Why we are where we are
Being a Review of the poetry book “Messing Manners” by Mathew Takwi during the book launch at the Hotel Serena Douala on 9th December 2014
By Mwalimu George Ngwane
Right from the illustration on the coloured glossy cover of the book “Messing Manners”, the writer sets his thematic agenda. A beautiful street with posh buildings is being littered by the mess emanating from our social, sexual and political bad manners. It only takes the sole and conspicuous effort of a woman to use the broom of the poet to, in the philosophical note of the author “sweep self clean and in neatness swing his blessed broom round society for better sanitation”.
The poet’s forty-five poems written in seventy-nine pages in a high quality paper book can be divided into three Categories: (i) Poems of piety (ii) Poems of protest and (iii) Poems of praise.
Poems of piety
Mathew’s poems of piety are those with religious overtones and they occupy the first ten pages of the book. In poems like “A Candle of faith”, “Circle me”, “April 2011”, “When our lady called me”, “Christmas 1997”, or “Easter Sunday 2013”, the author is frightened by mortal fear yet inspired by providential faith. He is frightened by the fear of “devilish target, spiritual attacks, arrows visible and invisible, sordid bows of spam ephemeral” yet inspired by faith “in the windlike stream of air that fire his antagonists to vanquish” and faith when he “supplicates, genuflects to be aided by the Holy One.
With a mixture of plea and prayer, reverie and revelation, the poems of piety take the reader on a spiritual level where there is liberation from the “metallic tonnage of sins”, salvation from Christ “always standing by” and transformation from Our Lady who is always prepared “to present our cleared soul to her son”. Using the technique of earthly enchanted slumber and spiritual epiphany, the poet like a spider weaves a web of truth which may be weak enough to be snapped by mortals but strong enough to be reconstructed as the poetic lines are glued by divine love. Because the poems evoke total supplication or submission to the Lord, the reader would be tempted to read them with his or her “knees kissing the floor”.
In most of the poems in this category, the poet uses the first person point of view “I” to establish a personal dialogue between self and soul. These poems are like a diary with dates and venues that invite the reader into a personal conversation of confidence, conviction and conversion. Hear him in the poem “November 2012”…”On official mission to Bamenda; and after the day’s assignment, to hotel room returned and retired, thankful prayers to my creator, for his mercies and graces freely received”.
But though the lines jump out as personal testimonies, they resonate with our daily experiences of the perpetual confrontation between evil and good, darkness and light, temptation and triumph. In these poems, he uses diction to create an atmosphere of assurance and protection, a mood of defiance rather than defeat and a spirit of resilience rather than resignation. The lines give both voice and visibility to spiritual presence around the reader. That is why in these poems we hear “gentle voiceless voices and whispers”, our heads are “cuddled”, our cotton white shirts are “fondled”, our bodies are “smoothly glided and our “heavy shoulders are gently tapped”. He emphasizes the image of light and purity by frequently using spiritually-laden phrases like “light a candle”, “white oval cloud”, “milk white garments”, “cotton white smiles”, “white satin gowns”, woolen snow-white Christmas”, “cotton-white shirts” and cotton-white body”.
Indeed in his poems of piety Mathew Takwi assumes the role of a Poet-preacher on the pulpit.
Poems of protest
As a poet of conscientisation, Mathew’s poems clamor for liberation from the claws of corruption, embezzlement, exploitation, greed, graft and political inertia, they chronicle the salvation from the choruses requesting sovereign conferences, sovereign voices and sovereign sincere talks and they celebrate the transformation of the chief who now sees reason to revert his “Ou en sont les preuves?”
In the poem “Let me be a Noah”, the poet condemns social dislocation due to greed and ostentatious life style. In the poem “I saw” he is against insensitive political leadership; in the poem “Tomorrow’s Masters” he details a sordid classroom environment in which young pupils are bound to learn; in “Mbolombolo” there is juxtaposition between opulence and penury, nonchalance and exploitation; in the poem “Where to, All alone?” the poet sees glittering limousines gliding on crowded dusty lanes”; in the poem “Because I am an Anglo” he raises the Southern Cameroon Question that is being wrapped in barbed wires while the Anglo persona is being devalued daily; in “Give us a chance” he brings us face to face with democracy for the old by the old while children languish in psycho-physical chains”; in his poem “Bimbia” he graphically takes us through the gruesome journey of slave trade where villages were emptied of undulating muscled men ferried to farms in the America to excavate their wealth or in the poem “Of Happenings Estranged” in which the poet conjures imperialist conspiracy theories as our patrimony is surrendered to “Voltaire’s heirs”.
