Song of Lawino | Critical Essay by Edward Blishen

This literature criticism consists of approximately 24 pages of analysis & critique of Song of Lawino.
This section contains 6,930 words
(approx. 24 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Edward Blishen

Critical Essay by Edward Blishen

SOURCE: An Introduction, in Song of a Prisoner by Okot p'Bitek, The Third Press, 1971, pp. 1-40.

Blishen is an English autobiographer, fiction writer, and critic. In the following excerpt, he discusses p'Bitek's Song of Lawino, Song of Ocol, and Song of a Prisoner. He asserts that p'Bitek's poetry is musical and entertaining even as it expresses the agony of his people.

Song of Lawino: A Lament is a poem in thirteen parts. It was translated into English from the Acholi by the author who states that he "has thus clipped a bit of the eagle's wings and rendered the sharp edges of the warrior's sword rusty and blunt, and has also murdered rhythm and rhyme." As to this, I can only say that the eagle's wings must originally have been of quite terrifying span, and the warrior's sword dazzlingly sharp and shining. As to rhyme, the loss of it has led, in English, to a curiously exciting pace which, as we have the poem, might cause any reader to fell that rhyme would act as an unwelcome brake. The rhythm, in English, is most subtle and flowing.

Taban lo Liyong is convinced that Lawino is the final form of a poem Okot was working on in 1954, when it had some such title as Te Okono pe Luputu—" positively translatable," says lo Liyong, "as: Respect the Ways of Your People, or Stick to Acholi Customs, or Blackman, Be Proud of African Traditions—and Don't Abandon Them for the Whiteman's." Any of these titles certainly sums up the apparent statement the poem makes. The argument is put into the bitter mouth of the wife of Ocol, a chief's son, who has thrown her aside in favour of "a modern girl." The dominant tone of Lawino's comment on her rival can be illustrated from her first discussion of "the beautiful one," whose name is Clementine.

      Brother, when you see Clementine!
      The beautiful one aspires
      To look like a white woman;
 
      Her lips are red-hot
      Like glowing charcoal,
      She resembles the wild cat
      That has dipped its mouth in blood,
      Her mouth is like raw yaws,
      It looks like an open ulcer,
      Like the mouth of a fiend!
      Tina dusts powder on her face
      And it looks so pale …

This is the manner, widely throughout the poem. The tone is, on the surface, one of naive astonishment. Lawino is almost tenderly bemused by Tina's makeup, as she is by Ocol's preference for English over his mother tongue, for books over dancing; and, when it comes to dancing, for Western forms rather than Ugandan ones. But there's no tenderness here, of course. In his reading, to Richard Hughes and me, Okot's tone in such a passage had the quality of a kind of surprised purring, but it was not the purring of a domestic cat. Intense savagery lies under this surface, and never more so than when Lawino is pretending to be reasonable. To me, part of the comic force of the poem lies in the frequent conflict between the tone and the actual words that Lawino speaks: and one of Okot's great skills in writing it, certainly in this translation, lies in his having so laid out the poem that, inevitably, one registers this clash of manner and content.

Setting out her case in the opening section of the poem, Lawino inveighs against her husband's distaste for her, her relatives and his own clansmen. She is, according to Ocol, unlettered, unbaptised (and so no better than a dog), primitive. She is at fault because she cannot play the guitar or count coins. She is silly. Her mother is a witch: her clansmen are fools "because they eat rats." All of them are sorcerers. Indeed, all black people are primitive, and "their ways are utterly harmful."

     Ocol says he is a modern man,
     A progressive and civilised man,
     He says he has read extensively and widely
     And he can no longer live with a thing like me
     Who cannot distinguish between good and bad.

Alongside this report of Ocol's opinions, Lawino chides him, in terms that are to grow stronger as the poem continues. He is not a man any longer—he is a dead fruit! He is behaving like a child! His people, she hints, make up songs of ridicule about him—he who, as son of a Chief, should be the subject of songs of praise.

Then follows the attack on Clementine. This has, at times, a feline hilarity: the claws scratch deep.

      And when she walks
      You hear her bones rattling.
      Her waist resembles that of the hornet.

But suddenly the note changes. There are passages in this poem, when Lawino celebrates the customs of her own people, that have a quality of elation—limpid, lyrical—and also of great gravity that are most deeply moving. So here, at the end of her tooth-and-nail attack on her rival, Lawino is made to speak of the Acholi woman's traditional attitude to her husband's need of other women.

