How Poems Work #2 - Dela Bobobee on Mariska Taylor-Darko's "The Deer Hunt"

The following is the second installment in our "How Poems Work" series. This series aims to give OGOV readers and poets an opportunity to talk about some of their favourite poems previously featured on the site.  Mariska Taylor-Darko's "The Deer Hunt" initially appeared on our site on September 25th, 2010, and can be read in full here.


History of the Aboatyer Festival

The poem “The Deer Hunt” showcases the Aboatyer Festival of the people of Winneba. Like most every other festival in Ghana in particular, and Africa in general, the tenacity of the people of Winneba to their indigenous mores is highly commendable.

It is arguable that all African festivals based on rituals are underlain by an attempt to appease or conciliate somebody or something supreme (a deity). This is also known as propitiation, and it is the historical motivation for the Aboatyer Festival. In this case, the Otuano royal house, which is the custodian of the paramount stool of the Effutu state, observed this ritual once in a year. It is believed that in the past during periods of difficulty; the sons and daughters of Gyarteh Gyan Penyin and their descendants were greatly supported by a deity called Otu. History has it that in their quest for a suitable place of abode, they were guided by the deity on a long, tortuous and windy trail through forests and across rivers, down to their present location. In appreciation, a ritual sacrifice was made, which was meant not only as an act of gratitude but also as a consecration of the deity to renew its powers. At a particular time of the year, the people offered propitiation and sanctify the deity and its sons (the lesser gods) with human sacrifices. But as time went by the human sacrifices were replaced by the “wansan” (deer).

Parading Prior to the Hunt
Nowadays, active preparation towards the festival starts soon after the Easter holidays. Since 1965 the date has been permanently fixed for the first Saturday in the month of May. The Asafo companies consult their shrines for clearance, protection and early catch during the week preceding the festival day. The Tuafo invoke their gods on Wednesday and Thursday whiles the Dentsefo invoke theirs during the week apart from these two days. The gods are invoked indoors between noon and sunset. On Friday, the day proceeding the hunting day, both Asafo companies parade through the town on some selected streets.

The capture of a live deer needs many hands and hence the involvement of the militia or “Asafo” hunters’ groups. It was from this point on that the annual sanctification and appeasement became a public affair. The “Asafo” in Winneba was developed from the local militia initially established by King Bondze Abe. This later became the Tuafo “Asafo” No.1 company. Later his successor and son created the Dense “Safe” No.2 company. It is recognized that the creation of the second Asafo company began the competition and rivalry between the Asafo companies. The competitive spirit made each group eager to bring home the first catch which the needed for the annual sacrifice. This was what gave birth to the Deer Hunt or “Aboatyer” festival.


Based on the general festive depiction of this poem, there can be several levels of interpretations in terms of the contemporary significance of holding fast to one’s cultural heritage. But in my opinion there are some other equally important themes surrounding the uniqueness of Aboatyer Festival in itself.
At first glance, the thematic preoccupation of the poet would appear to be a simple showcase of one of the most popular festivals in Ghana, by using the point of view of a child narrator. This would perhaps easily mislead the reader to regard it as only an occasion of great fun and childish fascination recollected from the nostalgic memoirs of a Ghanaian poet who has left the shores of her native country at a tender age. But in terms of the real cultural significance of the Aboatyer Festival of the people of Winneba, the cogent themes derived are the adaptation of ancient rituals based on compassionate grounds as ethical tenets of humanity, freedom and justice. There are also the themes of reunion and royalty (the significance of the particular family house of the narrator being chosen as the ceremonial converging point for preparation, for the hunters to wear their gears and get ready for the task ahead, and the women to cook for the feast; perhaps means that the narrator comes from a regal lineage of some sort). The poem’s third stanza also showcases to the world and the uninitiated some mouth-watering typical Ghanaian delicacies which bring some thrilling gustatory images to the reader’s mind.

Hunter's Regalia Adorned with Ammunition Cartridge Casings
As we can all rightly affirm from the backdrop of its antecedence, facts reveal that the previous ritual of human sacrifice associated with this festival has been completely erased and successfully replaced with the symbolic sacred deer that must be caught live without the use of weapons. Yes, this goes a long way to say that society is dynamic and so from time to time it reviews and adjusts its cultural practices to reflect its evolving humane ideals. In other words, the poem has entrenched within it the universal theme of human compassion. This also demonstrates that not all of our indigenous African mores or traditions are fetish and heathen as others unfamiliar with our socio-cultural inclinations would make us to believe. The deer represents a redeeming status in terms of a human life, just like the ram replaced Isaac as an object of sacrifice in the biblical account of Abraham’s obedience to God’s directives. Other significant themes of the poem include hunting prowess, heroism, unity, peaceful coexistence, harmony, the adherence and preservation of the rich cultural heritage of the traditional African people.

Point of View

One of the most magical elements of this poem is the fact that the ceremony being showcased is narrated through the point of view of a child. For this, I give Mariska a plus for exceptional artistry and an apt choice of point of view. Her choice of a child narrator gives the poem a peculiar tone of good cheer, simplicity and festivity. The imagery created by the words of the child narrator evoke an atmosphere that is a mixture of tension, relief and celebration.

