Monday, September 23, 2013

To Sika


To Sika

By Kofi Awoonor

(Ghanian Poet who was killed in the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi)

Remember the Christmas
when on our way from Chelsea
you fell on pavements
broke a tooth and I was mute?
Your mother thought I was cruel,
but your fall hurt me
in that all of us,
your clansmen, fell on alien ground,
Remember the morning walks
To your nanny’s
where you sulked and longed for home
the agony of flights and
the pain of separation looming
large like winter moons.
I knew I was the tempest
That will blast your youth
and misery of infancy.
Oh, I was the Abraham
Sacrificing my Isaac
waiting in vain for the ram in the thicket
for dreams long forgotten under tropical suns.
But what could I have done?
Was I not aware of coming prophecies
the final estrangement
prepared in secrecy
by the intervening gods of my household?
No. I was not seeking
an athanasia; how can I
the epilogue of my own long torment
understand the prologue I dreamed you to be?

Kofi Awoonor was born in Ghana in 1935. He is considered as one of the best known poets of Ghana, apart from being  a novelist, critic, academic and politician. He was educated in Ghana, the United Kingdom and the United States. Closely connected with the first president of Ghana, Nkame Krumah, Awoonor was forced to go into exile after a coup against Nkrumah in 1966. During the time abroad, he completed his graduate and doctoral studies. For several years, he taught English Literature at the State University of New York. In the last years, he engaged in political activities. From 1990 until 1994, he was Ghana’s Permanent Representative and Ambassador to the United Nations in New York. He  was killed during the terrorist attack in Westgate Mall in Nairobi on 21st September.

The poet Awoonor was conscious of his roots in traditional poetry and folk songs. His grandmother was a mourning singer (Like our Rudali). He uses this motif in several of his poems to express the grief of the Western-educated African looking back at his native culture. Awoonor has published several collections of poetry and two novels. In his fiction and poetry, the author often works on two levels. The first level is usually a narrative of everyday experience. The second level is a symbolic journey through a personal or political development filled with Biblical and literary allusions. The poet applies this technique to his poem “To Sika” for his daughter.

This poem contains three parts. A triplet at the center present the poet concern: “I knew I was the tempest that will blast your youth and misery of infancy.” The first and the third part of the poem consist of fourteen lines. The structure of the poem is the variation of the fourteen-line sonnet and alludes to the tradition of sonnets as expression of love. Sika is usually girl’s name which means gold or something highly appreciated. In this poem, small accidents and events of his daughter’s life are placed side by side with the father’s meditations on his faith and his fate that has called him to be a poet. The speaker of the poem had been unable to speak immediately to his child when it had been necessary. Now he is anxious to reassure the child of his tenderness and care by showing her that he recollects every details of her life: her broken tooth, her sullen mood, her fear to imminent separation. The first part addresses the child two times, “Remember the Christmas…”, “Remember the morning walks…”. The daughter’s accident and the separation of father and daughter are connected with the failure of protection by ancestral spirits and a Christian God. African spirits should protect the members of the clan when they are abroad, but “all of us, your clansmen fell on alien ground.” In the Old Testament the appearance of the substitute ram counteracts Isaac’s sacrifice. Here, however, the father has to sacrifice his daughter’s happy childhood to his vocation as poet. The central and the second part lament the father’s guilt and try to explain his apparent indifference and cruelty, “Oh, I was the Abraham sacrificing his Isaac”. The reference to Christian religion and to “prophecies” and “certainties” from the gods of the household point to a change of faith. The term “athanasia” means creed, belief. The father meditates on the question of “fate” that has called him to be a poet. The return to ancient African gods and his daughter’s presence enable the poet to move on after having been uncertain of his role as a singer for a long time. Sika is the inspiration for his poem. The child’s life lights and fuels the father’s creativity. Finally, the poet as father is able to make a poem about his silence under which he had been hiding his tenderness.

Kofi Awoonor’s poem foreground the intimacy and the privacy of the child parent relationship. He shows that fathering is filled with tenderness, responsibility and care, even though it is hidden under silence as expressed in this highly artistic poem.

 Extracted from: Poems at the Edge of Differences: Mothering in New English Poetry by Women By Renate Papke

Saturday, September 21, 2013

In the Woods

In the Woods

Ko Un

Translated by Clare You and Richard Silberg

From : The Three way Tavern by Ko Un

In the twilight woods
the child with me
held my hand tightly.
We two as one,
walked deep into the woods.

There it was,
my childhood just as I left it,

a single buck loped away

The Buddhist poet Ko Un is the best known Korean poet today.This simple poem is a philosophical meditation in the Buddhist tradition. The association between woods and childhood is something strong in many of our lives. 

