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Letters to Marion (And the Coming Generations)

2009, author(s)-editor(s) John Nkemngong Nkengasong

In this rich and compelling collection of poems the author explores the recesses of the imagination to reveal the different facets of contemporary experience. In doing this he highlights the social, the spiritual, and the metaphysical functions of poetry. The reader will find in the collection sincere expressions of feelings and penetrating thoughts, the genuine tone, spirit and taste of poetry and its ability to provide contemplative clues to prevailing circumstances. The preponderance of stimulating imagery and the overall display of ingenious poeticality reveal the poet as one imbued with a fertile imagination and prove as well that poetry remains the most noble of art through which one understands and comes to terms with the hidden secrets of the universe.

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ISBN 9789956558650 | 68 pages | 216 x 140 mm | 2009 | Langaa RPCIG, Cameroon | Paperback

2 Book Reviews

  • Letters to Marion (And the Coming Generations) 15 June 2009 00:57, author(s)-editor(s) Peter Wuteh Vakunta, Ph.D (University of Wisconsin-Madison, (...)

    Letters to Marion (and the coming Generations) is a lethal vendetta launched against a cancerous society at risk of disintegration. In fifty-six odd poems, John Nkemngong Nkengasong transforms his pen into a mighty sword. His verses trumpet the war songs of a crusader. His pen takes on the veneer of a bazooka that detonates to do damage to emasculators of social justice. In “the Mungo”, he writes: “there is greed /in that madrush of howling waves/ that auctioned me from cradle… (2) In his desire to lend credence to a just cause, the poet drums support from custodians of traditional authority: “our quifons/for they stood resolute/and wore black caps and/red feathers… (2)

    These poems are a rap on the inhumane oppression of the masses by a spineless oligarchy. The poet decries the unbridled squandering of national resources perpetrated by a leadership devoid of vision. Listen to his lament: “The jugglers of the State are at banquet/ Browsing in foreign laps/They will return like nabobs/After our little wells are drained…/ (6) His diction matches the bone of contention. Notice the collocation of the word “nabob” with “jugglers of the State”. This is an apt epithet for despoilers of the fatherland.

    Nkemngong’s animal imagery is striking indeed. He portrays the grave-diggers of the nation as “rodents’ eating incessantly into the fabric of the national edifice: “It’s a cataclysm of terror and misery/With slaves in tyrants’ garbs…/Turned rodents in the barns of fruitful motherland.”(6) In “The Slaughter House” the poet blends his voice with the lamentation of the oppressed: “the wolves are tearing/ into the fold again/the lamb’s neck pressed/ against poignant swords to admit/what they know not…” (8) These are poems about Africa’s afflictions. In a heartrending style, they lay bare the petty squabbles that have transformed contemporary Africa into a battlefield: “”the African dawn is blood/spilt over handsome/negroid pastures/with corpses coughing blood…/Our mornings wake in the mire/ of blood.”(8) Tyranny and human rights abuse seem to be dominant leitmotifs in this collection of incisive poems. In “Wailing in the Jungle” the poet depicts life in troubled times in oxymoronic terms: “and life is death/and death is life/ in my blind and bitter fatherland.”(7)

    Nkemngong’s purview is not restricted to his fatherland. He casts an interrogating glance yonder:” i cry/ the zuluman’s cry/that split South Afrik’s heart…” (3) His poetry is an extrapolation of the human impasse: “i hear the accursed slave/sang misery to deaf white ears/ as i sing now to deaf–black ones” (3). He portrays a world where the rich have no compunction about feeding feces to the poor and leaving them to their own devices: “salacred on junks of sane waste/cursed by thinking men/to gnaw their dung/and drink their filth...” (17) Benefiting from hindsight, the poet summons friend and foe to pay need to his plea for reconciliation: “I must follow gently, slavemasters/to your volitions until the mungo drowns/and the land becomes one.”(3)

