The OF Blog: Kofi Awoonor, The Promise of Hope

Monday, June 16, 2014

Kofi Awoonor, The Promise of Hope

The fact of our lives,
full of achievements
vilification, praise
or contempt from those
who surely do not measure
eternity becomes a quotation
posted on the billboard of a single life.
Passions are exhausted
love, renewed again
and again
to satisfy a basic longing,
journeys made, departures recorded
deaths foretold again
and again
– from "What More Can I Give?", p. 23
The late Ghanian poet Kofi Awoonor, who died at the hands of terrorists in Kenya in September 2013, is perhaps one of Africa's most celebrated poets.  This collection of a half-century of verse, The Promise of Hope:  New and Selected Poems 1964-2013, was planned before his murder and yet there is a sense of death lurking in his most-recent poems.  But it would be a mistake to construe this as being a wholly negative affair, as Awoonor's poems here address a wide spectrum of human emotions and reactions to that nebulous thing called hope.

The quote above captures this multifaceted quality excellently.  From the "facts of our lives" being vilified or praised by those who do not merit the poet's consideration to the renewal of exhausted passions, all leading to deaths foretold again, quite a lot of emotional ground is covered in one stanza of a poem that concludes:

I did not know it will return
this crushing urge to sing
only sorrow songs;
the urge to visit again
the last recesses of pain
pluck that lingering hair with a wince.
how long shall my God
linger in a brass pan
the offertory unreceived? (p. 24)
This sorrowful conclusion, however it might represent the dominant theme of his 2013 era poetry, does not capture the width or breadth of Awoonor's poetry.  The interesting thing about The Promise of Hope is that unlike most anthologies of a single poet's work, it does not begin in 1964 and conclude with the 2013 poems.  Instead, it operates in reverse, as we see the poet through younger, more fiery selves, concluding with a poet beginning to find his voice.  It is an unusual choice, but it works very well here, as the downbeat quality of his last poems is offset by the outraged optimism of the younger Awoonor.  Below is a sample from the second-presented section,  1992's "Latin American & Caribbean Cookbook," the last two stanzas from "Of Home and Sea I Already Sang":

Let the dream not die, master;
Let the dove coo at dawn again,
Let the masthead rear its head
out of the storm
and share the night with me on this sea.
Let me sing the song you gave me.
Before death comes, master,
Let me dance to the drums you gave me.
Let me sit in the warmth of the fire
of the only native land you gave me. (pp. 43-44)
While the death element is still present (the poem references an 1980s American military shooting down of an Iranian civilian plane), there is more of a pleading tone, of not letting a dream not, of permitting a song given to be sung.  It is more plaintive than the latter poems, but even within this somewhat-begging note, there is a sense of hope burning under the surface, a sense that the other poems in the 1992 collection provide, mostly through the guise of outrage over socio-political injustices, many of them perpetrated by the United States.

From 1978's "The House by the Sea" comes this poem written in memory of Henoga Vinoko Akpalu, called appropriately enough "For Henoga Vinoko Akpalu":

You said once
You said the tear
was the pear of the soul
food for gods at sacrifice
Huge now the platter
like the music of crumbling walls
fools and poets
are the same mother's children.
I fled to America
in blonde pleasures
reliving my cosmopolitan
nay international dreams
new, new man, my voice
my manners
so I lost the faculty
of defecation
with the miracle of the wild lily
I sailed my own ship
to Byzantium to see the youth
for elders in the reversal
A young man Hasidic to his skull-cap
eyed me nervously
mistaking me I hope for my beard
for a panther.  So I march now
with the armies of Caesar on Rome
a companion now of Hannibal
freshly out of Africa ex Africa aliquidsemper elephantes
for the alps the alps
Europe the Sartrean negritude
and Dantesque lower region
My Africa the bullshit concentric
For a song please vomit Blood
in Capetown, murder me Vorster
and Allende in Santiago
For a dance give me Christ Castro's
     head since the Baptist died
of American bullet in Bolivia
Who said the work of man is not done (pp. 151-152)
Here the post-colonialist voice is strongest, here comparison of the US to Byzantium, with its decadent, hollow nod to multi-lingual gatherings, is constructed.  Awoonor mixes in ancient Roman, medieval Italian, and modern 20th century events to create an arresting image of a middle-aged man seeing that in order for a dream to be achieved, a lot of work and suffering lay ahead.  This is perhaps one of the more biting poems in the collection, but it does represent a way station along Awoonor's journey, via verse, from a frustrated man to an elder who has come to accept his mortality even before it was violently taken from him at a Nairobi shopping mall.  It is fitting to stop here and let the reader ponder just how this "promise of hope" has driven the poet over his last fifty years of life.  For myself, it was a very moving and excellently-constructed collection, full of memorable stanzas and poems.

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