Sunday, April 1, 2012

Francis B Nyamnjoh, Predicaments

I learned a lesson some time ago: never read the introduction to a novel or book of verse prior to reading the book itself. I had one too many books ruined for me by awful introductions.

Whether that's stood me in good stead or bad is an open question; though on the whole I think it's greatly benefited the pleasure I've taken in my reading.

In the case of Francis B Nyamnjoh's, Predicaments, however, I am left to wonder. It is in the brief foreword -- by Emmanuel Fru Doh -- and the introduction -- by Nyamnjoh himself -- that the reader learns that we have at hand Nyamnjoh's "juvenilia"; twenty-five years old and he "would rewrite them today" (ix).

I wish he had.

Despite Doh's (seemingly tepid) endorsement and Nyamnjoh's wish for us to "find at least one poem in this collection that titillates or tantalizes... or more" (ix) this is a mostly undistinguished volume, memorable more for repeated clumsy and labored grammatical reorderings to turn a line-ending rhyme, the affectation of "Oh!"s, and PRAISE IN ALL CAPS than for... well, for the poetry itself.

There are intriguing glimmers of what might have been. "The Whitemen of God" offers up an angry recapitulation of the missionary endeavor, of how "We were taught to hear the bible of a god we knew by proxy" and how "We rejected our cultures and ourselves". But because there is little poetic tension to the piece the ambiguity of the closing line -- "We were forced to forgive, forced to go to heaven" -- lacks any particular punch. It's intriguing (on reflection) but ultimately unsatisfying as it stands.

The strongest poem, by far, is "To the Leader". While it too suffers odd grammatical structures -- "The world won't have you to blame / When the baton on must pass"... really? "on must pass"? why? -- it also has the most evocative lines in the collection:
Let people in you an enigma see,
Not a noodle to be rolled and fingered
This is marvelous. And powerful. And unfortunately noteworthy for how much it stands out.

Had I read the foreword and introduction in advance perhaps I would have been a bit more forgiving in my initial approach. But I doubt seriously it would have made the poetry any better for it.


Chitzi Ogbumgbada said...

Interesting review. Short and straight to the point.

I'd like to know if grammatical reordering of lines, which I take to be a rearrangement of syntax, is bad style for a poet.

I was under the impression that a poet may choose to alter the syntax of his lines, which may result in a grammatical reordering. Or what do you think about this?

mark l lilleleht said...

Any and every tool is and should be available to the poet. Of course, that's no guarantee that these tools are used well; and in the case of Nyamnjoh's collection the reordering just feels... off.