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Review: The Parley Tree, ed. Patrick Williamson

D.M. de Silva, Poetry Salzburg Review, Spring 2013

...their poems seem as much committed to meaning as to being. Their interest is not simply local in quality or character, something to be defined in terms of an Arab or African otherness. Using the French language, they move into conventions of form as much as into traditions of thought and feeling which may be considered French, European or, in the spirit of the times, global. So, when Tunisian poet Tahar Bekri arraigns the Taliban in his poem 'Afghanistan', addressing a problem that may be regarded specially relevant to the inheritor of an Islamic culture, the rhetoric of his reproaches (sixty in all, punctuated by six questions as refrain) expresses a sensibility which is humanist and indeed Romantic:

If you village is a casern
Not a nest for swallows
If your house is a cave
If your source is a mirage [...]
How can you love the sprint?

Many of the poets write in and of a post-colonial situation. They face questions of racial and national identity or cruder realities of poverty, exploitation and bloodshed, the struggles for power of competing elites. Abdourrahman A. Waberi, a poet of black African writes of a Djiboutii drained by years of rapine.

The female lips of the tiger orchid have
nothing to hide. Darkest night.
Everything sleeps, even silence.
The bones of the past here, visible in evening streets.
The laurel trees weep for their Daphne
Apollo is off chasing girls in Abyssinia.
Go on, anchor further out. Leave the sea of Eritrea,
the heavens will be better then.
This is the sacked bard telling you:
my land is poor, there is nothing for sale.
Black gold, precious wood, pearls of azure?
Nothing but the wind, migratory winds -
the dreams of flocks and mirages of oases.
Our confidence has evaporated
like the morning dew
sucked up by the eye of the sun.
It is black, often black. Pink sometimes. We are a long way
from having said yes to the abduction of the coffin.

Tales of Yesterday

The situation is African; but the poem is classic: a reader brought up in the tradition of a classic aesthetic responds with appreciation to its restraint and the discipline of its monothematic consistency. The only open grief in the landscape of impoverishment the poem evokes is that of the laurels weeping for a Daphne who does not seem to have got away. The idea of the rape of a country, extended by the image of the predator's employment in pastures new, returns, in the final line, with the image of the abduction of the coffin, to be absorbed into the futility of an ironic, last resistance. That the poetic voice which expresses the situation belongs to a bard who has failed to keep his job completed the sense of futility, while affirming, of course, the integrity and unpoetic authenticity of the testimony presented.

Many voices make up the concert of The Parley Tree. There are nineteen poets from twelve countries here, which makes it difficult to consider them all in detail. A few may suffice, though as index of a general level of interest and quality. The volume opens with the Algerian poet Mohammed Dib: a voice clipped and lucid, but with a fine addition of mystery in the lucidity. Three poems taken from his volume L'enfant-Jazz, particularly, astonish with a vision which is compellingly mythic and pristine. In opulent contrast are the poems of Kama Kamanda from DCR with their large themes of history and race and love, with their assured music and general grandiloquence. Also not afraid of the large theme is the Cameroonian poet poet Paul Dakeyo. There is a personal note to his voice, unexpected in the circumstances; as when he communes intensely with his country as with a beloved. The two poems by him included here express public commitment with the urgency and tenderness of intimate affections. The poet Nimrod from Chad objectifies personal feeling, satisfying the architectural sense with his beautifully structured verse...

The freedoms Patrick Williamson [the translator] permits himself are freedoms in the right spirit and make him a fluent and persuasive translator.