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Review: The Parley Tree, ed. Patrick Williamson

In Mohammed Dib's L'lncendie (1954), a group of fellahs (subsistence farmers) assemble for a meeting under Ie vieux murier (the old mulberry tree) in the small mountain village of Bni Boublen in Algeria. Move away from the Mediterranean rim into continental Africa and the tree under which villagers meet is more often a baobab. Patrick Williamson, editor of the bilingual anthology of poetry The Parley Tree, describes the role of this tree as that of 'a nerve centre' where conflicts and differences between different communities can be discussed and resolved. Including eighteen poets from twelve countries. The Parley Tree features poems from the early sixties to the present day, with a preface by Tunisian-born Tahar Bekri. All but two authors have been translated by Williamson.

The poems in this anthology are intended to provide a representative selection of voices from the vast continent of Africa and from the Arab world, some published for the first time in English translation and many previously unpublished in French. Williamson's selection reflects the recurrent and pressing questions of engaged poetry, pushing beyond their confines through the dendritic medium of the parley tree: slavery, the vicissitudes of a collective memory denied or defiled, a yearning for redress of colonial wrongs, calls for change or revolution, for solidarity and truth, and for History with a capital H, as Alain Mabanckou (Congo Brazzaville) heralds in When the Cock Announces the Dawn of Another Day (1999);

one day History will be written
on this abandoned tree
the nervures of the bark will mingle
the coursing sap will brim over
to the roots

But in The Shades (from Les Obscurcis, 2008), Lebanon's fabulous Venus Khoury-Ghata denounces a present in which vigilant gardeners fold both flesh and bark along the same lines, while Ivory Coast's Tanella Boni is haunted by the Atlantic slave trade in a suite of poems entitled 'Goree Baobab Island'. In I Once Was a Tree, Edouard Maunick (Mauritius) mourns a very present sense of loss:

true all is not accomplished
but terrible is the sign
the totem tree no longer bleeds

Maunick's totem tree symbolises the brutal rupture, the break in cultural continuity that slavery imposed when Africans were taken to Goree Island and other ports in Senegal or the Gambia to be transported as cargo and disgorged as bandoneons sound, each island the burning wound / that the Poem cauterizes.

The anthology's eponymous parley tree is conjured in a poem from the very heart of Africa (Democratic Republic of Congo) in the closing lines of The Song of Resistance in Kama Sywor Kamanda's collection Le songe des origines (unpublished):

The roots of the parley tree
Will end up absorbing the rains

Perhaps the most arresting work in this anthology remains the distinctive voice of Tchicaya U Tam'si (1931-88), born in Mpili (Congo Brazzaville) and relocated to France in 1946. His lush poetry, described as 'colloquial and spoken', bears the hallmark of French surrealism in concert with his Maghrebi counterparts to the North. The tree theme recurs in the following extract from Summary of a Passion, translated by Yann Lovelock:

0 ma genealogie improbable !
De quel arbre descendre ? /... /

0 my improbable genealogy!
Descended from what tree? [...]

U Tam'si employed the notoriously difficult French infinitive in the second line - literally 'From which tree to descend?', which could mean variously 'From which tree shall /should / can I descend?'. Lovelock's past participle 'descended' preserves flow and metre, but doesn't render the agony of choice facing an individual or nation whose genealogy has been brutally severed. Other verses in the same poem, however, transport without semantic loss into the English language, for example: I graft to my retinas two orange-flowers; / grant they be flames / grant they be white enough to chill / the dead [... ].

This lament for a past abruptly stolen is reprised in Senegal by Amadou Lamine Sail (translated, as all further poems discussed here, by Patrick Williamson) in a seething protest against the country's collective amnesia:

Mon pays n 'est pas un pays mort
mais elle est pourtant morte la memoire

My country is not a dead country
yet its memory is dead

The second line of this passage is a perfect alexandrine in French and plays a pivotal role in the poem, as reiterated in the closing lines when the poet berates his country's 'monstrous lapse of memory'. While it is not always possible to render an alexandrine that works well in English, the significance of this line arguably warrants greater syllabic weight in its English counter-part.

