By Geoff Wisner
Bending the Bow: An Anthology of African Love Poetry was released in July 2009 by Southern Illinois University Press. Edited by Frank M. Chipasula, himself an African poet, it is a generous and attractively produced collection of a type of poetry that many people apparently haven't even noticed before.
In his introduction Chipasula complains that previous anthologies of love poetry that claims to be global have omitted Africa entirely. “From the civilization of the Lower Nile to that of the Lower Hudson,” runs the blurb for Jon Stallworthy's A Book of Love Poetry, “more poets have written more convincingly, more poignantly about love than about any other subject.” Yet that book apparently contains nothing from Africa.
Bending the Bow repairs that omission in a major way. It is divided into three sections: Anonymously Written Ancient Egyptian Love Poems, Traditional Love Songs, and Modern and Contemporary Love Poems. And although many of the poems included were written in English, there are translations of more languages here than I've ever seen between two covers: not just ancient Egyptian but Acoli, Akan, Arabic, Bagirmi, Bambara, Baule, Berber, Didinga (Lango), Dogon, French, Kipsigi, Merina, Portuguese, Swahili, Tamazight, Teda, Thonga, Tigre, Tigrinya, Tuareg, Xhosa, and Zulu.
The earliest poems are among the best, and do much to undermine the idea that ancient Egypt was a gloomy place oppressed by pharaohs and preoccupied by death. “My love is back, let me shout out the news!” begins the first. “My arms swing to embrace her, / And heart pirouettes in its dark chamber / glad as a fish when night shades the pool.”
Naturally enough, many of the poems collected here are addressed from a young man to a young woman, or vice versa. These African lovers sometimes focus on different details from those a Western lover might. “My dark-brown girl is like a cow,” begins a traditional poem in the Aandonga language. Liyongo Fumo of Kenya praises a woman in these words: “Her matching eyebrows / are perfectly parallel / and neatly join at the root / as if they are knotted together.”
A variety of other love objects are also represented. A Moroccan poet writes to his dead father, and a Moroccan prostitute to her soldier client. Chipasula himself addresses his infant daughter, who “chose our humble nest to grow your wings.” And Syl Cheney-Coker of Sierra Leone, best known as the author of the novel The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar, writes two poems, sharply painful in their details, to his wife who is dying of cancer. “To see you lying on the couch propped up with pillows,” begins the first, “drinking those sour juices of wheat grass, apricot kernels, / and silkworm milk, blended to halt the hand / of this odious sentence …”
Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal may be the most famous poet in this collection, and he is one of the most accomplished. In poems like this one the object of his love merges with the African landscape itself:
A hand of light has caressed my eyelids of darkness
And your smile rose like the sun on the mists drifting grey
and cold over my Congo.
My heart has echoed the virgin song of the
As my blood kept time once to the white song of the
sap in the branches of my arms.
Bending the Bow makes a surprising and largely joyful contribution to our understanding of the literature of Africa.
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