     I am not unfair to my husband.
     I do not complain
     Because he wants another woman,
     Whether she is young or aged!
     Who has ever prevented men
     From wanting women?

Jealousy is a weakness—it can only mean that a woman is aware of her own defects. The competition for a man's love is a fair one, conducted according to perfectly reasonable rules.

       You win him with a hot bath
       And sour porridge.
       The wife who brings her meal first,
       Whose food is good to eat…
       Such is the woman who becomes
       The head-dress keeper.

She has no fear of competing with Clementine, Lawino claims. What she asks is that her husband should cease insulting her, and should recognise that the ways of his ancestors are good:

     Their customs are solid,
     And not hollow,
     They are not thin, not easily breakable,
     They cannot be blown away
     By the winds
     Because their roots reach deep into the soil.

And Lawino goes on to make an important statement—important, that is, because it has so often been said, carelessly, that Song of Lawino is simply an attack on the Western way of life.

      I do not understand
      The ways of foreigners,
      But I do not despise their customs.
      Why should you despise yours?

It is still possible, taking this passage into account, to claim (as lo Liyong does) that the poem is a hopeless plea for the cessation of all cultural borrowing: that the Acholi customs themselves have no particular purity in this respect: and that indeed many of the customs celebrated by Lawino had fallen into disuse by the time the poem was written. But I believe it is essential to note that Lawino is not crying out against imported practices because those practices are in themselves detestable. She is rather trying to preserve a dream of, as it were, coherent cultural habit. The argument, as an argument, is so vulnerable (thus Okumu pa'Lukubo can point out that Acholi women are themselves great users of cosmetics, and that the great Acholi dances have become museum-pieces) that, given so plainly intelligent a poet, we have to look, I believe, below the surface for what is really being said. Given also the lyrical beauty of many of the passages in which Lawino speaks of Acholi customs. In a way, one could say this of the poem: that the intense longing for cultural coherence that arises from such passages is the point of the poem. It may be true that we cannot halt the dislocation of cultures that everywhere is occurring; or it may simply be true, as the poem seems often to imply, that the price paid for such dislocation is too high. But in fact it is an apparently impossible thing that is being said in Song of Lawino: that perhaps we should pause, or that perhaps we cannot afford to move at such a fantastic pace. This is impossible, as a statement, because we have nowhere in the world really begun to think along such lines. But in the impossible propositions set out by a poet have often lain the seeds of what, belatedly, the world has seen to be necessary kinds of action. Lawino, I suspect, is a poem that performs this function. We may swarm critically all over it, and point to all its logical weaknesses, and yet we may still not have robbed it of a fraction of its intrinsic strength. The poet, after all, is only describing his own sense of being himself intolerably divided. You can hardly study in three Western universities without becoming something of an Ocol, and yet we cannot doubt—I do not see how we can—that Lawino's voice is in great measure Okot's. It is in this sense that I mean that the argument may not yet be ready for wholly rational discussion. What appears to be an argument is often, I suggest, a simple statement of the poet's awareness of being divided against himself, and (as I think we shall see plainly when we turn to Song of a Prisoner) his awareness that the whole world is, in some such way, intolerably divided. I am often reminded, reading Lawino, of the great cry uttered, in so many and powerful ways, by the English poet John Donne as he stood with one foot in the medieval world and the other in the world of early modern science. Donne's arguments do not stand up: he cannot abolish the work of Copernicus: he cannot restore the medieval sense of a coherent chain of being. And yet his cry was essential to the awareness of his time. It was a cry that, under the hopelessness of the surface argument, was an utterly necessary reminder of the permanent human need of coherence, of order. And such a cry, I believe, Lawino utters: being, for that reason, a poem important not only to Africa, but to the whole world.

So, throughout much of the poem, a double operation is being conducted. All of Okot p'Bitek's deft and darting sense of mischief is at work when he attacks, in terms of Lawino's carefully wide-eyed and deceptively innocent amazement, the forms of dancing preferred by Ocol and Clementine: their Westernised taste in dress, their Western attitudes to time and to sickness and death. In much of this there is a marvellous, mischievous comedy. I have known Western readers bereft of all appetite for a while by Lawino's account of their feeding habits:

     The white man's stoves
     Are good for cooking
     White men's food:
     For cooking the tasteless
     Bloodless meat of cows
     That were killed many years ago
     And left in the ice
     To rot!
     For frying an egg
     Which when ready
     Is slimy like mucus,
 
     For boiling hairy chicken
     In saltless water.
     You think you are chewing paper!

