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Welcome to SENTINEL LITERARY QUARTERLY

Vol.3. No. 2. January 2010

 


CONTRIBUTORS

ESSAYS

SECTIONS

Andrew Campbell-Kearsey
Claire Godden-Rowland
Dike Okoro
Dominic James
Emmanuel Sigauke
Mandy Pannett
Noel Williams
N Quentin Woolf
Olu Oguibe
Paul Jeffcutt
Sharma Taylor
Susanna Roxman
W Jack Savage

 

MEETING DENNIS BRUTUS

 

by

 

Olu Oguibe

 

When Dennis Brutus and I posed for the cameras in the hallways of Harvard University during the international event in celebration of the poet Christopher Okigbo in 2007, it would have seemed odd to think that a little over two years hence, I would be writing about him as the late. I had driven to Cambridge, Massachusetts in a rental car, having narrowly survived a near-fatal crash in my own vehicle only a week earlier; if anything, it seemed to me at the time that I was closer to Heaven's door than the strong and robust man I met at Harvard. Yet, such is the truth of our nature that, in spite of Dennis's spritely carriage at 84, eventually our ration of breath on Earth runs out, and only the work we did lives on.

 

Like everyone in my generation of English-speaking Africans, I first met Dennis Brutus while in grammar school in the mid-1970s, on the pages of what was then known to every West African school child as simply "Senanu and Vincent". Brutus was among the poets featured in our required poetry text, A Selection of African Poetry, edited by Professors K. E. Senanu of Legon University, and Theo Vincent of University of Lagos. In that much distinguished company were others whose names we would soon commit to heart: Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, Okot p'Bitek, Taban Lo Liyong, David Rubadiri, Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, Cosmo Pieterse, and, of course, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Senegal's liberator and philosopher president. Soon, those children who were blessed with a good memory like I wasn't, could easily recite Mtshali's ‘Sounds of a Cowhide Drum’, Rubadiri's ‘Stanley Meets Mutesa’, or Soyinka's "Telephone Conversation" ("Madam, I warned/I hate a wasted journey/I am African"), the last of which would be fresh on my mind as I searched for an apartment in London a decade and a half later.

 

I was 11 when Senanu and Vincent published their anthology, and so, unlike my father's generation which learnt about poetry by reading Shelley and the myths of the Greek oracles, my generation was lucky enough to learn about poetry by reading modern African poets like Okigbo, Rubadiri, Senghor and Pieterse writing about our own history, our own myths, about things and places with which we were mostly familiar, about experiences that someday would be our experiences.

 

Brutus's featured poem in Senanu and Vincent was the inimitably romantic ‘A troubadour, I traverse all my land" from the prison collection, Sirens, Knuckles, Boots. "A Troubadour" would ultimately become my most beloved and cherished of all Brutus's poetry, and have an immeasurable influence on my own work as a poet. I have had the full text of "A Troubadour" on my web site for more than a decade, along with excerpts from Whitman, Cesaire, Ginsberg, Darweesh, Espriu, Lorca and Neruda.

 

A troubadour, I traverse all my land

exploring all her wide flung parts with zest

probing in motion sweeter far than rest

her secret thickets with an amorous hand:

 

and I have laughed, disdaining those who banned

enquiry and movement, delighting in the test

of wills when doomed by Saracened arrest,

choosing, like unarmed thumb, simply to stand.

 

Long before I could understand and embrace Okigbo, Brutus's poem formed my image of the poet; the rambling, traveling songster eternally in love with his mother, his land; who, refusing to be repressed or terminally depressed, always finds in his long-suffering land beauty worth fathoming, and versatility worth singing. That a poet in prison could pen such glorious triumph over the hangman's call taught me that there is nothing in existence to equal the power of song. The quiet, yet defiant image of the unarmed thumb choosing simply to stand would be etched in my mind forever. The beauty and music of Brutus's poetry also taught me that no matter the subject of my attempts at poetry, a masterful command of music and imagery must come first, or it isn't poetry at all. If Okigbo led me to Carl Sandburg and Lorca, it was Brutus that led me to Whitman and Cesaire.

 

I met Dennis Brutus again, this time in person, in London in 1991. He was in town for one of the great literary events of progressive London in those days; the International Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, founded and hosted, as it was for many years, by the now late doyen of London's radical literati, the beautiful and indomitable John La Rose. Before the fair kicked off, someone--and I believe it was the novelist and playwright Biyi Bandele Thomas or perhaps writer and critic Kole Omotoso, who still lived in London in those days--invited me to meet up at a cafe in Brixton, South London. At the meet-up was the legendary editor, Margaret Busby who was one of my mentors in London for a while, poet Odia Ofeimun, Professor Omotoso, and Professor Brutus. Once again, I was reliving the magical narrative of my early and mid-twenties, meeting in flesh and blood legends whose words I read as a rural child; legends whose works had shaped my life. There was the author of "A troubadour", of Sirens, Knuckles, Boots, of Letters to Martha, of Poems from Algiers, of A Simple Lust and Stubborn Hope... There was the legend who got Apartheid South Africa banned from international sports, and I was sitting in a small, roadside cafe in Brixton, London, with him. Two or three years earlier, while still in Nigeria, I had had the uncommon fortune to travel as a field assistant to Ulli Beier, the man who, in 1963, spirited Sirens, Knuckles, Boots out of a South African jail and published it. What a magical, magical life!

