Literary Zone

Book Review: Drumbeats of War

8 October 2005 at 12:03 | 955 views

History of Violence,
Violence of History:
A Review Essay on Drumbeats of War
by Gbanabom Hallowell,
Published by Author House, 2004, Pp. 115.

By James Tar Tsaaior, PhD

Centre for General Studies
Lagos State University, Ojo, Nigeria

In the continuum of history, the vocation of poetry has imposed on poets variegated and cumbersome but inalienable responsibilities. Poets are pre-eminent repositories of the individual or communal voice and (re)memory. They are also the custodians of societal fund or mores, values and cherished ideals. As such, they constitute and represent the open sore of collective conscience dutifully and religiously rankling and applying the healing herb to the weeping sore in any society’s experiential trajectories through the kinesis of history. Fundamentally too, poets, through the efficacy of the creative word, are veritable midwives of transition and revolution distilling and nourishing ideas and ideals that constitute the substratum for society’s ontological essence and existence. Thus, whether they assume the high office of the traditional griot, marabout, prophet, town-crier or that of the (post)modern poet, the burdensomeness, urgency and immediacy of these protocols cannot be diminished. And the poet must diligently apply the self to this hallowed office with penetrating vatic insights and searing vision.

In the motions of recent historical existence, the negotiation and interrogation of the isomorph of socio-political contingencies and economic realities bedeviling postcolonial African nation-states have veritably constituted the burden of African poetry. Boldly etched on the labyrinthine interstices of this monumental “post-Afrocentric” project of (self)interrogation, as Tejumola Olaniyan (1994) calls it, are the grave and untoward repercussions this retrogressive historical engineering heritage has exerted (and is still exerting) on the infected soul of a beleaguered continent. Africa’s polyvalent predicament finds eloquent and unequivocal expression in political subterfuge and treachery by a decadent political elite, economic strangulation by a petit bourgeoisie in active collaboration with their counterparts in the metropolis and an unconscionable crippling social morass and moral atrophy.

Thus, in an increasingly postmodern global neighbourhood which celebrates the vertiginous heights scaled in science and technology, digital and satellite communication, Africa, inexorably, elects to tell an ostensibly interminable tale whose governing and defining leitmotifs are avoidable fratricidal, genocidal wars, corruption, disease, greed, hunger, poverty, gratuitous ethnocentric narcissism, injustice, military dictatorship, devastated economies, and a lean hope. Yet Africa is a land which has been so prodigiously endowed by the benevolent hand of Nature making her a continent of vast opportunities, promises and possibilities, possibilities which have been, lamentably, turned into disquieting impossibilities. To appropriate the poet Niyi Osundare’s (1994), felicitous phraseology of paradoxes, this is a continent that is so rich and yet so poor, so blessed and yet so cursed, so strong and yet so weak. This is what Femi Ojo-Ade (2001) characteristics as a “corpus of contradictions” (127).

It is the culmination of this quotidian complexion of affairs defined by monumental incoherence and paradoxes as well as an elephantine socio-political paralysis that has provided the impetus for many African contemporary poets, avatars of the poetic tradition, to appropriate public space and enlist their voices to valorize what Neil Lazarus (1990) calls the continent’s “mourning” in the “morning” of another millennium. These heirs or scions to this poetic heritage have done this - and are still doing it - mobilizing their creative energies and deploying their intellectual resources in a determined effort to pave an alternative and revolutionary path for accelerated postcolonial development and arrival. They have been pious in their commitment to and unalloyed in their fidelity in the denunciation of Africa’s fiends from within and without who have energetically and assiduously worked in concert to pillage and impoverish Africa. In The Sources of Power (1986), Michael Mann, observes that the contingencies of the plethoric sources of power wielded by the adversaries of Africa in the metropole and the margin are wide-ranging. They include the political and the military and the ideological and the economic. This sufficiently explains why the poetic voice has been reverberative, deafening and unmistakable in its cadences and resonances.
Drumbeats of War, Gbanabom Hallowell’s collection of poems, eminently belongs to its thriving, noble and ennobling African tradition in verse which frontally and viscerally engages postcolonial Africa’s history of violence and violence of history mediated by fratricidal and internecine wars. The poet’s penetrating searchlight in the present collection is beamed powerfully on his native Sierra Leone which was embroiled in a decade-long civil debacle until the ECOWAS monitoring group, ECOMOG led by Nigeria tamed the tall raging flames and willful self-annihilation. While the war lasted, democratic institutions were convulsed, economic hub of activities disrupted and socio-cultural life anaesthesised. Sierra Leone became quarantined as an international pariah earning the opprobrium of the world as a failed state in a state of developmental arrest, perpetual inertia and endless becoming.

