A Poem is a Machine Made Out Of Words: A Review of ‘A Nation in Labour’ by Harriet Anena


Edward Hirsch teaches us that a reader of poetry is like a pilgrim setting out, or what Wallace Williams calls ‘a scholar with one candle’. To set out is to picture oneself as a beginner. To begin is to act – it is to adopt a certain frame of mind, an attitude, and a consciousness. I’m reminded that as a beginner I must open myself to surprise – to the thrills and thralls – of reading poetry, or of reading too many poems over a short period of time. In reading, I will be using poetry as a tool for reflection and conversation, which by its nature is a narrowing of scope.

A Nation in Labour: A Poetry Collection (2015) by Harriet Anena published by Millennium Press Limited, Kampala-Uganda, is a slender book, less than 100 pages in size, with 55 poems bundled into loosely themed baskets. We Need No New Mandela. We Are on Heat. And We Will Plant Bullets. Scratching Destiny. Throughout the book, the tone oscillates from anger to apathy, sometimes it is sarcastic or even persuasive, yet there are times when it is dour and querulous and patronizing. But even then, there is a purpose in the voice, a galvanizing of support, a steely belief in the society’s ability to turn off the cliff and retrace its footsteps. Though, most times, it sounds hopeless like the instinctual bleats of a wounded antelope stuck in mud.





The first poem, Walking on Nails, opens the curtain to a society drowning in phobophobia – the fear of fear itself. We are afraid of being afraid. Even when we don’t know what we are afraid of. We fear because the real truth scorches our tongues. We know that fear is a tool for maintaining oppression, but in a society where others showcase tears of joy as others wipe off tears of pain, the lament is a call to see beyond our eyelashes. Unfortunately, fear also creates ambivalence and indecision. In Lest We Forget To Fear, the poet reminds us that despite the volcano of shamelessness we are sitting on /…/ let’s not forget to fear. And even in the pursuit of ‘change’, scripted political pretence ought to be thrown out of the window. We Need No New Madiba because the seed of Madiba inside us hasn’t germinated. The poem dismisses pundits who unable to stand his (Madiba’s) feats, bring him down / even in death, and yet they cannot even hold the hem of his cloak.

The chant-y ‘we’ in many of the poems is definitive of the collection. It reminds one of the oft-stated observations by critics that the African poet seldom indulges in poetry that mirrors his private concerns, but that of the community. In Politics and the Development of Modern African Poetry, Friday A. Okon says that “modern African poetry is a poetry of commitment, and therefore, it has utilitarian value. It is an intellectual response to the denigration of Africa and Africans by white colonizers.” Though the collection desists from dragging colonialists into Uganda’s present situation, it aligns with the belief that in Africa, the poet cannot afford to just play around with words, and must in some way tackle the realities of the society.

There are many who will disagree with this position, and deservedly so, but commitment to a utilitarian value by talking about social realities is not a bad thing per se. As Paul Cohen says a poem is a “manifestation of language and thus essentially a dialogue”, in this sense, poems too “are making towards something”. And maybe every poem holds a belief that somewhere and sometime it will seep into a conversation and bend it with a new perspective.

The hopelessness of the citizenry is exemplified in Political Poop as citizens clamour for stinking shillings from county gods and dive headlong into our life’s vomit, as their leader clutches at breasts of the Republic / Squeezing and biting it with 70-year-old teeth until the breasts are looted dry. However, Harriet Anena is not alone in calling out the irresponsibility of political leaders. In Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino – one of the greatest literary works in East Africa, concern for the masses is a recurrent theme as the poet decries the elite’s abandonment of the people’s struggle for the struggle for their selfish interests. In the Song of Ocol, Okot p’Biket remarks that: And while the pythons of sickness / swallow the children / And the buffaloes of poverty / Knock the people down / And Ignorance stands there / Like an elephant / The war leaders are tightly locked in bloody feuds / Eating each other’s liver. Sadly, when a society degenerates, even handshakes and greetings become a performance: now we lengthen the handshake to prolong the performance. The poet’s view of ‘we’ is very bleak: We search for mass graves / in our hearts / for skeletons of laughter / that lie / cold and broken.”

