Sunday, 10 May 2015

Sharing My Love for a Poet-Friend


Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick
Office of the President
Howard University
Washington, D.C. 20059

Dear Dr. Frederick,

You may wonder how and why should an academic, writer and Chief Editor of an English Journal titled Re-Markings ( based in India be concerned about the fate of one of Howard University’s veritable treasure called Ethelbert Miller.

I have known Ethelbert since 2002 when we featured his poems in Re-Markings. This literary connection grew into friendship when I visited the United States as a Senior Fulbright Scholar at the University of Washington, Seattle during 2003-04. He came down to meet us (me and my wife) at our apartment in Seattle where I had the opportunity to interview him for Multicultural America: Conversations with Contemporary Authors (Unistar Books, India). In response to one of my questions regarding his role as a black intellectual and poet in contemporary America, he stated: “I like to take credit with encouraging the importance of creative writing program for African American writers. I think there is still the need to establish programs at historically black colleges. I would like to see better partnerships between African American writers and public libraries.” In his “Preface” to Beyond the Frontier, he writes: "At the dawn of the 21st century, we must discover our true beauty. Poetry is a vehicle to transport us beyond forever. Beyond the frontier, beyond this world (which once enslaved us), lies a new consciousness."

I would also like to quote here a few lines from the poem he wrote for the book Charles Johnson: Embracing the World Authorspress (India, 2012) which he co-edited with me:

We dreamers.
Men of night emails and exchanges.
Composers of narratives and American songs.
We believers and followers of the Buddhist path.
We understand the blackness that surrounds us.
We surround the blackness, we follow it
Embracing ourselves.

We are brothers because everything in life
Is related to love. We take refuge in the future
Knowing the past is always found in the present.

The point I am trying to make is that in a conflict ridden world, we desperately need to show our honor and esteem for men like Ethelbert who do not separate practice from precept in building bridges that connect people, nations, cultures and languages. Cutting across stagnant mindsets and steeped in generosity and friendship he affirms, “My prayers are songs. I can make music. I can give color to the world. This is my life. This is my gift.”

Selfless to the core of his being, he is a true cultural ambassador who offers incisive insights into the new frontiers of the African American experience that calls for an amalgamation of multidisciplinary and multicultural perspectives.

Sir, you are widely known as a successful surgeon in the field of Oncology and have always worked to heal the pain of those you may have not even known personally. What prevents you, then, from intervening in the case of someone whose invaluable contribution to the African American Resource Center is so very well known to you and to the rest of the world? I am not unaware of the financial crunch that may have forced the University to arrive at such an unwarranted decision. However, it seems strange to me that a nation which happily glories in squandering precious human and material wealth in far of places like Iraq should dispense with the services of one so very valuable for the perpetuation of human ideals.

As you may be aware, the global literary community has rightly rallied around in support of Ethelbert to reverse a decision that seems so unpalatable in human terms.

I, therefore, beseech you to intervene and set things right as a mark of respect to the invaluable services rendered by Ethelbert in a career spanning forty long years.

You have nothing to lose but your chains!

In anticipation of an affirmative action at your end,

Yours sincerely

Dr. Nibir K. Ghosh, D.Litt.,
HOD English, Agra College, Agra, India
Senior Fulbright Fellow 2003-04, University of Washington, Seattle &
Chief Editor, Re-Markings

Saturday, 7 March 2015

"Idioms of Hope" - Review of Tijan M. Sallah's Harrow: London Poems of Convalescence in Re-Markings (India)

            “Idioms of Hope”:

Tijan M. Sallah’s Harrow Poems

Nibir K. Ghosh

Harrow: London Poems of Convalescence by Tijan M. Sallah, the celebrity Gambian poet and icon of contemporary African writings, is a unique departure from the usual socio-political and cultural concerns that he addresses in his earlier works. The poetic terrain in this slender volume, comprising eighteen poems and a “Foreword,” is neither Africa nor America (where Sallah currently lives and works) but a hospital in Harrow, London where, nursing his wounds, he sets out to explore the veritable landscape of the soul crowded with myriad impressions that range from the immediate to the timeless, from the explicitly particular to the inherently universal. The volume is dedicated to Chinua Achebe and Nadine Gordimer, whom Sallah refers to as “two dear friends; two great African heroes.” Sallah mentions in his “Foreword” to the collection how the poems were the outcome of a near-fatal accident, “the child of a harrowing experience in London,” that he had on the night of October 12, 2000: “The poems in this volume were inspired by that tragic episode…They were written in Harrow while convalescing from the accident. Every day, I wrote one poem and read it when the Ward family came. It became a liberating ritual, a catharsis” (10). 