Lo Liyong has curiously little patience with this element in the poem. It turns the work, he suggests, into "light literature" (a term which he surely ought to discuss before he uses it merely as a phrase of disparagement). "Too much space and energy," he argues, "is taken up with pointing out the foibles in the Western way of life … these foibles that are easily seen." Lo Liyong regards this as "childishness": "Some of it is fun for an Acholi audience: some impudence, some sarcasm, and plenty of 'raw' social anthropology. Juvenility…." To say such things is surely to fail to weigh the pure comic success of these elements in the poem. It is not easy to imagine an Okot p'Bitek entirely or even largely stripped of his wicked and mocking manner. Even when he is most deeply serious, as we shall see when we look at Song of a Prisoner, a kind of dark laughter is never far away. And the truth is that much of Lawino, much that Okot's old classmate frowns over for its "lightness," has proved to be durable fun for audiences much wider and less special than Acholi ones. There is no wishing away the jester in this poet's work. When his targets are obvious, they are most unobviously teased and taunted.

The second part of the operation that one can see Okot conducting in Lawino lies in the account of Acholi customs and ways of life—idealised, no doubt, but not the less lovely and grave for all that. So, opposed to the hilariously mocking descriptions of Western dance is Lawino's celebration of Acholi dancing: to the tendentiously revolting view of the European cuisine, Lawino's marvellous tour of the Acholi kitchen:

       Here on your left
       Are the grinding stones:
       The big one
       Ashen and dusty
       And her daughter
       Sitting in her belly
       Are the destroyers of millet
       Mixed with cassava
       And sorghum.

It is all appallingly unfair, as lo Liyong notes—and yet again, one has to say that we are not really concerned with an attempt to be fair, to provide a balanced argument. It is with Western dance and cooking exactly as it was, in that dispute of Okot's with the British Council, with the piano. I remember that Okot made the piano, that patently superb musical instrument, seem an absurdity beneath one's contempt! How ridiculous the piano was! Not for one moment did one believe that Okot truly withheld his admiration from the piano: just as one would not have been surprised to see him dancing the detested rumba. This was not the sort of argument he was conducting. Mockery of the one was necessary to reinforce the idealisation of the other: of the piano, to promote the drum: of the rumba, to intensify the claims made for the get-stuck dance. Lo Liyong asks us to set on one side "all the crocodile tears which Okot made Lawino shed profusely, for Okot is a sceptic on the surface as well as between the lines." But for that sentence really to have meaning, lo Liyong would have had to say that Okot was a cynic, not a sceptic: the claim being that he is making an empty show, in order to secure easy laughter and literary honour. Of course the surface of the work sparkles with scepticism, with all the facets of a complex and elusive mind. But I would argue that under this, there is the deepest possible gravity. And again, the test is one that each reader must make for himself, subjectively: it lies in the tone of what is written. I cannot doubt the profound seriousness of tone with which Okot addresses himself to the ways of the Acholi world. He may, for his own purpose, have turned that world into a Utopia. But to claim that he wrote these passages, so lyrically celebratory, with his tongue in his cheek, is (on the evidence of my ear) nonsense.

Another quality of Okot's writing to which I want to pay more attention when I come to Song of a Prisoner seems also, for what it implies as to the poet's entire intention, an element that can be weighed only by the ear, as it were—by the reader's general sensitiveness. It lies in that habit, so intrinsic to Okot p'Bitek's writing that one almost ceases to notice it, of referring incessantly to life other than human—to the life of animals, insects, plants.

      His eyes grow large,
      Deep black eyes,
      Ocol's eyes resemble those of the Nile Perch!
      He becomes fierce
      Like a lioness with cubs,
      He begins to behave like a mad hyena …
 
      The backs of some books
      Are hard like the rocky stem of the poi tree …
 
      You wish you were lucky
      To find someone to assist you
      Who does not shout
      Like house-flies
      When disturbed
      From an excreta heap!…

