ART CHECK

Atori Mwale weaves worlds with words

One of the poems is descriptive of the gloom as we battle with Covid-19

In Summary

• 'Weaves of the Weaverbird' has poignant and captivating verse

Front cover
Front cover
Image: Justus Makokha

Name: Atori Mwale. Title: Weaves of the Weaverbirds: Rhythms and Messages. Publisher: Pangolin Publishers Ltd. Year: 2019. Pages: 154.

Weaves of the Weaverbird by Atori Mwale is a new book of poignant and captivating verse published last year in Nakuru. The book is a collection of 182 poems that expressly announce his arrival on the Kenyan poetry stage.

In recent times, since 2000, the myth in Kenya of how unpopular a genre poetry is compared to plays or novels has been consistently deconstructed, courtesy of alluring anthologies of new Kenyan poets, such as Tony Mochama, Stephen Derwent Partington, Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, Sitawa Namwalie and Phyllis Muthoni. These new-generation poets emerged in the first decade of this century, and some are now household names.

Today, self-publishing initiatives and low-cost publishing houses run by faith-based groups or circles of writers or academics are spurring the growth of poetry. An even newer generation of Kenyan poets is solidifying further the gains of 21st-century Kenyan poetry. Their debut books, such as The Setting Noon and Other Poems (2017) by Richard Mbuthia and Echoes of Military Souls by Jerusha Marete, which has just been published last week, are new offerings to our national heritage. It is to this cohort that Atori Mwale belongs.

His poetry, just like his drama and fiction, is an output of the just-ended decade. His nouvelle art demonstrates a cross-sectional awareness of the native roots of Kenyan culture, even as it seizes the modern both at the level of style and technique.

The book opens and closes with poems cast in the form of prayers. The first poem is a 'Poet’s Morning Prayer', asking for divine power to help steady the pen in the dire straits of creative imagination, whereas the 182nd poem is placation to the higher powers for the energy thus given. This common habit of African poets seeking divine agency as they embark on creativity reminds one of Christopher Okigbo of Nigeria and his famous poem, 'Idoto'.

Other poems in the anthology tackle the existential issues of life, such as its meaning or that of death. Human anguish and desolation encapsulated between the local and the global, the traditional and the modern, the pious and the pollutant, are themes painted in words incredibly and indelibly in this new anthology.

Mwale’s creative landscape is a simulacrum of his own natural environment, quite familiar to any visitor of western Kenya. The ravines and rock-studded hills of the mythical region is one that is as unforgettable as his home town of Lunza, which he uses as setting for some of his narrative poems, such as “A Song for Departed Owate” (pg. 88). The sunset at noon/and the whole of Lunza village went blind/ Trees in great sorrow stood still/ birds twittered no more…"

These lines could well be descriptive of the atmosphere in the nation as we battle with Covid-19 and its socio-emotional disruptions.

Some of the poems bear witness to the every day's living experience of the self-educated author, whose writing career is anchored in a disrupted educational journey unlike that of most Kenyans. Mwale completed schooling after dropping out several times through help by well-wishers, such as the late pioneer legislator Martin Shikuku after his parents died. His loss automatically set him as the guardian of his younger sibling.

Mwale’s sojourn through life against all odds saw him rise to an untrained teacher in Baringo, a freelance photo-journalist and later a full-time writer. These are aspects of his life that he sublimely distils into word art, reflecting our world realities, where broken families struggle to survive.

The book has long narrative poems, descriptive poems, lyrical poems and other short but pithy pieces that, like qasidas or Japanese haikus, or the Latvian form known as daina, condense the philosophy of life into word worlds where our thoughts can find refuge. Take, for example, “A Paragon of Virtue” (pg. 11), where the persona poses: "In the sky even if I fly/Up to the sun to fry….What I swore never to try/In life is to be sly/So that in people’s affairs I may not pry/ Lest forever in life I cry." Besides the prosodic effect crafted by rhymes as in many other pieces, it is the intense philosophical insights that delight the reader of this book.

Poetry ought to evoke and provoke in equal measure, and this new book by Atori Mware does that in a scintillating manner. Apart from the missing table of contents at the beginning, the sheer energy evident in this book assures us that here is a poet who shall break the one-book anathema that is the bane of most of the current breed of emerging Kenyan poets.

After a debut and rave reviews, many young poets of today burn out like candles in the wind, a regrettable truth that if not addressed can reverse the recent gains of the genre in Kenya.

The book is available in major bookshops across the country and by order from:  [email protected]

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Dr Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University