I have been fascinated with Chinua Achebe for a log time… well ever since I read, what else, Things Fall Apart. His fame quite strongly is built on his novels. But I like his poems a lot too. He is forthright in his poems. They are clearly political and display the same poise of mind that empathizes with the miserable, criticises the exploitative yet is not intolerant of humanity whatever its colour may be. Here is one of his poems I like a lot: Butterfly. I like the kind of symbolic value that Achebe brings on to butterfly while celebrating its meekness. The apparent criticism of anthropomorphism really targets in this poem the nature of force in society. Firmly based in a contemplation of the human society, Achebe in this poem questions the terminology of ‘value’.
** Chinua Achebe
Speed is violence
Power is violence
Weight is violence
The butterfly seeks safety in lightness
In weightless, undulating flight
But at a crossroads where mottled light
From trees falls on a brash new highway
Our convergent territories meet
I come power-packed enough for two
And the gentle butterfly offers
Itself in bright yellow sacrifice
Upon my hard silicon shield.
Another poem that really hits us is Refugee Mother and Child. I think this poem captures the sentiments of love and hope amid extreme misery. Yet Achebe is very clear that what he is doing is writing a poem about it. He is very often ironical. If it is the figure of ‘I’ that receives ironic treatment in Butterfly, in this poem it is the images of the society outside the refugee camp that reads about it in newspapers, and where normal life goes on with school life and the rest. But the focus in Achebe’s poems is always on empathy rather than on irony. I think this is a great quality. That is one of the reasons I like his poems.
Refugee Mother and Child
No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness
for a son she soon will have to forget.
The air was heavy with odors
of diarrhea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in labored
steps behind blown empty bellies.
Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s
pride as she combed the rust-colored
hair left on his skull and then –
singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… In another life
this would have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his
breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.
Below are some links to Achebe treasure: readings and interviews.
Go here to listen to Achebe reading his poems.
Achebe on Youtube here.
Read about this interview at African Writer here.
Amazon has Chinua Achebe’s collected poems.
For an interview with Achebe go here:
Chinua Achebe in Conversation with K. Anthony Appiah here.