The following appears in:

Voices: The Wisconsin Review of African Literatures
2 (Fall 1999): 82-6.


Make It Sing & Other Poems

By Marjorie O. Macgoye. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1998, ISBN 9966466479, xii + 112 pp. Distributed by African Books Collective, Ltd.

Crackle at Midnight

By Lupenga Mphande. Ibadan: Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria) Plc, 1998, ISBN 9781293470, xv + 147 pp. Distributed by African Books Collective, Ltd.

It is tempting, even commonplace, but also useful to some degree to see reflected in both of the works being considered, something of the poet's life: the memory and nostalgia of Mphande's exile; Macgoye as the embracing (and embraced) outsider, enmeshed in a web of relations, some crafted some found. But there is also something deeper at work in the verse of these two poets. Both collections reflect not only the lives of the poets but their respective notions as to the worth, place, and purpose of poetry.

Macgoye's is a collection about equally divided between previously published and unpublished verse. It is, probably, the more self-consciously "significant" and weighty of the two, due in part to the subject matter taken up, the stated audience for many of the poems, and the structure of the collection itself. The book is divided into six sections, the first of which is entitled "Poets' Poetry" - a nod to Christopher Okigbo's oft-quoted assertion that he wrote his poetry for poets and not a general audience. This has been seen, in part, to account for the relative obscurity of much of Okigbo's verse, yet it is also part of an even deeper ambivalence that Okigbo voiced as to the purpose of his writing and his stated disregard for whether his poetry was ever read by others. Obscurity is not, as a rule, a recurring trait in Macgoye's poetry, although there are some passages that leave one perplexed and scrambling for a dictionary of biblical and literary allusions: "We of Issa share the Pentateuch / and so we skip around the pillars, seeking / the angels and the mosaic tablets. (Beware the hanging pit of Babel)" ("Pillars and Angels" 53).

The opening section, "Poets' Poetry," tells of songs and music, bells and rhythms that compel and possess the poet. These are Macgoye's reflections on the craft of poetry, what it's meant to do, what she feels compelled to make of her verse under the watchful eyes and inspiration of luminaries such as Okot p'Bitek and Gunther [sic] Grass. She has felt her pen and her performance guided by those who "would have me sing, / sing my heart out, / uplift, entertain, / ignore those woolly, paying, prose concerns" ("Command Performance" 4). Okot p'Bitek, Tom Mboya, Harry Thuku, Ngugi, and a whole host of others march across the page, stand for country, for hope, for that which the poet, despite her best intentions, seems to have lost (or perhaps never fully believed in): "I have written myself out in the throes of Africa / till I am empty and distended and gone limp" ("Crossing Over" 43). That last is an attractive, suggestive, even striking line; but there is also a preciousness about it - despite, or perhaps because of the earnestness of the sentiment - that grates. There is about much of her poetry a sense both of the righteousness and perseverance of the poet in her craft and this sort of ambivalence, even resignation about what she is capable of and what might be achieved.

In Macgoye's verse, it is the person that defines the nation - an interesting stance for a transplanted Englishwoman to take. Considering her seeming sense of loss, it is no wonder that she fills her verse with those who might stand in her stead - long gone, perhaps, yet symbolic of a hope that's faded. Her verses are memorials of a sort; the poetic proof that "I know my place and can recite the ancestors" ("Letter to a Friend" 57).

It is the great poets and historical (frequently nationalistic) figures that fill the void left by the poet's ambivalence with regard to craft and nation. They loom large in her work, are the "stuff" of her poetry. The young, the forgotten, are brought forth too, but in the service of tragedy, in defining epochs and great events. Poetically, the poet and her verse are part of this exercise in defining grand events. The poet and the poem are part of this larger, forgotten or discarded moment. The seeming sense of hopelessness is, however, coupled to a sense of awe - "Africa is too big for me" ("Letter to a Friend" 59) - which serves to leaven the resignation with a dogged perseverence, a perseverance that takes the place of hope: "I shall be here, at least in wraith, / bloodless, accusatory, maternal, absolute"("Song of Nyarloka" 19). These poems, and the humanity imbued in them, are almost all she has. For there is a great humanity about her verse; sometimes quite lofty, elevated, almost unattainable, almost sacred, but frequently quite real and immediate.

