History of Violence,

Violence of History:

A Review Essay on Drumbeats of War

by Gbanabom Hallowell,

Published by Author House, 2004, Pp. 115.

 

By James Tar Tsaaior, PhD

 

Centre for General Studies

Lagos State University, Ojo, Nigeria

 

In the continuum of history, the vocation of poetry has imposed on poets variegated and cumbersome but inalienable responsibilities. Poets are pre-eminent repositories of the individual or communal voice and (re)memory. They are also the custodians of societal fund or mores, values and cherished ideals. As such, they constitute and represent the open sore of collective conscience dutifully and religiously rankling and applying the healing herb to the weeping sore in any society’s experiential trajectories through the kinesis of history. Fundamentally too, poets, through the efficacy of the creative word, are veritable midwives of transition and revolution distilling and nourishing ideas and ideals that constitute the substratum for society’s ontological essence and existence. Thus, whether they assume the high office of the traditional griot, marabout, prophet, town-crier or that of the (post)modern poet, the burdensomeness, urgency and immediacy of these protocols cannot be diminished. And the poet must diligently apply the self to this hallowed office with penetrating vatic insights and searing vision.

In the motions of recent  historical  existence, the negotiation and interrogation of the isomorph of socio-political contingencies and economic realities  bedeviling  postcolonial  African  nation-states have  veritably  constituted  the burden  of African  poetry.  Boldly  etched  on the labyrinthine  interstices of this monumental “post-Afrocentric” project of (self)interrogation, as Tejumola Olaniyan  (1994) calls it, are the grave and untoward  repercussions this  retrogressive historical engineering  heritage  has exerted  (and  is still  exerting)  on the  infected  soul of a beleaguered  continent.  Africa’s  polyvalent  predicament  finds eloquent  and unequivocal  expression in  political subterfuge  and  treachery  by a decadent  political  elite,  economic strangulation by a  petit bourgeoisie in active collaboration with their counterparts in the metropolis  and an unconscionable  crippling social  morass  and moral  atrophy.

Thus,  in an  increasingly  postmodern  global  neighbourhood  which  celebrates  the vertiginous heights scaled in science and technology, digital and satellite  communication,  Africa, inexorably, elects to tell  an  ostensibly  interminable  tale  whose  governing  and  defining  leitmotifs are  avoidable  fratricidal, genocidal  wars,  corruption, disease, greed,  hunger, poverty, gratuitous ethnocentric  narcissism,  injustice, military dictatorship, devastated  economies, and  a lean  hope.  Yet Africa is a land  which has  been so prodigiously  endowed  by the benevolent hand  of Nature  making  her a continent  of vast opportunities, promises and possibilities, possibilities which have  been,  lamentably, turned  into disquieting impossibilities. To appropriate the poet Niyi Osundare’s  (1994), felicitous  phraseology of paradoxes, this is  a continent  that is  so rich  and yet so poor, so blessed  and yet so cursed, so strong  and yet so weak. This is what Femi Ojo-Ade (2001) characteristics as a “corpus of contradictions” (127).

It is the culmination  of this  quotidian  complexion of affairs  defined  by monumental  incoherence  and paradoxes  as well as an  elephantine  socio-political  paralysis that has  provided the impetus  for many African  contemporary  poets, avatars  of the  poetic  tradition, to appropriate  public space  and enlist their  voices  to valorize what Neil  Lazarus  (1990) calls the continent’s “mourning” in the “morning” of another millennium. These heirs or scions  to this  poetic  heritage  have done this – and are still doing it – mobilizing their  creative  energies  and deploying  their intellectual  resources in a   determined effort to pave an alternative and revolutionary path for accelerated  postcolonial  development  and arrival. They have been pious in their  commitment  to and  unalloyed  in their  fidelity  in the  denunciation  of Africa’s  fiends  from within  and  without  who have  energetically  and assiduously  worked  in  concert  to pillage  and impoverish  Africa.  In The Sources of Power (1986),  Michael  Mann,  observes  that the  contingencies of the  plethoric  sources  of power  wielded  by the  adversaries of Africa  in the   metropole  and the margin  are wide-ranging.  They include the political and the military and the ideological and the economic. This sufficiently explains why the poetic voice has been reverberative, deafening and unmistakable in its cadences and resonances.