But most of all, his title poem “Messing Manners” is a frontal indictment on sexual orientation. The author’s abhorrence for homosexuality and transsexuality is evoked with the use of rhetoric questions ominous of threats and human catastrophe. Hear him “If you gender your gender, dare not adopt fruit of his gender, dare not birth-certificate gem of her gender, for new world you madly mould”. This title poem can be summarised in this mind searching rhetorical question “If his masculinity were to feminize his masculinity, if her feminity were to masculinise his feminity, where would you have emerged to sprint around like mouse chased from hole by hot water?”
In his poems of protest, the poet places the debate on society’s moral decadence in the heart and the head of the reader. His use of parallelism or the repeated use of words, clauses or phrases does not only create a cadence of emphasis but one whose effects is meant to stir our emotion. Because he uses reason and emotional appeal to convince us to think or act in a certain manner, his poems of protest can be considered poems of persuasion rather propaganda.
While in the poems of piety he acts like a gadfly pleading for a covenant between Man and God, in his poems of protest he is like a housefly settling on the wounds of society. Here he assumes the role of a poet-politician on the podium and a poet-physician on a platform. Indeed every time we read poems in this category we come out like patients who having been consulted in the hospital of morality now have reason to be prescribed a social vaccine against the ebolarisation of human decency.
Poems of praise
Though few in number, these poems highlight innate virtues and celebrate living or dead icons as if to draw the reader’s attention to what ought to be. He paints a picture of role models who draw inspiration from what Bernard Fonlon says in Latin “corruptio optima pessima “ or “the corruption of the best is the worst”. The poet rebukes discrimination and hypocrisy by endearing the virtue of selflessness in the poem “Altruism” and the sharing or ubuntu spirit in the poem “Dining Shade”.
In the poem “The Call” he invites us to emulate his role model Bishop Immanuel Bushu who according to the author “has gracefully grazed his word and deeds up the hills and down the valleys”; in “When his bell rang” the author devotes in both a dirge like an incantation manner the feat achieved by the late Bishop Pius Awah.
He moves from spiritual to secular icons as in the poem “Grass to Grace Gem” in which Pa Yong Francis “refused to be young in ideas and ventures” to “L’Ame Immortelle de Simon Nkwenti” ah! Simon who I once described following his death as one in whose heart was entrenched the sterling qualities of a society’s spokesman; in whose soul was sown the grains of a People’s Advocate and in whose spirit was engraved the fighting splendor of a committed crusader.
In the poem “When women decide” he celebrates women empowerment, female leadership and crafts a vision for female power that shall “sweep of men’s mean manners” and hopefully “men’s rugged floors would be smoothen”. In “Be a parent” he condemns male or husband irresponsibility by bringing to the fore responsible motherhood. Yes, after going through the dark dungeon of messing manners, these icons shed light for future generation and provide a succor of hope for society. The debris of our messing manners shall be buried and be used as manure for the growth of blessing manners.
The poet is not indifferent to nature as an integral element of our environment. With poems like “When the birds sing”, “Mother Moon”, “Of Water and Juice”, “Solid Water”, etc, the poet uses the device of personification to build an organic link between man and his environment as well as develop the reader’s critical,moral,cognitive and aesthetic awareness of his surroundings.
While in his poems of protest he acts like a housefly settling on the wounds of human frailty, in his poems of praise he acts like a butterfly settling on the beautiful flowers of human nature. Indeed through these poems Mathew assumes the role of a poet-pedagogue on the pedestal of society.
One can safely call Mathew Takwi a puritan poet because the Bible provided a model for Puritan writing. Puritans saw direct connections between biblical events and their own lives. They used writings to explore their inner and outer lives for signs of the workings of God, and most of all they favoured a plain style, clarity of expression and avoided complicated figures of speech.
