This week, Akumbu Uche takes a good look at the critically-acclaimed, Pulitzer-winning book written by Hisham Matar.
By Akumbu Uche
In 1990, Jaballa Matar, a Libyan businessman and political dissident, was abducted from his Cairo home and thrown into Libya’s infamous Abu Salim prison without trial. Except for a few relatives with whom he was incarcerated, his family never saw him again.
Readers familiar with his son, the writer Hisham Matar’s work will recognize the fictionalisation of this tragedy in his first two novels, In the Country of Men (2006) and An Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011).
In The Return (Penguin Books, 2017), the younger Matar once again probes his family’s circumstances, but in memoir form this time around. Subtitled “Fathers, Sons, and the Land In Between,” the book’s portrayal of the relationship between both Matars mirrors that of Odysseus and Telemachus, the mythological father-son duo immortalized by Homer in ‘The Odyssey.’
In the wake of the 2011 revolution that brings Gaddafi’s 42-year rule to an end, Matar recognizes an opportunity to return to his native homeland for the first time since 1979 when his family emigrated to Egypt. Like Telemachus setting off from Ithaca, Matar’s mission is to find his father. Like Telemachus again, 20 years have passed since his father’s disappearance. The Greek hero visits Pylos and Sparta where their kings Nestor and Menelaus fill him in on Odysseus’s exploits during the Trojan War; in similar fashion, our author spends time in Benghazi and Ajdabiya, reuniting with family friends and relatives who recount the events of his father’s early life and later incarceration.
There is a sense that Matar is not only interested in his father’s whereabouts, but is trying to understand his choices which have ruptured the family’s sense of normalcy and plunged them from privilege into precarity. At the end of many trials and tribulations, Odysseus who has been in disguise for the latter part of the Greek story makes himself known to his son, and they are reunited.
Unfortunately, there is no such happy ending for the Matars; after a trail of false leads, the son is advised to presume the father dead, and with neither a date to mark the last day of his father’s life nor a body to bury, his mourning is complicated, prolonged to perpetuity. “I envy the finality of funerals.” He laments. “I covet the certainty. How it must be to wrap one’s hands around the bones, to choose how to place them, to be able to pat the patch of earth and sing a prayer.” Grieving a missing person is perplexing.
One of the facts we learn about the elder Matar’s prison years is how he forestalled despair by reciting the alam, an elegiac Bedouin poetic form that “privileges the past over the present.” Although written rather than recited, and in English rather than Arabic, Matar’s prose is also an alam, one dedicated to both father and fatherland.
Recalling his youth and family legends also means making reference to and probing Libyan history from from its time under Italian colonization to Gaddafi’s dictatorship. But try as he might, our author cannot ignore the present. His return to Libya is marked by both reconciliation with distant relatives and a reckoning that the hope for meaningful change that ushered in the revolution has dissipated into chaos and civil war.
Continuing the family’s tradition of political resistance is his twenty-two-year-old cousin Izzo, one of many young Libyan men who have pushed their university studies and career ambitions aside, and taken up guns to liberate their hometowns in anticipation of a new Libya. One thread seems to join three generations of Matar men: their deep love for their homeland requires a lot of sacrifice. One wonders why patriotism often demands a heavy toll.
If men take centre stage in Matar’s account, it is because Libyan society is a gendered one and as such, war and politics tend to be men’s issues and the book simply reflects this reality. Just as Penelope’s heroism is celebrated in the Odyssey, so are that of Fawzia Tarbash (wife to Jaballa and mother to Hisham), and several other Libyan women – mothers, wives and sisters – who visited their relatives in prison and in their own way supported their struggle. This is a male text, but it is not a misogynist one.
Drawing from Western and Maghrebian literary influences and thoroughly descriptive, Hisham Matar’s writing is a rich tapestry. In his worldview, the personal is inseparable from the political, and after reading this book, it would be difficult for outsiders to speak of Libya without making reference to the author’s family. Even though Matar’s quest raises more questions than it does satisfying answers, his memoir is fundamentally a love offering to his absent parent. May we be worthy of such honour.
