As The Crow Flies: the Red Earth. Veronique Tadjo

 

French and Côte d´Ivoire: Veronique Tadjo’s novella, As the Crow Flies, led me to her poetry book: Red Earth, first published in French as Laterite. The novella opens and ends like a long poem, is a love-betrayal and migration story, and at the heart of it are personal urban life affairs. But the search and formation of identities is made poignant in Red Earth through the journey motif.

Red Earth is one long narrative poem that evokes the epic folk poetry and tradition of Okot p’Bitek and Christopher Okigbo. It’s both experimental and multifaceted, illustrated with art, written by the lover to the beloved. Tadjo’s style/form is rooted in the traditional song school while expressing contemporary political and social themes.

If you had come

Earlier

I would not have recognized

Your hibiscus hands

Your smile and your sensation

Corn Full Golden

And Balafon Rhythms

I would have ambled

Through the long years

And passing before me

Your shadow would have been unsettling.

The level of urgency rises with each new note as symbolism shifts from the woman addressing the absent lover to the land.

You are

As I imagined you

Waterlily-man

On the lake of my discovery

O conqueror striking down

That ancient lethargy

You are the spirit behind the mask

Praising the initiates

You are the red earth

Fertile with bitter songs.

The symbolism keeps expanding to reveal not just a country but a continent in the grip of colonialism.

Unveil for her

The thousand masks

At the bottom of your soul

Your absent words

And sad memories

Unknot your anguish

And look again at her

Then you’ll grasp

Together

The dark nights

And aborted dreams

And only then

Set forth.

The collective ‘We’ that comes in later also takes the song poem from the personal individual to the communal.

We will build for him

Open farms

And brick houses

We will open the books

And dress the wounds

We’ll give a name

To each corner beggar

And we’ll dress in cotton

The smallest among them

You have to know how to build

On the ruins of the cities

Know how to trace

The paths of liberty.

What’s very interesting is the way the form of the poem celebrates the substance as in the following parts that are incantatory, talking of the griot but being the song as well.

Repeat to me

What the griot says

Who sings Africa

From the time before time

He recounts

These patient kings

On the summits of silence

And the beauty of the elders

With faded smiles

My past returned

From the depths of my memory

Like a totem snake

Coiling my ankles

My solitude

And my shattered hopes

What might I bring

My children

If I have lost their soul?

The I too has a place as in the following parts:

Here is where

I want to rest

And find my beauty

Beside the mountain

And beneath this red earth

I want to recover

The buried secrets.

There’s a deep sense of loss, pain and longing as the lover tries to recover her magic in a playful tease.

You will see

I am a sorceress

If you listen to my words

Your teeth will grow

In double rows

And your throat

Will coo

Laughs cascading.

 

You will see

The rain will flow

In fine droplets

And refresh

The roam scent

The mangoes will run with

Rich juice

And the gourds will be full

Of millet and ripe corn.

 

You will see

I am a sorceress

If you listen to my words

The river will run in you.

Several lines that begin straight (as the crow flies) become fractured, and Tadjo imagines various dimensions through the prism of those severed or messy lines. So we have separation, fear, loneliness, betweenness and alienation, different cultures and transient beings in squalor, modern cities and ancestral homes; movement reflecting on rootedness, sense of self and identity through lamentations.

If you liked the song school style of Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol, you might appreciate the voice in Red Earth.

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