Drumbeats of War represents a committed and patriotic citizen’s confrontation with the realities of war with its negative and negating temperament, manifest in the mindless destruction of innocent lives and property and the ruination of a nation’s soul and integrity. Hallowell’s poetic afflatus, imagination and sensibility has drawn heavily from the fountainhead of the purgatorial experiential gamut of the war. This is not without its historical synonymities or symmetries as war is particularly fertile to the poetic imagination, architecture of creativity and the very archaeology of the human mind. As such, war itself is the forge for the fashioning of the poetic voice and sensibility. Ancient and medieval court and peripatetic poets wove martial poetic lines and stored them in the granaries of history as eternal testaments to the human spirit and obsession for war. In the present epoch, especially in Africa, Christopher Okigbo’s Path of Thunder prophetically prognosticated the Nigerian civil imbroglio of 1967 - 70. Wole Soyinka’s A Shuttle in the Crypt and J. P. Clark - Bekederemo’s Casualties are poetic renditions whose thematic matrices negotiate war. Joe Ushie’s Eclipse in Rwanda is a vociferous poetic statement employing astronomical metaphors in strident condemnation of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Hallowell’s Drumbeats of War is an eloquent espousal to this poetic tradition that navigates the theme of war.

The ontological matrix of the textual universe of Drumbeats has a bipartite structural essence. Part One symbolically christened “Pictures of Shame” houses sixty three of the poems while Part Two, epithetically and, perhaps eponymously too, named “Sia Leona” is divided into sections of singing. These include: “Singing the Birth”, “Singing the Miracle”, “Singing Anguish” and “Singing Medusa”. War, Kwabena Nketia (1974) tells us, is fought with songs and music to keep alive the spirit. These ostensibly tributary parts and sections gesture towards a confluence which finds an oceanic flow in the reality of war giving the collection its structural coherence and thematic essence.
The very title of the collection announces, unpretentiously, and in martial metaphoric strokes, the presence of war as its drums have been harnessed and the beats are alive and abroad apocalyptically announcing the possible sanguinary moment of bloodbath. And if Sierra Leone is microcosmic of the African continent, then Hallowell’s poetic engagement is an unambiguous testament to the spectacular spectre of death that interminably haunts the continent under siege and the savage sway of murderers and vampires who lust insatiably for blood. Blood has, indeed, become a defining trope for postcolonial Africa enmeshed in cataclysmic civil imbroglios with the self: Angola, Algeria, Burundi, Congo DR, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia - Eritrea, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, and fundamentally, in this case, Sierra Leone, among others. In Drumbeats, the poet intensely implicates and biliously indicts failure of leadership by a corrupt and decadent political elite, lack of patriotic fervour, greed and a peacock psychology which emphasizes self-aggradisement as responsible for Africa’s parlous state.

Opening the first part, the eponymous poem, “Drumbeats of War”, with a palpable sense of heightened tension and accentuated activity, orchestrates a regimented, military style action reminiscent of war situations. In this case, “Rattling drumbeats bite the dusty soles, and/quicksteps like vibrating organs rise.../a final readiness to leave the planet/pulsating a million nameless silences” (5). The rapidity of the action here and the finality with which it is executed achieves striking synonymity with and captures a grueling preparation for hostilities with the prospect of a million casualties. But this opening poem merely intones the antiphon for the pictures and scenes of shame. In “Freetown, Freetown”, a capital town that is, paradoxically, not free, the poet’s “camwood silence” and “hypogeal screams” send sounds into the “rotten ears of restless corpses/... roaming for blood over serpentine valleys/with the eternal thirst of Dracula” (6). The poet-persona subliminally laments this bloodstained landscape of a town for “Every time I dream of Freetown / my mind-dust spirals a penumbral / peninsula” (6).