    Like Frantz Fanon, Nkemngong subscribes to the belief that freedom cannot be negotiated; it is wrenched from the bloody hands of tyrants. His poetry is a cry of revolt. In a stentorian voice, his urges his compatriots to wrest power from power-mongers and self-seekers:”Countrymen, hang on the testes of oppression/Till dizzy they faint in suppression…/Let them rage and swear and mutilate/But countrymen, hang on, in your doom/On our red blood, Cameroon will bloom (26). The poet has the conviction that truth alone will save his battered fatherland. His poetry is an encomium for veracity: “Therefore, these truths/I speak them free of charge/ to mend a fractured heart.”(35). The avowed object of Nkemngong’s opprobrium is the man at the helm in Cameroon, whom he describes as “the sanctified sinner” (35) and “the ramified ram” (35). By foul means “Son of Mvoondoo” (39) has “turned the ballot-box up-side-down/and trampled on our hope in mire” (39). Thus, Letters to Marion qualifies as a political satire. It denounces political double-speak and electoral gerrymandering: “Son of Mvoondoo/ you are no shepherd, you are a ram/you are no tyrant, democrat, none” (38). The tool that Nkemngong wields with the utmost dexterity in his versification is language. His linguistic adroitness adds substance to the purported message. Savor the richness of personification and metaphor in the following lines: “as I speak/ghosts in a troubled mirror/laugh some weird laughter/and a sudden flood of blood/high like Mount Fako surges on/from the mouth of the Mungo/and everywhere agony shrieks.”(50) He resorts to proverbial expressions in a bid to underscore cultural specificity as seen in the following lines: “and if a duck lay in a cobra’s mouth/let it be its will and free…” (7) Ideophones enable him to translate orality into the written word as this excerpt indicates: “The boom! Boom! bang! of the rifles”(28). The poet relishes linguistic miscegenation. He blends languages to achieve semantic effect as the following lines clearly show: “Knowing what devils reigned/in the noxious underground cells/ of the vallée de la morte/the lad feigned fainted.”(11). Or this other interesting one: “a clatter of rifles and thudding boots/ angry voices swearing as they chased/ Arrêtez le! Arrêtez l’Anglo! / Elément subversif!”(11) These examples bear testimony not only to the bilingual matrix that gave birth to Nkemngong’s poetry but also to the smothering mutual distrust that has created an abysmal rift between Anglophone and Francophone Cameroonians. The word “Anglo” is a derogatory term employed by presumptuous Francophone Cameroonians in reference to their Anglophone compatriots deemed to be less patriotic on account of linguistic otherness.

    Dim as these poems may be, they harbor elements of a brighter future embodied in the poet’s song of love. In “Infatuation”, he writes: “Undo the manacles/of infatuation…/ Eve could not see the sun with a lidless eye.”(18) Nkemngong perceives love as a balm with the potential to heal societal wounds. He believes that “love unreturned/is a hot-baked bombshell/in a human heart” (12). In brief, Letters to Marion is the handiwork of a virtuoso at odds with a world gone berserk. The only shortcoming with this anthology is the poet’s oversight to the need for thematic categorization. It would have been an easier read had the poet arranged his poems in subheadings. This notwithstanding, the work certainly stands the test of time in its present format.

  • Letters to Marion (And the Coming Generations) 28 August 2009 11:54, author(s)-editor(s) Kelvin Ngong Toh, The University of Yaounde 1

    In Letters to Marion (and the coming Generations) Nkengasong handles issues which are a full representation of his milieu like the new elite in post independent Africa, tradition versus modernism, generational conflicts, oppression and dictatorship, individualism and collectivism, autobiographical verse, alienation, the quest for identity and above all the Cameroon Anglophone problem.

    The collection of 57 randomly arranged poems is built on humour, irony and bestial imagery which the author handles with deftness. However, one major concern in this collection is the author’s fret about the youth. This concern is vividly portrayed in the title of the collection, as we are made to understand from the dedication of the collection that Marion is the author’s daughter.

    The poems span from the life of the author and show how this life prepares him for the outside world. Interestingly, the last poem in the collection “The Beginning” recounts the speaker/poet’s formative years at the Seat of Wisdom College. Judging from the title, one would expect the poet to begin the collection with this poem. The schooling, as the speaker/poet puts it, will be the base of his going to face the real world.

    Adieu, the sanctified sacred shrine of knowledge
    Adieu, our Lady Seat of Wisdom College
    I go into the world with your blessings as a Sage. (2009: 54)

    The speaker/poet’s handling of issues that plague his society and continent is proof of the fact that his paying tribute to Seat of Wisdom is valid.

    One of the insightful concerns of the speaker/poet is the almost rejection of African traditional values and belief systems. In “The Coming of Sages,” the speaker/poet calls on his listeners to offer sacrifices to their village god in order to “wake the long-forgotten god” (2009:1). The issue raised here shows that there is conflict between traditional and modern values in the continent. In order to valorize what is African, the speaker refers the chief celebrants of the sacrifice as sages.