Yet poetry itself can only take her so far, hence her reliance upon these figures, great and small - figures acting, or acted upon, in the wider world. For Macgoye's ambivalence isn't, like Okigbo's, rooted in the cloistered quality of the poet and her creations, but instead by the seeming futility and disappointment found in the wider world and what that, in turn, does to one's poetry and poetic voice: "bedraggles, limp, out of tune, / and the eggs lie cold, unnurtured" ("Nesting Time 1993" 84). This in sharp contrast to the seeming carelessness of other poets:

Man, you drop your poems
like calves in the meadow
and gambol on, confidant that one thrust
will set another going.

("Song of Nyarloka" 26)

And there is about the early poems in Lupenga Mphande's collection, Crackle at Midnight, something of this gamboling. Eschewing the explicitly evoked grand themes of history and politics in the early verses, Mphande's is an expression of longing; his verse is what we might expect of an exile, and reflects a sense of what Mphande has remarked in other verse: "The yearning for reconnection with the source from which the people had been severed is a recurrent theme in Ngoni praise poetry" (Mphande, "Ngoni Praise Poetry" 120). But there is a depth to this sense of separation that is rooted much deeper than Mphande's own politically-motivated flight from Malawi.

In the early verse, when exile and absence dominate the poetic line, Thoza, his home, his village, stands at the center of his poetic universe. There is something about Mphande's Thoza that puts one in mind of the landscape of many of Bessie Head's stories of Botswana. The poet himself is supplanted; not by any great man or historic event, but by the memory of a place, a memory that stretches well beyond the poet's own mind and into the memory of the land "where Ngoni conquerors / Were warped in their sleep by their slaves" and where "Among themselves, the people say / One cannot see Thoza through the haze" ("Thoza View" 24-5). And it is the onrush of these memories to fill the gap left by exile that draws the reader into the verse. Mphande's triumph is that this evocation of Thoza is accomplished without descending into the worst excesses of a maudlin nostalgia. Instead, such visions of Thoza are tempered by other memories, memories equally rooted in place and, as the collection progresses, in the recent history of Malawi: "The muwula bent crazily in the wind, / Until at dawn a buttress root / Weakened and the tree snapped" ("Snapping of an Old Tree" 31); or, "She was our village grandmother taken away by the Special Branch police" ("Charged with Treason" 106).

The dry, matter-of-fact recognition of a reality that creates separation and enforces loss, that in some instances destroys, can be disconcerting to the reader. The detachment felt at such moments is reflected in the structure of many of the poems, poems which are more prose than verse, setting scenes and describing pictures rather than manipulating images. Yet it is also a sentiment, and an approach, that implicitly recognizes the complexity of all such sentiments and life as a whole - although at times coldly clinical, at others it allows Mphande to recognize beauty without falling prey to nostalgic reverie, to chronicle without being clouded by blustering, impotent rage.

Mphande's is a collection with two, perhaps three faces. The more overtly political poems that address ongoing oppression and civil war yield too easily to transparent and cliched poetic conceits. The poems "War Birds" and "Dance of a Guerilla" evoke stock images of a standard, undefined liberation struggle of faceless oppressed versus faceless oppressors. It leads to a degree of earnestness in some poems which is almost trite, and the switch from the clinical to the political to the lyrical (towards the close of the collection) occasionally overwhelms the poetic line. Poems unabashedly about the poet, and especially in the closing poems about the women in the poet's life, take us from the coldly distant to the gushingly adamant: "I will engulf her with the fire of my loins" ("Search for a Bride" 147).

Both of these poets have been frequently anthologized and have a long record of publication. By far, however, the strength of these collections is found in the whole. The darkness of Macgoye's poetic outlook is mitigated by the underlying humanity, both of which are fed by the strength of her imagery and the control she exercises over her poetic lines. The development of the poetic vision in Mphande's collection is intriguing, if not always even in its deployment. These are not revelatory poems; but as a record of the development and place of the poet in interaction with wider communities, both are worthy additions to the ongoing literary conversation.

A review by Mark L. Lilleleht.

Works Cited

Mphande, Lupenga. "Ngoni Praise Poetry and the Nguni Diaspora" Research in African Literatures 24.4 (Winter 1993): 98-122.

Return to homepage