Friday, October 25, 2013

261. The Parliament of Poets by Frederick Glaysher

The Parliament of Poets (2012) is a 294-page epic poem by Frederick Glaysher, which has the moon as its setting and deals with important issues such as science and religion, the current consumerist approach to our economics, profiteering and capitalism, gradual wearing away of morality and spirituality, wars, hunger, general deprivation, race, and more. It is a poem in twelve parts or Books. This review shall be restricted to Book I, which deals with the general issues covered in the individual books, and Book XI, which involves the persona's visit to Africa and involves Achebe's character in Arrow of God, the Priest Ezeulu.

As already stated the setting of this epic poem is the moon, specifically, the Apollo 11 landing site. The gathering of ancient and modern poets from both East and West was called by the Greek god Apollo and the Nine Muses. The main subject for discussion is the meaning of modernity and modern day nihilism. Several poets are gathered: Cervantes, Du Fu, Li Po, Vyasa, Tagore, Basho, Saigyo, Rumi, Attar, Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Keats, Wordsworth, Jane Austen, African griots and shamans, Balla Fasseke, Merlin, Job, and others. Before these gathering of awe-exuding poets stood the persona - The Poet of the Moon.

To begin with I should state that I cannot do this poem the justice it deserves and I will not pretend to even attempt to be doing so. This is a beautiful poem that falls off the tongue smoothly. As an epic poem, I expected that the versification will be rigidly structured and turn of phrases so sharp that it might distort understanding and appreciation and require only trained minds to decipher; but Glaysher did none of this. Besides, one would have thought that epic poems no longer have any role to play in the present, scientific world. That our current level for short and brief messages and the introduction of one-forty character message platforms that has drastically affected our attention span will make the appreciation of a long poem difficult. But Glaysher proved all these wrong; he has shown with this epic poem that with the right subject matter and the right language, one can create an epic poem even in today's age. In effect, today's events make epic poetry a necessity for there are so many important life-threatening, earth-destroying events that a careful observer cannot but talk about it. And so much are the problems that in the hands of a poet, it can only lead to this.

The Book I opens up what the poem is about. It talks about the clash between science and religion and how uncontrolled profiteering is tearing the world apart and destroying the very world we live in. The gathered poets bemoaned the lack of restrain as scientific quests turn into capitalist ventures, mining the earth to line capitalists' pockets, and how the profiteers are expanding into intergalactic researches. This physical destruction is in tandem with the stripping of the 'spirit' away from the world for capitalist gain - the gradual 'despiritisation' of the earth. A cursory look at rivers in Ghana will suffice. When it was found that trees could be lumbered without ripostes from 'river gods', water bodies started losing the trees that protected and they shrank or dried up completely. The gathered poets, specifically Cervantes, stated that they had owned the moon for millennia
and must not cede it to wayward scientists
and plunderers of the earth, who would
extend their selfish exploitations 
throughout the universe, debasing everything [31]
Samuel Johnson added 'but what else can be expected of scientists who lack a vision worthy of humanity?' Thus, in a way death has deified the poets and thus, like God, the Parliament of Poets are seeking ways to save mankind, who 'can't go anywhere without littering', from himself. The destruction being discussed here is both physical and spiritual. The persona - here the poet - becomes the 'Christ' who must be sent to save humans, as in the biblical quote 'whom shall I sent and who will go for us, then said I Here am I send me' [Isaiah 6:8].

When allowed to ask a question of the gathering after they have lamented about the current spate of devolution and corporatocracy, the Poet of the Moon opted to know how today's world compares with the past which has had its fair share of problems. He asked:
...what do you advise?
Tyrannies and oppressors, Marxists and fascists,
we've already had. Only madmen would
want to go back to anything like that,
and yet order erodes, deteriorates,
moral decline and decadence deepen,
a Slough of Despond draws in everything,
empire grows, looms, corporate plutocracy,
oligarchies and billionaires, with
no commitment to any nation or people [37]
The persona thus contrasted the present with the past, drawing conclusions that there are not much differences; each has its problems or decadence. Today's plutocracy is not different from the tyrannies of the kings of yesterday. To this Virgil answered 'know thyself' - an aphorism that has been attributed to several philosophers and which is believed to apply to individuals who boast more and know less - and that the greater questions lie beyond this. He further provided a ray of hope requesting that the persona should have greater confidence; that though there may not be any Augustus for our age, men are talking to men to find solutions to the upheavals of the day. It is on this hopeful note that Book I ended.