Still, there are poems seem culled from a different alcove of being, for love has a way of softening even the hardest of granites. In Kiwani, even though love that was sincere has become diluted and defiled, the tone is calm and confessional. In Say It, the sweetness of the persona’s entreating, glows: Today / I’ll let your breath stroke my neck /… / I’ll let your fingers wander through my hair. In We Are On Heat, the lines We love violently / Cry and kiss at the same time / As our chests heave with longing and hesitation is highly evocative and visual. I Bow For My Boobs and V-Day are some of the succulent servings.

In the Forward of A Nation in Labour, Professor Laban Erapu, says that the book is not a conventional collection of poems by a young untried poet cautiously taking her first steps into the profession, but a mature selection of by a seasoned poet. I agree, largely. Whether the poet is praising the diamond bonds of friendship, bemoaning the ways of a crowd unafraid of roasting a fellow human, fazed by the cyclical torture of January broke-ness, or desirous of the tranquillity of the countryside, or castigating the indignity of stripping women; Harriet Anena’s soul is the soul of many Ugandans, and her words – through her poetry – are purse strings to a world that refuses to unsee, a world that believes that rebirth is possible. It is this longing for rebirth that is captured in the poem, A Nation in Labour, hoping it’ll correct a future that’s gone askew. Thus:

A Nation in Labour is a multitude of voices, a collective protest against the present, and a stubborn belief in the possibility of new ways of being, in Uganda.

As William Carlos Williams once said, poems are machines made out of words. And there is nothing sentimental about a machine, in the sense that, no parts are redundant. As a machine, “its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.” On this basis, it is the perceived pointedness of the purpose of Anena’s book that encapsulates the book and saves the reader from the tediousness of reading so many versions of the same political themes and complaints in so many poems. One wishes for more inventiveness in style and themes, but these, as are the many ways of viewing the world, are fruits of time and exposures to new environments.

Alternatively, we can deliberately misapply William’s metaphor, by asking what poetry can do to us. A machine is worth what it does. So, how can poetry move us? What can poetry do in Uganda today? What can poetry do in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe? Maybe that is another conversation we need to have, especially how the power of poetry can be harvested, not only as a cup of wisdom or a barrel of love but also how it can be used as a tool for political reflection and renewal.

Perhaps the poem; Scratching Destiny, is the message the poet wishes to pass to her readers. It totes the heavy heart of A Nation in Labour, and reminds us of the resilience of the human spirit – that in this blooming buzzing confusion, we must somehow organize our individual chaos into a stable and meaningful personal world. Resilience is powerful because resilience is life. We read of an Acholi child, born in the bush only to lose parents to AIDS, and forced to live in protected camps where she/he is sexually molested by protectors.

And we ask ourselves questions: How do we survive darkness with our bodies and souls intact? And we think of those who have lived their whole lives wandering and hiding; those who have survived ghettos and concentration camps; those who have escaped through barbed wires and crawled out of burning buildings. We think of lives imprisoned by unending wars and those rendered helpless by decades of institutional dispossession. But like the Acholi child, we scratch our destiny in the hands of a curbing fate, and with belief in the power of resilience and hope, trudge on.


Richard Oduor Oduku (@RichieMaccs) is a poet and writer. He studied Biomedical Science and Technology at Egerton University. He works, as a Research Consultant, and lives in Nairobi. His work has been published in Jalada Africa, Saraba Magazine, Storymoja, San Antonio Review, among others. He also writes for #MaskaniConversations in the Star Newspaper. He is also working on a novel and a collection of poems and is a member of Jalada Africa (a pan-African writer’s collective) and Hisia Zangu (a writer’s and art society).


First published in Soo Many Stories

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