The Clever Use of Imagery

Perhaps what makes the poem “The Deer Hunt” exceptional is the clever use imagery, the pictures the poet paints in the mind of the reader.  Imagery in poetry is what the words of the poem make the reader 'see' in their imagination. It is the colours, sounds, and sometimes feelings evoked by the poem. Mariska’s smart use of imagery intensifies the impact of the words of her poem as she “shows” us with her words, rather than just “telling” us what she feels. To put the matter concisely: imagery is the content of thought, where attention is directed to sensory qualities: mental images, figures of speech and embodiments of non-discursive truth.

Psychologists identify seven kinds of mental images — those of sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, bodily awareness and muscular tension.  All these imageries are available to poets, and are used by poets, though rarely to the same extent as Mariska uses them. The effects Mariska achieves are various. She uses imagery to externalize thought, create mood and atmosphere, develop plot, and increase dramatic effects by abrupt changes in imagery. She achieves all this in a very clever way. Let me use an example to explain this. When I mention the effect achieved to develop plot or increase dramatic effect by abrupt changes in imagery, I mean that the poet gives a surprise attack on our emotions: all along she makes us think something different but at the last minute she quickly switches imagery to show us a different scenario. Well, that is what I call clever, isn’t it?

In stanza two, the poet created the imagery of warfare and gore in the reader’s mind:

Dawn was creeping in when the hunters assembled.
They gathered around in their hunting clothes
With sticks, guns, cutlasses, bows and arrows
Looking fierce and frightening
To a young child like me.

What are the images of combat, gore, violence, bloodshed, death, etc? They are sticks, guns, cutlasses, bows and arrows. But the surprise comes at the end –  “Did our men catch the elusive deer!”  Yes, they did. The men “caught” the elusive deer – live (without recourse to any of the kind of weapons listed).

The men came jogging with branches so green
The deer held high looked frightened with big eyes so brown

Perhaps we can rightly compare this clever use of imagery to this short poem, written by Robert Herrick in the 17th century, as it provides us with a very good example:

Here a pretty baby lies
Sung asleep with lullabies:
Pray be silent and not stir
Th' easy earth that covers her.

In the first three lines, the reader is made to believe that the speaker is describing a sleeping baby. But at the fourth line, this understanding is shaken. The baby is covered, not by a blanket, but by earth. That is, the baby is dead.  This realization can produce a sharp emotional reaction, an almost physical pang. And this effect on the reader is the "work" that this "machine of words" is designed to do. Although this poem is not humorous, its "mechanism" is akin to that of most jokes: a sudden alteration of perspective produces an immediate and visceral response.

Other literary techniques, such as metaphor, simile, allegory, personification, metonymy (attribute for whole) and synecdoche (part for whole), all involve imagery. Often the things compared are both images, but one of them may also be a feeling or concept. For example, in stanza nine, apart from gustatory imagery in the first sentence below, which other type of imagery is used in both quotes?

Lick our lips and act like scattered chicks” 

“With their sticks shaped like little whips,”

Simile: a figure of speech in which one thing is compared to another, typically using the word “like” or “as”.  The playful children portrayed in a party mood are being likened to chicks, and their busy mothers lashed out with sticks when the children went near the food.

It should be noted that while Mariska makes frequent use of the various types of imagery mentioned above, she also made sure she does not overuse them. How does she achieve that? She avoids employing any unnecessary clich├ęs that might weaken the overall effect. The imagery comes naturally, and aptly achieves the intended effects.


The Hero of the Day
In the poem “The Deer Hunt”, Mariska paints pictures in the reader’s mind through the use of literary techniques, simple descriptions and a vivid narrative. As shown above we can see that in her use of imagery in the poem, the poet has been very careful not to mix metaphors too wantonly. Shakespeare did that, but we all know that fashions change because society is not static but dynamic. The overall intended effect is brilliantly achieved. How? She uses images that are new-struck and rich. 

Today, the Aboatyer Festival of Winneba can truly be regarded as one of the most popular and spectacular festivals in Ghana in terms of the ever increasing number of tourists that throng yearly to witness it. It is my hope that Mariska Taylor-Darko’s poem “The Deer Hunt” will go a long way in helping to also give the deserved publicity and exposure of the festival beyond the shores of Ghana. On the symbolic level it represents other themes which can be regarded as more complex. The circumstances surrounding the symbol of “wansan” (the Deer) is socio-cultural in nature, an ancient ritual of propitiation as deep as the mystery of earth itself.

1.       Del Tufo, J. P. (1965) What is Poetry? Publication Office: Ateneo de Manila University. 
2.       Drew, E. H. (1933) Discovering Poetry. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. 
3.       Louise Bogan, The Pleasures of Formal Poetry, in Reginald Gibbons (ed.), The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets On The Origins And Practice Of Their Art (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1979

The photographs used in this essay are by Kofi Nyan Amoako of Winneba, and are used by permission of the photographer. 


Dela Bobobee is a frequent contributor to OGOV. You can read more of his work here.
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