RETHINKING AFRICA; REVIEW BY MATT SIMPSON

THE CALABAR TRANSCRIPT
by Andrew Peek, 120pp, $21.95, Five Islands Press, PO Box U34, Wollongong University, 2500, Australia

Those who know anything about Australian poetry will need no persuading of its strengths and the vigorous contribution it makes to cultural life down-under. To those who don’t there is much to be recommended. An anthology, like The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Australian Poetry
edited by John Tranter and Philip Mead, would be a good place to start.

The Calabar Transcript
is a fine addition to the body of Australian poetry – and indeed to poetry generally. Its British-born author spent three years at the University of Ife in Nigeria, before going to Tasmania, where he has now been teaching Creative Writing and Post-colonial Literature for several years. The Calabar Transcript is based on Peek’s experiences of Africa. It is in a sense a work of deconstruction.

It is divided into three sections. The first, Beneath Lion Mountain,
questions our notions of ‘Africa’ and the myths that have been – to use a word from the back cover – fabricated
about it. Out of fascination and bewilderment (as evinced in the West’s earliest contacts with the Dark Continent) comes subsequent cruel exploitation. The poems in this section offer a variety of perspectives which enable us to challenge these myths and assumptions. The second part, Zip!
, takes into modern Africa and exposes consequences as they exist in the real world of today, while part 3 constitutes a gripping narrative account, as told by King Ovonramwen, ruler of Benin – who died in exile at the beginning of the twentieth century – of tragic events involving destruction wrought in his kingdom by British forces. In this part, entering the narration, we become African ourselves…though perhaps only like the actor preparing to play Othello by smearing on ‘greasepaint daubed with bootblack’.

Now if this sounds programmatic (one may be reminded of Keats’s pronouncement about hating ‘poetry that has a palpable design upon us’) such is not the case. Peek manages the ‘big subjects’ more effectively and tellingly – than more overtly propagandist or anti-propagandist writing might do – by subtly understating. This is not to deny protest poetry its legitimacy and passion. With Peek it is always powerfully obvious where his sympathies lie. But he is not a poet who wears his heart on his sleeve. His poems do not shout or talk at
you: they require you to imaginatively enter the experiences being poetically enacted in them. They are quiet, movingly thoughtful poems wanting to make you see in Conrad’s (and Heart of Darkness did keep coming to mind as I read them) sense of the word – that is, to imaginatively realise a truth. The poems all head for and hit the target before you know it.

What Peek offers us is a view of Africa as process
involving a set of clashing perspectives: between what is imagined and what is real (it is not for nothing the poet frequently contrasts experience gained from photographs, films, play-acting, and the tourist vision of the world in which we all participate – voyeuristically and selectively – with the real things). Historical accounts fare no better: they tend to bolster up preconceptions and hidden agendas. Inevitably there is an elegiac cast to these poems: a lament for loss, waste, distortion of truth and of people’s lives – and a compassion for various derelicts, as well as an admiration for survivors and those who manage to hold on to dignity despite the odds.

The poems do make you see
. And that means they give you fresh understanding at a more profound level than any reasoned argument hopes to do. They challenge and change your view.

Take this poem called ‘What Would They Do?’:

            After dark, a hyena slopes
            to and fro while the camp’s Masai
            guard with his great coat and broken rifle

            is busy patrolling a Maginot Line affluent
            European tourists crisscross every day
            flaunting themselves, their money,

            their Nikons. They won their war long ago
            and enjoy roughing it now, rich on history’s
            pickings, ‘making safari’, bivouacked

            between mud-streaked four-wheel
            drives, where guides bed down. At
            first light, cooks gather firewood

            and sizzling bacon smells draw eagles
            from the sun. “Such people”, he thinks,
            this guard, “knowing nothing of danger,

            war-lords, northern raiders. Faced
            with a sorry hyena, even, what
            would they do?”

The poem’s ‘point’ is made straightforwardly in a simple contrast. However a second reading reveals how subtly it is done. It is as if we are watching a film when suddenly a character steps forward and shocks us with his real thoughts, which, in turn, shocks us into the realisation that we have been caught out (as much as the safari tourists) in an act of voyeurism ourselves.

This book is worth any number of texts that turn post-colonial conscience into academic study.  
 
            © Matt Simpson 2003