Drumbeats of War, Gbanabom  Hallowell’s collection of poems, eminently  belongs to its thriving, noble and ennobling  African  tradition  in verse  which  frontally  and viscerally  engages  postcolonial  Africa’s  history  of violence  and violence of history  mediated  by  fratricidal and  internecine  wars. The poet’s penetrating  searchlight  in the present collection is beamed powerfully on his native Sierra Leone which was embroiled in a decade-long civil debacle until the ECOWAS monitoring group, ECOMOG  led by  Nigeria  tamed  the tall  raging  flames  and willful self-annihilation. While the war lasted, democratic institutions were convulsed, economic hub of activities disrupted and socio-cultural life anaesthesised. Sierra Leone became quarantined as an international pariah earning the opprobrium of the world as a failed state in a state of developmental arrest, perpetual inertia and endless becoming.

Drumbeats  of War  represents a committed  and patriotic  citizen’s  confrontation with  the realities of war with  its negative and negating  temperament, manifest in the mindless  destruction  of innocent  lives  and property  and the ruination of a nation’s  soul and integrity. Hallowell’s poetic afflatus, imagination and sensibility has drawn heavily from the fountainhead of the purgatorial experiential gamut of the war.  This is not  without  its historical  synonymities  or symmetries  as war is particularly  fertile to the poetic  imagination, architecture  of creativity  and the very  archaeology  of the human mind.  As such, war itself is the forge for the fashioning of the poetic voice and sensibility. Ancient and medieval court and peripatetic poets wove martial poetic lines and stored them in the granaries of history as eternal testaments to the human spirit and obsession for war.  In the present epoch, especially in Africa, Christopher Okigbo’s Path of Thunder prophetically prognosticated the Nigerian civil imbroglio of 1967 – 70.  Wole Soyinka’s A Shuttle in the Crypt and J. P. Clark – Bekederemo’s Casualties are poetic renditions whose thematic matrices negotiate war.  Joe Ushie’s Eclipse in Rwanda is a vociferous poetic statement employing astronomical metaphors in strident condemnation of the Rwandan genocide in 1994.  Hallowell’s Drumbeats of War is an eloquent espousal to this poetic tradition that navigates the theme of war.

The ontological matrix of the textual universe of Drumbeats has a bipartite structural essence.  Part One  symbolically  christened  “Pictures of Shame”  houses  sixty  three  of the  poems  while  Part Two,  epithetically  and,  perhaps  eponymously  too,  named “Sia  Leona” is divided  into sections  of singing. These include: “Singing the Birth”, “Singing the Miracle”, “Singing Anguish” and “Singing Medusa”. War, Kwabena Nketia (1974) tells us, is fought with songs and music to keep alive the spirit. These ostensibly tributary parts  and sections gesture towards  a confluence  which  finds  an oceanic  flow  in the  reality of war giving  the collection its structural  coherence  and thematic  essence.

The  very  title  of the collection  announces,  unpretentiously, and  in martial  metaphoric  strokes, the presence  of war  as its  drums  have been  harnessed  and the beats  are alive  and  abroad  apocalyptically announcing  the possible  sanguinary  moment  of bloodbath. And if Sierra Leone  is microcosmic of the African continent, then  Hallowell’s  poetic  engagement  is an  unambiguous testament  to the  spectacular  spectre  of death that  interminably  haunts  the continent  under  siege  and the savage  sway  of murderers and  vampires  who lust  insatiably for blood. Blood  has, indeed, become a defining  trope for postcolonial Africa enmeshed in  cataclysmic civil  imbroglios  with the self:  Angola,  Algeria, Burundi, Congo DR, Cote d’Ivoire,  Ethiopia – Eritrea, Liberia, Somalia,  Sudan,  and  fundamentally, in this case, Sierra  Leone, among  others.  In Drumbeats, the poet  intensely  implicates  and biliously indicts failure of leadership by a corrupt and  decadent  political  elite,  lack of  patriotic  fervour, greed  and a peacock  psychology which  emphasizes  self-aggradisement as  responsible for Africa’s  parlous  state.

Opening the first part, the eponymous poem, “Drumbeats of War”, with a palpable sense of heightened tension and accentuated activity, orchestrates a regimented, military style action reminiscent of war situations. In this case, “Rattling drumbeats bite the dusty  soles, and/quicksteps like  vibrating  organs  rise…/a  final  readiness  to leave  the planet/pulsating  a million  nameless  silences”  (5).  The rapidity  of the action  here and the finality  with which  it is executed  achieves  striking  synonymity with  and captures  a grueling  preparation  for  hostilities  with the  prospect  of a million casualties. But this opening poem merely intones the antiphon for the pictures and scenes of shame.  In “Freetown, Freetown”, a capital town that is, paradoxically, not free, the poet’s  “camwood  silence” and  “hypogeal  screams” send  sounds  into the  “rotten ears  of restless  corpses/… roaming  for blood  over  serpentine valleys/with the eternal  thirst  of Dracula”  (6).  The poet-persona  subliminally  laments  this bloodstained  landscape  of a town for “Every  time I  dream  of Freetown / my  mind-dust  spirals  a penumbral / peninsula” (6). 