The concrete image of blood is further pursued in the poem, “Such Morning Roads” where every road in Freetown and, indeed, Sierra Leone, “opens/its hunger hiccupping and belching the gas/of mixed blood” (7). Another image enamoured of by the poet is that of the crocodile, an aquatic reptile of prey which cherishes the culinary delight of other animals.
In “Night Shadows” and “The Dining Table” this image of the crocodile with its predatory instincts is foregrounded by the poet. In “Night Shadows”, the poet - persona painfully reminisces on his nightmarish prison experience where “I gave myself / to the fact that I stood / the suicidal ground to fight country’s my shapeless/course”. The poet suffers betrayal from familial quarters for his outspokenness and patriotism like “Franz Fanon”, the Martiniquan psychiatrist, as “The brothers who plotted my life /were children of my father who said /My tongue had become fratricidal”. But the poet finds fulfillment and vindication in verse “because poetry is now what I am” and “I have not stopped/versifying inside the belly of the crocodile” (8).
The poet weaves a rich canvas of imagery into the dense fabric of his poetry. This rich tapestry of images pendulates between the intensely personal and the public, the ridiculous and the sublime, the mundane and the metaphysical endowing his poetry with a multi-layered and multivalent signification. In “Solitude After War”, Hallowell builds an imagistic architecture simultaneously towering, intimidating and symbolic. Dinosaurs, jackals, wolves, dogs and locusts populate this poem. These are metaphoric representations of the petit bourgeoisie that have driven the country to the yawning precipice of war, thrown the land into the warm embrace of tyrannical flames which have warmly engulfed her soul. These predatory “mangy dogs scattered in our streets” have violated the womenfolk, “seduced the young people of the city” as child soldiers with “delirious/theories - a cadaverous body of knowledge”. And like Socrates, the whole nation is made to drain “his hemlock” to the dregs (18).

In the collection, the poet’s personal voice is unmistakable as it ricochets boisterously like a projectile and sails like a barbed arrow careering fiercely towards its marked target. Hallowell’s target remains the political class which has perfidiously elected to plunge Sierra Leone into a sticky and ever-deepening quagmire. In “Let Me Speak for Myself”, the poet etches his virile voice on the taut bow-string of poetry. Impelled by patriotic zeal and unalloyed fidelity to nationhood, he announces enthusiastically that “I am Sierra Leone” and appropriates the rites of public space to engage the regiments of state betrayal with “a double-edged sword” (24). According to him, “I am an ordinary man in town” in a poem of the same title (27) “who walks on the sides of supermen”, men he has characterized as “our developed men” in another poem of a similar title (25).
Thus, in Hallowell’s angst-ridden and passionate voice cascades rivulets of hot lava rushing and seething to bathe the elite like a volcanic eruption. This is why he announces with combat readiness in “We No Longer Write Poems in Camera” because “with helicopters hovering over our heads” (48) murdering the tranquility and freedom of the Sierra Leonean nation, “we have scribbled a dozen poems in the Sahara/all to be read in black capitals”. Here, the poet valorizes his Afrocentrist consciousness as he builds an impressive roll of African capitals where the scroll of his poetry will be sent: Dakar, Yaounde, Libreville, Kinshasa, Kigali, Nairobi, Monrovia, Kampala, Mogadishu and Ouagadougou. The poet’s entire weltanschauung can be refracted through the prism of his passionate commitment and unstinting allegiance to his country and his self-perception as the communal conscience and repository of national morality and value system.

