Book Review: Seven New Generation African Poets

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

This is a beautifully assembled, boxed set of seven chapbooks by emerging poets relatively new to non-African audiences. The project was first envisioned by the African Poetry Book Fund, an organization dedicated to publishing poetry from Africa. Its goal was to increase the exposure of distinctive, modern African voices. With support from the Poetry Foundation and Prairie Schooner, and acceptance by U.S. publisher Slapering Hol Press, the collection became a reality.

Of the poets, three live in Africa:  T. J. Dema in Botswana, Clifton Gachagua in Kenya, and Len Verway in South Africa. The remaining four live elsewhere: Tsitsi Jaji and Ladan Osman in the United States, and Nick Makoha and Warsan Shire in the United Kingdom. All seven self-identify as African, and all write in English; there are no translations. This allows us to experience their work directly without asking how much the work was “interpreted” by translators.

The title Seven New Generation African Poets immediately raises the question of how similar these poets are and what characteristics identify them as African. One of the exciting discoveries is that these poets exhibit a strikingly wide range of aesthetics and styles. All are accomplished writers whose work ranges from straightforward narrative to experimental.

Their subject matter identifies them as African. Each poet offers glimpses into an individual life rooted in a home country. Sometimes the details are subtle. In T. J. Dema’s Mandible, the first four poems have no geographical references; the fourth, “Our Man in Gaborone,” simply mentions the capital of Botswana in the title. In contrast, Nick Makoha’s The Second Republic focuses entirely on the devastation in Uganda under dictator Idi Amin.

Another element, a surprising and troubling one, unifies these poets. At some point, every poet writes of extreme discrimination and oppression; many write of brutality. Given the specificity of so many of the details, much of this seems to be coming from personal experience. These poems add urgency and intensity to the collection.

I discuss each poet’s work below. Collectively, the chapbooks accumulate into an excitingly diverse, complex, and provocative collection.

Mandible by T. J. Dema

Botswanian poet T. J. Dema assumes the role of an outsider who sees and provides insights into the world around her. A number of poems expose the harsh and difficult lives of women.

The poem “Ovaria” lists the lessons that Botswanian women learn, ending with the bleak “to empty their cup, / and to be content / with utterly nothing.” In “Before the Wedding,” Dema describes a woman’s wedding day. Her future husband’s clan is more interested in the cow offered as dowry than in the bridal couple. They also are happy to welcome an additional person who will wait on them.

Will the calf carry our name?
If so, we are the wood come to right the kraal our bull careened through;
we have come to own this joyful mistake,
to add to our numbers a daughter.
This is our purpose, in asking for the hand of the bearer,
she who carries our water.

One of the striking features of Dema’s work is her mastery of metaphor. In “On Not Taking the Waters,” the speaker describes overwhelming feelings of grief after the loss of a loved one:

I am taking on water
the way ships do.

Even when wrestling with her own melancholy, she exudes the spirit of someone who is both a part of this difficult life and struggling to stay above it. The ending of “Mutineer” is a beautiful segment in which she fights to control her destiny.

Wet behind ear / I am rain
between thighs / I am forest growing everything anew

I am sand slipping away the fullness of youth
I have grown gills in the name of a storm coming 

Ordinary Heaven by Ladan Osman

Osman’s poetry focuses on uncertain internal worlds. Many poems are filled with doubt, often shifting between sanity and madness. Despite the uncertain psychological states, Osman’s voice is assured; her surprising images are original. “Clearing the Land” begins with: “Could be it happens when I take off my bra: / I’m convinced someone will take my heart.”

Later in the poem, she uses unconventional metaphors to address someone with whom she wants to be close: 

I need to talk to you so bad. Like farting
when I need to piss. In the playhouse
where all the children went when we couldn’t hold it,
me and my best friend went to separate corners.
We showed each other our privates, gasped
that our meat was so same. That was there,
and we were girls but maybe it can happen here.

Then, despairing over the inability to attain intimacy, she slips into a conflicted description of herself.

My heart is a mother who wants a farm. My body,
the daughter who receives land from a man
she doesn’t want as a lover. The land squats.

Osman received an MFA at the University of Texas at Austin and lives in Chicago, but she writes with a vivid memory of Somalia. Like Dema, she addresses the lives of marginalized women in her country.

In “Silhouette,” she presents her creativity defiantly. The poem describes a University of Chicago poetry reading, where she is dismissed by academics and students alike. She frames the situation as part of the long history of elitists and their reductive attitudes toward others:

The colonizers couldn’t have dreamed it,
the preoccupation with the heights of my soul,
my intangible qualities, if I am only the silhouette
of a shadow.