Akumbu Uche is a Nigerian writer. Her work has appeared in Bella Naija, Brittle Paper, and Engaging Borders Africa. She lives in Owerri.
A pun star cometh: A review of Sati Gomwalk’s ‘Garden of Thorns’
A new collection of poetry shows the many ways in which words can be used or ‘abused’, resulting sometimes in the most intricately-woven work.
Title: Garden of Thorns
Author: Lengshak Sati Gomwalk
Publisher: Ya-Byangs Press
Reviewer: Bizuum Yadok
In Chinua Achebe’s ‘Arrow of God’, a story was told of a land dispute that arose between Umuaro and Okperi villages. When the debate about the ownership of the land started in Umuaro, members of the community decided on two options: to have a civil negotiation or engage in a war, and these two options were symbolized by chalk (for peace) and palm fronds (for war). To that end, a three-man committee spear-headed by Akukalia, an ill-tempered person, was sent to present the two options before the people of Okperi. As you may guess, if you haven’t read the text, upon arriving Okperi, Akukalia’s tactlessness quickly paved a way for a physical fight with an elder in Okperi and before anyone could come in-between them, gunpowder was fired into Akukalia’s chest.
Neither the chalk nor the palm frond was presented. Consequently, Akukalia’s death would later usher in a wave of reprisal killings in both Umuaro and Okperi until the white man intervened. Now, I brought this anecdote to suggest that a message is as good as its medium or the messenger because if Akukalia had been diplomatic, a peaceful negotiation would have ensued. How, then, does this relate to poetry? One may ask.
Poetry is not just a philosophical message but it is also the grandeur of the language in which the message is encapsulated. The message and the language/style can be broadly termed as ‘form’ and ‘content’. As to which of them is superior, a number of poets and critics have taken either the Aristotelian position or the Platonic position but I am of the opinion that the 1st Century Roman poet, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, otherwise known as Horace has since brought the argument to an end by suggesting that “poetry should delight and instruct” (dulce et utile).
Therefore, poetry doesn’t hold much water if it only instructs, or if it only delights, except if it does both. Think of it this way, would Fela Kuti’s afro-beat music stand the test of time if it was just the beats and nonsensical lyrics (message/theme)? What if the lyrics were not accompanied by the beats? Perhaps a more appropriate analogy lies in the plethora of poetry in the popular hymnal, Sacred Songs and Solos (SS & S). Pardon me because where you see hymns, I see poetry in both body and spirit; form and content. Do we still wonder why they have survived for hundreds of years and would likely outlive us?
Lengshak Sati Gomwalk’s poetry is not lacking in the use of the aforementioned ingredients of poetry. Not only that, he explores different forms of poetry from different generations and places of origin.
It is imperative to note that every poem has a form; the fact that it is composed in lines and stanzas already gives it a form. However, if all men are to wear black suits on white shirts and black ties, there will be little called style or even fashion. In this light, poetry expressed in different forms or modes doesn’t just add to its aesthetics but also its meaning, and ultimately, its value. At this point I should iterate that many Nigerian poets do not pay much attention to form in poetry; this phenomenon may be attributed to the immersion of the first generation of Nigerian poets into modernist poetry in the mould of Gerald Manley Hopkins, Ezra Pound, and T.S Eliot, just to name a few.
More often than not, African poets forget that a good form makes poetry more memorable. Why do people, for instance, easily recollect verses in rap than Soyinka’s poetry? No offense meant, but most times form is the driver of memory. What lends weight to the form are the rhyme, rhythm, metric pattern, syllabic pattern, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeic depictions, and pun. Thus, Lengshak Sati Gomwalk’s poetry is not lacking in the use of the aforementioned ingredients of poetry. Not only that, he explores different forms of poetry from different generations and places of origin; poems like the tanka, the haiku, the sonnet, the acrostic, and different other artistic forms. To buttress these points, we shall look at just three poems from Garden of Thorns: ‘Dark Light’, ‘Adviser-in-Chief’, and ‘Waste of Minds’.