This is certainly a habit of Ugandan poetry, a deep part of the oral tradition. It is not an originality, in Okot. And yet it seems to me that his use of it, constant, profuse, is another means by which he roots his vision in Africa, and nowhere else: by which he brings the reader back, time and again, to that profound sense of place that, together with that profound sense of rooted custom he appears endlessly to offer as an alternative to the shallow confusions of half-westernised ways. Again, it is the rootedness he seems to insist upon. Again, under all the imperfections of the surface argument, what he can be felt to be saying is: Let us, before we enter the nowhereness of uniform modern existence, consider desperately the importance of knowing where we come from, where we live. Let us think generally in terms of roots. Or, to adapt the famous epigraph to the poem: Let us think what we shall be doing before we uproot the pumpkin in the old homestead. Lawino, in fact, is no innocent and naive village girl, at all. She is a poet and anthropologist, mingled, with a profoundly difficult and provocative argument to put forward in whatever ways may offer.

Of course, poets of any quality are mixed creatures! Of course, many of the criticisms that, in his lively way, Taban lo Liyong brings to bear against Lawino, and which really stem from his knowledge of Okot the man, are likely to be justified. Into Lawino's attacks on Western forms of religion lo Liyong reads Okot's malice towards the Catholic missions. No one can read this section without suspecting that personal revenges are being exacted. It is in this section and again in the section on politics, which lo Liyong feels to be the best in the poem, that Okot's impersonation of Lawino, the village girl, most obviously slips. The poet steps out from behind the mask. Without being experts on the Ugandan political situation, we can believe that, here and there, the voice that speaks is that of Okot p'Bitek, the disappointed political candidate. Lo Liyong says, from his knowledge of his friend, that if Okot has "an overriding passion beyond living life, it is politics." But when we have accepted that such a section of this poem, from a man so committed and concerned, so clearly and properly anxious to play a part in the developing history of his country, must have its moments when the frustrated or ordinarily irritated man speaks, rather than the larger poet, still, and especially in view of what is to come in Song of a Prisoner, one must note, and with proper gravity, what in essence is said in the eleventh part of Song of Lawino:

      If only the parties
      Would fight poverty
      With the fury
      With which they fight each other,
      If diseases and ignorance
      Were assaulted
      With the deadly vengeance
      With which Ocol assaults his mother's son,
      The enemies would have been
      Greatly reduced by now….
 
      … those who have
      Fallen into things
      Throw themselves into soft beds,
      But the hip bones of the voters
      Grow painful
      Sleeping on the same earth
      They slept on
      Before Uhuru!

This does not belong to the field of purely personal revenges or irritations or disappointments. It is again a cry of something like panic at the rootless disorder of things—the too sudden and too infatuated plunge into some travesty of national politics.

I cannot leave Lawino, such a deviously serious poem, as I claim, and yet such a fiercely comic one, without a word about the twelfth part, called "My Husband's House is a Dark Forest of Books." Here is Okot p'Bitek, nourished on books, producer of books, in a wild extravaganza of disdain attacking Ocol for being a bookman. The section is worth looking at closely by any reader because it is so relevant to the accusation that, in much of the poem, Okot is intent purely on mischief, on appealing to the sense of fun of an Acholi audience. Whatever a reader's view about any argument for or against intellectualism, or bookishness, it would require a reader of some owlishness, and considerable resistance to comedy, not to be vastly entertained by this section.

      My husband's house
      Is a mighty forest of books,
      Dark it is and very damp,
      The steam rising from the ground
      Hot thick and poisonous
      Mingles with the corrosive dew
      And the rain drops
      That have collected in the leaves …
      For all our young men
      Were finished in the forest,
      Their manhood was finished
      In the classrooms,
      Their testicles
      Were smashed
      With large books!

Of course, one thinks with that radical academic, this is to put the clock back with a vengeance! Of course, one thinks momentarily with Lo Liyong, here is "Okot the sceptic posing as a champion for dying and dead customs he doesn't believe in." Here is Okot p'Bitek the intellectual pretending to a swinging anti-intellectualism! But one recovers quickly—I speak for myself—and adds two other statements. First: here is fun! Here is the most hilarious delight! If there had to be mockery of book-reading, could it be more amusingly, and more unexpectedly, expressed? in terms of a more grotesque poetry? And second: this cannot, in the nature of the poem and the poet, be merely mischief, or merely fun—or merely perversity! By an unbalanced bookishness, I think Okot is saying, it is possible that the new African is being severely damaged. Books have taken on an undue importance. Books have been resorted to beyond their true virtue. The use and reading of books, too, needs rooting in the African soil. The new man who tries to climb by books alone will climb nowhere at all.

