How Poems Work #1 - L. S. Mensah on Kwesi Brew's "The Sea Eats Our Lands"

This week's post is an experiment for One Ghana, One Voice. "How Poems Work", which we hope will become an occasional series on the site, aims to give OGOV poets an opportunity to talk about some of their favourite poems previously featured on the site. Before starting in, we want to take a moment to acknowledge Arc Poetry Magazine's How Poems Work series, which directly inspired this one. We hope you enjoy this offering, and join the conversation yourself.


The Sea Eats Our Lands - Kwesi Brew

Here stood our ancestral home:
The crumbling wall marks the spot.
Here a sheep was led to slaughter
To appease the gods and atone
For faults which our destiny
Has blossomed into crimes.

There my cursed father once stood
And shouted to us, his children,
To come back from our play
To our evening meal and sleep.
The clouds were thickening in the red sky
And night had charmed
A black power into the pounding waves.

Here once lay Keta.
Now her golden girls
Erode into the arms
Of strange towns.

The poetry of Kwesi Brew (1928-2007) exhibits a cut-to-the-bone starkness. In his hands, nature and the supernatural are unforgiving in their relentlessness to humans. For Brew the good old days either never happened, or indeed were not that rosy. What is now is what has always been, and this is why his is a poetry at ease with the anxieties of the modern African. Even when it looks back, his work makes no demands for a return to the past; instead it dismantles the myth of a bucolic past. For example, in his poem “Ancestral Faces” the ancestors slipped into the limbo of time, to watch us, the living, go about our business. In the end they saw us, / and said: They have not changed. In other words, the ancestors recognised themselves in the living.

Brew's “The Sea Eats Our Lands” not only picks up some of the ideas mentioned above, but also contributes to that sub genre of what Gerald Moore calls “Africa's rich marine poetry”. Moore rightly mentions Edouard Maunick (Les Maneges de la mer, Presence Africaine 1964) and Jean-Baptiste Tati Loutard (Poemes de la mer, Yaounde, 1968), but one could also think of Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang(Cape Coast Castle, 1996), Joe de Graft (“The Old Sea Chain”), Lenrie Peters (“On a Wet September Morning”), Gabriel Okara (“One Night at Victoria Beach”) and Kofi Awoonor (“The Sea Eats The Land at Home”).

Brew's poem captures the gradual decline of Keta, a coastal Ghanaian town, due to marine erosion. It is a tightly locked sequence of three stanzas, each of which begins with a spatial determiner, rooting both speaker and reader into place. For this reason the first stanza starts here, the second continues over there and the third brings us back here. We end where we started, with the persona standing guard over what is left of his ruined home.

Back to the first stanza. The narrator's ancestral home has fallen, he informs us, despite countless sacrifices to the gods. All that is left is the wall, itself crumbling for faults which our destiny / has blossomed into crimes. Though we are not told the specific nature of these faults, we are made are aware that they have metastasised. The problem is first noticed in the home, specifically the family’s sacrificial alter, the point of contact between man and deity.

In the second stanza the narrative pulls back a bit, this time to frame the desolation in both meteorological and metaphysical terms. The reader is immersed even more firmly into what happens when a community gets on the wrong side of its gods. At the heart of this is a multigenerational curse, and all are obliged to serve time, even the speaker’s own father. There are two things peculiar with the curse. First, whoever inherits it comes to the realisation that the only condition that offers respite is childhood. However, since no one can remain a child forever, the curse awaits everyone. Second, the curse is infused with colour symbolism – red and black being the colours of mourning in Ghana. The clouds were thickening in the red sky / And night had charmed / A black power into the pounding waves. Red is associated with bleeding, danger and things forbidden, and ''appears in various shades at the longer-wavelength end of the visible spectrum''. This community would bleed itself out, and omens have been signposted for all to see, even in the sky. Black consists “optically in the total absence of colour”, again, there is no way out of this. In between red and black appears night, that time between sunset and sunrise. Night is significant here because it is the talisman which activates the sea's destructive impulse, out of sight and far from any help.