Dark light is not just recognized for its brevity or thought-provoking theme. It is also a special kind of poem which has its root in Japan and was later popularized by Europeans yet the form is still known as the haiku. Essentially, the haiku is a 3-lined poem with a 5-7-5 syllabic pattern. Thus, Gomwalk’s “Dark Light” reads:
Gate to the free world of jail,
Light that veils the mind (P.2)
All that is needed in a haiku is found in the aforementioned poem. Not just that, the title is both oxymoronic and ironic at the same time. The TV here is used metonymically as a screen, which represents the television, computer screens, tablets, and phones. Take it or leave it, these screens now determine trends, culture, and mode of consumerism in our society today and since they are being controlled by capitalists, deception might just be a strategy of the so-called globalization.
Unconsciously, people surrender to the paradoxical “free world of jail”(Line 2). Resultantly, that knowledge or awareness that these screens claim to give somewhat blinds nations and that could be understood properly when we see how they are used as tools for dissemination of, especially Western, propaganda. The poet queries the light (knowledge, information, awareness) that the screen claims to supply and in a way, he cautions the hapless user to sift whatever information he stumbles upon in the media. Hardly does a brief poem gather weight this much.
From the same origin as the haiku is the tanka, although far less popular than the haiku. It is a poem of 5 lines and 31 syllables divided into a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern. A classic example of such a poem is found in Gomwalk’s “Adviser-in-Chief,” which reads:
Gyemat knew it all;
She was marriage counsellor.
Then she got married.
Truth took the throne; the cute cake
outlasted her own marriage! (P. 3)
The repetition of the word ‘marriage’ in this seemingly prosaic poem gives a hint that it is themed on marriage. However, every marriage is unique, just as every individual has his own fingerprint. Therefore, Gyemat, an Ngas word for an unmarried ‘lady’ – in this case a know-all (sabi-sabi) type – falls into the trap laid by her omniscience. While some lines in the poem are short, others are a bit longer, and while some are hastily terminated with a full stop, others have run-on lines (enjambment) and this testifies to the uniqueness of every marriage. Indeed, regardless of the formulas doled out by motivational speakers and, with all due respect, religious clerics, marriages that are fated to last will last anyway. The ones that will crash will still crash although a lot of hard work and patience is required to keep them intact.
As a creative with a third eye, Gomwalk investigates the rot in that part of Jos through the long poem with three cantos
‘Waste of Minds’ is a pun, a play on words. Anybody who is familiar with the city of Jos would be familiar with its red-light district, ‘West of Mines’, originally known as Rotnorong. That is one part of Jos that sleeps in the daytime but comes to life at night. It was more of a market designed by colonial lords, in the heydays of tin mining, for locals to spend their money on imported whiskeys, tobacco, and women.
The goal was to make whoever makes money in the mines to part with the money they make in the city thereby further impoverishing the people. As a creative with a third eye, Gomwalk investigates the rot in that part of Jos through the long poem with three cantos, which he titles, ‘Waste of Minds’. The poem has three different personas in the cantos: A villager cum drug dealer, an innocent girl turned into a prostitute and a crook who poses as a law enforcement officer. Each of the cantos has a rhyming pattern of abab, cdcd, efef, ghgh, ijij, which makes them delightful to the auditory system. Stanza five of the first canto reads:
Brilliant minds gone gaga, waste of minds
He can’t whisper ‘be still, this waist of mine’
For there is sorrow in this wine, so he winds
Call it the Lost Man’s Paradise, this is West of Minds (P.27)
Take a look at his play on the phrase, ‘West of Mines’ without actually saying it. In line 20, he makes a perfectly fitting allusion to John Milton’s Paradise Lost and perhaps the wild wild West, or the occidental West, “Call it the Lost Man’s Paradise, this is West of Minds.”
The second canto has six stanzas and it somewhat runs in parallel with the fifth stanza of the first canto. Here, the author takes his reader to a harlot’s room in a brothel and the reader gets to hear as she takes pride in her portion of West of Mines.