Taban lo Liyong argued, in the essay already quoted, that Song of Lawino should be part of a triptych. Ocol should be allowed to state his case: so should Clementine. I don't know if it was in response to this suggestion that Okot wrote Song of Ocol, which appeared in 1970. It is a furious, headlong, bewildering poem, far briefer than Lawino, without the swarming life of its predecessor. I am indebted to my friend Cosmo Pieterse for the suggestion that, in this poem, Ocol is attempting to defend himself against accusations of which he has forgotten the actual nature. In the first five of its nine parts Ocol simply rages against old Africa. Lawino's song is

       the mad bragging
      Of a defeated general …

The whole past will be swept away. The pumpkin will go early—had already almost gone.

      I see a large pumpkin
      Rotting
      A thousand beetles
      In it;
      We will plough up
      All the valley,
      Make compost of the pumpkins
      And the other native vegetables,
      The fence dividing
      Family holdings
      Will be torn down,
      We will uproot
      The trees demarcating
      The land of clan from clan,
      We will obliterate
      Tribal boundaries
      And throttle native tongues
      To dumb death.

And this is the tone, this the wild and whirling character, of the first half of the poem. It is destructive shout, close to hysteria. Old Africa is blisteringly impugned. All that Lawino celebrated is savaged by this extraordinary song of Ocol's. He cries out against the very fact of his Africanness.

      Mother, mother,
      Why,
      Why was I born
      Black?

All will be burned and broken. The whole past will be swept away: all the witches and wizards, the poets, priests, musicians, story tellers, myth makers, glorifiers of the past. There will be an end to

      The stupid village anthem of
      "Backward ever,
      Forwards never."

All the professors of anthropology and teachers of African history shall be hanged. All the anthologies of African literature destroyed. All the schools of African studies closed down. Ocol becomes surely, in these passages, not a character at all, but an extreme part of the tormented African spirit: the part that, in its despair, would turn from the effort of knitting past with present. "Smash all these mirrors," cries Ocol,

      Smash all these mirrors
      That I may not see
      The blackness of the past
      From which I came
      Reflected in them.

So taboos, customs and traditions must be shattered. The women of Africa must be shown that they have taken pride in what is merely grotesque. The men must be shown how derisory their achievements have been, over the centuries:

      A large arc
      Of semi-desert land
      Strewn with human skeletons …
      A monument to five hundred years
      Of cattle theft!

This Ocol—the Ocol of the first half of his song—is driven by a destructive dread and hatred of his African self. And later in the poem, his desire to efface Africa is given a monumental wildness of utterance:

      We will uproot
      Each tree
      From the Ituri forest
      And blow up
      Mount Kilimanjaro,
      The rubble from Ruwenzori
      Will fill the Valleys
      Of the Rift,
      We will divert
      The mighty waters
      Of the Nile
      Into the Indian Ocean.

But from the sixth section of the poem onwards, the whole nature of the statement seems to change. Now Ocol is one of those who have done well out of Uhuru. In the sixth section, with guilty defiance, he taunts the poor and dispossessed with an account of his properties—

      Do you see
      That golden carpet
      Covering the hillside?
      Those are my sheep …

and denies his responsibility for the poverty of the peasantry. And from now on, we are not sure how to take the voice of Ocol. He speaks at times in terms of an ironical observer regarding him from outside.

      We sowed,
      We watered
      Acres of Cynicism,
      Planted forests of Laughter,
      Bitter Laughter …
      Fat Frustrations
      Flourished fast
      Yielding fruits
      Green as gall …

Those who stand aside from this fearful opportunism are "cowardly fools"; they must creep back and hide in their mothers' wombs. And in the eighth section there is another change in the voice—or another note enters briefly and confusingly into it. For a moment Ocol speaks with something like tenderness of the world he once shared with Lawino:

      That shady evergreen byeyo tree
      Under which I first met you
      And told you
      I wanted you,
      Do you remember
      The song of the ogilo bird
      And the chorus
      Of the grey monkeys
      In the trees nearby?

But from this unexpected wistfulness Ocol turns at once to a fiercer fury than ever. He tells Lawino that there are only two alternatives:

      Either you come in
      Through the City Gate,
      Or take that rope
      And hang yourself!

The City is barely described. It is defined almost entirely by negation—by an account of what must be destroyed to clear the way for it.

