Book review: Kingdoms of language

Nick Makoha, Kingdom of Gravity, Peepal Tree, £8.99, ISBN 9781845233334
André Naffis-Sahely, The Promised Land: Poems from Itinerant Life, Penguin, £7.99, ISBN 978014198933
Reviewed by Carol Rumens

 “Truth is ugly,” Nietzsche said; also, “We have art in order not to die of the truth”. The two poets reviewed here know the ugliness of the truth in very particular ways. The force of their work lies in that exposure, in itself an argument against power and its erasure of moral meaning.

The London-based Ugandan Nick Makoha writes with a specific aim: to anatomise the tyranny of the Idi Amin dictatorship. As he reveals the horrific local and individual effects of the mass-murderous regime, he transforms the brute weight of propaganda through his linguistic art. Located narrative, rich detail and characterisation (the novelistic arts) combine with the subtly handled devices of oral poetry – repetition, rhyme, refrain, synchronicity. To call the book ‘powerful’ would be to risk the sort of cliché Makoha scrupulously avoids. What matters is the double-thrust of the collection’s power. Neither aesthetics nor ethics are dictatorial: both are guardians of its gravity.

Flight is a key concept. Makoha, aged four, left Uganda with his mother in 1979, propelled by the Civil War which succeeded and was a result of the Idi Amin dictatorship (1971–79). It was a paternal bereavement on several levels. “I was removed from two narratives. The narrative of the Ugandan dictatorial regime and the narrative of my father,” Makoha said in an interview. Understanding and forgiving his biological father, a theme he has already explored in a play, My Father and Other Superheroes, is a vast subterranean context here, but it emerges in the tortured elegiac collage he creates in ‘The Dark’: “Lose epitaphs. I have my father’s eyes // and ratchet smile.” Of his writing about Amin, he has said he is “not sure if it’s a lesson in forgiveness or more of a lesson in cathartic release”. The labour of this kind of imaginative retrieval is that of the tragedian whose gods and mortals are both outside and inside himself.

The narrative is multiple, as if the child had brought with him dozens of stories and voices – in Todorov’s phrase, “a pluralism of subjectivities”. But it is, of course, the mature poet’s vision and perspective which fuse the voices, consolidate the documentary angles. Authenticity is deepened when an auditor is addressed, a “you” as well as a speaking “I”. One of the oral techniques Makoha employs with subtle force is to repeat an imperative. For instance, in ‘The Dark’ the command is both “Lose” and “Bless”; in the brilliant, scathing, chilling judicial sentencing of ‘Deathfall’ it’s “Into the trap”. In ‘Beatitude’, there’s gasping urgency: “Run till you no longer see yourself in other men’s eyes. / Run past sleep, past darkness visible / Stop when you find a country where they do not know your name” (that Miltonic reference to Hell is finely judged). ‘Comrade’ is hammered together by an end-of-line refrain, “and now repeat”. As well as story and drama, there’s a throb of fierce music in many of these poems.

Flight is made literal by aircraft. Makoha has flown/fled to various places (Kenya, Saudi Arabia, France) and the sections of his book-of-flight are headed, not wholly illuminatingly, by IATA (International Air Transport Association) codes. Each section begins with a poem set in the airport or on the plane. These are lighter, perhaps more journalistic pieces, noting the foibles of other passengers, and pinned to their period by popular cultural references. They are moments of respite, in which blood-soaked gravity gives way to the suspended tragi-comedy of high-tech transit.

The opening poem is an aeroplane poem; gentle, observant and with no preparation for what’s to come. Passenger-watching, the speaker has a writerly epiphany and understands “the world is connected by a circle. // The same circle a man might make folding his arms around / another man’s shoulder.” Immediately afterwards, ‘Highlife’ confronts the dictator, and politics become flesh:

Presidency can buy you celebrity.
Wrap your hand around
the right man’s throat

and you can become a member
of the elite. Watch
the shape of a man

in your palms as he longs
for old places.

‘King of Myth’ loads its governing symbolism with harsh, specific weaponry, “axe-heads, shanks, short rope, / blades, some poison”. Hope’s blossoming seems endlessly deferred – in ‘The Republic’:

There will be militia who use barbed wire
to hang men by their genitals
from the arms of trees like cows.

There will be melted corpses chewed
by hyenas at the roadside […]

This is not a morality tale elevating what Vaclav Havel termed “The Power of the Powerless”. Makoha sees how the powerless are ground down and slaughtered. But Havel’s phrase is reversible; when the narrator closes in and circles Amin in the quest for his mind, he reaches a point of imagining the powerlessness of power, its descent into bottomless paranoia. The title poem invokes Alexander the Great: “What makes a man name a city after himself, / asking bricks to be bones […]”. In trying to conjure the apparition of the later “king”, the oracle foretells madness and despair:

But what can I tell you about Kingdom,
about having the world at your feet?
When you have seen all the earth’s boundaries,
you will crave for mirrors, searching for them in streams,
and when the river looks back at you
how will you be sure that nothing is lost?

Kingdom of Gravity warns us not to underestimate Amin, as the West once underestimated him by first promoting him, then pretending the monster it helped create was a figure of fun. The monstrosity is beyond laughter and almost beyond tears. But Makoha never loses control, and in the midst of these ugly, relentlessly true catalogues of bloodshed, his kingdom of language shines.

André Naffis-Sahely, born in 1985, is a decade younger than Makoha, and already well-known as a distinguished translator. The Promised Land is his first original collection. Growing up in Abu Dhabi, of Italian-Iranian parentage, he has a complex inheritance, and his work reflects both the nourishment and impoverishment of displacement.

His moral stance is often ironic, and includes the ironist’s barely veiled disgust. In the title-poem, the “promised land” is Abu Dhabi, the hell and “curséd desert” where the family is sacrificed to the father’s job, and the father also sacrificed (“a German shout[s] at him: ‘Work, nigger, work!’”)

Naffis-Sahely takes effective snapshots, capturing essence with brisk objectivity. Verbal music interests him less: the line’s cadence is often rather prose-like. Journalistic clichés suggest the young reporter’s hasty shorthand. The interspersed prose paragraphs are rarely wrought to the pitch of prose-poems but can be compelling in their casual terseness and the quick sketch of a unique detail, as in ‘The Return’ where the narrator visits his parents’ apartment-block, to find its structure officially mutilated by Planning Regulations: “Most of the building is held up by light interior walls that sound like ripe watermelons when you rap your knuckles against them.”

The figurative language is not reliably original. In ‘An Island of Strangers’, the portrait of the King shows him “always smiling, / like an ad for toothpaste, or mouthwash”. False smiles have often given rise to that analogy. The concluding lines are redemptive, though, a queasily vivid montage of metaphor:

[…] In the thirty-third year of his smile,
the King finally died. His mausoleum is a meringue: wavy,
white, and empty. His sons have gone on squabbling, playing
whose is biggest with bricks. One by one, they die in car crashes.
Days of heatstrokes, kif and bloodthirsty Ferraris.

Naffis-Safely has another register, a wry, parodic version of the flat and clumsy language of official record. In ‘Atticus’, he tells us that history has ensured that none of the sophist’s words is remembered “allowing, by that, no shadow to fall on his memory, / as often befalls a great many of those we hear about, / who gossip without a stray thought for posterity.” The poet’s dry, chilly “long view” from classical times to the present is bracing, but sometimes demands sharper linguistic precision in order to cut to the bone.

The Poetry Review 1073 shadowCarol Rumens’s most recent publication is Perhaps Bag (Sheep Meadow Press, 2017). This review was published in The Poetry Review, 107:3, Autumn 2017. © The Poetry Review and the author.