It is this uncompromising perspective that makes him to be the “Poet Unwanted” (52) by the enemies of the nation and the people. These are “men trained to... spill the blood of poets in thirty vineyards”, suggestively alluding to the biblical Ahab and Naboth. But the poet is undaunted as he wakes up his somnolent compatriots in “Countrymen” to “wake up from your slumber” and hoist the revolutionary banner for the dislodgment of the dynasty of political ineptitude, corruption and betrayal. It is this pervasive sense of disillusionment and disenchantment with the political men of blood that when asked to write a poem for his native Sierra Leone, the poetic voice is muffled with repetitive phraseology and the poet only scripts “secretpains” forty-two times (78). The repetitive urgency of this poem makes it one of the most intense and painful experiences in the art of poetry and clads it in a raiment of nationalist mourning- a reality which pervades the creative output and oeuvre of the poet.
Part Two of the collection is a running kaleidoscope of songs distilled to celebrate Sierra Leone even as she writhes in the historic throes of war that threaten to hyphenate her nationhood. It is a heaving mosaic of renditions hewn amidst the saturnalia of birth as in the sequence “Singing the Birth” which weaves to life the rites of passage. “Singing the Miracle” is a delectable chronicling of the history of “Sia Leona”, with its vast possibilities and impossibilities, coherences and contradictions, harmonies and discords, identities and differences that have snarled to soulful nationhood amidst the miracles and vagaries of life, beingness and ontological existence. The sequence picturesquely unveils the landscape of Sierra Leone with its magnificent forests, towering mountains, green vegetation belt, calm and collected rivers, creeks and lakes and a fertile earth where diamond sojourns in its bowels.

But this almost arcadian and idyllic state is soon desecrated by funereal anguish as encoded powerfully in the sequence “Singing Anguish”. This sequence achieves temporal synonymity with the history of Sierra Leone in the sepulchral eaves of war where the drums are sounding peremptorily and portentously. Here, the conquering flames of war have overtaken the once peaceful threshold and the entire landscape is in a state of turmoil with skeins of smoke dancing spirally in the skyscape. “Singing Medusa” which ends the poetic proceedings is a befitting epilogue to the collection. Here, the poet plaintively appeals to the violated and lacerated nation “in the labyrinthine of hell” to “spare his life” (111).
This is a Sia Leone whose national patrimony has been pillaged by “rogue politicians” and corrupt souls and is lying prostrate and pitiably its a pool of blood. In this parlous national state, the poet condemns “both men and office” and only seeks one thing: “I was born to conquer/death. I must be myself” (115). Partly borne out of the quest for self-definition and partly for national retrieval and renaissance, the poet makes a patriotic apologia for the nation and her recovery after seasons of humiliation and self-immolation. It is with this tortured realization that the poet laments a nation on a funeral pyre resolved into a dune of cinders waiting to be reborn from its ashes as the proverbial phoenix.
In Drumbeats, Hallowell enlists his virile and visceral voice in the strident denunciation of a feckless and decadent national bourgeoisie that has wasted his nation’s patrimony through an avoidable sanguinary harvest of blood. Through the deft deployment of images, dexterous manipulation of tropes, accomplished mobilization of martial metaphors, and the creative husbandry of language with its sign systems, he moulds a poetic universe that is simultaneously down-to-earth, powerful and compelling. The entire collection peaks significantly at two levels: thematic appositeness and stylistic ebullience. This is a voice whose haunting richness and tremulous lyricism in the circumnavigation of a history of violence and violence of history cannot be ignored.

Lazarus, Neil. Resistance in Postcolonial African Fiction. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990.
Mann, Michael. The Sources of Power: A History of Power from the Beginning to A.D. 1760. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Nketia, Kwabena. The Heritage of African Music. New York & London: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Ojo-Ade, Femi. “The Black Man’s Burden: Christianity in Black African Fiction”. In W. Feuser & I.N.C. Aniebo (eds.). Essays in Comparative African Literature. Lagos: CBAAC, 2001. 125 - 156.
Olaniyan, Tejumola. Scars of Conquest, Masks of Resistance. London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Osundare, Niyi. “Squaring Up to Africa’s Future: A Scholar - Poet’s Reflection”. A Paper Presented to Nigerian Students, University of New Orleans, United States, 1994.

Photo: Elvis.