And as an end to the poem there is a last storm of wildly ironical self-disgust. The monuments in the modern Africa will be effigies of its founders: Leopold of Belgium, Bismarck. Streets will be named after the European explorers. All the great men of the African past were made nothing by defeat and irrelevance.

      What proud poem
      Can we write
      For the vanquished?

A final question that makes it impossible not to remark to oneself that such a proud poem has certainly been written, and by Okot p'Bitek: and that it was called Song of Lawino.

Song of Ocol, as fierce and powerful as anything Okot has published, seems to me very much a poem in which the author is moving towards a new position. I mean that it begins as a statement that, in the extreme violence of the view it expresses, must make it an expression of the impulse in a modern African to raze his whole world flat and begin again. Ocol, whom we had taken even at Lawino's worst estimation to be a new young African of a fairly characteristic type, turns out to be a sort of super-Tamburlaine, in his destructiveness, driven by an almost hysterical dread of the black past and much of the black present. Clearly, Okot is no more expressing the whole of his self here than he was in Lawino. It doesn't begin to be a personal statement: it is the ferociously extreme utterance of something that is in the African air. But the poet cannot keep this up: because the destructive, desperate Ocol is also one of those who have turned Uhuru into an opportunity for their own advancement. So the end of the poem, its second half, is an attack, by ironical implication, on those who have betrayed the hopes that fed the fight for independence. By the end of Song of Ocol, it seems to me, Okot p'Bitek has moved into the position that made possible the writing of this new sequence of poems, Song of a Prisoner. Certainly, to turn from his first long published poem to these last ones, he had to swivel: from teasing impersonations to impersonations that are deadly serious: from the "lightness" of which Taban lo Liyong has spoken to an unsmiling gravity. The distance between Lawino and Song of a Prisoner is, I feel, in some respects so great that added force is given to lo Liyong's suspicion that the earlier poem was in essence very early indeed.

"Only rarely," lo Liyong wrote of Lawino, "do I see an Okot with tight lips and protracted visage." That a friend who knew him so well should have looked for such an Okot, and should have based so much of his criticism of Lawino's lament on that Okot's absence, does suggest that between the jester and the more serious man an acute struggle may long have been going on. The fact is that Song of a Prisoner is throughout a work of the tightest lips, the most protracted visage. The jester has vanished; though not the user of masks. In Lawino and Ocol Okot spoke—as we have seen, with bafflingly variable degrees of convincingness—through the mouths of his characters. Much of the voice of Lawino must have been his own: and, one feels, even in its desperate extremism, something of the voice of Ocol. In this new sequence, Okot dons several such masks. The prisoner cannot be read as a single character. At times he is a kind of Patrice Lumumba, being beaten to the point of death: a betrayed hero of Uhuru. At other times he seems to be any political detainee, imprisoned for his opinions or his political actions. Again, he is an assassin, who has rid his country of a tyrant: who pretends wildly not to understand why his captors do not form a guard of honour for him.

We see, from the dedication, that the sequence is wide-spread in its reference. It makes two major statements: both familiar to us, though not in such agonised tones, from Song of Lawino. The first is that the hopes of Uhuru have been wrecked, and horribly. The state of a newly independent African country may be even worse than before, since it is worse to be devoured by your own people than by strangers. The second statement is barely a statement at all … rather it is a constant reference to a dream. As Lawino looked back at the vision of Acholi order and comeliness of life, so the prisoner constantly sets up a dream of peaceful happiness:

     I have bought
     A farm
     In the fertile valley,
     A thousand acres
     Of heaven
     For you and me
     And our children,
 
     The crested cranes
     Dance love dances
     By the stream
     That flows gently
     Through our garden,
     Our children will play
     And swim in the stream
     And hook fish
     For the afternoon meal …

It is the tone of Lawino's celebration of the good things in the Acholi way of life. And added to this is the longing for old prides, old understandings. The assassin yearns to go back to his village, to be received there as one who has killed from a necessity generally understood, to be cleansed and to be marked with the killer mark. It seems to me, I must say here, as widely off the point to claim that, in such passages, Okot is crying for a return to an older Africa as to make such a claim for his arguments in Song of Lawino. It is a hearking back, rather, to the past, not as a pleasing mode of life, but as an experience on which some decent order had been laid: when there were recognised ways of setting a limit to the larger tyrannies, the more intolerable greeds. In the light of this sequence, I do not see how one can continue to have any doubt as to the import of Okot's backward looking. It is, in a sense, a metaphor for a kind of forward looking—for a looking, at any rate, in any direction but towards the spectacle of modern Africa as the prisoner experiences it: where

     Black corpses stream
     Along the streets,
     Dead to free Africa
 
     So that they may
     Suffer in
     Freedom!

