ART CHECK

When poetry helps you face the mountain of life

The book is an offering of 36 poems in 50 pages

In Summary

• Benny Wanjohi is an upcoming poet who prefers written to spoken word poetry

Book cover
Book cover
Image: COURTESY

Benny Wanjohi. Phases of Life: A Composition of Poetry.  Nairobi: FWW, 2020. 50 pp.

This week, I encountered a new poet. Benny Wanjohi is one of the new faces in Kenyan poetry that prefers to produce poems of our times in the good old written form.

He stands out for this because his generation is more susceptible to spoken word (oral urban verse). Unlike written poetry, spoken word is often seen as the signature of current urban subculture, especially in Nairobi, and has huge youth fan bases.

This young and versatile poet is a co-founder of a Kenyan writing circle called Friends Who Write. This group propagates contemporary poetry through peer support and mentorship. Additionally, it publishes the works of its members as a way of highlighting their creative arts talent and enhancing their visibility.

With the advent of new dynamics and challenges facing the book industry all over Africa, the newest voices of Kenyan poetry are consistently turning to self-publishing and publishing through small publishing houses and outlets. They include poets such as Richard Mbuthia, Atori Mwale, Jerusha Marete and Stephen Ndegwa, to mention but a few whose poetry books were published in recent times.

Wanjohi belongs to this phase of our effervescent poetry landscape. His new offering, Phases of Life ( 2020 ), is an addition to the rich heritage of written poetry in Kenya. The book is an offering of 36 poems in 50 pages. They unmask philosophical aspects and current issues of our modern society. It is both an eloquent expose of the vagaries of life and an exordium of the poet to the Kenyan public.

Phases of Life is Wanjohi’s debut. However, have we not followed his incredible fecundity over the past few years on social media platforms, such as Facebook? Recently, he was appointed the Poetry Editor of Writers Space Africa, a vivacious literary e-zine with remarkable continental reach and monthly frequency, www.writerspace.net.

The new book opens up with a poem that bears naked the two-faced nature of our society. We meet this ambivalence in a persona who is more of a man of words rather than a man of his word. He represents the idea in the poem that modern society is full of words that are never kept.

The honour of truth-bearing words is poetically painted even as the vice of empty promises or hollow words is mocked artfully. In this opening poem, “Take My Word to the Bank” ( p.1-2 ), Wanjohi registers his ethical atmosphere for the reader, effortlessly so.

With evangelical undertones, this poem announces that it is in religion where the new poet finds his yardstick for ethical conduct of mankind. As he laments the fractures of a society faced by times so hard to comprehend, the persona provokes us to find our ways back to the value of words and the Word.

The book comes across as a work of art that relies on evangelical allusions to paint the realities around us in familiar ink of understanding. Beautiful leitmotifs from scripture abound, including scars, salt, prophets and trees. The mundane finds its phantom in the sacred, as the call to virtue, common across all religions, is entombed in poem after poem in this slim but exquisite work of highly philosophical verse.

In “Gorgeous Scars” ( p. 3 ) and “Salt Gone Tasteless”, Wanjohi gives us lessons in the ironies of life that will captivate the eyes of readers and their minds as well. Good poetry moves beyond the heart and the five senses to the inner halls of the mind itself. It invites readers to see the beauty of language in deeper tones. It is akin to going beyond the redness of blood to the meaning of blood itself in society.

“A Step of Faith” ( p. 16 ) cautions against that thief of time: procrastination. Presented in parallelism, so common a technique in African speech patterns and oratory, the persona notes that a day will come when he shall take a leap of faith and do what he keeps postponing.

He has postponed so many times to propose to his lady, register his hustle, make peace with God, and in the fourth stanza finally says: One day I’ll detest delay / Then I’ll choose today to be that day / And do all what I have to do today!  (p.16)

Here is a book that helps us face the mountain of life with poetry. Its familiar personas eat our conscience as their reflections and experiences launch clear campaigns for common sense from poem to poem. This book, to me, is both a parlour of accessible parlance, capable of being a school-reader, as well as an exhibition of artistic elegance from a poet with a star on the rise. 

The book is available from all major bookstores in Nairobi. It is also available from the author: [email protected]

Poet Benny Wanjohi
Poet Benny Wanjohi
Image: JUSTUS MAKOKHA