Whether wrestling with personal demons or confronting deep-seated prejudice, Osman’s work is provocative and sure-footed.

Otherwise Everything Goes On by Len Verwey

Verwey writes warmly of the details of rural life in Madagascar by the Indian Ocean. These details seem completely part of the speaker’s identity, as though he was saying his own name. He writes of counting boats to see if anyone was still on the water during a storm, an elderly village pharmacist who isn’t always sure she’s dispensing the right drugs, the thrill of a young boy who accompanies the men in the village as they fish: “. . . he holds a lucky stone / secretly in his free hand, / lighting their cigarettes for them without inhaling.”

However, as the collection progresses, the subject matter grows disturbingly violent. Verwey never loses his eye for the small detail.  In “The Real Evidence,” he describes an “unrepentant killer” who smiles about his close relationship with the corrupt police while sipping hot chocolate in bed. In “Campaign,” a soldier in one of the country’s civil wars notes the wild animals that sleep curled against wire fences in order to feel some of their campfire’s heat. He then shifts to the image:

The severed heads poled along the highway:
a leering puppetry
fitted to the dim-dawned place we’ve made.

The poem ends with the soldier’s unapologetic account of the devastation:

We torched the maps
when we torched the crops.
We torched the crops
when we knew those back home
wouldn’t take us in again. 

The maps meant nothing anyway.

These harsh depictions dominate the chapbook. Sometimes violence is a side detail; sometimes it’s the subject of the poem. We experience both Verwey’s affection for these people and the devastating effect of violence on their lives. With the chapbook’s caustic and deadpan title, Otherwise Everything Goes On, Verwey brilliantly depicts the resignation and horror of those forced to live under the almost constant threat of violence.      

Carnaval by Tsitsi Jaji

Jaji’s Carnaval is concerned with violence and abuse in her native Zimbabwe. However, beyond providing disturbing details, Jaji challenges us to examine the roles of poetry and art in a world that allows heartless brutality.

Carnaval consists of only two poems. The second and longest is titled after a famous Robert Schumann piano composition, Carnaval. The musical work consists of a number of short pieces named for imaginary revelers at a masquerade party. Jaji uses these names to title the sections of her poem.

The Schumann composition is the artistic frame against which these sections provide a disturbing counterpoint.  For Schumann, Chiarina was a clownish character. Jaji’s “Chiarina” is dedicated to the Zimbabwe novelist Yvonne Vera, whose work centers on themes of rape, incest, and infanticide. Here are a few lines of the poem:

Some things have no reason.     They choke.

Over and over again,                  they choked

us, thistled and thornlike.

They came here.

They spindled and starved us out,

dewbroke and dangled.

The sonic elements in these lines—the word pairs (thistled and thornlike, spindled and starved, dewbroke and dangled, choke and choked), along with the strong o sounds throughout—provide a compelling musicality. Yet the poem’s sonic resonance creates an uncomfortable tension with the savagery the words describe.  

In “Pantalon and Colombine,” Jaji uses stock commedia dell’arte characters, who depict a servant girl and a bumbling merchant, to title a poem about child sexual abuse. It begins: “Of dirty old men gunning down chicory coffee . . . Ogling / the canteen girl” and progresses with a list of accusations of the men who watch and molest: “Of how the girls get younger every year, / but the hype never flatlines. / Of how to cure the disease without a name / by finding a toddler niece’s pantyline.”

Jaji is an ambitious and confrontational writer.  Her juxtaposition of artistic beauty and suffering as a result of cruel, inhumane actions forces the reader to consider a world that allows for both.

The Cartographer of Water by Clifton Gachagua

I was captured by Gachagua’s first poem, “Cars.” The poem is a wild, imaginative journey in the voice of a rampaging monster. The first six lines establish the monster’s destructiveness on Earth. In the last line, the monster lies in the grass and considers migrating to an entirely different planet. This is the complete poem:

I dismember grasshoppers,
eat their frosty limbs,
hop over the carcasses of cars.
Yes, I need to migrate,
spread this plague, complete the
latitudes they have mapped on my vessels.
Collages of organs:
lying on grass, I watch myself on Mars.

The Cartographer of Water is a celebration of imagination. Over and over, Gachagua presents weird, often discordant images. Then, when the reader has a sense of the parameters of the poem, he shifts to something even more unexpected. Many times that shift is into uncomfortable territory.

In “Basic Freudian Fantasies,” titled in a way that prepares us for Gachagua’s id to run wild, he still introduces turns that make the reader uncomfortable.

I come as a book bound in soft leather
and invisible ink . . .
Make me your open book;
ask what it must feel like to rape an angel. 

My mouth blooms like a cunt,
no, like fresh pastry in the morning, . . .

