Wednesday, April 10, 2013

235. Breaking Silence - a Poetic Lifeline from Slavery to Love by James Robert Myers

Breaking Silence (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013; 148), edited by James Robert Myers, as the subtitle suggests, is a collection of poems about slavery and also about love. The anthology has contributions from many varied sources such as Australia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, India, Spain, United States, South Africa, Belgium, Nigeria and others; however, the majority of the poems is by Ghanaians. The anthology contains such experienced and well-known poets, such as Mbizo Chirasha and Phillip Oyinka (Nana Asaase) and completely new and young voices. However, these youngish voices are not innocent with their words.

The idea of bringing love and slavery together is unique and one that could be difficult; for juxtaposing love and slavery requires a lot of balancing and subtle transition. What this anthology portrays is that though massive wrongs were done against a people, though they were inhumanly treated and traded as properties and tools, though on them their masters unleashed their hitherto latent animalistic tendencies and expanded it in a human psychological experiment in a bid to determine how low the human being can fall, though all these and much more worse things were done, their descendants have risen above them. 

The collection begins, somewhat, with poems on slavery and builds up towards love. Most of these are written in the first person with the writer (or persona) either a victim or an omnipresent observer providing commentaries on the plight of the slaves. In the former, the personas could be described as weak (or inactive) victims and are doing what they are doing because of blood extension or umbilical linkages (as in Nii Ayi Solomon's The Forgotten Soul). The plural 'we' represents the personas' associations with their slave ancestors. Some of the poems tend to question the crime committed requiring slavery as punishment; others also narrate the events as they perceive it. 

The pain of separation of brothers, of clan; a divergence at the confluence, a break in the umbilical linkage (mentioned earlier) seeped from some of the poems. The persona in Kwabena Agyare's Jero, My Brother, tells the one leaving, the divergent, not to change, but to be in remembrance, of his roots. To not be swallowed by forgetfulness. In one of the more striking stanzas he writes:
Distant relatives we seem to be
But time will welcome you
Back to the heart of your motherland
But will this work? Will the memory hold? Have they not already been swallowed up by the change? After all are we all not migrants from far and wide whose ancestors paused in their journey, perhaps only to water themselves, and finding the land accommodating settled? In the same way, haven't these 'brothers' become a new creation? Today, there are those who feel insulted when described as African Americans, wanting nothing to do with their slave past, describing the continent as a backwater they will want nothing to do with. But, like the poet, we can hope.

In categorisation, some of the poems could be said to belong to the Pre-Independence Literature (or Colonial) canon, like Turkson Adu Darkwa's poems; these mostly enumerate colonial wrongs and the romanticise lost or past pastoral life. Such poems, including others, are usually structured in the us-them dichotomy where the finger-pointing is unidirectional. For instance, Emmanuel Kwabena Woyome's To Host an Enemy begins with:
We served you find hospitality,
When you sold us a pot of slavery
Monuments such as slave castles, dungeons, shackles, cannons, Elmina, Cape Coast, (with its attendants blood, tears, and sweat metaphors) are symbols that run through the poems and which have come to represent slavery in Ghana. Sadly enough, one of these castles - the Christianborg Castle - is a symbol of power and authority and has been the seat of government since independence. It is therefore in order when Charles 'Kwame Write' Aidoo, in Head Nigger in Charge, rebuked those chiefs who betrayed their people. This provided the necessary balance in all stories of the slave trade; for some of our ancestors, wanting to see their greed-laden bulbous faces, sold their own people for mirrors. But Aidoo's poem is more like a spoken-word piece and would work better when performed.

Shittu Fowora questioned cultural imperialism, especially that of language, in Father Tongue. The poet questioned the Englishman's reason for insulting him (or her) for speaking poor English when he (the Englishman) cannot speak a word in his native Igbo language. Shittu's use of geometric metaphors in Usurpers is fresh and interesting.

In Dza Nyonmo, one of my favourites in the collection, Ghanayobi Nii Saki Sackey called Africans to rise up and above the situation. Perhaps in reference to the popular saying that you can blame some for pushing you down but cannot blame him for not getting up, the poet says 'The days of slavery are over'. And if we do, if we pay heed to this call one can stand in our way.
No one, absolutely none
Dza Nyonmo 
Phillip 'Nana Asaase' Oyinka is a master weaver of poems; his poems, interspersed with Twi, is a delight to listen and to read. His writing is calm and melodious and are expected to be read as such. His poem, Sojourner, is about a life-journeyer in search of a resting place. This metaphorical journey is filled with tiredness, dithering, and near-give-ups. The encouragement comes when he realises that such is the journey of life and that even though it is long, surely he shall get there. This poem marks the transition from slavery to love. 

The love poems were varied: love for a mother, love for a deserted lover (To my Araba by Shakiru Akinyemi), an unrequited love (All the Man that I am by James Robert Myers), love won and lost (Sunset at Noon by Alhassan A. K. Jacob), about love unattainable (Ode to Akosua by Alhassan A. K. Jacob), stupefying love (Madora by Caleb Kudah), love for Africa (Africa in Me by Cheryl Faison) and others. This section has one of the most beautiful lines and images: 'But I would kill to be able to hear what a blind man sees' (in My Head by Ransford Nana Kwame Boateng); and 'Angels are mothers cleaved out of spirit' (in Insolence by Richard Henry Quist Sr), to mention but a few. Gabriel Edzordzi's localised metaphors provide strong imagery and connects with the reader; also listen to the sounds:
I sit under this leafless coconut trees
And give my tears to trees in tatters
Gopal Lahiri's Heart and Soul is another interesting piece structured in non-rhyming couplets. There were some poems which could not be placed in this dichotomous themes. For instance, Redscar MvOdindo K'Oyuga's It's the Africa in Me is not about slavery and love but about identity. 

The Breaking Silence is about the oppression blacks suffered at the hands of the colonialist but it is also about the love of its descendants. The anthology contains some brilliant pieces like Dreams from Atlantis by Dante Poet and Rhapsody on a Windy Afternoon by Madhumita Ghosh. However, the collection would have fared better with fewer poems. A strict editing - to correct some of the mistakes in semantics, diction   and improve on the structure - and stricter selection procedure - to remove weaker, somewhat infantile poems - would have produced a stronger anthology.
About the editor: James Robert Myers is a Ghanaian writer. Currently, he schools at O'Reilly Senior High School in Accra. James' literary work often centre around romance and life circumstances as he utilises his unique blend of imagery, symbolism and sentimentality to convey his thoughts to his audience in a personal and creative way. His poetry have been published on most literary platforms around the world including One Ghana One Voice and Write to the World.


  1. sounds like a diverse collection Nana ,all the best stu

  2. This sounds like a very emotional read, and one that would probably open my eyes a little more than they already have been. The things humans can do to each other is appalling, but it sounds like this book describes all that and more with the addition of love. Thanks for the very interesting review today, Nana. I am going to check on this one and see if it's available to me.

    1. But I think the editor could have trimmed it down and work to improve the collection. It's loose as it is.


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