This is her palace, the drunkard’s den: Waste of Minds
‘there is nothing wrong with this ways of mine’
‘I can do as I please, I can trade this waist of mine’
Christ is the answer in this harlot’s hades: West of Mines (P.28)
In the last line of the stanza, line 44, the poet exploits his poetic license to unabashedly inject his spiritual inclination to his poetry. But, hey, if taboo words are permissible why not the gospel? In any case, the poet doesn’t even judge the persona, instead, he sees a potential that is being wasted by objectifying herself as a commodity. Similarly, the eighth stanza of the third canto quite resembles the one discussed above.
She declares, ‘I can do as I please with this waist of mine’
He says, ‘do as I say, don’t copy these ways of mine’
This is the dungeon of filthy decay . . .waste of minds
Used to be the haven of miners . . . West of Mines
The way and manner Lengshak Gomalk seamlessly plays with words and de-familiarises them is what makes me christen him a ‘pun star’. He appears dexterous in his use of rhyme, rhythm, pun, and even alliteration. Consider the opening stanza of one of his highly alliterative poems, ‘Casting the Casket’:
Grating the grains, grating them gradually
Chopping, chirping, chomping, chewing . . .
Cutting the cute cedars, carving them into elegant cadavers
It always starts with a harmless harmonica, humming
The jackals howling . . .owl’s hooting . . .
The shovels undress the subsoil to dress the comely casket
And now the post-mortem; a sojourn in futility
Pathetically, the rigor mortis is the start of life’s journey
Hypothetically, the requiem mass signals the gift of souls (P. 21)
Old English and medieval English poetry are typically characterised by a surplus of alliteration; an excerpt from the aforementioned poem gives us a glimpse of how deep the poet went to drink from the ‘Perian Spring’, a spring of knowledge. The entire collection of 66 poems is suffused with a variety of themes most of which were discussed in the preface to the text like drug abuse, prostitution, underage marriage, religious hypocrisy, war, love, optimism, and joy, among others.
The entire collection of 66 poems is suffused with a variety of themes most of which were discussed in the preface to the text like drug abuse, prostitution, underage marriage, religious hypocrisy, war, love, among others.
On a general note, the Gomwalk’s debut has something for everyone. The poems are rendered in concise language with a magnetic form. It is a work that will keep dragging the reader to itself even after the reader has finished reading it. A few typos could be picked but the combined effect of the beauty and the message blinds the casual reader to such inadequacies. With his collection, Lengshak Gomwalk has not just written his name in the register of poets, but also announced himself as a ‘pun star’.
Yadok is a teacher, poet, and novelist.
Spine & Label to host ‘In Conversation with TJ Benson’ in Abuja
For the newest instalment of their ‘In Conversation’ series, one of Abuja’s biggest book retailers is hosting award-winning author TJ Benson.
By Justina Terhember
Spine & Label Bookstore recently revealed the next writer to be featured for their ‘In Conversation’ series to be TJ Benson, author of the current hit ‘People Who Live Here’, and ‘The Madhouse’ (both from Masobe Books). He will read from the book, and talk about a variety of topics with the host, editor/writer/illustrator Abdulkareem Baba Aminu.
Benson will also answer questions from fans, as well as sign copies of his book, which will be on sale at the venue, Spine & Label Bookstore, Rhema Mall (opposite NAF Conference Centre, Kado). The event is starting tomorrow, August 27th 2022 at 4:00 pm. The bookstore, via its Instagram handle, announced that per tradition, the first 10 guests will get “an exciting gift”.
On the event, Benson said: “I love Spine & Label bookstore and what they do, and I’m looking forward to seeing and interacting with readers old and new.”
“TJ [Benson] is an incredibly gifted writer, and a personal favourite of mine, so hosting him will be quite a lot of fun. Guests should be ready for a compelling 2 hours,” Baba Aminu, the host, said.
#BookChaser: Sidi’s 93 poems are an art historian’s dream collection
Here, there’s Art History and there’s poetry, all wrapped in a culture entirely of the author’s creation.
My first major encounter with Umar Abubakar Sidi was when his book, a collection of poetry published in 2019 by Konya Shamsrumi, sat on my office desk bearing a title I found uncomfortable. “These poets and their titles’, I thought. “Which one is ‘The Poet of Dust’ again?” But then I thought about creation and what this Sidi’s ‘Dust’ could be implying – “what if he’s trying to say the first man was a poet and made from dust?” I sat forward and started reading.
