Archive for October, 2015

Vanity by Birago Diop

Vanity

If we tell, gently, gently

All that we shall one day have to tell,

Who then will hear our voices without laughter,

Sad complaining voices of beggars

Who indeed will hear them without laughter?

 

If we cry roughly of our torments

 Ever increasing from the start of things

What eyes will watch our large mouths

Shaped by the laughter of big children

What eyes will watch our large mouth?

 

What hearts will listen to our clamoring?

What ear to our pitiful anger

Which grows in us like a tumor

In the black depth of our plaintive throats?

 

When our Dead comes with their Dead

 When they have spoken to us in their clumsy voices;

Just as our ears were deaf

To their cries, to their wild appeals

Just as our ears were deaf

 

They have left on the earth their cries,

In the air, on the water,

where they have traced their signs for us blind deaf and unworthy Sons

Who see nothing of what they have made

 In the air, on the water, where they have traced their signs

 

And since we did not understand the dead

Since we have never listened to their cries

 If we weep, gently, gently

 If we cry roughly to our torments

What heart will listen to our clamoring,

What ear to our sobbing hearts?

Poem Analysis

With all seriousness of purpose, Birago Diop expresses concern over the living’s lack of regard for dead ancestors which he holds in very high esteem.

Like the popular myth in many African societies about dead ancestors, Diop believes that they are immortal and at death, they take up another important role of watching over the living and saving them from unseen forces.

The title “vanity” portrays the folly of the living who in spite of having been bequeathed with many legacies have arrogantly and ignorantly failed to honour their dead ancestors. He laments as follows: “They have left on the earth their cries. In the air, on the water, where they have traced their signs for us, blind, deaf and unworthy sons, who see nothing of what they have made in the air, in the water where they have traced their signs”. In the poet’s view, much of the problems bedeviling the African society stem from our disregard for African tradition and over-dependence on the Western culture. He laments further: “If we cry roughly of our torments ever increasing from the start of things”. Birago Diop argues that the solution to Africa’s many problems lie within us.

He further expresses the African belief that dead ancestors have the ability to punish erring individuals and warns that if they are not respected or honoured, they would also not help the living in time of trouble- “And since we did not understand our dead, since we have never listened to their cries, if we weep gently, gently, if we cry roughly of our torments, what heart will listen to our clamourings, what ear to our sobbing hearts?”

Vanity is a poem of lamentation.

Theme

The poem has as its theme the celebration of dead ancestors as well as African cultural values and tradition.

Mood and Tone

The mood is that of worry with a corresponding tone of concern, condemnation, sarcasm and ridicule. He expresses his worry through a number of rhetorical questions.

Structure

Though written in stanzas and with some rhythm, the poem Vanity is a free verse poem as it does not have a consistent meter pattern.

Imagery

The poem contains powerful imagery. For instance, the title “Vanity” refers to the living’s folly over their disregard for the good works of dead ancestors which according to the poet are seen on land, in the water and in the air. Words like “voices of beggars” , “our large mouths”, “our ears were deaf” and “our plaintive throat” are employed as a form of rebuke or ridicule.

The poet also repeats some phrases and images to show how serious he is about the subject-matter of the poem. Examples- “Just as our ears were deaf”, “What eyes”, What ears” “What heart”.

Poetic Devices/Figures of Speech

Rhetorical Question: This runs throughout the poem. It expresses the poet’s worry and emphasises his seriousness over the subject matter of the poem. Examples: “Who then will hear our voices without laughter?” “Who then will hear us without laughter?” “What eyes will watch our large mouth?” “What heart will listen to our clamouring?” “What ear to our sobbing hearts?”.

Sarcasm: This is mocking humour. Examples: sad complaining voices of beggars; large mouth; plaintive throats

Repetition: This is seen throughout the poem. Example: What eyes will watch our large mouth? is repeated in the second stanza.

Simile: This is direct comparison using the words “like” or “as”. Example: “What ear to our pitiful anger which grows in us like a tumor”.

Synedoche: A figure of speech that entails using a part to represent a whole or a whole for a part. Example: “What hearts will listen to our clamouring?”

Personification: This figure of speech involves the attribution of human nature or character to animals, inanimate objects, or abstract notions. In Vanity, the poet gives life to dead ancestors through the use of personification. Examples: “When our Dead comes with their Dead, when they have spoken to us in their clumsy voices”. 

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The Dining Table by Gbanabom Hallowell

The Dining Table by Gbanabom Hallowell

Dinner tonight comes with

 gun wounds. Our desert

tongues lick the vegetable

blood—the pepper

strong enough to push scorpions

 up our heads. Guests

look into the oceans of bowls

 as vegetables die on their tongues.