Also from Mauritius, Kahl Torabully's intriguing semiotic wordplays have inspired some of Williamson's most engaging translations, as when he takes a slant approach to sound and meaning to echo the source language in a nostalgic saudade from The Indiades - Odes to Pessoa. The first few lines of the translation convey the rich assonance and alliteration of the original. It is unfortunate that the English language does not possess as evocative a word as f'auve for 'big cat', but perhaps 'feline' would have helped to sustain Torabully's momentum in the fourth line.

Saudade by breaking my syllables:
I crossed archives and archipelagos
In the columm of columbine.
Fiery as a threatened big cat
I flee the shade like the marron of penumbra.

Along with established poets Mohammed Dib and Habib Tengour (Algeria), Abdellatif Laabi (Morocco) and Tahar Bekri, The Parley Tree includes new voices from countries rarely represented in African anthologies, for example Abdourahman A. Waberi from Djibouti and Nimrod Ben Djangran from land-locked Chad. Known as Nimrod, he received the Prix Max Jacob 2011 for his Babel, Babylon and has been featured at London's Southbank Centre's Poetry Parnassus. Yet the Infanta of Salamanca (unfashionable considerations on the elephant) is written in the guise of an ode to the elephant, a symbol of the spirit of Africa, as revealed in the closing stanza:

For the destiny of this skin, my destiny,
The shiny fabric of such a catholic doormat,
Has not resisted dismembering. Only the pace remains,
A metronome of emotions. The pain, however, has not managed to overcome him.
Every day, the elephant becomes more distant,
And so does my self-portrait...

The second line of this passage reads in French Toile ciree d'un marche-pied si catholique. The denouement of the poem's conceit may in this instance have eluded Williamson's otherwise faithful translation style. Toile ciree is an oil-cloth and marche-pied a footstool, so that a more literal crib would read 'oilcloth for so catholic a footstool', thus drawing a chilling parallel between the fate of the elephant hide as an antiquated piece of colonial furniture and the narrator's fate as a (post-)colonial subject.

The full legacy of European colonisation in Africa has long been under-represented in English, due partly to the continent's rich variety of languages and dialects, and The Parley Tree plays its part in addressing the imbalance. Sadly, however, this tree casts a partial shade. Despite the inclusion of three important women poets, notable in their absence are Veronique Tadjo (Cote d'lvoire), Werewere-Liking Gnipo (Cameroon), Morocco's Rachida Madani, Algeria's Anna Greki and Assia Djebar, and of course Joyce Mansour (Egypt, 1928-86), to mention only some of the better known among many excellent French-speaking women poets from Africa and the Arab world. As Tanella Boni's The Gift Still To Come intimates:

but the woman is always another
walking at different paces like the sea

Admittedly, women poets have not been easy to find since Senghor's 1948 Anthologie de la nouvelle poesie negre el malgache de langue francaise. But perhaps the selection does constitute a 'representative' anthology, in that women's voices continue to be largely unheard in the African and Arab world, and the people under Williamson's parley tree, as in the scene depicted by Dib some fifty years ago, continue to be men. Yet when women's voices are not heard, all voices are damped by this omission. Amina Said speaks for the grieving mothers of the dead in L'Absence l'inacheve (2009):

our gestures are the replica
of ancient gestures and nobody now
hears our expropriated speech

And the lost voices ride over the destroyed houses like a shroud in Venus Khoury-Ghata's The Shades:

voices overlapping the stones
echo overlapping voices
lying stretched out until the upturned houses
sheet shroud whatever

Bilingual anthologies are rare and all the more valuable for bilingual readers who will appreciate the poems twice - or rather thrice, as in the excitement of discovering a new voice they cannot resist translating alongside the proffered translation. Therein lies both the charm and the vulnerability of such anthologies, and Williamson's The Parley Tree possesses both in abundance.