It’s 2022 and here I am again. This time I am scrolling through news feeds on social media and the words ‘Like Butterflies Scattered About by Art Rascals’ keep appearing. And yes, it’s Sidi again. And yes, with another uncomfortable title. Fast-forward to the near future and my copy arrives, properly sealed like I didn’t already know an army of rascals and their rascality would invade my home.
You see, there are two types of art rascals (in my opinion inspired by Sidi’s latest offering) – those who write about issues with passion and those who write like they are in a trance. Sidi falls in the latter category.
You see, there are two types of art rascals (in my opinion inspired by Sidi’s latest offering) – those who write about issues with passion and those who write like they are in a trance. Sidi falls in the latter category. As I read ‘Like Butterflies Scattered About by Art Rascals’ I pictured the poet on a spirit journey where he inhabits places he has been to, those he hasn’t been to, those yet travelled or places he would never will visit. I imagine him with a featherlike pen writing about his journeys and telling us histories of cities or villages or worlds we have never been to. Well, not in the way he has, anyway.
More than many poets, and I say this with all honesty, Sidi took me to school while I read his work of 93 poems. Take the piece ‘The Meaning of Guernica’, for example, where he writes about the “Horrific devastation in the Basque town of Guernica.” And so, I pick up my phone and go to Google where I learn about a 1937 painting by the legendary artist Pablo Picasso called ‘Guernica’. It’s described as one of, if not the most famous work of Picasso probably because of its powerful political statement at the time. Painted in reaction to “the Nazi’s devastating casual bombing practice on the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War” of 17 July 1936 to 1 April 1939.
But don’t be fooled. This poet is most likely pointing at future wars (and the tragedy of it all) beyond those in history books. He could be talking about a smeared attempt at democracy. And he could be talking about a war of the mind. Of Boko Haram or ISWAP or ISIS and its largescale human tragedy. The possibilities are endless! Good luck with your own interpretation. I’ve attempted mine.
If you doubt my effort at unraveling this poet, read ‘The Bawdy Quatrians of Abu Nuwas’, and yes, maybe visit a search engine on your phone or computer. I recommend we go back to this book’s title and begin to connect the dots that don’t need connecting any further, really. Sidi might as well have dedicated this collection to artists across the globe.
Encyclopedia.com describes Abu Nuwas as “the most famous Arab poet of the Abbasid era.” It didn’t stop there but describes his style as “extravagant, and his compositions reflected well the licentious manners of the upper class of his day”.
So, ladies and gentlemen, we are reading a poet and a historian of the arts, all in one, here. What Sidi attempts in his lines is to showcase the uniqueness (rascality if you like) of various artists by analysing their works and at the same time rewriting history in his own words. Genius if you ask me and, yet, possibly not for the everyday poetry fan.
I have thought about this since ‘The Poet of Dust’ and will dare to say it now. Sidi doesn’t write for readers. He writes for poetry. And since he writes for poetry, poetry lives through him in a most profound manner.
I have thought about this since ‘The Poet of Dust’ and will dare to say it now. Sidi doesn’t write for readers. He writes for poetry. And since he writes for poetry, poetry lives through him in a most profound manner.
But this isn’t all. There’s more – like his ‘A Surrealist Interpretation of Rastafarian Painting & Jazz or Definition of an Idealist Rascal’. When last have you read such a long title? It’s said that one needs to know the rules in art before he can break them. I’m personally not sure there are still rules in poetry anymore.
In ‘Concerning Celebs’, Sidi has time for what I’ll call “the conventional”, in this case. Or so it seems until I begin to read:
This extraordinary being
is a professor who suggests a phallic reading of Celebs
to poets who want to experience the fullness of the movement
the image is that of a mechanical elephant
the image was painted in Cologne
the glowing colours, may seem highly formalistic
like reference to life lived in the body
the style draws together text & smoke
For this Sidi’s matter, I rest my case, as I leave you to read the entire collection and judge for yourself.