How Poems Work #3 - Prince Mensah on Darko Antwi's "The Burial of Saint Domeabra"

The following is the third 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. Darko Antwi's "The Burial of Saint Domeabra" initially appeared on our site on September 11th, 2010, and can be read in full here.


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O Saint Domeabra… that Friday dawn
that dawn when you died at AbrepƆ,
your kinsmen dragged your body –
through the long woody quiet path
that goes to your primal village.

One could barely hear the singing birds.

Darko Antwi opens “The Burial of Saint Domeabra” by calling Domeabra a “Saint”. He does this without letting us know what Domeabra had done in life to merit being so called. It is interesting, then, that even though Domeabra is said to be a Saint, his "kinsmen dragged" his body, instead of carrying it, as is customarily done, "through the long woody quiet path/that goes to your primal village." From the words in the first stanza, it can be deduced that St. Domeabra’s death occurred before morning. This makes the news of his death the first thing that people heard about that day. His body is hurriedly "dragged" from AbrepƆ to his "primal village". I wonder why there is a rush to bury him. If he was of importance to his kinsmen, they neither would have dragged his body nor would they have rushed to bury him. However, the tragedy sinks deep in the heart of nature, so that "one could barely hear the singing birds". It is believed in Ghana (and other parts of Africa) that the skies turn dark when great men die. Even though the kinsmen do not accord St. Domeabra’s body any respect, nature becomes silent because of him.

It was so quiet – a whisper could explode.
No maid had been out to the wells
and the boys who run helter skelter at noon
were still on their bamboo mats,
dreaming snail-hunt and rattraps.

In the second stanza, the silence has become infectious. There is no activity; no work by the maid, no play by the boys. Everyone is "still on their bamboo mats/dreaming snail-hunt and rattraps." Once again, the question rises: why are they not meditating on the life and times of St. Domeabra? Was it only a routine courtesy to be paid or a sincere pause to mourn a friend?

Domeabra, that day of your death,
your people cried – but not unto your soul.
For they delight in bodies more than life.
Yet, no sooner had they worn red and black
than their pestles and mortar put aside.

The third stanza answers the why in the preceding stanzas. People cried upon hearing about Domeabra’s death but it was not to mourn his soul's passing. It was just another funeral; another life wasted by death. This is where Antwi begins his subtle dig against cultural addictions to the performances of rites superseding the importance of the people in them – For they delight in bodies more than in life. Domeabra was more worthy to his people dead than alive. At least, they could raise money through nsuwa (monetary contributions by friends to the family of the deceased). They could wear red and black (colours of mourning) in the same breath as "their pestles and mortars" were put aside.

At the graveyard, I eavesdropped,
they were telling a thousand tales about your life:
the lemons, the salt, the god and the demons in you.
Yehowah! each person knows what or who killed you,
all too compelling – but none trustworthy.

In the fourth stanza, the poet listens to testimonies about the deceased; he hears "a thousand tales" about Domeabra. He hears bizarre stories that border on the absurd and the mystical. The stories about Domeabra are "all too compelling – but none trustworthy." The area gossips "know what or who killed" Domeabra but it seem no one was able to pre-empt his death. Antwi mocks the myths and legends that tend to be told after people die. All of a sudden, everybody seems to know some powerful secret about the deceased; everyone wants to be seen as an expert on the deceased's life (and death).

If I should say: you were without fault,
I will be defying Romans and Corinthians.
None of your accusers is righteous though
– amongst them are many two-leftfooters
who can guess the skeletons in their cupboards?

In the fifth stanza, the poet does something that Domeabra’s people should have done all along: he mourns the dead man. The poem becomes a dirge. He sees the Saint as a flawed man, a man no less than his self-righteous accusers. This stanza reminds me of Mark Anthony’s words in Act III, Scene II of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;

In the poet’s eyes, it is not Domeabra who is on trial. It is his people and their attitudes about his passing. It is not about Domeabra’s character; it is about his people’s callousness. Antwi uses biblical allusion in the line "If I should say: you were without fault,/I will be defying Romans and Corinthians." In the Bible, the Book of Romans talks about the fact that all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. The Book of Corinthians covers the subject of life after death.

The use of Biblical allusion in this stanza betrays the subtle dance between tradition and Christian beliefs promoted by the society Antwi is writing about: St. Domeabra’s soul is consoled with scriptural themes. This is key to understanding the context of Domeabra’s "sainthood". At this point in the poem, the dead man’s memory, though dishonoured by his own people, is immortalized through the use of Christian concepts. It is important to note that Domeabra was not given a native appellation at death, he was given a Christian designation. This raises a few questions about his society: Do they give credit to their own as much as strangers praise them? Is this a validation of Christ’s saying in John 4:44 that “a prophet has no honour in his own country”? What has the practice of culture done to the way we treat ourselves?

Domeabra, when you were buried,
that day, that very day, I bathed with palmwine
And ripped my heart into shreds of reed
(I ripped it bleeding with hands of gorilla)
But, sorry, I couldn’t have joined you in the grave.

In the sixth stanza, we do not hear about Domeabra’s kinsfolk at all. This is because the poet has taken over the role of chief mourner as he "bathed with palmwine/And ripped [his] heart into shreds of reed." The poet does everything that is humanly possible to mourn the dead but sets a limit to what he can do – he cannot "join [him] in the grave." At this point the poet stops mourning and begins searching for meaning. He scans through images at the funeral and finds none that satisfy his search. Because of this, the poet starts seeking beyond the physical depiction of things.

