Kofi Anyidoho’s The Place We Call Home and Other Poems is a musical composition in three movements; a lyrical dance to a throbbing drumbeat and a painfully truthful examination of history, ancestry and regret. It provides a patriotic cultural insight into Africa yet does not shirk from, nor seek to glorify, reality and hurt. It questions the validity of heroism, provides a fresh look at words, and celebrates dreaming.
The opening poem, “Prelude”, is driven by an audible beat through the rhythmic chorus, “And The Drums/The Drums guide out feet/In this backwards-forwards dance/this forwards-backwards dance”. The poem’s title indicates its purpose, establishing the tone for a collection which can be viewed as a synthetic whole. It is effective, setting a dance rhythm and drumbeat which ululates, and this is built upon throughout. Images of movement, from rising rainbows and rolling thunderstorms to the reflections playing in the “pools” of a woman’s eyes, decorate in vivid colour.
Dance is not simply a decoration, however. In “Gatheringthe Harvest Dance”, Anyidoho gives rhythms to each aspect of planting and harvesting – a process which has in itself a seasonal rhythm. Through these important rhythms, he interweaves a narrative of African-American society – being “snatched” from a homeland, to forgetting the “songs” of home before regaining the peace to look back proudly and re-celebrate. Anyidoho suggests it is justifiable to feel the raw anger of silent generations, as well as to look towards new growth, rooted in the positivity of a musical, dancing “ancestral” homeland. Rhythm – both danced during harvests, and patterned in departures and returning – takes centre-stage in literature, in life, and in the definition of home.
The text is accompanied by an audio CD featuring the author reading his work. Listened to alongside the poems, this CD lends a further musical dimension to the work. Anyidoho sings traditional songs between poems, further adding to the latter’s lyricism. If the poems are read first without the accompanying audio version, listening to the author’s own interpretation afterwards offers alternative interpretations, injecting new character and strength of feeling. Read alongside, the reader will slow the pace, savouring the sound, as Anyidoho does.
The vocals enhance the poems’ meanings. Anyidoho does not always remain faithful to the page, often purposefully repeating words, sentences and even whole verses in his readings. The child’s questioning at the end of “Killed by Friendly Fire”, reading plainly “Will Daddy return in a new Movie about Baghdad?”, and the final “The SunSet Gone Down in Nuna’s Eyes” in “Gifty: The Girl who Died”, only appear once on the page, yet, when reading the poem’s Anyidoho repeats them. In doing so, he forces the listener to linger on mortality and the brutality of such situations. Unapologetically, he emphasises the pain inflicted by humans on their own species.
The musical intervals thus serve a further purpose. Anyidoho does not shy away from speaking strongly about subjects such as war, the cruelty of slavery, or the loss of life at 9/11. He does not dress such incidents in moralistic arguments or conceited imagery, but speaks accessibly and painfully. The poems are heavy-hitting, giving the reader the harsh realities, devoid of reason or justice. Yet, elsewhere, Anyidoho also has the courage to admit that the pain of such events, although always remembered, will lessen with time. This is perhaps an unsettling sentiment. The musical intervals are thus not simply supplements; they provide momentary release and reflective space, just as others may use imagery or argument.
Anyidoho’s work caters for a large audience: those wishing to be entertained through music and dance, and those seeking intellectual engagement and a fresh perspective on culture and mortality. From the resonance of the drumbeats in the first poem, the book has an echoing quality – both in rhythm and in the staying power of its argument and images. Combined with Anyidoho’s strong vocal performance, the poet presents a portrait of a humankind too often cruel and cowardly, but which will always be able to dance.
Catriona Ward Sell