 

The table

that gathers us is an island where guerillas

walk the land while crocodiles

 surf. Children from Alphabeta with empty palms dine

with us; switchblades in their eyes,

 silence in their voices. When the playground

 is emptied of children`s toys

who needs roadblocks? When the hour

to drink from the cup of life ticks,

cholera breaks its spell on cracked lips

 

Under the spilt

milk of the moon, I promise

 to be a revolutionary, but my Nile, even

without tributaries comes lazy

upon its own Nile. On this

 night reserved for lovers of fire, I’m

full with the catch of gun wounds, and my boots

have suddenly become too reluctant to walk me.

Poem Analysis


Background

The Dining Table is a poem written by Elvis Gbanabom Hallowell, a Sierra Leonean poet and journalist. Gbanabom Hallowell studied Writing at Vermont College of Union & Institute University, USA and he is currently the Director-General of The Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service. A prolific author and human rights activist, Gbanabom is the author of Drumbeats of War (poem) and My Immigrant Blood (poem).

Like most of his writings, The Dining Table is chiefly influenced by his experiences during the eleven-year Sierra Leonean war when guerrillas (an irregular armed force that fights stronger regular forces such as the army or police) started a movement against the nation’s corrupt government. Though the war was between the government and the guerrillas, it affected the civilian population in no small measure. At the centre of the conflict is the control of Sierra Leonean diamonds.

Summary

The Dining Table is a serious poem that records what the poet witnessed during the Sierra Leonean war. The poem opens with a powerful use of imagery that sparks off the reader’s senses. The poet describes to the reader the horrific nature of the war which was characterised mainly by shootings, maimings and death. The main cause of conflict was the struggle for the control of Sierra Leonean diamonds, the most significant mineral wealth in Sierra Leone which the poet symbolically portrayed as “dinner”.

In the second verse, the poet recalls how the guerrillas operated freely and how they brutally killed and terrorised the people. He remembers how the government forces and their allies which he describes as “crocodiles” also killed and committed atrocities during the war. He also recalls how Sierra Leone was thereafter threatened by an outbreak of the cholera epidemic which led to the death of many of its population.

In the third verse, the poet resolves to be a change-agent (a revolutionary). He admits that though he desires a political revolution, he lacks the power and the needed support for a revolution, having just survived a brutal war.

Elements of the Poem

Theme:

The central theme that runs throughout the poem is the brutality or horror of war. This theme is portrayed by words like “gun wounds” and “blood”.

Setting

The setting in this poem includes both time and place. The events in the poem happen in the night time- “Dinner tonight comes”. Also note the words “moon” “night” in the last stanza. We can conclude that this poem is set in Sierra Leone during the war based on the author’s background, the mention of guerrillas, reference to “gun wounds” and the geographical description- “The table that gathers us is an island where guerrillas walk the land while crocodiles surf”.

Structure

The Dining Table is a free verse poem with three irregular stanzas. A free verse poem is an open form of poetry without a consistent meter pattern or a rhyme scheme. The poet uses the stanzas to create a pause and organise his thoughts.

It is a narrative poem as the poet recounts the collective experience during the war and his resolve using words like “our” “us” “I”.

Mood and Tone

The mood is gloomy, sorrowful and mournful. The mood is expressed through a chaos of contrasting phrases in the first stanza.

For the most part, the tone is serious and sad.

There is however a slight shift in the mood in the third stanza showing optimism and a corresponding shift in tone- “Under the spilt milk of the moon, I promise to be a revolutionary”. The mood falls again towards the end of the stanza- “…I’m full with the catch of gun wounds, and my boots have suddenly become too reluctant to walk me“.

Imagery

The poem is imbued with powerful imagery. “Dinner” symbolises the highly valued Sierra Leonean mineral wealth (diamonds); “gun wounds”, “vegetable blood” reflect the maiming and killings that took place during the war; the Sierra Leonean army and allied forces are referred to as “crocodiles” (large aquatic reptiles that prey on other animals) because of their activities during the war. The word “table” in the second stanza represents Sierra Leone.

Figures of Speech

Personification– This entails giving human characteristics to objects, animals or ideas. Examples- “the pepper strong enough to push scorpions up our heads”; “cholera breaks its spell on cracked lips”

Metaphor– The entire poem is metaphoric. “Desert tongues”, “oceans of bowls” “spilt milk of the moon” are examples.

Rhetorical Question: This is a figure of speech in the form of a question that is asked in order to make a point, rather than to elicit an answer. “When the playground is emptied of children’s toys who needs roadblocks?” is an example of a rhetorical question.

Hyperbole: This is a ridiculous exaggeration. Example “the pepper strong enough to push scorpions up our heads”

Antithesis: This means opposite and puts two contrasting ideas together. Examples- “silence in their voices”; “guerrillas walk the land while crocodiles surf”. These examples can also pass for Oxymoron, a figure of speech that combines opposite words for effect.

Allusion: This is a figure of speech that refers to a well-known story, event, person, or object in order to make a comparison in the readers’ minds. Example: “Nile…comes lazy upon its own Nile”.

See also  Ambush, Vanity, The Anvil and the Hammer, The school boy, and Othello.

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