How Poems Work #4 - Rob Taylor on Nana Agyemang Ofosu's "18 Miles to Yeero"

The following is the fourth 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. Nana Agyemang Ofosu's "18 Miles to Yeero" initially appeared on our site on November 27th, 2010, and that original posting can be read here.

18 Miles to Yeero - Nana Agyemang Ofosu

The car ran like a hare’s sprint
In a blink we left them to squint
To see us through the vaporizing sand
The whole mass of brown land
Danced in the atmosphere

The journey was not smooth
So rough like an aching cough
Soon I was at Kadoli
And I anticipated Gudayiri

Along the route I numbered the houses
About thirty at Kadoli
And the rest I considered abandoned
The place was a corpse

But at Kadoli we met two women
Each with a child wrapped at the back
Their destination, Gudayiri
But they were nowhere near

They had walked miles with dust
On their feet that could turn a pond brown
I was lost in the sweat from their faces
As they jumped in the wagon

Scattered houses along the route
Dilapidated and rotten thatch roofs
Hung loosely on waste-away bricks
Life in the interior, an eye saw

I wished there was space to accommodate
The many more women along the route
Who paddle their hearts, early morning, to Wa
And back with hope of a better life

I am at Yeero
Don’t think it Yaro, a man’s name
In a flash I went round the town

My journey was only an eighteen mile trek
But I saw the countryside
And witnessed the pain of women
And the neglect of remote towns

If you get time tell others
Of these many villages
Where the politicians visit once in four years
Say that we need them to act
And it is now and no other time.

First off, full disclosure: I am the head editor of One Ghana, One Voice. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I am a fan of "18 Miles to Yeero" by Nana Agyemang Ofosu – it is a poem I chose to publish, after all. That said, every poem published on OGOV isn’t automatically a favourite of mine. If OGOV was a traditional literary magazine with a general publishing mandate and four (or less) issues a year, perhaps every poem published would be deeply loved by me. But OGOV isn’t standard by any stretch. We publish weekly and function as much as a community-building forum as a venue to highlight literary gems. So, regularly I will publish poems which aren’t my favourite, but which do something interesting or unexpected, or which show potential (especially in the case of first-time contributors).

Initially, "18 Miles to Yeero" was one such poem. I was intrigued by its content (rarely do we have poems submitted to us that are set in the Upper West region), but little else. Moreover, I was bothered by the sudden dropping of the rhyme scheme after the first stanza (although a full-length poem with an AABBC rhyme scheme would probably have been worse!). Still, the inconsistency concerned me. Nonetheless, I thought the poem was interesting enough to merit publication, so I posted it on OGOV in late November 2010.

In the year that’s passed since then, "18 Miles" has grown to be one of my favourites on the site. I love its rich images, like the “feet that could turn a pond brown” and the roof hanging from “waste-away bricks”. I love the women “Who paddle their hearts, early morning, to Wa / And back with hope of a better life” - the joyous, sweeping nature of the line; how oddly natural the verb “paddling” feels within the dusty scene, “Wa” echoing as “Water” in my mind and on my tongue.

I love, also, the poem’s regionalism. Having only ever travelled through Upper West Region once myself, and briefly at that, all of the place names (beyond Wa) are foreign to me, as I suspect they would be to many readers. But this in no way diminishes the poem. We have all been to towns like Yeero, where you can count all the houses in town as you drive by and “where the politicians visit once in four years”. But by including these rather obscure names, Ofosu is allowing us to feel alienated along with his narrator, as if we, like him, are journeying into an unknown. By tapping universal themes without abandoning an honest description of these real (and remote) places, Ofosu leaves the reader in flux between the known and the mysterious. This, to me, is the optimal space to inhabit as a reader. It is a space rife with possibility for engagement and the discovery of new meaning. And, in part, it is Ofosu’s devotion to regional accuracy that makes entering that space possible in "18 Miles".