The concrete image  of blood  is further  pursued  in the poem,  “Such  Morning  Roads”  where every road in Freetown and,  indeed,  Sierra Leone,  “opens/its  hunger  hiccupping  and belching  the gas/of mixed blood”  (7). Another  image  enamoured of by the poet  is that  of the crocodile, an  aquatic  reptile of prey  which  cherishes  the culinary  delight  of other animals.

In “Night Shadows” and “The Dining Table” this image of the crocodile with its predatory instincts is foregrounded by the poet. In “Night Shadows”, the poet - persona painfully reminisces on his nightmarish prison experience where “I gave myself / to the fact that I stood / the suicidal ground to fight country’s my shapeless/course”. The poet suffers betrayal from familial quarters for his outspokenness and patriotism like “Franz  Fanon”,  the Martiniquan  psychiatrist, as “The  brothers  who  plotted my life /were children of my father  who said /My tongue  had become  fratricidal”. But the poet finds fulfillment and vindication in verse “because poetry is now what I am” and “I have not stopped/versifying inside the belly of the crocodile” (8).

The poet weaves a rich canvas of imagery into the dense fabric of his poetry.  This rich  tapestry of images  pendulates  between  the intensely  personal and the  public, the  ridiculous and the sublime, the mundane  and the metaphysical  endowing  his poetry  with a  multi-layered and multivalent  signification.  In  “Solitude  After War”,  Hallowell  builds an  imagistic  architecture  simultaneously  towering,  intimidating and symbolic. Dinosaurs, jackals, wolves, dogs and locusts populate this poem.  These are  metaphoric  representations of the petit  bourgeoisie  that have  driven  the country to the  yawning  precipice of war, thrown  the land  into the  warm  embrace  of tyrannical flames which have  warmly  engulfed  her soul. These predatory “mangy dogs scattered in our streets” have violated the womenfolk, “seduced the young people of the city” as child soldiers with “delirious/theories – a cadaverous body of knowledge”. And like Socrates, the whole nation is made to drain “his hemlock” to the dregs (18).

In the collection, the poet’s  personal  voice is  unmistakable as it ricochets  boisterously like  a projectile  and sails like a barbed  arrow careering fiercely  towards  its marked  target.  Hallowell’s target  remains the political  class  which has  perfidiously  elected  to plunge  Sierra  Leone  into a sticky  and ever-deepening  quagmire.  In  “Let Me Speak  for Myself”,  the poet  etches  his virile voice  on the  taut  bow-string of poetry. Impelled by patriotic zeal and unalloyed fidelity to nationhood, he announces enthusiastically that “I am Sierra Leone” and appropriates the rites of public space to engage the regiments of state betrayal with “a double-edged sword” (24). According to him,  “I am an ordinary  man in town” in  a poem of the same  title  (27)  “who  walks  on the sides of supermen”, men  he has  characterized  as “our developed men”  in another  poem  of a similar  title  (25).

Thus, in Hallowell’s angst-ridden and passionate voice cascades rivulets of hot lava rushing and seething to bathe the elite like a volcanic eruption. This is why he announces with combat readiness in “We No Longer Write Poems in Camera” because “with  helicopters hovering over our heads”  (48)  murdering  the tranquility  and freedom  of the  Sierra  Leonean  nation,  “we  have  scribbled  a dozen  poems  in the Sahara/all  to be read  in  black  capitals”.  Here, the poet valorizes his Afrocentrist consciousness as he builds an impressive roll of African capitals where the scroll of his poetry will be sent: Dakar, Yaounde, Libreville, Kinshasa, Kigali, Nairobi, Monrovia, Kampala, Mogadishu and Ouagadougou. The poet’s entire weltanschauung can be refracted through the prism of his passionate commitment and unstinting allegiance to his country and his self-perception as the communal conscience and repository of national morality and value system.

