Allo, Viola. Bird from Africa. Brooklyn, NY: Akashic Press, 2015.
Reviewed by Kangsen Feka Wakai
Viola Allo’s chapbook Bird from Africa is part of Akashic Books’ 8 New-Generation African Poets chapbook box set, which also features works from Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Angola. Edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani, the “new-generation African poets” series is in its second edition and, according to Dawes, aims to “publish seven to ten chapbooks by African poets each year” while ensuring that the poems in the series are “first rate, representative, and new.” The need for originality that Dawes speaks of is echoed by co-editor Abani who points out that unlike their predecessors of the “independence” and intermediary SAP (Structural Adjustment Programs) generation, the works of these “new-generation African poets” represent a “negotiation of a kind of modernist thought on the continent that the early rush to nationalism and to nationalize nascent states interrupted.”
These new voices that Abani calls “a new African lyric dip,” embody what he describes as “at once lament, at once protest,” and basically an “incantation of hope and a clear future.” Yet what Abani doesn’t state outright is that these new voices also beckon to a readership of tomorrow, which is perhaps why co-editor Dawes points out that ultimately the aim of the box set is not meant to solely introduce these poets to a western readership. Rather this collection should be viewed as an attempt to challenge and transcend the socio-economic, cultural and geopolitical boundaries that hinder book publishing and dissemination of literature in Africa. After all, as Dawes contends, it is communities such as the ones these poets represent that benefit the most from the circulation of the types of texts that can serve as “a critical source of artistic and cultural memories.”
If indeed part of the role of poetry is to serve as a “critical” repository of collective memory, then Allo’s Bird from Africa is emblematic of a poet’s singular endeavor to not only register but also reflect on the particularities that animate her speakers’ notions of community, identity, and mobility. Even though Allo’s poetic compass—which is pretty much confined in the universe of Cameroon’s English speaking community (of which she is a constituent)—can be viewed as both homage and rebuke to her origins, it is also a meditation on the intersections between the self, family and the broader world. In this light, the anxieties and urges of that community become incarnated in the vista of speakers who navigate the far-reaches of that world, cascading between Bamenda in Cameroon and Maryland in the United States. But it is the poet’s familiarity with the emotional landscape which her speakers occupy that heightens her sense of collective portraiture in this body of work—one that speaks of a world that is as preoccupied with the living as it is with death; a world where the dead sustain the living, and “hair from the dead is carried/ mixed with camwood and kept” (16). In this world where the act of grieving is collective, the speaker notes that “the sharp shovel of silence briefly remedies/ the ear deaf to the voices of the dead.” In this universe, “a poem or a story is an etching of memories,” and where art provides “dignity in the fragile face of loss,” the poet’s role becomes paramount.
Allo’s nuanced affirmation of that mantle is both graceful and measured; welcome qualities that grant vitality to a body of work preoccupied with a feeling of loss that is echoed by the speaker in the poem “Bodies, Flowerbeds,” who notes that “we soften death into poems and stories” (16). The speaker’s sentiment mirrors the sense of loss often expressed by a generation of English-speaking Cameroonians who bemoan their marginalized status within a majority Francophone country in a sub-region of Africa dominated by Molière’s language. That marginalization has been viewed as a betrayal of the pan-Africanist zeal that drove the architects of the new nation to reunite with their French speaking ‘kin’ across the Mungo River for the purpose of reconstituting what was once the German colonial territory of Kamerun. Yet, as readers will also discover, this sense of loss, while a feature of that community’s history, does not represent the totality of Allo’s constituency’s sense of self.
Resplendent with allusions to movement, the chapbook’s opening poem, “What to Wear,” is a minimalist portrait of a nostalgic speaker whose desire to return home to Cameroon is only matched by her longing for a girlhood of her dreams where she wore “sandals/ black with shoe polish” to complement her “cornflower-blue/ school uniform” (9). This attachment to place is also rendered vividly in “Leaving Bamenda,” which features a speaker whose “limbs are weakened” even as she remains grounded in a place shielded by a “fortress of mud.” On the eve of this speaker’s departure from Bamenda, she sets her gaze on the city that “sways” and “sinks into its valley whose curve/ stretches and swings wide like a hammock strung between the hills” (10). But then, it occurs to the speaker that she is “washing away in the flow.” In that moment of transition, the speaker confesses, “I begin to hope to die with my legs in this place.”
Perhaps, it is to this same Bamenda which the speaker in the poem “Anglophone Cameroonian Elite Returns Home” comes back to, in which the speaker is addressing the reader. The speaker takes the reader on a chartered taxi ride “along Arabica Roundabout and its wide circle of palm trees/ with trunks whose bottom halves have been whitewashed” (14). The reader then trails the speaker as she ascends “the mud road that inclines,” then at the intersection “where the road splits into four,” the speaker reveals her desire to “stop/ at the house with the blue wrought- iron gate,” because after all, it is where the Anglophone Cameroonian elite “once buried [her] hopes.” Eventually, the speaker must stand where her “dreams used to/ sleep.” In that locality, though the speaker’s dreams are personified, they “stand on unsteady legs” able to “stamp their feet to keep warm/ and to hail you for coming home” (15). It is in this moment that the speaker reminds the Anglophone Cameroonian elite that she or he has returned “to the cemetery of all the people” where she or he was “meant to be.”
Death is everywhere in Allo’s universe; it assumes the voice of a grandmother in “Sit with Me” and finds a home under a bed of flowers. Despite the overwhelming sense of personal and collective loss that is both articulated and insinuated in this body of work, this effusiveness is punctuated by the poet’s ability to endow simple human gestures with a grace and beauty. This aptitude for enchanting the mundane is captured in “Young Bride in Bamenda.” In this poet’s hands, though “a few drops/ of your sweat might fall into the pot/ of plantain stew,” don’t fret because later “in the evening/ when the family eats/ the whole world/ feels full” (21). If this body of work is the poet’s “plantain stew,” then the sweat and tears that season this broth promises to be filling.
In the seventeenth issue of New York based n+1 magazine, the editors attempted to define global literature by situating it within the current “geographical broadening of literary sensibility,” which has unfolded “alongside the beginnings of remarkable economic catch-up of poorer with richer countries.” The n+1 editors did so by first distinguishing global literature from “world” literature, which in their view is historically rooted in “someone speaking, or attempting to be heard, in a nation-size room.” According to the editors, global literature typically transcends their homelands of origin while evoking phenomena like global capitalism. While Allo’s chapbook is not preoccupied with politics of “global capitalism,” she does gesture towards the “nation-size room” even though Bird from Africa is primarily rooted in the particularities of the English-speaking Cameroon experience. Nevertheless, it is hard to read Allo’s work without harkening to Taiye Selasi’s notion of the Afropolitan. Typically, according to Selasi, these Africans who are scattered across “Brixton, Bethesda, Boston, Berlin” were likely “bred on African shores then shipped to the West for higher education; others born in much colder climates and sent home for cultural re-indoctrination,” constitute a new generation of Africans willing “to engage with, critique, and celebrate the parts of Africa that mean most to them.” In “Muddy Shoes,” Allo’s speaker’s Africa seems ineffaceable, even trailing the speaker as they “walk through Germantown” in their shoes, “filthy” from returning to Cameroon for a summer:
The mud stays where it is.
The mud means:
Bamenda has come with me
Bamenda has come with me
Bamenda has come with me.
The mud has come to America. (13)
KANGSEN FEKA WAKAI is a Cameroon-born, Washington, D.C.-based writer. He is a candidate for the MFA in Creative Writing at American University where he also serves as editor-in-chief of Folio.