    Another grimy picture that Nkengasong handles in the collection is the sordid political landscape of post independent Africa. This landscape is typified by oppression, tyranny, dictatorship, poverty and hopelessness. Through bestial imagery, in “Little Chick” the sad picture of the chick which is born free but cannot be free because “the bird-prey keeps a silent watch on the cotton tree” (2009:5). This tale of birds shows how insecure the country’s youth are because of greedy leaders that have ruled the land since independence. The chick’s lack of security is seen even in the fact that the down trodden cannot freely choose their leaders. In “The ballot Box,” the speaker sees his votes to be insignificant and therefore has “no grains to sow in the Sahara” (2009:7). The poet, in a very comic tone, satirizes African leaders who remain in power for too long and are ready to eliminate those who try to put an end to their rule. In “On the Bamenda Massacre” the speaker wonders as he asks “how many hundred princes have been slain to clutch the crown” (2009:24)? The speaker/poet, in “Song to My Country People,” prays to the watchful stars to deliver his country from doom and misery and also calls on his fellow citizens to take the responsibility and “hang on the testes of oppression till dizzy they faint in suppression” (2009:26). It is also important to point out that Nkengasong does not only present the political situation of post independence Africa but also attempts to show how the masses respond to bad governance. This is seen in the poem “Ghost Towns”.

    Besides the general political mess in Cameroon and Africa, Nkengasong, in “Wailing in the Jungle” dwells on the problem of the Anglophone Cameroonian. He sees the Anglophone union with the Francophone as “the widest road to slavery” (2009:2). However, before blaming the Francophone, Nkengasong seems to blame the Anglophone for being pushed into error by greed which he states in “the mungo” that
    there was greed
    in that madrush of howling waves
    that auctioned me from my cradle (2009:2).

    In the poem, one notices that the problem of marginalization is not only limited to the Anglophones in Cameroon. The speaker relates marginalization even to the racial segregation that was officially recognized in the Union of South Africa until 1990. Also, in “Ken Saro-Wiwa” the speaker, like a prophet of doom, seems to caution the oppressors of the common people that their time is at hand as the voice of justice incarnated in Ken Saro-Wiwa will prevail.

    As a poet thinker, Nkengasong also delves into philosophical issues about the human condition. In “Princely Kite”, the speaker seems to satirize the proud who like the Faust legend flew so high, “so High he roams” (2009:4) just that in the end,
    ...death plays his timely trick
    and down he flutters
    the princely kite
    like a leaf loose in the wind.(2009:4).

    The image of the wind plowing down the leaf shows the tragic end of the proud people. From every indication, the poet lashes out against pride in society. Nkengasong, as a poet-thinker, valorizes hard work and discourages laziness in all its forms. In the poem “The Labours of a Boy”, the speaker states it clearly that the road to success is not easy but it is a worthy road since the boy who is lazy ends up in misery.

    Another very important aspect that one finds in the collection Letters to Marion is that Nkengasong celebrates the passing away of people who meant much to him and also people of great service to their communities. Such is the case in “Spear and Shield”. The speaker, in this poem, laments over the death of Asaba Nkemngong, who seems to be the pillar on which he stood. In “In Memory of Dr Philip Agendia” the speaker mourns the death of his friend, whose lost he will not forget as a result of the good deeds he left on earth. From this point, the speaker goes on to lament the passing away of more popular figures like The First Lady in a poem entitled “Requiem for the Lady of State” where the speaker remembers The First Lady I for her philanthropic nature and her love for the country.
    No woman showed much tenderness
    No heroine wept for a nation on its knees
    Would she come again to soothe with bile
    Now that she’s dead and gone. (2009:30)

    Also, in the poem “A Tear for Siga Asanga” the speaker does not only bemoan the passing away of this “builder of men”(2009:27) but also appreciates the fact that he lived at the service of mankind and that is why he ends the poem by saying that Siga is immortal: “Siga, death has made/ you live for ever (2009:27). Nkengasong, in Lord Alfred Tennyson’s style, looks at death from a very positive point of view especially in the poem “When I shall not Live” which reads very much like the speaker’s will where he wishes that no one should weep “when one morning/ I shall wake from sleep/ To find that I have/ sailed to darkness” (2009:34).

    In the whole, Nkengasong’s collection is yet another proof that he is a great writer. His diction and style makes reading enjoyable.

    Reviewed by Kelvin Ngong Toh (Department of African Literature and Civilisations, The University of Yaounde 1)