It is this  uncompromising  perspective  that makes  him to be  the “Poet  Unwanted”  (52)  by  the enemies  of the nation and the people. These are “men trained to… spill the blood of poets in thirty vineyards”, suggestively alluding to the biblical Ahab and Naboth. But the poet is undaunted as he wakes up his somnolent compatriots in  “Countrymen” to  “wake up  from  your  slumber” and  hoist  the  revolutionary  banner  for the dislodgment  of the  dynasty  of political  ineptitude,  corruption  and betrayal. It is this  pervasive sense of disillusionment and disenchantment with the political  men of blood that when  asked  to write  a poem  for his  native  Sierra  Leone, the poetic  voice is muffled with repetitive  phraseology and the poet  only scripts “secretpains”  forty-two  times (78). The  repetitive  urgency  of this poem  makes it one  of the most  intense  and painful experiences in the art of poetry and clads it in  a raiment  of nationalist  mourning- a reality  which  pervades  the creative  output  and oeuvre  of the  poet.

Part Two of the collection is a running kaleidoscope of songs  distilled to celebrate  Sierra  Leone  even  as she  writhes  in the historic  throes  of war  that threaten  to hyphenate  her  nationhood. It is a heaving mosaic of renditions  hewn  amidst  the saturnalia of birth  as in  the sequence “Singing  the Birth”  which  weaves  to life  the rites  of passage. “Singing the Miracle” is a delectable chronicling of the history of “Sia Leona”, with its  vast  possibilities  and impossibilities, coherences  and  contradictions, harmonies  and discords, identities  and differences  that have  snarled to soulful nationhood amidst  the miracles and vagaries of life, beingness and ontological existence. The sequence picturesquely unveils the landscape of Sierra Leone with its magnificent forests, towering  mountains, green vegetation  belt,  calm  and  collected  rivers, creeks  and lakes  and a fertile earth  where  diamond  sojourns  in its  bowels.

But this almost arcadian and idyllic state is soon desecrated by funereal anguish as encoded powerfully in the sequence “Singing Anguish”. This sequence achieves temporal synonymity with the history of Sierra Leone in the sepulchral eaves of war where the drums are sounding peremptorily and portentously. Here, the conquering flames of war have overtaken the once peaceful threshold and the entire landscape is in a state of turmoil with skeins of smoke dancing spirally in the skyscape. “Singing Medusa” which ends the poetic proceedings is a befitting epilogue to the collection. Here, the poet plaintively appeals to the violated and lacerated nation “in the labyrinthine of hell” to “spare his life” (111).

This is a Sia  Leone whose national  patrimony  has been  pillaged  by “rogue  politicians” and corrupt  souls  and is lying  prostrate  and pitiably its a pool of blood.  In this parlous national state, the poet condemns “both men and office” and only seeks one thing: “I was born to conquer/death. I must be myself” (115). Partly borne out of the quest  for self-definition  and partly for national  retrieval  and renaissance,  the poet makes  a patriotic apologia  for the nation  and her recovery  after seasons  of humiliation and self-immolation. It is  with this  tortured  realization that the poet laments  a nation on a funeral  pyre resolved  into  a dune of cinders  waiting  to be  reborn  from  its  ashes  as the  proverbial  phoenix.

In Drumbeats, Hallowell enlists his virile and visceral voice  in the  strident  denunciation  of a feckless  and decadent  national  bourgeoisie  that has  wasted  his nation’s patrimony  through an avoidable sanguinary harvest of blood. Through the deft deployment of images, dexterous manipulation of tropes, accomplished mobilization of martial metaphors, and the creative husbandry of language with its sign systems, he moulds a poetic universe that is simultaneously down-to-earth, powerful and compelling. The entire collection peaks significantly at two levels:  thematic appositeness and stylistic ebullience.  This is a voice whose haunting richness and tremulous lyricism in the circumnavigation of a history of violence and violence of history cannot be ignored.

 

References

Lazarus, Neil. Resistance in Postcolonial African Fiction. New Haven and London: Yale  University Press,  1990.

Mann,  Michael. The Sources of Power:  A History of Power from the Beginning to A.D. 1760.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Nketia,  Kwabena.  The Heritage of African Music. New York & London: Oxford University  Press,  1974.

Ojo-Ade, Femi. “The Black Man’s Burden:  Christianity in Black African Fiction”.  In W.  Feuser & I.N.C. Aniebo (eds.). Essays in Comparative African Literature. Lagos:  CBAAC, 2001.  125 – 156.

Olaniyan,  Tejumola. Scars of Conquest, Masks of Resistance. London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Osundare, Niyi. “Squaring Up to Africa’s Future: A Scholar – Poet’s Reflection”.  A Paper Presented to Nigerian Students, University of New Orleans, United States, 1994.