And to these elements we must add another. There is a great cry, at many points in these poems, but most clearly towards the end of the sequence, for a sort of vast international tolerance—a relaxed international order. The prisoner wants to dance all the dances of the world, to sing all the world's songs. He wants even

      to dance the dances
     Of colonialists and communists …

Even, that is, to span the widest gulfs of ideology and political action. There is a great weariness in this sequence of all the waste of human strife.

For all the changeableness of the masks behind which the poet sings his desperate songs, Song of a Prisoner seems to me a true sequence, as some series of poems so linked do not succeed in being. It is held together, of course, in the first place, by the pure style of the poet. There is much here that readers of Lawino will recognise—given the far grimmer context. There is, above all, and even more cunningly and evocatively used than before, the constant reference back and forth to the life of animals, insects, plants. These references are methodically placed in the sequence, so that no human event is without its gloss drawn from nature. Again, the images may be used to suggest a deceptive simplicity and sweetness, a sort of hopeless happiness: sometimes, as in "This Stupid Bitch" and "Voice of a Dove," the references to animals (in both these cases, to birds) give to the opening a soaring pleasantness that makes all the fiercer the descent into the prison, the actual use made of the image. I am struck, in many of these passages, by the absence of all strain, the effortlessness, with which Okot modulates into lyricism. He has always been a poet who seems to sing with ease: it is hard to find a phrase in his work behind which you can detect any large pretension. So with:

      The yellow acacia thom tree
      Lifts up her arms,
      Her clean fingers
      Speak soft invitations
      To the yellow birds …

It may even be careless (a purist might object to the obviousness of the three adjectives in those three lines—I mean, to the obviousness with which each noun is given its adjective). But the lyricism seems always to come at the right—that is, usually, the startling—moment: to sustain this curious weaving, so characteristic of the poetry, of violence and sweetness. And once more, the effect of these images drawn from the common scenes of a continent rich in insect, animal and vegetable life is far more than decorative, or descriptive: again, this is one of Okot's devices for giving the deepest possible roots to his work. And at other times the references to nature are fierce and grim:

       A stone wall
       Of guns
       Surround our village,
       Steel rhinoceroses
       Ruin the crops …
 
       I am an insect
       Trapped between the toes
       Of a bull elephant …

I am struck always, as I say, by the naturalness of these images, in the sense that they arise in Okot's text with a kind of inevitability. Never behind such images was there less feeling of a mere search for colourfulness. But then, Okot can indeed—and I suppose it is partly the oral tradition that makes this possible for him—employ even a slightly bizarre figure of speech and make it seem natural: as in

      Olympic athletes throw javelins
      Inside my belly.

The sequence is held together, too, by the recurring or echoing themes or passages. So we are constantly in a court of law, or some other place of judgement: so the prisoner, in this of his guises or that, is perpetually being required to plead guilty or not guilty. And always he answers with another plea altogether, until, when the sequence is over, he has pleaded a great range of emotions: fear, helplessness, hopelessness, smallness (how unexpected and telling, that!), hatred … It is the entire history of the moods of imprisonment; we are swept through the whole awful landscape of imprisoned despair. And again, a theme to which the earlier poems have accustomed us appears—or perhaps it is rather a note struck than a theme. Lawino spoke so often of the manliness of her clansmen, of the masculinity and athletic pride she felt Ocol had lost. The prisoner's sense of his own fate is made more bitter by the memory of his own virility: he was a footballer and a boxer: he is a man to whom it is natural to compare the pains of hunger with javelins thrown by Olympic athletes. He had teeth that

       were the
      White okok birds
      Standing on the back
      Of a buffalo bull.

Beaten by his "uniformed brothers," refused a blessing by "our black nationalistic bishop," aware of wife raped, of children excluded from school and employment—raging against tribalism, capitalism, diseased nationalism—he thinks constantly, intolerably, of the power there once was in his own beaten body.

