Thursday, July 18, 2024

A Marriage of Inconvenience


By Dami Ajayi

  • Title: Nuptials at Vespers & Other Strains
  • Author: John Ngong Kum Ngong
  • Publisher: Langaa RPCIG
  • Number of pages: 84
  • Year of publication: 2015
  • Category: Poetry

John Ngong Kum Ngong is one of the prolific Anglophone Cameroonian poets working today. With seven poetry collections already, Nuptial at Vespers & Other Strains is his eighth, and it has forty-four interconnected poems that dwell, as the title would indicate, on a kind of marriage. To the reader with a mind already primed by the delights of heterosexual love and attraction, the title of the collection might evoke images of a church wedding. However, four poems into the collection and the title poem will disabuse the reader of any notions of typical, white weddings (think Philip Larkin’s ‘The Whitsun Weddings’). The image of a wedding where the officiating minister, a gawky Mayor, ‘smiles at the thought of loot’, is put forward instead.

Even though the marriage in Nuptial at Vespers & Other Strains borrows from that with which readers will be quite familiar, what the collection describes is definitely not a union of lovers. The husband and wife in this marriage take turns to describe each other’s experiences. Hear the wife in ‘Feckless Spouse’:

My husband does not like me

nor the dreams nor the children

shadowing him in his dreams

And, here is the husband in ‘Celebrating Tenderness’:

Rub my feet my beloved

with the real camwood from home

set to music the lines

I wrote in the river

when the fire of lust

charred the bloom of my mind

Clearly, there is a disconnect between the wife and the husband, even if an allowance is made for the fact that marriages can be tumultuous.

However, the use of the marriage metaphor is not quite sustained in this volume of poems. Less than ten poems explore the theme of marriage, and those are wedged between protest poems that mourn the dearth of good governance and pour scorn on an incumbent ruler depicted as a power drunk beast who ‘forged marriage certificate…promising fair play’.

A sturdier device for plumbing the depths of the marriage metaphor would probably take the form of poetry that chronicles the nuptial stages in movements, from the first meeting of the couple to their walking down the aisle then on to the disaster of spousal life. The metaphor of marriage is in Nuptial at Vespers & Other Strains tenuous, unlike the masterpieces of Okot p’Bitek where the metaphor comes into its own in the form and content of Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol.

The first poem of Nuptial at Vespers & Other Strains, ‘Bootless Tussle’, offers the idea of an even more tenuous union between the poet persona and a ‘beat bard’, but references to this relationship are not explored any further in the collection. A good majority of these poems point away from marriage to a different kind of relationship – between citizen and country – that is fraught with abuse.

The bond between the citizen and their country of birth is a strong one, which goes beyond the symbolism of having their placenta buried within the confines of the territorial space. One’s country gives one a definitive identity that is imbued with cultural practices as well as aspirations. In Nuptial at Vespers & Other Strains, the reader learns of the poet persona’s affectionate despair and attachment to fatherland when the poet persona says, ‘You cannot really understand/ why my heart goes out for this land’, and that is buttressed by the purposeful resolve of, ‘I cannot abandon my country/ just to catch a glimpse of liberty’. Clearly, John Ngong Kum Ngong is infuriated that in his country, ‘Black white red and yellow heads just like mine misuse power’. His short poems resonate with anger, hunger and despair.

It may well be that the lure of protest and political poems is so overwhelming that literate citizens cannot help reaching for a pen and setting down poems for the small benefit of catharsis, but poets are not just people given to emotional incontinence. They are people who are fascinated by words and language. They are the mouthpieces of society; they are representative voices and, as such, must articulate their concerns in the most enduring form, which requires the industry of deploying elevated language. Nuptial at Vespers & Other Strains sometimes strives for the heights but falls short too many times. Clichés, hackneyed phrases and, of course, there is the small matter of incongruous imagery, like ‘colourless graves’, which should not have gotten past the editorial team.

Some of the poems hint at the poet’s advancing age and frailty, especially in ‘Celebrating Tenderness’, where the poet persona says, ‘I am in a river/ shallow flowing uphill/ towards my ancestry’. In the last poem of the collection, ‘When Gone’, the poet persona issues directives in advance of his passing away. In that poem, the poet persona embarks on an evangelical mission: ‘Only your ties with the Lord/ and concern for each other/ will thrill me when I am gone’. The homily seems very far from the title of the collection, which speaks of a wedding, and it is quite curious that instead of allusions to the Wedding at Cana, the explicitly Christian aspects of the collection are sermons on proper conduct.

John Ngong Kum Ngong’s poetry is clear and lucid. However, his sparse verses lack vitality, which is most baffling. This reviewer firmly believes that the perfect metaphor for the poet persona is an ageless child: the poet in all of us is the child who never outgrows the amazing wonderment of life, of living, of human relationship with self, others, nature and the extra-terrestrial. Although in Nuptial at Vespers & Other Strains, the poet grapples with much more than old age and despair, it would seem that his attempt to leverage this eighth collection, with the metaphor of marriage as fulcrum, fails.

John Ngong Kum Ngong is a decorated poet, having won the 2007 Bate Besong Award for his collection, Walls of Agony. The lead judge of that year’s prize, the renowned Nigerian poet and academic, Tanure Ojaide, noted that Walls of Agony ‘was superior in its use of English and poetic language. It has consistency of imagery in the symbolic “wall” that permeates the poet’s vision of life, society, and politics’. Sadly, Nuptials at Vespers & Other Strains is deficient on both counts: it is neither superior in its use of poetic language nor consistent in its use of the imagery of a wedding. This pairing of the marriage metaphor with a clutch of protest poems is at best a marriage of inconvenience.

Photograph: ‘Chester Cathedral’ by Steve Parkinson

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Dami Ajayi
Dami Ajayi
Dami Ajayi is the author of poetry collections Daybreak, Clinical Blues and A Woman’s Body Is a Country.

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