Introduction to 20.35 Africa Vol. IV: “The Opportunity to Read African Poetry Along Language Aesthetics”

“What we bring is a seminal thinking of poetry,” writes the poetry series’ editor-in-chief Ebenezer Agu. “We must recognize the beauty and complexity of this transcreation.”
20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Vol. IV.

20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Vol. IV.

Introduction to 20.35 Africa Vol. IV: “The Opportunity to Read African Poetry Along Language Aesthetics”

Language is the essence of poetry—what poetry is in and of itself—irrespective of where it is coming from. In the moment of a poem, what we encounter, foremost, is excited language, without which literary art in general loses aesthetics, is rendered bare and without artistic value. In selecting the poems in this volume, we focused on those that best reach a language standard. And in putting out the anthology, we hope that the poems will be read for their foremost literary quality.

African poetry has not been widely read outside its thematic interaction with society, politics, economy, and cultural identity. Within this scope, it is relevant to ask to what extent the reading of “Africa” in African poetry becomes reductive. This is not to dismiss the geographical roots of poetic output from the continent, but to call into view what could be a subconscious insistence that limits its appreciation. The beauty of poetry is not merely in the situation it presents but also in how it turns language inside-out. With this understanding of artistic performance of language, poetry becomes internally sustainable and externally relevant. Fortunately, the poems in this volume afford the opportunity to illustrate a reading of African poetry along language aesthetics.

In “Adinkra,” Kweku Abimbola further manifests the provincial agency of an ancient Akan pictographic speech. The poem is an iteration of weighted cultural heritage that would “tear / too easily through / papyrus” and “deplete / the world of barks, / the forest of parchment leaves.” A sustainable mode of expression is therefore necessary; “Adinkra” takes on this role and exudes, through each episode of the poem, an omniscient voice. The poem is fundamentally a language act, whose transcendent aura allows it to touch on folklore, myth, legend—just about as much definitive Akan philosophy that could be sustained in the poem. This is not a resuscitation of heritage in quotidian speech; the Sankofa in the poem perpetually reaching behind to “fetch what is at risk of being left behind” does so with every symbolic tool within its cultural environment.

20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Vol. IV.

The poets in this volume achieve seriousness in their works through different—intricate and plain—structures, but each mirrors the other in the tightness of their craft. Yasmina Nuny Silva’s apostrophic piece actualizes what is consistent about the elegiac form: transience and remembrance. The lines feel aligned with the poem’s main activity; every word and poetic element therein, like the flowers keeping warm the memory of Miss Cicely, carefully picked to serve their precise purpose. The seriousness of the activity is tersely placed in the opening lines of the poem:

            I hope, Miss Cicely, that the flowers are to your liking.

            We picked them fresh for you, like we have every day

            since before the turn of the century […]

The succeeding plain speech carefully follows to the end where metaphoric closing lines ground the poem:

            […] I hope you smell that, and I hope

you got to smell all the flowers while they were

fresh at your door whenever you opened it to

enter, and when you finally opened it to go.

Lanaire Aderemi’s “a playground poem” illustrates the poetic raw material in everyday life. At seven lines, it is the shortest in the volume, and its brevity could be interpreted as sheer playground joy. With the “lonely swing sets / that has lost love to broken slides,” she introduces a germ that complicates the playground joy. This causes a brooding in the poem, and, following that technique, she creates a possibility that is parallel to the actual poem in the closing line. The “seventh line” of the mother’s “abandoned poem” closes the poem but continues an independent stream of thought that could mean different senses to different readers.

One of the lessons of close reading is that no poem is essentially simple or hermeneutically singular. This is not about intricate or plain structures, nor rigid and free verses. It is a remark on poetry as a union of the purest forms of thought and language. Irrespective of structure and form, before the actual poem on the page, every poet deals with this task of bonding thought and language into an expressive, irreversible compound.

Grace Adeyemi’s “This Morning A Fragrance” and Basma Osman’s “Chez Moussa” form a gastronomic medley in different scenes. Grace’s poem thrives on delicate and precise detailing, so that the description is neither gaudy nor pale. Basma allows herself more expressiveness in a narrative voice, but the liberty does not run off. Inasmuch as hers is a familiar scene for people who live in certain African towns or neighborhoods, recreating the light tone of the poem and the excited mood of its characters would require a restricted handling of sentence. These are poems where every word, every sentence, has to be held in its place, lest the entire poem collapses.