On that fateful October night, narrates Sallah in his “Foreword,” when he walked out of Sheraton Heathrow Hotel to get “a quick dinner” he was caught in unawares when a speeding “saloon car” hit him with tremendous force resulting in extensive fractures on his left femur along with bruises and lacerations. He was rushed to the Middlesex University Hospital in Hounslow, London where he underwent surgery and was then transferred for recovery to The Clementine Churchill Hospital in Harrow (8-9).

The prosaic rendering of the episode that one finds in his “Foreword” is described in great detail in one of the longish poem titled “I Must Not Look Down” where he reflects on his near-brush with death: “For a moment, I thought, as I flew in the air,/ That death has suddenly beckoned me to final rest./ But, thank Great Kindness, I was half-spared./ I now have to reflect and anticipate the best” (25). As he lay in the surgical ward “like a wounded animal,/ Awaiting surgery in painful delirium” he hoped to be rescued from the “pandemonium” of anxiety, pain and anguish by the benevolent “Great Kindness” (27). Even a cursory glance at this poem reveals Sallah’s intrinsic ability to transform graphic prosaic details into exquisite lyrics suffused with rhyme and music.

As a survivor, Sallah finds it comforting to reflect and meditate on the significance of eternal spiritual values that we often tend to lose sight of in our perpetual race for materialistic pursuits, “the world is too much with us” syndrome that William Wordsworth had popularized in his own time. In the poem “Near-Death Experience” Sallah records: “Near-death experience can be religious/ It turned my eyes to the obvious/…./ That mindless seeking of silver and fortune/ Can lead to a spiritual misfortune/ “It seems moderating the passions is the key,/…./ When we are soaked in world-lust, engulfed in the tempting sea/ We should pray daily and be mindful./ If nothing, to our own soul-yearnings be careful” (35).

This mindfulness for spiritual and human values gives Sallah various perspectives to view the trauma of the accident. On the one hand he observes, “Unable to stand on my feet,/ I swallowed the throes of defeat./ …/ Dependency is the child of paralysis;/ I have come to this after much analysis” (“Unable to Stand,”44), while on the other he is quite reluctant to “sue” the driver of the car that hit him. He is quite forthright in stating in “Some Friends Say”: “Some friends say I should sue the driver,/ But I do not want to create a paradise for lawyers./ I do not want to be in their garrulous game./ I do not want to trundle to the courts for fame” (29). Rather than think of penalizing the driver in any way, he allows his humaneness to come to the fore by appreciating the driver’s gesture of heeding to his own conscience and stopping “to cover me with his jacket” (“I Must Not Look Down” 25) instead of running away from the scene of the accident.

The collection takes one through numerous instances that highlight how the human body and mind in torment and agony can draw strength and sustenance from small mercies and endearing human gestures. In “Here I Lie Now” Sallah is quick to appreciate how the love of the friends who come to visit him in the hospital with “warmth in their faces” takes away his mind from the “Dickensian hell I have been in” (13). Even when the Nurse attending on him jokingly says that his funny gait suggests that he must have “stayed at the pub long last night,” he doesn’t feel embittered or sour: “All I know is the nurse jokes with a certain passion;/ I can only think of it as compassion” (“The Nurse Says” 19).

