all such inconsistencies. Not in an effort to belittle the book. Not at all. Strachan has a great appreciation for the work and its continued relevance. But Strachan's own book is one that is written by someone with almost too intimate a knowledge of the original. It is almost a talmudic reading of Clausewitz -- which certainly has its place but hardly makes for an engaging general introduction for a lay reader.

Such is war. Though I would have wished for a less strenuous opening gambit. As remote and theoretically focused as I had imagined it would be, I had hoped for something also a bit more enlightening, engaging and, yes, a bit easier, knowing the long, hard, bloody slog there is ahead.