with critique by Jendi Reiter
They are all the same
Laughs the last and loudest
Are anxious to creep
And pride their budding beards
This is our fate
That before the sun
Should all elope silently
And with silence
To our face
Swollen, and ugly with silence
How may we know
Seeing that they
Our hearts to walk?
A royal flower
When fading from royalty
And longing for shame
From nature's tempered elements
Too harsh to befriend.
Many a gentle gardener
Allows the gentle dame
A gentle passage
Through waiting earth
And she returns only to return
Yet, not in a fellow flower's soul.
How may we know
Those with us
Have left their graves
To be with us?
The war had many returns
Her sweet fruit
Drove our peering eyes to its hut
From the historic, crippling search
For our lost African brothers
Among deafening ranting
Of many maiming machines
We later found them
Among other stench corpse
We bore them
(Cherishing the mien of love)
Home on our shoulders
A broken article of cold
We lay them on the pyre
Calling on earth and heaven
To witness our dead
And then came
It was time to say goodbye
We dug them
Away into waiting earth
But they would not go
They have chosen our soul eternally to roam!
The dead are not dead
The dead are here with us
In our memories
As we also must
Through love in loved ones
When the night
Becomes our light
And to waiting earth
To live with the dead
The smell of our living friends
Copyright 2008 by Akpoteheri Godfrey Amromare
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, "Whisper Without Words", comes to us from Nigerian poet Akpoteheri Godfrey Amromare. I've been struck by how submissions from our African subscribers maintain the clarity of free verse without the colloquial, self-conscious flavor of much mainstream American narrative poetry.
As I sift through this year's War Poetry Contest entries, many times I come across what I call the "unnecessary narrator"—the speaker who is not involved in the main action, and therefore writes a poem about how she feels when watching it on television, thinking about it while tending her peaceful garden, and so forth. It's as if we have lost permission to exercise our fictional imagination within a poem, let alone to claim the authority of the omniscient narrator who guided us through the great nineteenth-century novels of politics and society. An epic subject deserves a prophetic voice.
I appreciate the formality of Amromare's speech, a trait I also encountered in previous critique poems by Tendai Mwanaka and Obed Dolo. The emotions are strong and personal yet unadulterated with the mannerisms of the everyday self, the ironic asides and pop-culture details that an American writer might employ to create a likeable and accessible narrator.
Such details are unnecessary to give "Whisper Without Words" verisimilitude. Amromare's poem is made painfully relevant by our knowledge of Africa's ongoing wars. At the same time, because of the style and the narrative's supernatural elements, we feel situated in a mythic or universal realm, not limited to one historical moment.
The poem's subject, of course, is the healing of the community after violence. The physical presence of the "friends" frames the poem in its opening and closing stanzas, reflecting the narrator's progress from alienation to reconnection. I don't know how much importance to place on the shift from first-person singular ("my friends") to the first-person plural ("This is our fate") that is used for the remainder of the poem. It may be just an oversight, or it may signal that the shell-shocked speaker was initially holding himself apart from human relationships, but by the end of the poem he has been rewoven into the community of the living and the dead.
Whether it's intentional or not, I wouldn't change it. The distancing language in the first stanza ("They are all the same"; "My friends" not "Our") effectively conveys the speaker's inability to trust any signs of life and youth. He is not sure who is alive and who is dead. When he sees his young friends eager to reach manhood, he feels they are only racing toward death. Their naiveté makes him angry and cynical ("The night/Laughs the last and loudest").
The speaker and his community must answer the central question: "How may we know/Those with us/Seeing/The dead/Have left their graves/To be with us?" The dead are so present to their memories that the living seem unreal. At this point in the poem, it is primarily the dead who long for connection, who extend tenderness and healing (they only want "to be with us", not to blame us or haunt us) while the survivors are still too afraid to love someone else they could lose.
The line breaks in this stanza embed several phrases within the main one, amplifying its meaning. In the sentence as a whole, "Seeing" functions like "Since" or "Given that..." But we can also break out the phrase "Seeing the dead", which is how war's trauma manifests itself among these people, as well as the question "How may we know [i.e. relate to] those with us [who are] seeing the dead?" How to reach the minds of survivors whose memories overwhelm their perceptions of the present?
In a beautiful moment of insight, the narrator's community finds new life by embracing and identifying with the ones they lost, instead of burying the tragic memories. They must love one another with the love that they would want to receive when they too are dead. Their ability to grieve keeps them human amid war's "deafening ranting/Of many maiming machines".
I loved the physical intimacy of the final image: "In learning/To live with the dead/We cherish/The smell of our living friends". An American author might have noted the friends' voices or movements as proof of the difference between live people and ghosts, since smelling one another is a source of embarrassment in our sanitized society. But what could be more immediate, less likely to deceive, than the earthy senses of taste, touch or smell? How better to show the essential unity of the spiritual, human and natural realms, and thus return a bereaved community to a place of acceptance and peace? Having endured the sensory assault of retrieving their dead friends' bodies ("We later found them/Snoring merrily/Among other stench corpse/We bore them/(Cherishing the mien of love)/Home on our shoulders"), it is fitting for them to savor the familiar smells of their companions.
Some passages in "Whisper Without Words" seemed obscure or distracting to me. The attractive, poignant image of the "royal flower" is welcome after the harsh vision of weeping faces "Swollen, and ugly with silence". However, the action in the opening sentence of that stanza is unclear, perhaps because it lacks a main verb. Why would the flower, or anyone, be "longing for shame"? I was surprised to find that the repetition of "gentle" felt somehow soothing, incantatory, since I wouldn't normally recommend using the same word so many times in succession. "Returns only to return" was less successful, since at that point I was hoping for an explanation and found a tautology.
Ultimately, it was unclear to me what the flower, the gardener and the earth stood in for. Perhaps Amromare was thinking of the foolish innocence of the young men who went off to fight, in the belief that death would be a gentle and beautiful transition like planting a flower, but the allegory is not clearly constructed.
I also had my doubts about the passage "The war had many returns/Her sweet fruit/Drove our peering eyes to its hut". Though the storyline there is evident from the context, it felt like a mixed metaphor. The line about dead friends "Snoring merrily" was a jarring comedic touch in a tragic scene. Finally, I wonder whether the title itself should be replaced by a phrase that is less sentimental and drawn more directly from the imagery of the poem.
With these awkward passages fixed, "Whisper Without Words" should be welcomed by any journal that is open to a fresh idiom and cultural perspective.
Where could a poem like "Whisper Without Words" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
MARGIE "Editor's Prize" Best Poem Contest
Postmark Deadline: August 30
Socially conscious journal offers $1,000 for unpublished poems with a "distinctive voice"
Surrey International Writers' Conference Writing Contest
Entries must be received by September 5
Canadian contest offers prizes up to C$1,000 in each genre for poetry, fiction, essays, and children's stories (middle-grade and young adult readers, no picture books)
Firstwriter.com International Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by October 1
UK-based writers' resource site offers prizes up to 500 pounds for published or unpublished poems, 30 lines maximum
Reuben Rose Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by October 7
Long-running international contest from Voices Israel offers prizes up to $500 and anthology publication for unpublished poems
National Poetry Competition
Postmark Deadline: October 31
Prestigious award from the Poetry Society (UK) offers prizes up to 5,000 pounds; online entries accepted
Anderbo Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: November 1
Well-regarded online journal based in NYC offers $500 for unpublished poems, any length
We also recommend these literary journals with an international focus:
FULCRUM: An Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics
This poem and critique appeared in the August 2008 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.