Plans are that before April 4, I will have read and commented upon all nine of the chapbooks within the forthcoming (Akashic Books) box set: New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (NNE). I've spent a lot of time with multiple readings of three of them so far and am really enjoying them (to the point that I plan to go backwards and read the three earlier annual box sets). The set was selected and edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani and there's a tenth chapbook included which includes an essay from each about the series and their selection process. One of the specifics is that nobody that they include has published a collection prior to their inclusion. The first chapbook I'll be reviewing here is Sabbatical by Famia Nkansa. It is 32 pages long with 15 poems included and a preface written by Dawes. The cover is by the artist, Ficre Ghebreyesus who was born in Asmara, Eritrea--he passed away in April 2012. His work adorns all ten chapbooks in this box and they are gorgeous.
The first poem, "Welcome," opens with:
I am trying to explain my intact clitoris,
the Jill Scott nestling against Obrafour
in a crevice of the shelf.
and ends 9-11 lines later with:
have I never seen a war? Is my
family civilized or tribal?
and has Nkansa's first I--all fifteen poems are written from the first person--looking at what it means to be African, and maybe especially so when having moved to the United States, and from the eyes of non-Africans who have only heard specifics of what life is like there. It reminds me of an earlier poem of hers, "The Soundtrack to an Ovary," (not included in this chapbook) with it's lines:
The voices say when you have failed. The voices say,
"to be female and Ghananian is to be doubly African."
To be doubly African is to be even more defined by journalists and history books.
To live with having footnotes the world shows no interest in learning to read.
The various I's--and I did my best to try to determine, and came to the conclusion that they're not all the same, that they're not all Famia Nkansa speaking--hit on many topics just as deeply as they do this idea of what is an African. They hit on sex, on relationships, on inter-racial relationships, on mothers, on abuse, and so on. Nkansa's poetry holds onto information, letting little bits go with each subsequent reading, and especially when reading aloud--I found the poems had a different rhythm when I read them aloud than when I simply quietly read and that the rhythm helped me dig into each just a little bit deeper.
There is much going on with the body in these works--good and bad. "How to Honor Our Illnesses" begins:
I stick my tongue out. You box my chin.
I hold my breath. you split my lip.
i crack my knuckles. You laugh at me.
while "it is from my need to matter that I ask you this," includes:
your knees tickle my eyelashes
your soles azonto on an iris
i swipe the tip of my nose
breathing your taste
into my fingers
I cup fireflies as they flicker
on and off...
on and off...
The poems touching on inter-racial relationships do not seem to lead the I's involved toward positive thoughts. Even though early in "Aftermath" the lines:
Your mother said that I was cute.
It let me know that she is both perplexed and proud
she raised the kind of child
who could think
I was attractive.
it winds down toward:
I am deciding between Merlot
and a potted indigo orchid--
which of the two I will bring to meet your mother,
the politest way to demur
when she starts to pet my hair.
and from "Forty Acres and a Mule," comes:
My toes tangle
in the cloud of carpet,
beige as a
dune in Namibia,
like our child,
the inside of a tree;
what shame looks like
when you slice it in two.
The chapbook ends with "Moses," and comes full circle to this reader in once again looking at what it means to be an African, this time not from an American's standpoint as in "Welcome," but from the standpoint of those that never left their homes upon one's return:
I was not kidnapped
or sold. I was banished out of love
so I could be molded
and returned. Now I am back.
Silence snores in every room.
I don't think there's a poem among these fifteen that I've read less than four times now and I foresee reading them all many more times in the future. Famia Nkansa is a writer that I'll be looking for more work from in the future and Sabbatical has been a great way to start reading this box set.