The same thing can be said of Njoku Nonso’s “Alphabets of Memory,” a masterful exercise in figurative writing. The lines are imbued with weighed metaphor and sharp imagery every step of the grieving way, and when it reaches climax, the language must be dramatized to project the extent of mourning:

            Here’s the rain. Here’s a cathedral of birds

            revel-dashing behind wind-eaten curtain of leaves.

            This is the logic of mourning: a white horse

            taking the longest route to the slaughterhouse.

            But you are not the horse. You are the myth filling

            its bones with the burnt salt of grief. […]

In Akosua Zimba Afiriyie-Hwedie’s “Call me by my name,” language is both cultural identity and ontological force. By reason of the language in which the persona has been called, they measure the extent of their belonging to a cultural background:

            […] when my mother sends for me

            in my Twi name, I measure how far I am from myself

            by what language I use to respond. […]

This is as far as language is a characteristic of culture. In the same vein, the poem is a stand-alone definitive remark on the discourse of being and existence. In the following lines—“[…] A man is called into his name / each time it is spoken. / Or a man becomes more of himself / each time he is called by his name”—the philosophic leap draws up a transition from being to existence—a point at which what is, by apparent thought, enters actuality because it has been called forth and designated. Such is the dual function of language in the poem that it closes on a corresponding declarative note:

            naming is how one becomes a self.

            I know, calling makes one return.

In these poems, what is said does not take precedence over how it is said; the form is as relevant as the content; the textual coherence of the poems is as important as their external referents. The fact of thought is what we interpret as the incident in a poem, what is often the only case in the appreciation and criticism of African poetry.

But if poetry is the site of ultimate language, and language and thought are in indivisible unity, then poetry, thought, and language are indistinguishably tripartite. Hence, we cannot say to have given a poem a wholesome interpretation without exploring these qualities together. In fact, some of the poems in this volume can hardly be read successfully without attention to the aesthetics of language.

Alírio Karina’s “the shore a stage so lovingly set” is self-sustained in the words that build it up. Such is its fragmented sense that one way to connect it is to follow closely the words and the linkage in the volatile images they create. Simon Ng’uni’s “Like Breezes. Somewhere” is an extended observation; “time carries on moving as always” at a consistent pace that the words become elusive if the reader’s gaze were to be distracted.

Khadija Abdalla Bajaber creates a compact logic of self-awareness, of hurt and various plundering of the body in “With(out).” The poem is loaded with words and requires to be re-reads, and even at such effusive range, its is structure intact.

Rabha Ashry writes a practical piece in “omission”; every element—structure, form, syntax and diction together, line breaks and whitespaces—is intentionally placed to realize its central idea. The conflict shows not so much in what is present as in what is elided, the white spaces and enjambment working to prop the structure. Throughout, something is continually left unspoken: “a poem in / the spaces     between lines”; “[…] an unfamiliar word / in a language i used to speak”; “in every word there is a hunt / there is an / ‘i could’ve told you already’”; “[…] a messy recital / of everything i haven’t learned to say”; “and in every admission / i omit a true confession.” The confession is not lost, however—at least its clue—it is only ensconced in what is well implied.

The digitization of journals and magazines, portals, records, and archives, many of which are not restricted behind paywalls, means that contemporary African poets can access and learn practices of poetry from the many reaches of the world, while being grounded in their own traditions. It is important to bear this in mind when we approach the work of these poets, to credit the diligence in how they enrich their style and craft through these diverse substances. We must recognize the beauty and complexity of this transcreation.

What we bring in this volume is a seminal thinking of poetry. Poems that are not tendered at a give-away price. We favor a projection of poetry that takes from Africa without being immovably tied to the place, as has been the case in most criticism of African poetry. A non-imposing, non-overshadowing Africa that is only a fragment of other numerous human experiences, all equally belonging to the poet.         

Ebenezer Agu,


African poetry has not been widely read outside its thematic interaction with society, politics, economy, and cultural identity. The poems in this volume afford the opportunity to illustrate a reading of African poetry along language aesthetics.


What we bring in this volume is a seminal thinking of poetry. We favor a projection of poetry that takes from Africa without being immovably tied to the place, as has been the case in most criticism of African poetry. 

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