The Dining Table by Gbanabom Hallowell
Dinner tonight comes with
gun wounds. Our desert
tongues lick the vegetable
strong enough to push scorpions
up our heads. Guests
look into the oceans of bowls
as vegetables die on their tongues.
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.
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.
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
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”.
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”.
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“.
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”.