AiW Guest: Tamara Moellenberg
Here is a poet who writes from herself, who seeks to express, not impress–though impress she does. The poems in Bird from Africa are poised and spare, yet underpinned by deep rivulets of feeling: feelings of loss and longing, mostly, but also of fierce, unswerving loyalty and defiance.
Allo’s hometown is Bamenda, in northwest Cameroon, though she writes from diaspora in the United States. In “Leaving Bamenda,” Allo revisits Cameroon with a throbbing sense of loss and fondness.
The city sways, sinks into its valley whose curve
stretches and swings wide like a hammock strung between the hills.
I walk to my father’s car and turn around
to look at Bamenda one last time.
As Chris Abani observes in his preface to Bird from Africa, much of Allo’s poetry is about “the exile’s attempt to find and reclaim an Africa that lives in personal mythology […].” Several of her poems, such as “Anglophone Cameroonian Elite Returns Home,” hover on the edge of a richly textured, private world with profound connection to Cameroon, its people and landscapes. In “Anglophone Cameroonian Elite […]” the speaker returns to her childhood home and imagines her dreams–her early hopes for the future–asleep:
[…] And there you see them at rest, as in the past
smooth-faced in their slumber, their mouths cupped open
to a limitless sky and their lips lacquered with dew.
The speaker tries to wake the reposing dreams and succeeds, though the action finds her shivering in “a cemetery of all the people you were meant to be.” This last line is unexpected, gut-twisting. It deftly shifts the poem from nostalgia to threnody, roughly pouring water on the hopefully brightening embers of the earlier lines.
While some of Allo’s poems drift into a (still vividly realized) inner world, others pull the reader back to the bright red dirt and pungent plantain stews of Bamenda. In “Muddy Shoes,” the speaker notices mud from Bamenda on her shoes while walking in Maryland’s Germantown:
Bamenda has come with me.
Bamenda has come with me.
Bamenda has come with me.
The mud has come to America.
These, for me, are some of the most powerful lines in the collection. The repeated phrases tumble forcefully, spoken as with a sob. In “Bird from Africa,” the speaker recalls teaching her then-boyfriend, now ex-,
how to peel a plantain for boiling
or frying, and how to slice a mango
so none of its orange, sinewy flesh is lost
Allo’s tactile pleasure in these simple chores is palpable. The poem progresses lovingly, gently laying bare details of daily life in Bamenda: “how to start a fire with wood chips,” “how to sing a song for Sunday mass.” Indeed, throughout the collection, Allo pays fond, lingering attention to what Abani calls the “detritus” of diaspora, or the fractured images that exiles salvage along their journeys, and with which the poet “begins the work of rebuilding self and identity.”
Not all of the poems in Bird from Africa are missives to Allo’s beloved homeland. “My Father’s Lungs” playfully describes her father’s laughter “like he is having hiccups but fast-forwarded.” It is a neatly percipient image, evoking sound, sight, and sensation (a diaphragm spasming) all at once. What do to with “The First Girl”?
Fire erupts in my forehead, just behind my eyes. It blazes across my face and rages
through my body. I am ready to fight with my father.
Whereas many of the poems in Bird from Africa unfurl with pensive, measured slowness, this piece explodes across the page, words running swiftly from margin to margin: Allo demonstrates her fluency in different styles. The poem contrasts starkly with the rest in the collection, not only for its taut scene of domestic violence, but also for what it suggests about the speaker’s intimate voice, which for me links all the poems of the collection together. In earlier poems, the speaker is composed, astute, yet crucially self-conflicted: the opening poem begins with an implicit question, “What to Wear”(?). Yet by the time of “The First Girl,” this narrating voice has become assured, unwavering; the speaker stubbornly protests her father’s decision to take “another wife.”
Bird from Africa feels like a highly personal work to me and, for this reason, is engaging. Readers seeking an intimate voice that gently probes–without despair–experiences of exile, loneliness, and loss will find much in this collection to arrest them.
Tamara Moellenberg is a DPhil candidate in English at the University of Oxford. Her doctoral research examines representations of child figures in selected Anglophone West African novels. She has taught courses in postcolonial, African, and children’s literature.
Viola Allo is a Cameroonian-born poet based in the United States. She holds a BA and MA in psychology and anthropology, respectively, and was short-listed for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize in 2013 and 2014. Her poems and essays can be found in the American River Review, as well as on her website at http://letterstocameroon.wordpress.com/.
Viola Allo’s Bird from Africa is part of Akashic Books’ chapbook set, Eight New Generation African Poets (April 2015). This 8-piece boxed collection features the work of eight African poets with an introduction by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani, and each chapbook has its own introduction from a thoughtfully paired stalwart African poet and writer. Allo’s chapbook is introduced by Chris Abani.
The set also contains A Pagan Place by Peter Akinlabi; Who Are You Looking For by Amy Lukau; The Wire-Headed Heathen by Inua Ellams; Vuyelwa Maluleke’s Things We Lost in the Fire; Mitu’s Spice Tour by Blessing Musariri; Janet Kofi-Tsekpo’s Yellow Iris; and Bearing Heavy Things by Liyou Libsekal.
For more on AiW’s deep dive into the box set, see our latest post in the series, AiW Guest Jovia Salifu’s review of Janet Kofi-Tsekpo’s Yellow Iris.
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