03 August 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/31

Journey to a Farm on Lake Awing

Poem inspired by a legend of Lake Awing

Heaven is a strange place,
I don't want to go there.
I do not think it is the place
where my ancestors have gone.

When I die, I would like
my spirit, if worthy,
to wander silently
back to the lighted city on the lake.

For my soul, there will be
fire-scorched hills and mountains to cross;
dense forests and grasslands to contend with;
wild animals and evil spirits to placate.

But when every ritual has been performed,
my spirit will reside in the depths
of undisturbed water, asleep by day in a green lake
buffered by grass-padded hills.

By night, when the spirits stir to light up and take
the lake, I would like a small, thatched hut and
my own plot of land to farm, another life to live
in which to grow my own garden.

I will have mango and papaya trees,
a dark grove of bananas and plantains,
corn that stands taller than a grown man,
bean plants that twist like the braids in my hair –

All the things that heaven cannot give
to a woman who knows the taste of a life
in which the journey towards death begins
and ends with a seed and a ridge of volcanic earth.

Viola Allo

Viola Allo is a contemporary poet, born in Cameroon and now resident in the United States. In this poem she is writing in one culture and dreaming of another: it's the divided gaze of an expatriate. (I should point out I don't know anything about Allo's actual life other than the facts of her birth and residence given in her author's bio; anything I say here is how I'm reading the speaker of this poem, which is different from pretending I know anything about the real person who wrote it.) Lake Awing is in Cameroon, and it seems to be one of those spots whose natural beauty is coupled with the sort of spiritual energy that gives rise to many legends. You can read about them here, here, and here; the one most relevant to this poem claims that at certain hours of the night lit-up houses, the residence of ancestral spirits, take the place of the lake.

The speaker begins by contemplating "heaven" and finding it strange: heaven here is clearly the Christian concept, western in origin, and she does not feel quite at home with it, suspecting that her ancestors would not be there (and, according to some versions of Christianity, she would be correct about the unbaptized ones). Instead she thinks about her soul wandering back to a sacred spot in her homeland. She does not spell out the legends concerning ancestral afterlives, and this lack of elaborate explanations aimed at outsiders gives us the impression of listening to her inner thoughts. The reader must infer the legends from her remarks about the lighted city on the lake (which could mean by the side of the lake) and then about residing "in the depths / of undisturbed water." There is a journey for her spirit, and trials to endure: but are these standard rituals of passage, specified by the legend? Or do these obstacles – the fire-scorched heights, the dense forests, the evil spirits and wild animals, the unspecified rituals – only arise for those far from home?

In either case, she is willing to face the difficulties. She has a deep emotional response to the thought of – not the journey, but the end of the journey. The poem begins with short lines, breaking in an orderly way at logical grammatical points. By the third stanza, the lines are still breaking in an orderly way, but they are longer, and more vividly descriptive: it's as if the mention of the "lighted city on the lake" allows her to enter into a more pictorial imagination. All we heard of heaven is that it is "strange" in undescribed ways (it may just mean a place alien to her, not necessarily unusual on its own to someone familiar with it). Now she can see, with great clarity, the hills and mountains scorched by fires, the dense grassland, the green lake. By the time she is picturing her own hut and her own garden, the lines have gotten longer and the clauses spill over in their eagerness ("a small, thatched hut and / my own plot of land"), conjuring up a richly extravagant yet precise scene, like one of Henri Rousseau's paintings of imaginary jungles.

It's interesting that although every plant she mentions provides food (a delicious list: mangoes, papayas, bananas, plantains, corn, beans), and says that this plot will be given to her to farm, she refers to what she will produce there not as a farm, which suggests hard labor and chancy subsistence, but as a garden, which suggests something personal and pleasurable (perhaps also, in some ways, a revived Garden of Eden). And although she is in a city, albeit of the dead, she seems oddly but pleasingly self-reliant, even isolated (to such an extent that the human comparison is mildly surprising when she refers to corn taller than a grown man – the garden seems such a reflection of her, and she so well-placed in it; whereas it seems quite natural when she compares the twisting bean vines to her own braided hair, as if the two were extensions of each other).

The last stanza sums up this plenitude: it is what heaven (glancing back to the first stanza) cannot give her: it is not only ancestral, and not only individual, but goes back to the source of life: life is seen as something that has a taste, like the fruit and beans and corn she will grow in her afterlife; life is seen as something that is a journey towards death; life and death both begin and end with a seed and a ridge of volcanic earth: sexually suggestive language that evokes deep natural cycles of desire and life, birth and death. And this ecstatic meditation comes with the hope that it will be "another life to live" – a poignant note intimating a substitute, even a healing, for this life, one far away, presumably, from the conflicts and entanglements of her divided being.

This poem is significantly placed as the final item in Allo's chapbook, Bird from Africa, which is part of the set 8 New-Generation African Poets that I mentioned last week. Two weeks in a row! I hope this encourages some readers to buy this set. You may also find more of Allo's writing at her website, Letters to Cameroon.

No comments: