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Coils of Mortal Flesh

2008, author(s)-editor(s) Ba’bila Mutia

The diverse voices in the poems in this collection are unified in the single voice of the omnipresent persona who appears to be searching for a collective voice, some kind of order or rhythm that would impose meaning to life. Reading the poems constitutes an individual journey. This poetic journey from Awakening that takes the reader to Moonlight Spells & Wreaths and leads her/him through Laments to the Epilogue is a continuous movement in the search for humanity’s existence. As a metaphor of self-discovery, the poetic quest is both an expression of, and a search for mankind’s elusive self - that single, unbroken umbilical cord that is firmly rooted in the African experience and identity.

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ISBN 9789956558148 | 84 pages | 216 x 140 mm | 2008 | Langaa RPCIG, Cameroon | Paperback

3 Book Reviews

  • Ba’bila Mutia’s title is evocative; at once it conjures up vivid mental pictures of rows, an abundance of whatever the subject is, piled up like coils. Alas it is an abundance of nothing more than mortal flesh along with its attendant schisms. It is not surprising then that this volume turns out to be a collection of the poet’s experiences, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes frustrating, painful and even disgusting as he grapples with problems straddling the physical and the metaphysical: the quest for meaning in a life that is burdened by problems, hazards, and the apparent lack of total fulfillment from birth to death.

    “Awakening,” the first of four sections which make up this volume, is indeed an awakening. In this section, the poet becomes conscious of the hassle life is; even his time in his mother’s womb is considered a moment of incarceration. Accordingly, one is struck by the many unanswered questions about life which generate an atmosphere that highlights the quest motif in the volume. In a rather disturbing manner, in “Sacrifice,” the remains of a traditional sacrifice, intended to placate the spirits, are found at a crossroads, with a mad man, ironically, chanting in mockery of the misplaced effort:

    Those who hold the
    Secrets of life and death
    Live in the stream (2)

    Although unnamed, “Ntsi Su’ Fu,” the title of the second poem in the volume, turns out in a rather euhemeristic manner to be a stream of great ritualistic significance in the poet’s native soil, since it is here that the Lela flags are washed on the first day of this great annual festival. This same quest for meaning is encountered in “Mo Nkwani” as the poet wrestles with what seems to be the pointless yet tortuous birth and death, rebirth and death cycle of a “recycling spirit” (4) who seems to enjoy the pain it inflicts continuously on its unfortunate parents as it roams the landscape “in mischievous glee of triumph” (4); the poet muses about this rather vicious spiritual dance of this child spirit. Still perplexed, himself trapped in the goings on between the physical and the spiritual realm, the poet explores the physical and the spiritual activities that take place between midnight and dawn in “Dawn” even if it all makes him come across as mad as revealed in “Insanity.” The darkest part of this quest for meaning is when the poet considers life “in the inky blackness/ of some uterine universe,” a prison along with the disillusioning realization that even birth is not a release from this prison but an initiation into another chamber of this chasm of incarceration:

    Of my postnatal cry
    I thought I was free:
    From darkness to
    From confinement to
    The first smells and sounds
    Opened up another world of
    New drumbeats and night. (8)

     In the manner of the Biblical Adam after tasting the forbidden fruit, sparks of enlightenment begin flying at the poet in “Taste,” “After the Apple’” “The Traveler,” “Limbo,” and “Budding Seasons” as it dawns on him that human beings have different preferences. This Adam who possesses nothing, the emptiness and horrors of life as revealed in “The Travelers,” which confirms his apathetic state in “Limbo,” must unearth the meaning of life as all seems possible according to “Budding Seasons” (13).

     Overwhelmed by the spiritual quest in section one, in section two (Moonlight Spells & Wreaths), the poet takes another route—exploring the physical this time. This section, accordingly, begins with thoughts of youthful love until the gaining of carnal knowledge in “Song II”:

    I got swallowed up
    In exuberant passions
    As ripples of dancing shadows
    urged my pulsating manhood
    awaiting initiation in the

    mysteries of ecstatic thighpools.

    I was urged on, and on
    Into the orgasmic abyss
    The colossal crescendo,

    Exploding dormant consciousness
    To novel voyages of discovery. (18) 

    Unlike the near total frustration encountered in the spiritual realm, there is some progress with the quest in the physical even if it is laced with pain and disappointment. The poet’s exploration of the physical is a lot more elaborate and spanning different worlds: from Cameroon through Nigeria to Canada. His findings are not always uplifting as the poet laments his means of discovery in “The Scourge”:

    A million offsprings
    Flushed away
    Into forgotten cisterns,
    Left behind
    In obscured whorehouses (sic, 25).

    The realization of the meaninglessness of so much in life peaks in “Ash” as the poets confesses:

    Such a spontaneous
    of fire and passion
    has now, it seems,
    down to driblets
    of cold ash. (31)

    Yet one cannot help wondering at the unsettling logic of the ideological structure of a spiritual before a physical as the reverse is natural—from the known to the unknown, from the physical and then rising into the spiritual, the mortal into the immortal. Nevertheless, in what seems to be a celebration of a cherished union, possibly marriage, a lot more dawns on this soul in “Twin Spirits” (33). As a result, the now more emotionally and spiritually mature poet is able to accept that which before would have tormented and left him all the more perplexed—death. The poet celebrates the “departure” of Ba Domatub in “Departure” (35) before reluctantly letting go as he mourns the departure of a younger and less accomplished but equally important spirit through death by a traffic accident in “Ebony Drums” (36).

     Section three (Laments), reveals the poet realizing further that life with the attendant ado is almost about nothing. Although he does not regret leaving Calabar in “Adieu Calabar” (38), he laments the death of students during a clash with soldiers in Nigeria, a mirroring of frequent similar happenings in Cameroon. As if reluctantly, Mutia then laments profusely the evolution of our political circus—Cameroon—from the “colonial encounter” in “Dialogue” (41) until the current “Bikutsi” bazaar of a government depicted in “Gong of Nemesis” (43). Completely disillusioned with Cameroon’s political status quo, the poet, in “Obituary” (44), laments the death of Bobe Ngom Jua, one of the few Cameroonians who, even in the face of murderous despotism, could have challenged this dance of infamy by a deranged leadership equally propped by a treacherous Anglophone leadership which ought to know better. In a series of poems not directly connected to, but implying the quest motif, Mutia laments the collapse of West Cameroon’s economic capital, today unproductively renamed Limbe. To Mutia, the renaming of Victoria amounts to a miscarriage in efforts at decolonization as beyond the renaming, hardly anything else has been done to establish that sense of freedom which is a sine qua non for independence or freedom. It is not surprising then, that in “Limbe III” he calls for an opposition to the ruthless plundering and exploitation of this once upon a time economic heartbeat of West Cameroon. This is so urgent that the poet invokes two powerful gatekeepers to the political and cultural integrity of West Cameroon—Ako Aya and Bobe Ngom Jua—to emphasize his appeal. Alas, the rejoinder from Bobe Jua, reminiscent of the spectral atmosphere of the Ancient Mariner’s doomed voyage in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” “…was the spectre-chuckle/From ghost ships anchored in Bota wharf (53). One can only hope the poet is not passing judgment over Cameroon’s reunification by this subtle allusion. The poet laments this unfortunate predicament in “Limbe V: Telegram,” in which invocation he cries out to these West Cameroon ancestors for assistance, telling them nothing has changed, even with the oil. Mutia, in the manner of Ferdinand Oyono in The Old Man and the Medal, then insults and ridicules our current leadership blighted by Western sycophancy and misplaced allegiance in “For Just One Banana” and “Medals of Honour.” This, however, is a section in which the poet comes to terms with both the physical and spiritual side of humankind and the nonsense we have reduced life into.

     In “Epilogues,” therefore, the last section in this volume, the fleece of the quest is handed the poet in “The Ascent” (69), in which he laments the transition of his friend and colossal Cameroonian academic—Bate Besong: life only has meaning if after wriggling through the coils of pain, sadness, and niggardly

    moments of laughter,
    The spirit is lifted up
    Leaving behind the
    Pathos of ephemeral mortality
    To be received in immortality
    & crowned in the
    Cathedral of saints. (70)

  • The poet, has mature physically and spiritually as “Resurrection” (71) reveals; life, with its coils of physical and spiritual gyrations, is all a macabre dance about nothing as even conclusive eulogies serve little. As if shocked by this new insight, the poet pleads in this will of his:

    Strip me as naked
    As the day I was born
    And plant me in
    Four feet of soil 
    In the womb of the earth. (71)

    Thereby, confirming the meaninglessness of life if it has nothing to do with preparing for that final hour through service to society.

     Because the thematic concerns of these poems span decades, it would appear Mutia’s greatest challenge was ordering them in a manner such that he could have a logical sequence congruent with his quest motif while also including some of the poems that were not directly related to the quest, even though all the poems, generally speaking, lead to his ultimate realization and acceptance of the meaning and purpose of life. Stylistically, therefore, Mutia’s volume is a pleasure to read, for it is without that revolting effort at obscurantism; Mutia communicates! Even when his language is almost dense, the difficulty is not purposefully contrived to torture his reader but to facilitate the communication of an intricate idea; it is always obvious a remote or equally complex thought triggered the technique and not that sheer bewildering revelry at obscurantism relished by some poets. The outcome is a poet whose diction is not linguistically jarring nor is his meaning incomprehensible. In that quiet voice, Mutia frequently emerges with an enchanting turn of phrase that is so vividly communicative, so effective his technique and message shock his reader with an ultimate brisk emergence of meaning where none seemed to be lurking. This is the experience reading this stanza which is possibly the most fertile yet subtly eloquent as it retreats into the bowels of history to communicate and convey with a tantalizing clarity the present, the damned plight of our erstwhile fate as a nation summed up in the backwater state of Victoria wharf that once was bustling with activity before the highjacking of our future with a socio-politically nonsensical brew branded “Unity” which gave birth to the laughable appellation “The United Republic of Cameroon”:

    Ako Aya was here to see Ambas Bay 
    And in posthumous error
    Asked to speak to Bobe Ngom Jua.
    What horror?
    The rejoinder was the spectre-chuckle
    From ghost ships anchored in Bota wharf. (53)

    Typical of Mutia’s style, this is a stanza bursting with information couched in insinuations and inferences as herein lies the historical journey of Anglophone Cameroon from independence to the infernal status quo in a reunion that reeks of unpatriotism as, embarrassingly, colonial allegiance remains its main determinant for citizenship. 

     Younger Cameroonians may not easily relate to Mutia’s images, but to older readers, the nostalgia is overwhelming, and this is the raison d’être for such imagery—to preserve our proud history by holding up the disaster we have collapsed into so that the young may not forget where we came from, while remembering to inform themselves of how we got into this tragic predicament. It is lines like these, and they occur frequently, that portray Mutia as an accomplished poet who has slowly but steadily honed his art into an effective vehicle for communication. He is at times an aggressive poet, but this quality lies not in an angry diction, but in that rare ability of effectively weaving simple diction into a potent emotional channel that transports his images and messages to the reader. The results are mental scenes that virtually jump at the reader sometimes while at other moments they succeed in transforming him into a part of the scene or action, at least as an observer; this is Mutia’s strength as a poet. How obvious is the pain and lament in his voice as he reflects on his day together with Etonde in these lines:

    Together under coconut tree shadows
    we clasped hands in youthful mantras,
    victims of false visions
    Enslaved in passion songs,
    in earthworm blindness,
    I let my youthful soul
    flame on, and on
    fanning desires that smouldered
    down to impassive ash. (16)

    It was a time of innocence, when they just believed in their dreams that were never to materialize. Mutia’s diction and his exploitation of literary devices and techniques make concrete, thoughts and otherwise vague actions by transforming them into revealing images. These images can be subtle and gentle, or else harsh and brash if need be, and often smack realization or else discovery in the face of the reader, according him a rather sharp awareness of Mutia’s sometimes embarrassing honesty. As a result, Mutia is able to recapture his younger days back in Cameroon, his years as a young adult, then as an adult and so on. In this light, the arrangement of the poems seems to fall in place. Mutia’s sequential arrangement of his poems may be largely smooth, but the occasional switch from more recent events back to older ones, is a stylistic hiccup to an otherwise smooth sequence and the unfolding of the dominant theme of a quest on the part of the poet. This feeling is sharply felt when one advances from the beginning until “Insanity” (7) physically and ideologically, only to recede physically back into the womb in “Birth Cry” (8). The effect is the same with the occasional use of a persona in some poems, the significance of which is limited as it is all too obvious that persona or otherwise, the message is overwhelmingly Mutia’s. He himself observes in his message to the reader: “…I had ceaselessly been searching for a voice, a kind of order that would impose meaning to my life. The different voices in the various poems are, in reality, a single voice.…” (ix); the voice of Ba’bila Mutia. 