In Book XI, the parliament of poets called upon Ezeulu, the priest of Umuachala and of Ani, the Earth Goddess, and the representation of Africa's hominids, to take the persona from the moon to Africa and then to his native Igboland. Ezeulu is a character in Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God. As they flew over the continent and explored its many regions from space, the persona sought to confirm or deny the news and images of Africa as fed to western audience. Having listened to the priest, an epiphanic moment burst upon him 'And then I knew he was one of each of us.' Thus, through Ezeulu, the humanness of Africans was restored in the mind of the persona to be spread afield. But he saw much more than this, he concluded that Africa is the birth place of humanity because
All the shades and hues were in his dusky,
ochre-covered body, his genome, at root,
its base and stem, from which we've grown,
untraceable, perhaps, but all his actions
and artefacts tell us now he was like us,
not a mere ape in a tree, or climbing down
from one, but upright and thinking, trying,
at least, more than many of us today. [250]
Upon reaching the priest's compound the persona saw many great things. Ezeulu explained to him the philosophy of his people adding that the Great God - Chukwu - allows each person, at the point of birth, to choose his or her chi and he must therefore serve his and that 'if a man agrees, his chi agrees'. The author utilised Ezeulue's dilemma and the choices he had to make in Achebe's book. He says 
You choose and agreed. You must keep choosing,
or you'll end up a priest of a dead god,
disgraced by his own actions, in the eyes
of his people, pushed aside by them, not heeded.
Sacrifice yourself for their good, serve them. [256]
These were the exact things that happened to him when he had to choose between the gods and the people. Ezeulu's advice for the persona contrasts poorly to the current crop of leaders in Africa who sacrifice nothing and steal everything; who have become leaders only so they could use their positions to siphon their nations' resources to enrich themselves. Ezeulu believed that man has been offered the freedom to choose who he wants to be. Thus, what people become are their own making, devil or angel, good or bad. He says
Now I understand. We can all be angels
or savages, choose the heart of darkness,
if we lose the human heart of the people,
become cold to human suffering not our own.
The people live in the village. Leaders
who forget the village are unworthy
of the people.... [261]
Glaysher investigated the African's relationship with his environment and his god. Through the names the African attributes to his gods, one can directly learn the extent and depth of his belief in them. The fact that the religion of the African had no direct or attributable founder or reformer is one of its identified features that distinguishes it from other religions, in addition to it being a non-proselyting religion. The African only believes and that belief is his life.

The issue of race and how it is defined also came up in their discussion. The persona claimed that he is from Africa, at least that was what modern technology has shown and that this was no ordinary romanticism. He claimed that he was not a stranger and defended the continent before Conrad, indirectly, insisting that 'Africa is not the heart of darkness, no more than any other place on Earth,...' Whereas Ezeulu believed what the persona said, they were worried about the other non-initiates who see not beyond the physical colour boundary. The metaphor for peace - the breaking of the kola nut - played an important role in their meeting and discussion. It signified the persona's acceptance by Ezeulu and perhaps into Africa. The persona was then charged to speak to the parliament of poets on behalf of Africa.

Later, Sogolon - the mother of Sundiata of ancient Mali Empire - took the poet of the moon (the persona) to a higher plane and introduced herself. Sogolon saw a time when man will leave the path and seek things for his person, where the community will break on the back of an individual's greed, when the greedy ones will sell the land to foreigners, who will latter attack them, and when such a day descends, it will not be possible to save the people
Breaking her silence, she said to me, "Woe to
a time that forgets the measure of man,
for then people fall to the darkest depths,
and not even I could defend myself
against attackers with all my herbs and potions,
even porcupine quills could not drive away
such men reduced to rapacious beasts." [263]
And then Sogolon evolved and even as time moved forward rapidly, the prophecy unfolded before the persona as countries, tribes, and men destroyed each other over minerals and oils as they sought power and control. Whilst they quest for power, they did away with things of the spirit. The tectonic shift in the moral values of Africans, from spirituality to materialism, is what has led to wanton slaughter of millions of its people.

All through this epic poem, the Poet of the Moon is addressing or discussing the Buddhist concept of Itai Doshin or the unity of the mind in the midst of diversity, which is also the concept that underpins the Ubuntu philosophy, which translates into 'I am, because we are'. The poet talks about peaceful coexistence, that oneness of us as a people of the earth and with our environment. He sees rapacious quest for wealth as unhealthy, impacting negatively on us as a people. He believes that everything should be done to advance the course of humanity and not an individual. He believes that science and religion should not be antagonists but should both work to advance the course of humanity. The problem comes when the sole end of scientific research becomes profit. And here one should equally add religion, with regards to the springing up of churches whose ultimate goal is making money for the founders. In effect the poet wants to see the unity of what he calls 'false dichotomies': science and religion, reason and intuition, material and spiritual, white and black, and others.

Bringing together such a vast array of poets and feeding on their works and its implied meanings mean that the reader need to have read widely in order to appreciate this piece completely. A reader whose reading is not extensive might only benefit from the discussions that are not directly linked to the work of that poet and might miss a lot. This is what most great works do, they provide pointers to where the reader should look for further reading.

With the exception of Balla Fasseke, Sundiata Keita's griot, no African poet was mentioned by name. I would have expected at least Christopher Okigbo to have been part of the gathering. However, the period from which all the names were taken from might not have allowed this, thus settling on Fasseke and the amorphous 'griots' and 'shamans'.

This is an excellent piece of poetry. It is not too tasking once the reader has read wide, and even if one has not, the language is simple enough for one to get a fair idea of what is going on. Very much recommended.
___________________
Copies of the books could be obtained from these sources: Loot Online and Exclus1ves

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