I spoke earlier of the dark laughter in Song of a Prisoner: and I can understand that a reader might claim that he found no laughter in this sequence, at all. I use the word in its very widest reference. It seems to me, for example, that those two companion poems, "Bonfire" and "This Stupid Bitch"—in the first of which the prisoner upbraids his dead, rotting father for choosing such a wife, and in the second of which he attacks his mother for marrying such a husband—a very dark humour is at work, using the mirror argument of these two poems to bear his meaning as to the intolerable character of tribalism, and especially of tribalism wedded to modern politics, which may exclude so many of the beneficiaries of Uhuru from all prospects in life.

In the end, when we have read and thought about these latest poems by this remarkable African, we may be left—and particularly non-Africans may be left—with a sense of having, in a dialectical sense, bitten off more than we can chew. I mean this: that we may feel (and many Africans must feel) we do not exactly know how to evaluate this apparently wideglancing attack on post-Uhuru Africa. This is no issue, especially for an outsider, to comment upon lightly. We cannot attempt to gather up the entire African experience and to say that on it Song of a Prisoner is a meaningful general statement. It is certainly no cue for a widespread disillusionment with independent Africa. All an outsider can say is that, given the disorder which colonialism brought to Africa, given the disorder in which it quitted Africa, it will take patience and nerve to rebuild African stability, and to repair what has been broken. Perhaps only a fellow Ugandan can judge Okot p'Bitek's particular case. In all respects in which it is a sequence of personal poems, it must be left to longer and more intimate judgement than we can bring to it. But Song of a Prisoner is, clearly enough, not simply a series of poems of personal experience. It is a song, agonisingly felt, most powerfully expressed, vivid and individual, about the universal experience of political imprisonment.

     How can I think freely
     When the very air I breathe
     Has ears larger than
     Those of the elephant
     And keener than the bones
     Of the ngaga fish?

More than Africa speaks there, and to an audience larger than Africa.

I am aware of letting Okot p'Bitek down, rather, in those last words. Of course this is a poem of very explicit personal anguish. Of course no one can doubt that Okot feels himself to be the "proud Eagle, shot down by the arrow of Uhuru." He cries out clearly enough to the "pressmen of the world":

     I want to speak to you,
     For the candle
     Of Uhuru
     Has been blown out …

I did not wish to evade this direct challenge of the poet's: but only, as (to return to the beginning) a modest early mapmaker, not to plunge into judgements of a kind not strictly necessary to a verdict on a poem or a sequence of poems. As a private reader, I have my own way of reading Song of a Prisoner. As a public critic, I can only try to account for my admiration of the poems as poems.

But I feel of them much as I have felt about Lawino. As I see it, Okot's power as a poet is of the kind that perpetually raises his work above the particular emotions and experiences—necessarily very tangled in any poet, and in him probably most severely tangled—from which it sprang. This is to be a really good poet. I don't believe anyone could seriously think about modern Africa without trying to weigh the meaning of Song of Lawino and Song of a Prisoner. I believe Lawino has an importance far beyond the boundaries of Uganda: it is, when generalised, a poem about the situation in which we all find ourselves, being dragged away from all our roots at an ever-quickening rate. I believe, as I have said, that beyond the note of alarm and anguish that it strikes as to the condition of some newly independent African countries, Song of a Prisoner is full of the despair and anger, fiercely expressed, of anyone anywhere who is politically in chains. But having said all this, one is left with a last—and perhaps, in the end, even more important—thing to say. And that is that Okot p'Bitek is a marvellous poet. I wish I could read him in his own language. But in English he has found a tone, a pattern of verse, a rhythm, that are highly original and inventive. It would not be easy to mistake Okot, in English, for anyone else. Though—and perhaps my friend Taban lo Liyong will note this—his matter is never light, his manner often is, in a sense that any writer must envy. I count him among the few masters I have read of literary mischievousness. He can modulate from one mood to another with a skill that, though startling in its effect, rarely draws attention to itself. He is a master of writing for the human voice—and sometimes, I suspect, for the animal or insect voice, too. Much in his style might be made the basis of an argument for drumming, as a musical accomplishment for a poet, in much the way that one might have said experience of the lute was a formative influence on Elizabethan verse. And finally, Okot p'Bitek, as man and poet, is one of those valuable souls who add manifestly to the gaiety of the nations, at the same time that much of what he expresses is closely concerned with their agony.

(read more)

This section contains 6,930 words
(approx. 24 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Edward Blishen
Follow Us on Facebook