     In spite of the volume’s expansive subject matter and vast geographic panorama which spans birth, love, and death on the one hand; towns, cities, nations and even continents on the other, let alone decades, Mutia’s work is grim and exudes ideas of pain, ideological and physical meandering as the poet wanders about the world in search of meaning to a life that is loaded yet disturbingly near meaningless. Beyond a quest then, Coils of Mortal Flesh is a purgation as the poet bares and rids his soul of recurrent thoughts of mostly unfulfilled yet revealing dreams that amount to a quest for meaning that continued to haunt and torment him. Yes, beyond just the poem “The Scourge,” the volume is “a scourge of purification” (25) just as much as it is a quest. It has dawned on the poet that his search on earth is almost futile: knowledge resides only partially on earth as does genuine love which is mostly beyond this terrestrial realm in its every quintessence. Meaning seems to have come to the poet’s life in the section titled “Epilogue” (68), with the death of a true friend and scholastic brother—Bate Besong—the moment of “truth and real hope” with thoughts on the meaninglessness of the body and the meaningfulness of the spirit occurring to the poet as he verbalizes his realization: for life to have meaning, all of man’s deeds, thoughts, and actions must be directed towards “the transcendence of a spiritual resurrection when the body is dissolved and the fettered Word [soul] is ultimately set free” (ix). 

     In all then, Coils of Mortal Flesh, rich in themes and technique, amounts to a moral treasury as Mutia’s main concern—the search for meaning in life—is every responsible human being’s. This is communicated in such rich language which conjures up scenes loaded with universal emotional spills and nostalgic tempers from childhood to maturity. As a poet, Mutia’s influences are many, but without doubt, his thematic and essential stylistic approach take their rise from the rich substratum of the oral traditions of his people. One may not hear the rhythms pounding like in Niyi Osundare, but the effects of the bright moon on Africa’s nocturnal activities, the spiritual worldview of the Bali people, their tales, songs, and beliefs along with Mutia’s domesticated yet archetypal thematic concerns cannot be missed. Indeed the thematic and stylistic coils of this volume are voluptuous, but time and experience, through attendant lessons and revelations unfurl the layers of difficulty until in the end meaning dawns on the poet and reader alike, with that brilliance of the rising sun from the eastern horizon of an African sky: life only has meaning when one devotes one’s self to the service of humankind all else notwithstanding. It is humankind’s suffering lot then, especially as victims of political machinations, and the quest for meaning and drive in that puzzle called life that are at the fore of Mutia’s powerfully worded scale of feelings in this grim yet enchanting assembly amounting to forty-six penetrating poems piled up into a provocative and sometimes baffling whole befittingly branded Coils of Mortal Flesh

    November 16, 2009.

  • Coils of Mortal Flesh 7 May 2010 20:56, author(s)-editor(s) Peter Midgley, University of Alberta

    Coils of Mortal Flesh is the work of a mature poet who delves into a wide range of experiences and emotions to produce his work. In both the tenderest love poem and the most overtly political ones, Mutia weaves effortlessly between cultures and worlds. African deities are at home in the streets of New Brunswick and a Christian godhead is at work in rural Cameroon. Mutia is well travelled and well read, and it shows in his poetry. He has an understanding of history that is refreshing amidst a barrage of modern writers whose a-historicity is disturbing. For Mutia, it is about recognizing the lessons of the past and reconsidering our way forward in the light of these lessons.

    Throughout the collection, the author’s voice is preeminent. Even though other characters and voices speak, we know that the author is there, guiding the reader’s thoughts. Coils of Mortal Flesh is a nuanced anthology of poems that kept me returning to it several times.

    I highly recommend this collection for anyone interested in African poetry, as well as for libraries.

    Peter Midgley
    University of Alberta