I love the end of the poem too, where it takes a turn towards the unabashedly political. This is the kind of turn that many in North America (where I am writing from) would find off-putting, expecting a more “artistic” ending, instead of a direct call for political action. This poem, instead, fits into the rich vein of African literature that faces vital political issues head on. Reading "18 Miles" reminded me very much of Ama Ata Aidoo’s response to a question about the “practicality” of the American “hippie” art of the Sixties:

It comes with freedom - a certain type of freedom which I think no black person in this world has right now. It's almost like doing something which is beautiful and nice because you want to do it - like writing a story about lovers in Paris - it is beautiful, it is nice.... [but] I cannot see myself as a writer, writing about lovers in Accra because you see, there are so many other problems... You know, I feel a responsibility and I feel that it’s the same type of responsibility I think black people all over feel. (African Writers Talking, Heinemann, 1972)

Obviously, much has changed in Ghana since Aidoo spoke these words in 1967. But much has stayed the same, as well, especially in remote Northern towns like the poem's Yeero. So here we have Nana Agyemang Ofosu refusing to talk about lovers in Paris. In a 2010 twist on Aidoo’s 1967 analysis, however, Aidoo waits until the end, like the volta in a sonnet, to spring the political angle on the reader. Ofosu’s is a hybrid poem, then - a descriptive narrative and a political poem fused together by that deep sense of responsibility that has fuelled so much of the best of African writing. Indeed much has changed and much has stayed the same: in poems like Ofosu's the plane may now take off for Paris, but it still lands in Accra, at the gates of Osu Castle.

This brings me to the subject of form (which was the source of much of my original displeasure with "18 Miles"), more specifically that oh-too-smooth AABBC rhyme scheme that opens the poem. What can I say? Here, too, I was won over. At first glance, the poem can seem hastily constructed, as though Ofosu began with a rigorous rhyme scheme and grew tired of its demands after one stanza. Perhaps this is the case, though I doubt it. I doubt it chiefly because of the first unrhymed line, which opens the second stanza: “The journey was not smooth”. With that line, the rhyme scheme falls off, and never recovers. It is as if, in that moment, we have taken a turn off the main highway and on to the potholed dirt road that we will be travelling for the eighteen bumpy miles of the poem.

I’m reminded here of a poem called “Sampling from a Dialogue” by the Canadian poet Don Coles. A poem about an argument between a husband and wife, its form starts off as a traditional sonnet, but slowly unravels as the poem (and argument) proceeds. On the (lucky) thirteenth line, the wife interjects “Well / maybe there is just such a thing as / having enough of somebody”, and the poem’s form falters. The poem ends up being twenty lines (not the sonnet’s traditional fourteen), and both the form and the relationship are left in ruins.*

In both Coles' and Ofosu’s poems, then, a traditional form is played with in order to heighten the felt effect of the poem, with the form itself enacting the content of the poem. It’s a risky thing to do – perhaps the reader will never notice the formal play, or will come to negative conclusions about the abandonment of the form (assuming, incorrectly, that there is only one “right” way to compose a formal poem) – but the payoff can be great.

I was originally one of those readers who missed the payoff when it came to "18 Miles to Yeero". I’m very glad, though, that I gave it a second chance. I still see imperfections in the poem, to be sure, but these are easily overshadowed by its rich language, form, and content. Poems like "18 Miles" humble me as an editor – there isn’t enough time on earth to carefully give multiple readings to every poem submitted to OGOV, but when I rediscover a poem like "18 Miles", I wish there was. I fear what I might have missed publishing over the years. But at the very least I can be happy that this poem made it out there.

I encourage our long-time readers to go back through our archives and find some poems that you may have overlooked, and encourage our new readers to discover those same poems for the first time.

* I owe a debt here to Zachariah Wells, whose anthology Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets (Biblioasis, 2008) introduced me to both the poem itself and to the sonnet hidden away within its twenty lines.

Rob Taylor is a Co-Founder and Editor at OGOV. You can read more of his writing here.


Nana Agyemang Ofosu said...

Great piece of work and i enjoyed it. It really tackles the poem from my perspective and it reveals my intentions as to the structure and the style. No wonder Rob is my favorite editor

adjei agyei-baah said...

This poem has been one of my all time favorite by my fellow poet. I quite remember i personally called him to congratulate him for sharing his first time experience at the Northern part of Ghana with those of us who had never been there before.

His use of imagery in this piece is superb as it leaves a mental picture that calls for awareness and immediacy and further chastises the politicians for not doing much for the distant folks.

It therefore come to me as no surprise when Roy thought it wise to revisit this poem for a critical appreciation for us enjoy one more time.

Once again,Kudos my creative friend and let's together keep the poetry banner dancing.