Gachagua employs strong declarative sentences that create a sense of certainty but make statements that are morally ambiguous and, at times, morally reprehensible. The reader doesn’t know whether to identify with or be repulsed by the speaker.  

As Chris Abani points out in the preface to this chapbook, Gachagua’s work resists the “sentimentality of reduction.” Gachagua is interested in reflecting the world as accurately as possible, even if that means including thoughts and impulses that are contradictory or off-putting.

Many of these poems are political. Gachagua’s approach is perfectly suited to exposing the shifting morality of those in power and the abuses they commit. In “Promenade,” Gachagua says: “Certain truths, you hold them against the light, / and they change color.”  

Our Men Do Not Belong to Us by Warsan Shire

Shire is another of these poets who pulls no punches. In the background of almost all her poems is the savagery of war, the unreliability of men, and the emotional damage both exact on women.

Unlike the other poets, she writes of the experience of the refugee. Her work moves from life in war-torn Somalia to experiences that seem to have been informed by her own emigration to London. In the harsh and insightful “Conversations about Home (at the Deportation Center),” she writes: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”

She describes the difficult life of a refugee but is quick to make these devastating qualifications:

. . . all of this is better than the scent of a woman completely on fire; or a truckload of men who look like my father, pulling out my teeth and nails; or fourteen men between my legs; or a gun; or a promise; or a lie; or his name; or his manhood in my mouth.

She describes the desperate act of a refugee tearing up and eating her passport in an airport hotel so that she would not have to return to her home country.

These are poems of hardship and survival. What is striking about Shire’s work is the complete, unabashed brutality these poems detail and the unflinching manner with which she presents it.  

Shire frequently mentions her fear that these experiences have damaged her ability to love or be loved. It is clear, though, that they have in no way diminished her ability to write.  In fact, in the poem “Chemistry,” she presents writing as an important counterbalance to this damage. This is the last poem in the collection.

I wear my loneliness like a taffeta dress riding up my thigh,
and you cannot help but want me.
You think it’s cruel
how I break your heart, to write a poem.
I think it’s alchemy.

The Second Republic by Nick Makoha

Makoha speaks directly of those in power. His is the poetry of casting blame. These poems recount the difficult and violent history of Uganda as it moved from colonialism to the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin. Makoha’s focus is on the messages, spoken and unspoken, especially as Amin took control. As he states in “Highlife”:

Presidency can buy you celebrity.
Wrap your hand around
the right man’s throat 

and you can become a member
of the elite.

It is clear that Amin’s efforts were not about liberation but about power. Makoha’s voice is relentless as he details the carnage in poem after poem: heads torn from their bodies, a man hung from barbed wire by his genitals, corpses left to be eaten by hyenas. This is a crude and completely unmediated existence.

As in-your-face as these poems are, they also offer complication and subtlety. In “The Last Ugandan,” he reminiscences: “My mother bought me a plane ticket to flee Idi Amin. / He was a powerful man loved by many women. / Mum say she see my father in him.” This is a surprising revelation. It would be easy to distance himself from the monster that Idi Amin was.

In “Resurrection Man,” which may  be the most difficult poem in the entire collection of chapbooks, Makoha speaks as an observer watching a girl who is pulled from a taxi and stripped; her head is shaved, and she is dragged by the arms to a deserted area. The speaker addresses the girl in the last moments of her life:

One lit the match, another peeled the blindfold, the
rest poured gin on your face. I know you saw me
in the hollow of a tree. I wanted to run to you,
but their bullets would have easily caught up with me.
I stood firm, learning to hide myself in the dark.
A man must have two faces: one he can live with
and one he will die with. The second face is mine.

We cannot fault the speaker for not taking action, but there is a hint of cowardice in the description. I can’t help but think that Makoha may also be implicating the readers of the poem. It is as though he wants all onlookers who watch and do nothing, including his readers, to stop and question their culpability in the face of atrocities such as these.


Seven New Generation African Poets is a brilliantly conceived project. These chapbooks constitute not a poetic sampler but rather a collection of seven complete works. Each poet has significantly more room to show their work than a typical anthology would allow. Our experience of these writers is larger and more fulfilling.

This collection demonstrates a wide range of aesthetics and provides a glimpse into lives that are rich and textured, though faced with almost incomprehensible challenges. As co-editor Kwame Dawes says in his preface to the collection, each of these poets is committed to “finding a voice and idiom that manages to reflect a quality of modernity operating in African cultures.”

The goal of the project was to present talented poets who are at an early stage in their careers. Only two of these poets have previously published a book of poetry. Given the talent displayed here, it seems that publication and much wider attention for these poets is only a matter of time.