In the third stanza the speaker removes himself from the scene, and in what Seamus Heaney calls “the thin quatrain”, focuses on the plight of the community’s women. Even as it swallows everything in its way, the carnivorous sea rejects the town's female inhabitants and only men are allowed to carry this burden. Under the onslaught of the curse, the old patriarchies still undergird conceptions of what contributions women, the other half of the population may make. Theirs is simply to pack and leave, to erode into the arms / Of strange towns. They are denied any chance to rebuild their crumbling town. It is true that these strange towns might provide opportunities for renewal, for there they would have the chance to start again, but only at the expense of their own community. The narrator returns to colour symbolism again, and Keta's golden girls would lose their shine and be stripped of their identities once they venture into other towns. Gold, that symbol of permanence, turns to dross under the onslaught of this curse.

By the end of the poem we realise that the poet is telling us a morality tale, complete with a lesson. This is the story of how Keta became its own Atlantis, how all the men disappeared, and how the women survived but not intact. By incorporating the morality tale, we see how Brew absorbs an older narrative structure from the folk tradition.

There are two ways one could look at this poem over all. First, that it is not for nothing that the persona takes us through his history, for his intention is to make us identify and empathise with his town’s destiny. He is aware his gods and ancestral cults have failed him, and realises any positive outcome would have to depend on human agency. His community has come to an end as a viable entity because his people appealed to the wrong kind of god. This is why he is no longer willing to stand by the old mandate and maintain the supposedly unchanging bond between man and the supernatural. Through the power of the printed word he leaves the reader to carry this fight on. He trusts the reader to make an appeal on his behalf, this time to a secular god – the political state – because the resources needed to turn his town’s fortune around are only available to the secular state.

Second, one could argue that the persona is convinced this is the end of the road, period. He takes the time to allow us a peek into his world so that he can pass on the knowledge that no system of thought endures forever. At any rate, when he is gone, there will be no one to worship his old gods. Both humans and the supernatural failed to realise that Keta's problem has always been one of geological determinism, and no amount of libations can turn the sea back. Just as the sea nibbles at the land until there's nothing left, so do whole cultural systems come to end, and when they do, no amount of shoring would hold them up.

While this essay situates Brew’s poem within the African marine poetic tradition, its approach is by no means exhaustive. It would be wrong to think that the seascape poetry of Africa is modern. There is a wealth of material from sea shanties, lullabies and work songs if one pays any attention to the traditions of coastal people. The extract below is my own translation of a Ga folk song:

Wote nsho le naa (We went to the beach)
Fen nye wo (We were cold, so cold)
Wotee woya wu nsho le (We took a swim)
Obi le yagbla tsaani (While your child hauled in a seine net)

Another way to access this particular poetic tradition is to take a close look at the poetry about slavery, For this, one could turn to poets like Tati Loutard and Opoku-Agyemang. Again this is not new. The dirge below, translated from Ewe, is believed to have been composed by captives waiting to be carried off by slave ships. Gbodzo was the name of the local slave trader.

Avie mata na Gbodzo yee (I shall rub Gbodzo with tears)
Avie mata na Gbdozo yee (I shall rub Gbodzo with tears)
Fu nade gbe (The sea may roar)
Ga nade gbe yee (The irons may clank)
Nye wukula meva hade o (The rower has not yet arrived)
Avie mata na Gbodzo yee (I shall rub Gbodzo with tears) (1)

The dirge above offers an insight into the influences of a poet like Kofi Awoonor whose “The Sea Eats The Land at Home”(the other Keta poem), I urge the reader to take a look at. There is a way in which texts allude to, complicate and enrich each other. Both poems assume a social realist stance, harnessing artistic practice in the service of a common good – the plight of Keta. However, each incorporates different traditional narrative forms to achieve very different outcomes. Brew's narrator, in the manner of a story teller imparting a morality tale, takes an almost dispassionate tone. On the other hand, Awoonor's – a dirge, occupies a more personal imaginative ground, its tone accusatory, and as is the case with all dirges, a complaint against prevailing conditions.

(1) Acheampong, E. (2001) 'History, Memory, Slave-Trade and Slavery in Anlo (Ghana)', Slavery and Abolition, 22: 3, 1-24


L.S. Mensah is a frequent OGOV contributor. Read more of her work here.
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