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Reviewing old love skin



When I am dealing with a new collection of poems, I give myself one simple rule: look for the unusual poem. This is what I did with Old Love Skin edited by Nyashadzashe Chikumbu and published by Mukana Press of USA in 2022.

This collection carries over 50 contemporary poets from across Africa, with each poet giving two or three or four poems; enough to just introduce each poet.

My rule (looking for an unusual poem) erupts from one simple observation; there are so many poems about love, death, war, Christmas, loss, politics etc but a good poem is one that is unusual either in its treatment of an old subject or its employment of new methods in tackling the old subjects.

Maybe that is why my favourite thoughts are from Hauwa Shaffii Nunu, one of the poets in this book, who says, “and how do you measure progress except to say it is happening differently?”

The contemporary poets in this collection appear to have sidestepped the over-trodden political subject, going for matters of the heart and the place of the woman. Much of it is confessional writing as it tends to focus on extreme moments of individual experience, the psyche, and personal trauma.

The multicoloured cover of this collection shows various African faces looking askance into space.
Adjei Agyei Baah writes in very simple ways that you are able to forget you are actually reading.

‘In Parting Through The Stars’, he describes how after a beer party, one tends to feel born again and all things in the environment take new proportions.

The empty can rolling in the wind appears like something sent to meet you from the land beyond. The empty can rolling in the wind becomes spectral and shadowy. Thanks to beer you are released.

You float home, feeling as light as a dry leaf in the wind.

In his poem ‘Elections,’ Baah writes delicately but effectively with irony too about the African politician:

bursting at his seams
the politician tells
us to tighten our belts

And then finally after the politician has won, this is how he is portrayed:

sworn in for the third time
the incumbent president
wobbles to take a seat

Adjei Agyei Baah is a lecturer, translator, editor and currently a PhD student at the University of Waikato, New Zealand. He is the co-founder of Africa Haiku Network, and The Mamba, Africa’s first international haiku journal.

Adjei is a globally anthologised poet and proponent of Afriku, a nativized form of the Japanese haiku poetry. His debut haiku collection, AFRIKU (Red Moon Press, 2016), has been praised by Africa’s first Nobel Prize laureate, Wole Soyinka.

Adjei is the author of six poetry collections, which were largely influenced by his African surroundings.
Zziwa Zinbala’s For Richer, is a very contemplative piece about a poor person’s observation of all the expensive things at a rich person’s funeral and being envious of the life and death of the departed.

Even in death, the rich appear to win. The mourners eat lavishly like they are at a feast. In fact “the funeral food was sweeter than my Christmas food.” The dead man’s coffin is made from the rich oak tree.

The coffin is so shiny that one may adjust his necktie through it! The condolences number to over a million dollars and the poor man can see that all these money could see his children through school. He craves silently only for a tenth of it. Even the dead man’s grave is moulded in the finest marble.

An affiliate with the Stubborn Poetry group in Uganda, Zinbala has interests in poetic drama, his debut poetic play, ‘The Muchwezi, The Flower & The Suitor’ comes out in 2023. He writes in his home country Uganda.

Poet Esnala Banda comes across as a radical feminist. Radical feminists argue that, because of patriarchy, women have come to be viewed as the “other” to the male norm, and as such have been systematically oppressed and marginalised.

Radical feminism espouses the view that the primary element of patriarchy is a relationship of dominance, where one party is dominant and exploits the other for the benefit of the former. Radical feminism tends to support the view that if need be, the woman should actually eliminate the monster-man in her life. Only then can she move on in peace.

Esnala Banda’s Her Story-Flowers begins with a declaration that “Of all the things I’ve lost in life, I value my tears the most. In self-discovery, I’ve found that some tears ought never to leave their host. So I’m done crying!”

Here is a woman who tells herself that from now on, she will never cry, whatever hurts her. She will not cry over selfish and ruthless men who broke her body just so they could attain an orgasm.

Equally, she will not cry over other women who still believe rape can only be as a result of the victim provoking the rapist into action through flimsy reasons such as women’s dress that exposes the body. “I am done crying,” should be the woman’s new story to the world.

In her other poem called Inception, Banda turns Genesis 1 verse 1 on its head by declaring that: “In the beginning, God created music.” And the woman’s heart is original and naturally musical because this is what God created first.

Esnala Banda is an award winning writer, poet, marketer and photographer.

Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu writes a lot about prayer. In prayer is the character and life of the individual. People are best understood through their prayers. The poet writes about the transcendental and liberating nature of prayer:
every time I break skin to escape myself,
it is a prayer rendered to blood.
every time my heart widened itself in love to a person, it was a prayer offered in defiance to order
I am trying to say that the first time my father stood behind his son in prayer,
it looked a lot like absolution.
the earth around them shifted into place.
it was a lifetime looking backwards, a sigh in reverse.
and how do you measure progress except to say it is happening differently
the gap between them was sometimes water, sometimes a hole.
either way, it was a vicious mouth, gaping all the time.
in prayer, it could have passed for peace.