In the poem “Tribute to the Body-Carpenter” he is visibly aware that his “mortal furniture is broken” and that “My body is no better than a broken furniture/ Wobbly it is, and its music squeaks./ Looking like some animated painful picture,/ I move slowly making sure nothing breaks” (16). Yet he feels impelled to acknowledge his debt to the attending surgeon whom he refers to as the “carpenter of scars,/ Who joins muscles and bones with herbs and bark” (17). He reiterates the esteem he shows for the “Body Carpenter” (the doctor) in another poem entitled “Next to God, the Doctor” where he says: “When in pain, next to God, is the doctor…./ The doctor’s words ring true like God’s trombones…./ And the prescriptions must be held with the sacredness of treasure” (20). While dwelling on the healing touch that a doctor imparts through his skills, the poet is reminded of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher, who saw pain and pleasure as “Two sovereign principles” that “Nature bestowed on humanity” (20).

In his famous essay, “The Convalescent,” Charles Lamb had remarked in good humor about the predicament of the convalescent: “…what else is it but a magnificent dream for a man to lie a-bed, and draw day-light curtains about him; and, shutting out the sun, to induce a total oblivion of all the works which are going on under it?” Unlike Lamb, Sallah in Harrow Poems shows his marked preference for allowing his roving mind and sensitive soul to move from wallowing in self-pity in the depressing confines of a hospital ward to encompass “all the works that are going on under” the Sun. In “The Nights Can Be Long” Sallah writes: “I feel tonight like a throbbing newborn,/ But with a history; so without the garment of innocence./ I am conscious of the past, but helplessly forlorn;/ Waiting for time to unfold to morning in patience” (14).

While poems like “Mad Cow” and “The African Penguins” show the poet’s awareness of contemporary events, poems such as “The Maid that Brings” and “A Lesson of History” reveal the poet’s desire to see the present in relation to the past, especially in the context of the English Empire. Harrow, which figures in the title of the present collection, is also the location of “Harrow School,/ Where children of the British elite/ Get groomed for the high seat” (38). In the present time many Asian children are also on the school’s role in keeping with the idea of “The new rainbow-Britain drawn from the global sphere” (“The Maid that Brings” 38). In an ironical tone Sallah remarks: “Britain is really a great place,/ Open to all the world’s cultures and races,/ Wedded by this English, this maxim-tongue,/ That flows like water, and to all belongs” (38). The content of the poem helps one recall postcolonial discourses that can be found in texts like The Empire Writes Back.

The tenor and tone of “A Lesson of History” is no less pungent. Here the poet juxtaposes “England invaded by the magic/ Of aboriginal histories, a rich panache of lore, craft and lyric” with the hard fact that “Empires also smell of aboriginal/ skeletons” (42). Lying on the hospital bed, the poet muses: “I lie down here in this land of Empire./ After it has retreated, reflected, retired./ I am reminded of Hindustan and Bantustans./ Of English incursions into indigenous lands” (43). The poem ends on an ominous note imbued with a prophetic warning: “I am reminded of suppressed histories, buried tongues./…./ England will become the world it vanquished./ Convergence is the future of the invader and the anguished” (43).

Another poem in the collection that needs to be mentioned specifically is “God Save Us.” Here Sallah describes how he awoke one night terrified by a raging storm “That roared all night like a hungry lion, scaring us from sleep” (22). He saw the storm as Nature’s revenge on man for mindlessly playing with the environment for material gains, violating thereby what Rousseau called the “Social Contract.” Aware of the implication of “global warming” he pleads with God thus: “God, save humanity from mindless terror on nature,/ Else, we are doomed to suffer its revenge and torture” (23). It is significant that a convalescent struggling to come to terms with his own pain and agony does not withhold himself from thinking of pressing environmental issues that threaten mankind.

Taken together, these beautiful lyrics can veritably be seen as the dispersed meditations of a sensitive soul in search of panaceas to assuage individual suffering as well as collective misery. If these “idioms of hope” could be for Tijan M. Sallah “a liberating ritual, a catharsis,” there is reason enough to believe that readers will find in this superb collection the urge and the inspiration to create what W.H. Auden outlined in the concluding stanza of his poem, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”: 
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.


Harrow: London Poems of Convalescence by Tijan M. Sallah. Leicester: Global hands Publishing, 2014. 56 pp. $ 14.99.

Re-Markings Vol. 14 No.1 March 2015. pp.102-106.
- Nibir K. Ghosh
Chief Editor, Re-Markings