 

Brutus's Airs and Tributes had only just been published about a year or so earlier, and he had copies with him, as indeed tons of pamphlets, press releases, protest letters, and documents from some radical pan-African organization or another that he was leading at the time. In fact, I believe he got us to sign on to some campaign he was championing, the details of which now escape me. I had read Airs and Tributes and was not entirely impressed, but even as I rode the very short-lived heights of my own powers as a poet, I was quite at peace with the knowledge that all writers eventually lose their creative fire, all that is left being the still bright flame that burns not on the rich oil of art, but the thin paraffin of radical desire. In spite of his diminishing art, Brutus was still the author of some of the greatest poems ever written in any language or tradition, and that was enough inspiration for me.

 

In the days that followed, Brutus read at the fair and other venues, including a welcoming party at John La Rose's in East London at which the great Tanzanian Pan-Africanist Ibrahim Babu was also in attendance. In addition to writing, at the time I was also a what is now inanely known as a word poet, performing my work with musical accompaniment in schools and other venues across London and the rest of Britain, and it might have been that or the following year, that I performed on same bill at John's book fair with the late Afro-German poet May Ayim who eventually took her own life only a few years later, and Linton Kwesi Johnson. I would meet Professor Brutus at the fair several more times throughout the early '90s, and it was imperative, always, to attend his readings and listen to his carefully cadenced elaborations on the state of global radical politics. In 1994 I convened an international conference of African writers in exile, ‘Dreaming of the Homeland’, in Bethnal Green, London, in which Dennis Brutus participated, along with Buchi Emecheta, Lewis Nkosi, and numerous others. However, after I left Britain in 1995, we would not meet again, if memory serves me right, until Cambridge in 2007.

 

Unlike African novelists, African poets have yet to receive the international recognition and acknowledgment that they deserve. That Brutus was a finer poet than, say, Allen Ginsberg, there is no doubt, but even with his political accomplishments, jail not counting among them, and even in death, relatively few in the West know about Brutus. Fewer, still, would find the courage to place him in his deserved league among history's greatest poets. As noted earlier, like most poets, his later years were not his most accomplished as an artist, although he continued to produce impressive amounts of verse. Yet, on the basis of his first three or four collections of poems, it is clear that very few poets in the 20th century could assail the power of his work. He did not approach poetry with the towering grandiosity of a Walcott, yet his language and imagery and vision towered above the prosaic dispensability of a Rita Dove, for instance. To find his equals in American poetry we would have to look to Kunitz, even to Sandburg, though the social urgency if searing beauty of his early work place him more in the company of Darweesh and the very best of Neruda.

 

The long story of Brutus's successful campaign against South Africa's Apartheid regimes belongs to historians. The duty of recounting his work as a life-long teacher will fall to the numerous generations of his students. I write only as one who once sought to walk in his footsteps, as a humble traveler who found inspiration in the power of his craft.

 

I was unimaginably blessed, as I am sure so many others were, to have met Dennis Brutus, and even more, to have known his work and learnt from it like an acolyte learns from a master. His mortal remains will now return to the earth, secure in that land that he once traversed, an irrepressible troubadour defying banishment and jailers' shackles; the land that he loved so deeply and sung so well. That Brutus was one of the greatest writers of all time, there is no doubt, but he was also an indefatigable campaigner for justice, a relentless organizer, an incorrigible romantic, and a great humanist, and the power and beauty of his spirit and his work will remain with us for long.

 

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JANUARY 2010 INDEX
COMPETITIONS
DRAMA
EDITOR'S NOTE
ESSAYS & REVIEWS
FICTION
INTERVIEWS
POETRY

Olu Oguibe is Professor of Art and Art History, and interim Director of the Institute for African American Studies at University of Connecticut. His collected poems, A Gathering Fear, won the Christopher Okigbo Prize for Literature in 1992, and honorable mention in the Noma Awards for Publishing in Africa in 1993
 

JANUARY 2010 INDEX | COMPETITIONS | DRAMA | EDITOR'S NOTE | ESSAYS & REVIEWS | FICTION | INTERVIEWS | POETRY

 

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