In Nuhu’s other poem simply called ‘Prayer’, the persona watches her brother going through prayers towards the end of Ramadan, and all she can see is the brother’s total submission to God through his restless praying hands raised in the air.

It is a very haunting image.

In a split second, she actually observes that eyes are not the window to the soul, it’s the praying hands. Her other poem called ‘Fault lines’ is a very dense and compact poem about giving your all just in order to protect a brother from constantly falling back into his usual faults.

When a brother falls into a dark hole, the poet says it is terrible because you also feel like it is you who has actually fallen.

Nuhu is a poet and an essayist from Nigeria, with work published on African Arguments, Popula, Jalada Africa, The Republic and elsewhere. She’s a 2018 fellow of the Ebedi Writers Residency, a 2021 Bada Murya Fellow, and a 2022 ‘Storify Africa fello’.

She currently works as a journalist with ‘HumAngle’, covering displacement and migration.

Philani Nyoni of Zimbabwe is a very well known sonnet specialist. He has mastered it the way one masters a sword. He writes maybe the most transcendental poetry in Zimbabwe at the moment.

He is carefully laid back, edgeless like fog and reminiscent too. His lines pretend to wander about, when in fact, they gather up bits and pieces to brew a final whirlwind effect.

In what seems like an ordinary sonnet written to tell that you love somebody a lot, the imagery is compact and shocking: The lover is told that she uplifts the individual “like the eastern horizon that mothers the sun.

” The lover is considered very supportive to the extent that “when the wind whips you are warm saffron.”

In another poem, Nyoni goes:
I’ll just keep writing until the heavens part
And God tosses me a dime for a cigarette.

Nyoni Philani was born and bred in Zimbabwe, he is an award-winning author of books including ‘Once A Lover Always A Fool’ (2012), ‘Hewn From Rock’ (2014) with John Eppel, ‘Philtrum’ (2017).

He also published in two international anthologies: ‘Splinters Of A Mirage Dawn’ (2017), and ‘The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories’. He is a world record holding sonneteer. His poetry was used in narrating the award winning short film ‘Jane The Ghost’. His short story ‘Celestial Incest’ was short listed for the African Writers’ Awards in 2018.

Oppong Benjamin writes the kind of poems that read like lullabies; small-small words, the questing and questioning. One poem asks how exactly does the individual punishes the self after wrong doing.

In this poem the persona thinks about various forms of self-flagellation which goes back to the old ages; sitting on the concrete floor for hours in a dark room and pinch your skin till blood runs out. This is akin to the action of flogging oneself, especially as a form of religious discipline.

In another poem Benjamin equates self-reconstruction with the feelings that the first rains often bring to people in a dry land. There is the scent of the earth when the first rains hit the land which gives one the feeling of ascension. There is the happy chirping of birds after the first rains. That kind of fresh start is a lesson that humans should learn from nature. It is about returning to the source.

In another poem, Benjamin also writes about how we actually either choose our destiny or adopt it from the stories we receive in childhood. It could be our mothers’ stories on how terrible our fathers are. We could choose to learn from how birds build their nests.

We could learn from the pregnant silences of the midnights. Oppong C. Benjamin’s collection of poems, ‘Collecting Stars

From A Night’s Sky’ (Poetic Justice Books & Arts, 2019) won the 3rd prize in the prestigious Professor Atukwei Okai Poetry Prize in 2019. He is also the author of a short story collection ‘The Virgin Mother and Other Short Stories’ (Forte Monrovia, 2017).

He has read his work at literary events in Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Liberia, Rwanda, Germany, Norway, and Russia.
Alvin Kathemb writes with a sense of irony. He writes to chide in a way that pretends to praise.

He writes in little black boy about a black boy who is taking long to realise that he has been raised through white material and the system has been fighting hard to erase his presence. In First and

Forever, the individual attacks himself softly and subtly for waking up to the new realities rather too slowly:

I treat myself
gently, so gently.
I am patient with this fumbling body,
with this bungling mind.
I am, after all, only a child
forced into playing at being a grown-up.
I do not like this game.
I have been turned out into the world,
asked to forage and fend for myself.
I, a child,
only thirty years old,
expected to feed and clothe and maintain
this fumbling body, this bungling mind.
I am even—horror of horrors—expected to care for other
like my mother,
another child
only sixty-something years old,
turned out, in her turn, to forage and fend for herself.

In Contingencies, Kathemb writes about a woman whose sense of preparedness forces her to travel with a male condom and a pocket knife in her hand bag. Alvin Kathembe is a writer from Nairobi, Kenya.

His poetry has been featured in Dust Poetry Magazine, The Short Story Foundation Journal, Poetry Potion, and other publications. He co-edited Down The River Road’s third issue– ‘Asphyxia’.

His short stories have been published in Jalada, Omenana, Brittle Paper, and Equipoise available on Kindle. He tweets @SofaPhilosopher.

Old Love Skin: Voices from Contemporary Africa is a welcome addition to African poetry.

Memory Chirere

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