How Poems Work #5 - L.S. Mensah on Prince Mensah's "Fresh Memories of an Old Village"

The following is the fifth 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. We have a special treat this time, as L.S. Mensah brings us a new poem never before published on the site - Prince Mensah's "Fresh Memories of an Old Village".

---
Fresh Memories of an Old Village - Prince Mensah

Bare trees and barren earth
Trapped in afternoon silence
Haunted by songs of forlorn
Children left behind by dead
Parents and fleeing relatives.
They watch the dance of dead leaves,
Choreographed by the whirlwind,
Moving to unheard music.
They wait and wait and wait
To awaken with faith,
Expecting this ghost village
To become what it once was.
(Reprinted by author's permission.)

There are many things one could do with a poem. Sometimes like water, a poem can exist in different states: a liquid, a solid, a vapour in the air. Sometimes it is like light, both wave and particle. In the same way, when one reads a poem like Prince Mensah's, “Fresh Memories of an Old Village,” one could take a number of things from it, such as the paradoxical title which sets up the abstract noun fresh against the concrete noun village. One might even see the phrase fresh memories as an oxymoron. By the time we speak of memory/memories, we are already in the past, and so the two words begin to peel away from one another. One could pick up the poem's resemblance to Kwesi Brew's “The Dry Season” and point out that the difference between the two is that while the stripping in Brew’s poem is inevitable, the harrowing in Mensah's is caused by humans. We can also break the poem into, say, three parts, where the poet places his full stops, and from there analyse them. I’ll try to do that, but my main task here is to pick a word/image, and see where that leads.

If you want to know about whirlwinds, the place to go is The Hebrew Bible, also called the Old Testament. But first a detour – the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “whirlwind” as “a column of air moving rapidly round and round in a cylindrical or funnel shape.” The dictionary then concentrates on its cyclical/spherical/curved shape; and passages like Isaiah 5:28 seem to bear that out:

“Whose arrows [are] sharp, and all their bows bent, their horses’ hoofs shall be counted like flint, and their wheels like a whirlwind:”

It seems that every time the whirlwind appears, it is accompanied by an action word, though not always that of a rolling motion. Sometimes there is a scattering, a carrying off, etc. The OED traces the word's etymology to sometime in the High Middle Ages, around 1340; and since the Bible predates it, it is not difficult to see how the definition then is not designed to express the more complex meanings the word connotes in the bible. Biblical scholars remind us that the whirlwind “is not restricted to a rotary movement of air”; it can also be translated as “storm”, “tempest” or “storm-wind” as in Job 21:18 “They are as stubble before the wind, and as chaff that the storm carrieth away,” or Deutero-Isaiah 54:11 “O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, [and] not comforted ...”

I took it upon myself to ask the poet Prince Mensah about whether he had any biblical images in mind while writing the poem He told me in an email exchange that the whirlwind was his channelling of Hosea 8:7, which states: “For they shall sow wind and reap a whirlwind”. Hosea ben Beeri was an 8th century prophet who prophesied in the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the reign of Jeroboam II, when Assyria's hegemonic ambitions in the Ancient Near East were clear for all to see. Hosea prophesied under the Sinai tradition; which emphasises the centrality of the Mosaic covenant. Ancient Israel brings God's judgement upon itself if it strays from the demands and conditions set by Yahweh at Sinai. Their punishment therefore is as a result of their own sins.

If we follow this reasoning then the barren landscape in the poem is as a result of the adults abrogating their responsibilities. Let's take a look at the first part of the poem:

Bare trees and barren earth
Trapped in afternoon silence
Haunted by songs of forlorn
Children left behind by dead
Parents and fleeing relatives.

The first five lines, a single sentence really, run on the heels of each other, and to see where the poet's thoughts lead, one needs to read the next line, and then the next line – it's like peeling an onion, with each succeeding image revealing another. Look at the opening line again: in both bare and barren, you have the verb bar; in this case, to prevent; and there, trapped in the silence, are the children who have been abandoned, both by the dead and the living. We are in an upside down world with no adults, and the humans alive are children, not usually the normal order of things. When we move to lines 6-8 the children

… watch the dance of dead leaves,
Choreographed by the whirlwind,
Moving to unheard music.

Though the leaves share the same condition of death as the parents, the former have been animated by the whirlwind. It is possible that the children, being children, have no idea that when the whirlwind passes things do not get back to what they once were. But if things were not normal to begin with, what would the whirlwind bring? Even in the Hebrew Bible, the whirlwind is not always the eschaton portrayed by the prophets. Its appearance does indicate the overturning of the old order of some sort, as seen by Ezekiel as he stood by the Chabar in Ez. 1:4:

“And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness [was] about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.”

It is clear from what follows in Ezekiel’s vision that the Israelites had never before encountered a situation like that. However in Job 38:1: “the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said...” This theophany is really the beginning of the end of Job's suffering, and in time he regains all he had lost and more. In 2 Kings 2:11: Elijah “went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” There is a possibility then, for a future restoration; even for the world that the poem depicts. As Mensah says again, in an email:

“The whirlwind can also be seen as a comforting element to the children because it 'choreographs' a display for the forlorn children, giving them a semblance of hope in a time of hopelessness.”

They wait and wait and wait
To awaken with faith,
Expecting this ghost village
To become what it once was.

Conclusion

A poem can mean different things at different times, depending on how one looks at it. So can words and images within a poem. The history that a word or an image carries can lead one to a particular reading. In the poet's response, he mentions the words “forlorn” and “hope”; put them together as “forlorn hope”, and you go back to the phrase's origins in the 16th century, all the way through to the Napoleonic Wars, and to the stalemate in the trenches during the First World War. The forlorn hope is usually a group of soldiers selected to lead an attack, and often not expected to return alive. Sometimes a few do return, and these become instant heroes. Their survival is a testament to man's ability to defy the odds, like the children in Mensah’s poem holding out for a hope that just might come.



References

Egblewogbe, M. and Hill, L. (2011). Look Where You Have Gone To Sit. Woeli Publishers.

Douglas, J.D. (1980). The Illustrated Bible Dictionary: Part 3. Intervarsity Press.


---

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