The poem depicts a simple, beautiful scene  and Ko Un’s sparse, carefully chosen phrasing elevates the scene into something more significant, giving  concrete form to Buddhist concepts of what could dryly be called ‘the oneness of all being’ and also of ’eternity’. The two figures in the poem, the child and the man, walk ‘as one’ into the woods, ‘as one’ in both in the physical sense of holding hands and the mental sense of experiencing the same moment. If the ‘twilight woods’ remind us of the poet’s age – he wrote this at sixty – and of the end of life, it is well  a sense of rebirth – of his return being at the same time the child’s discovery, and of these two moments being united.

In this poem we find a concluding device which is Ko Un's most characteristic features, a closing single, isolated line which is linked to the rest of the poem yet concludes it by pointing in an unexpected, new direction, opening onto other directions, instead of giving a conventional closure. The isolated last line  is intriguingly beautiful for its simplicity and power. I find the synergy of it quite uniting the times man travel through.

Source: The Three Way Tavern: Selected Poems by Ko Un.University of California Press

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A passage from "Northern Journey"

A passage from "Northern Journey"

By Du Fu (Some texts refer him as Tu Fu)

Translated by Professor Burton Watson

A year gone by, arriving at my thatched hut,
wife and children, clothes a hundred patches:
our cries mingle with the voice of the pines;
the sad fountain joins our muffled sobbings.
The little boy we’ve spoiled all his life,
face paler, whiter than snow,
sees his Papa, turns away in tears,
dirty, grimy, feet with no socks.
By the bed my two young girls,
mended skirts scarcely covering their knees,
a sea scene, the waves chopped up,
bits of old embroidery sewn all askew,
marine monster, purple phoenix
topsy-turvy on their coarse cloth jackets.
Old husband, feeling somewhat poorly,
vomiting, runny bowels, several days laid up in bed.
But don’t think I’ve no fabrics in my bag
to save you from the shakes and shivers of the cold!
Here’s powder and mascara—I’ll unwrap them—
quilts, coverlets—I’ll lay them all out.
The face of my thin wife regains its brightness;
my silly girls start in combing their own hair.
They copy all the things they’ve seen their mother do,
step by step applying morning makeup,
taking their time, smearing on rouge and powder—
how ridiculous—drawing eyebrows this wide!
But I’m home alive, facing my young ones,
and it’s as though I’ve forgotten about hunger and thirst.
They keep asking questions, outdoing each other in pulling my beard,
but who’d have the heart to scold them?

Du Fu, the elicitor of superlatives! The Chinese scholar William Hung, who wrote the definitive book in English on Du Fu’s life and poetry, gave it the unequivocal title Tu Fu: China’s Greatest Poet. Professor Stephen Owen of Harvard, the leading American authority on Chinese poetry of the Tang period, enthusiastically seconds Hung’s estimation of Du Fu. And the American poet and translator Kenneth Rexroth, who rendered some of Du Fu’s poems in English, goes a step further to declare him “the greatest non-epic, non-dramatic poet who has survived in any language."

A  characteristic of Du Fu’s poetry that merits particular notice is his realism. The above passage taken from a long poem titled “Northern Journey,” amply illustrates it.  The poem was written in the fall of 757, when Du Fu, having incurred Emperor Suzong’s displeasure, was ordered to leave the court and travel north to Fuzhou, where his wife and children were living. The poem, 140 lines long, shifts back and forth between the political concerns of the entire nation and Du Fu’s private family affairs. The above section, lines 59 to 88, shows us the scene that confronted the poet when, after a long and difficult journey, he finally reached the country house where his family was lodging.

It would appear from the poem that at this time Du Fu had four children, two girls and two boys. The “little boy” in line 5 of my excerpt is probably his younger son, Pony Boy. It seems odd that he should turn away from his father in tears, though perhaps through some misunderstanding he thinks he has done something for which he will be scolded. The “old husband” in line 15 is, of course, Du Fu himself.

The whole passage, replete with closely observed details, has two sections of particular note. The first is Du Fu’s description of the clothes worn by the girls, garments that Du Fu’s wife has mended with patches cut from an old and probably expensive piece of embroidery. The embroidery originally depicted a seascape complete with the mythical sea monster called Tian Hu and a purple phoenix or purple phoenixes. But the pattern has now been cut to bits and sewn so that the figures are askew or upside down. The crazy quilt effect that results perfectly reflects the disruption and chaos that have descended on the Du family, and by extension on the whole of Tang China. The second notable section occurs in the latter part, when the little girls, seizing on the powder and mascara that the poet has brought for his wife, proceed to plaster their faces with it. The mood here is all gaiety and madcap humor, a brief moment of brightness before the poem quits the domestic scene and turns to solemn concerns of national policy.

Perhaps this is a scene that could transpire in any corner of the world where a father returns home after a war or long absence.

(Extracted from "Selected Poems of Du Fu" translated by Burton Watson.)