The Poet and Her People

By Kwabena Agyare Yeboah


  • Title: The Birth of Illusion
  • Author: Jumoke Verissimo
  • Publisher: Fullpoint Publications and Communications
  • Number of pages: 83
  • Year of publication: 2015
  • Category: Poetry

‘Once upon a time in one’s land not far not near

Pigs ruled men and ate their carcass for lunch

Men became pigs and ate themselves for dinner

And then pain designed poetry into gelatin brains

To conjure feelings in the stitched spines of papers’

The quotation above is from Jumoke Verissimo’s poem, ‘The Birth of Poets’, which appears in the collection The Birth of Illusion. The quoted lines set up what the collection concerns itself with. It paints the idea that the world is full of absurdity. And, that is why there is poetry and poets. Poetry is for the people and the poet is one of the people. She, the poet, should speak to power. She should unsettle. She should interrogate the establishment. She should be an enquirer of the human soul.

The French philosopher, Albert Camus, writes ‘that the human situation is essentially absurd, devoid of purpose’, in his 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. In that essay, Camus introduces the philosophy of the absurd and in the final chapter, he compares the absurdity of human life with Sisyphus. A figure in Greek mythology, Sisyphus is eternally condemned to repeating the fruitless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, and every other time the boulder rolls down the mountain back to the ground. Sisyphus can find contentment in the purpose of pushing the boulder up the mountain or be disappointed in the fact his efforts come to nought. Or, he could commit suicide and escape the meaningless task.

The story told in Verissimo’s lines is merely suggestive in the regard that the human situation is absurd. We do not know for sure what initiated the process by which men ‘became’ pigs. We do not know if the process was coercive or otherwise. We do not know if the human situation is entirely their making. We do not know if human will has any relationship to destiny. We do not even know if man truly has a will. We just know the setting for this transformation is ‘not far not near’, a place we all know, live in and have experienced. These lines do not pretend to have answers to the questions that we have. They do not give in to what they stir. Most probably, this is what poetry looks like. It teaches us to be students, discoverers of this that we call life.

The Birth of Illusion is Verssimo’s second poetry collection after I Am Memory, which garnered wide acclaim. The Birth of Illusion is replete with poems that speak to the human condition, immigration, the question of dignity and the gender gap. The collection has three sections with each having a dominant theme. ‘Illusion’ is the first section. It deals with the issues that immigrants grapple with.

2015 was particularly a difficult year in international politics, following the influx of refugees into Europe. There was one event that became symbolic of the crisis. It was the death of the three-year-old, Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. So, when we read the poems in the section titled ‘Illusion’, we are reminded of the many things that we have seen, read and thought about. We read in ‘Refugee Paradigms I’:

Dawn is familiar with departure

But men, women and children going

Into the refuge of strangers’ watch

Will always bring the skies to tears

The poet Warsan Shire writes about a similar situation in a poem titled ‘Home’. She gives an indication of why people who have established homes in a place will one day get up and leave for a safer place. But as always, no one wants to leave what is familiar. To leave home is to animate memory. No one wants to be haunted, and as Warsan Shire writes in ‘Home’:

No one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark

you only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well

The ‘dawn’ that Verissimo uses in ‘Refugee Paradigms I’ has both literal and literary connotations. Dawn is when the day begins, the first appearance of daylight. Light is hope. Yet, it is at this point that people leave their homes because the reality is that ‘home is the mouth of a shark’. Again in ‘Refugee Paradigms I’, we read:

Dusk is when dreams become condensate

As those whose land eat their umbilical

Become numbers, ghosts + war’s metaphors.

‘Punctuated’ is a poem that talks about the familiar disappointment of the many who leave home for better places:

We go into other lands

For dreams to tour with

We meet dreams on tour

Also to be found in the first section of The Birth of Illusion, ‘Unresolved’ is full of powerful imagery. It also explores the difficulties of immigration:

The sea

Is that graveyard of blotted inks, of dreams, of those lugging

Desire across the Atlantic

From Africa to Europe to Asia they bear cracked souls, they ship

their change on winds that blow men apart

Your sea has moved. The sea is empty

‘Émigré’ is a poem that poses the question of what home really is:

Tonight like every other night to come

You will stay awake thinking of home;

Home – is it a land or mewling thighs?

[The] only smell of distrust between

A country and a citizen is exile.

The second section of Verissimo’s collection is titled ‘Of Things That Shatter Female Bones’. Poems in this section are titled with words taken from that titular clause. The poems largely deal with feminine concerns. But these concerns, sometimes a mother’s instinct, are endoscopies of society. ‘Bones’ tells us why the feminisation of pain helps us to imagine pain better:

They say sorrow is female. Sorrow has a clitoris

Sorrow is a desperate, bereaved, and soulless breast

The presentation of a woman’s body as a violated form serves to visualise pain and humanise it. It will be easy to count lives in terms of numbers or mortality in terms of rates. However, what elicits responses are the emotion, the imagery and the humanity that these poems evoke.

In The Birth of Illusion, grief takes a form, one that causes us to reflect on our collective progress and retrogression. Again, are the women presented here not just metaphors for countries? Countries that witness bombings, which destroy the bodies of the old and young. Countries that crawl in the night and see their dreams being stolen. Countries that perpetually grieve and are heartbroken. Countries for which dirges have become the way of life and the poet-cantor is a town crier. Are these not the stories of Nigeria, Syria, Somalia, Sudan…? Are these not our stories?

In ‘Shatter’ we read:

An exile would write a memoir on land someday:

Death is the same everywhere ask the cemetery

Ask those who have sat in an arena of mothers

Waiting for sons they know would not return.

Section Three of The Birth of Illusion is titled ‘Love, Porcupine, Pineapples and Prickly Fickleness’. The poems in this section can loosely be referred to as love poems. The lines of the section’s poems are refreshing. ‘Open City’ ends this way:

You will embrace returnee memories

Under the shelter of tarpaulin housings

You will stay awake with your biography.

In all, there are 62 delightful poems in this collection. The Birth of Illusion is a bundle of metaphors. Sometimes, it is the thatched roof that filters the sun’s rays. Other times, it is the pebble that presses against your elbow when you lean against a cement block.

‘I read her freedom to the letter’. To read and write poems in times of suffering is a revolutionary act. There is liberation here, too.


Photograph: ‘Cement Block’ by Cathy Stanley-Erickson


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Kwabena Agyare Yeboah lives in Accra, Ghana. His blog is The African Thought (www.mragyare.wordpress.com).

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