The sixth stanza is poignant in its description of alcoholic binges at funerals. The usual Ghanaian village funeral scene is a mixture of cold palm wine and hot tears. Antwi refutes the half-hearted me ne wo be ko'ooo (I shall go with you) funeral chant in the last line of the sixth stanza - "But, sorry, I couldn’t have joined you in the grave."

Domeabra, look, when you die again,
let them bury you where you would die
because no piece of land repels a corpse.
Humans may fail or pretend therefore
but earth is a kind keeper of us all.

The seventh stanza carries hints of rejuvenation and/or reincarnation where the poet speaks to Domeabra’s soul: "Domeabra, look, when you die again,/let them bury you where you would die"

The poet chooses not to speak to others about St. Domeabra; he speaks directly to the “Saint” himself. He sets a defiant tone against every ingredient of this tragedy: it is directed at death, the community and its customs. The poet subtly digs at the cultural insistence that a man be buried where he was born, "because no piece of land repels a corpse." The poet finds it in his heart to be forgiving of how Domeabra’s kinsfolk handled his final rites. The final words of the poem reassure the restless spirits of the disrespected dead to understand that "Humans may fail or pretend therefore/but earth is a kind keeper of us all", for nature does not fail where humans falter.

The seventh stanza resonates with people who live in a land faraway from the land of their birth. There is this tendency by culturally obsessed Ghanaians, who live in Diaspora, to insist on being taken back to Ghana after they die. Instead of being buried in the "foreign land", their corpses are flown back to Ghana as special cargo. This incurs a heap of expenses for their family members, forcing them to use funds that could go into enhancing the education and/or sustenance of a living person. It is a belief held among Ghanaian tribes that if a person is not buried in their land of birth, their soul will be restless.



"The Burial of Saint Domeabra" is a poem about wandering, about the nomadic in life, who seek closure by being brought home to rest. Darko Antwi questions why wanderers seek closure, why Domeabra chose his primal village to be his final resting place and not AbrepƆ. Or perhaps everything was decided for him once he was dead. He was not there to choose how his funeral was organized; he was not there to monitor how he was buried. He was not present to judge the fake tears that were shared for him. He was dead and gone; no disrespect of his body and memory could faze him any longer. At that instance, the poet becomes his voice, his means of expression in a world wherein he is silenced on all levels.

The title of the poem is splendid, from a linguistic point of view. Domeabra is a derivative word of the Akan phrase, Se wo do me a, bra which means "If you love me, come to me". Anyone who has attended a Ghanaian funeral would remember seeing multitudes of people. The fact remains that a huge part of the multitude never knew the deceased in personal terms. Some of them are distant relatives, others are old acquaintances (or friends of friends) and the rest are curious folk who want to be part of the funeral. They all attend the funeral because there is a thin line of love, a human solidarity with the dead person. It is assumed that people normally do not attend the funerals of people they dislike. Peter Tosh’s famously declined to attend Bob Marley's funeral, for instance. Hence, the crowd at a funeral is assumed to be present because they "love" the deceased. Everyone becomes a Saint when they die, because it is considered dishonourable to speak ill of the dead. Domeabra was a simple man, who made mistakes in life but, in death, he is canonized by villagers bound by customary practices.

"The Burial of Saint Domeabra" tackles our cultural obsession with funerals and, by extension, places of burial. With brutally honest humour, Antwi lays into deep seated cultural practices that adore corpses but do not attend to the needs of the living.

There is symbolism in Antwi's use of seven stanzas to convey the themes in this poem. In Akan funeral rites, seven horns called the Menson are blown to remember the dead. It is the same idea as the twenty-one gun salute for fallen soldiers. In many cultures and religions, seven means completion and for the poet, a practicing Seventh-Day Adventist, the seventh day is a day of rest (according to the order of creation). In the Akan language, God is known as Kwame, the name given to a male born on the seventh day. Antwi’s use of seven stanzas to commemorate the passing of Saint Domeabra satisfies a native ritual. The intertwining of cultural symbolism gives this poem refreshing distinctiveness. Antwi hopes that, after all the brouhaha in the village concerning his burial, Saint Domeabra will finally find rest in death. Antwi does exactly what poetry is meant to be: commenting on very deep issues in very few words.

His use of Twinglish (a linguistic mix of Twi and English) in the phrase, "Saint Domeabra," is one of the many powers that this poem uses to convey its themes. It is about time for us, writers of African descent, to be creative on multiple levels when it comes to language. Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o were unapologetic with the use of native words in their prose. Poetry in Ghana, as a microcosm of African poetry, has been reluctant to give the rest of the world a taste of our beautiful languages. It is about time African poets and writers put their words where their hearts are. The use of a local word or phrase as the pivot of a poem urges the English speaker/reader to understand a word that is not native to his/her tongue. African writers can inject this instrument of linguistic reciprocity to achieve seven main objectives:

1. To forge new words made out of their own languages
2. To maintain the use of their native language in a world where other languages are dying or acquiescing themselves to English
3. To give their work authenticity and identity
4. To broaden the lexicon of the English language, which still lacks words that properly describe certain actions, activities and people
5. To keep the contextual integrity of their works
6. To open their world to the rest of the world, and
7. To make their poetry more accessible to the less-educated in their societies.

From the first to the seventh stanza, Darko Antwi creates a sad portrait about forms and intentions. The funeral is the form but is it to honour the dead or enrich the living? The world is the form but are we called "Saints" in zest or in jest? We cannot answer these questions thoroughly. Each person sees a different side of the prisms of life and death. We are thankful that poets like Darko Antwi never cease to remind us of the deep things in life.


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Prince Mensah is an Associate Editor at OGOV. You can read more of his writing here.
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