Like many poets, Mathew uses Inversion frequently to accommodate the demands of meter or rhyme and sound effects. Like Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac, Mathew’s use of aphorism “Light a candle”, “Build a home”, “Know your neighbor”, “Be a parent”, is done in order to create an assertive tone and mood in the mind of the reader. His use of alliteration like “fan shameless fanfare for feeding masters” or “they bark, bleak, meow and meander” creates onomatopoeia. His use of conceit or extended metaphor like “God-sent angels you discarded to languish” or “while some bluff in elephantine Accounts in prestigious islands and cities, others admire in pious hope of picking up remnants and crumbs from deserved due” makes us see connections between vastly different things in the world. The poems are characterized by satire, personification and similes. Right from his first collection of poems “People, be not fooled”, Mathew decided not to eclipse his message through obscurantism.
In a society where poor reading culture and intellectual laziness have become rich but expendable commodities; in a society where young people have allowed the unbridled obsession of all forms of social media to invade their book space; in a society where young people recite the names and salaries of footballers in European clubs more than names of characters in a single novel; in a society where young people find more time in cyber cafes rather than libraries selling imaginary chameleons to gullible white people; in a society where young ladies are busy watching Eurocentric TV soap operas and situation comedies while their fountain of inspiration and the ink in their blood (courtesy Charly Ndi Chia) runs dry; indulging in obscure writing can be both artistically irrelevant and financially suicidal.
Mathew’s stylistic wealth is drawn from his use of local colour in time, space and place as well as his poetic license to merge English language and French language in the same poem while, like Max Sako Lyonga, painting cosmic and mundane realities on the same canvass with the same brush. In his poem “Of Poets and their Antagonists”, the Nigerian Booker Prize winner Ben Okri says “the poet turns the earth into mother; the sky becomes a shelter, the sun an inscrutable god and the pragmatists get irritated; they want the world to come with only one name, one form.”
What makes the poems in “Messing Manners” easy to read is the use of run-on lines or enjambement which sometimes makes the poems look like prose on stanzas when they are indeed poetry on wheels. Some of the lines come straight and shocking like what Ngugi wa Thiongo defines as a writer using the barrel of a pen; some are sensuous and soothing like what Mbella Sonne Dipoko calls the use of art as a diplomatic weapon. Because he mellows temper with tempo, because he merges shape with sound, because he combines memory with history, because he cushions utter revolt with evocative rhythm and because his writing character readily establishes a bonding chemistry between him and his reader anyone who knows Mathew the person can justifiably conclude of every writer that “You are what you write”.
In his poems of protest where the seductive experiment in authoritarianism is becoming familiar in most African states, his outrage may not compel Mathew to like Wole Soyinka seize the radio; his frustration as an Anglo which Anglo Bate Besong describes as “one who now occupies the centre of hell” Mathew may not contemplate going to the battlefield like the poet Christopher Okigbo did during the Nigerian-Biafran war.
In his book “Home and Exile” Chinua Achebe says there are three reasons for becoming a writer. The first is that you have an overpowering urge to tell a story. The second is that you have intimations of a unique story waiting to come out. And the third, which you learn in the process of becoming a writer, is that you consider the whole project worth the considerable trouble. Like other Cameroonian writers before him and those of his generation Mathew has responded to these reasons.
Why are we where we are?
Finally, why are we therefore where we are? We can summarise the poet’s work “Messing Manners “by saying that we are where we are because “men are still kissing men and women still fondle women”, we are where we are because as an Anglo “one cannot ride state horse but can only be an ox to be ridden”, we are where we are today because “people see no wrong in wrong but wrong the right”, we are where we are because someone once asked “Ou en sont les preuves?”, Yes, we are where we are because “deformed faces of yesteryears’ supple body scare crows before nagging kids emerge and parade Lower House in macabre dance”.
But when women shall decide, when Our Lady shall call us and when each of us shall be transformed into a Noah, we shall all light a wholesome candle of faith for ourselves and for our society and the consequences shall be as the poet predicts in his last poem “Emerge” “our once sunken eyes shall gracefully protrude amazed at the miracles from our faithful endeavours”. That will be the day. But for now the poetry book has been served, get your copy and enjoy your intellectual meal.