Of pastoral poetry and concrete jungles

My Six Little Fears (2020) is a tiny chapbook of poetic delight

In Summary

• Among us are poets penning odes to nature and the pastoral

Venezuela-based Kenyan poetess Cynthia Abdallah reads a copy of 'My Six Little Fears' (2020)
Venezuela-based Kenyan poetess Cynthia Abdallah reads a copy of 'My Six Little Fears' (2020)

This has been a very cold July. For those who inhabit urban dwellings, life this week continues to be a cold song with sounds of metals, stones and other lifeless expressions.

It is this that explains, perhaps, why a bird above a city, a flower growing on a wall crack or the scent of drizzle upon dead soils, bring such warm feelings at the heart of many a city dweller.

Remember we humans dwelt in nature first before achieving the culture of caves, skyscrapers and houses of all types and shapes. Ever tried this? Resting upon your back on the grass and gazing at the sun herd its clouds across the endless blueness so far above?

To sit upon a culvert and draw ripples from a pond in a road pothole by throwing pebbles or peanuts, one by one, is poetry.

The Romans who lived at the time of the Christ, or vice versa, understood what building cities and roads meant. They understood culture and the sublime art of poetry too.

Their achievements in time qualified the title “civilization” to be rested on the head of their great achievements.  The Roman civilization.

Out of their beautiful yet extinct language called Latin, we are left today with words that litter English especially in domains of law and medicine.

One phrase from this archaic language still alive in certain cathedrals of the Catholic faith, is this one: “locus amoenus”.

The phrase translates into Kiswahili as mahali pema or in English as “a beautiful place”. Say it aloud in a low tone, almost a whisper: “locus amoenus”.

It is such beautiful places that the souls of most humans end up in. At least this is the belief of most faithfuls who wish their beloved a safe passage to such places whenever they kick the bucket. May the Lord rest your soul in eternal peace. Mungu ilaze roho ya marehemu mahali pema peponi.

Locus amoenus. A beautiful place. Mahali pema. This location of eternal rest and bliss is replicated in living societies with Edenic references to nature, gardens or sites around us that abound with godly rather human creativity.

Think of a crowd of daffodils, a moisty waterfall, the Great Rift Valley, or even a moss-capped cave in a vanishing meadow. Think of all these godly works of art against human ones of tall buildings, spacious malls and endless lines of asphalt-laned superhighways.

Nature and culture. Nature versus culture. Which is the fairer?

In the context of modernity, most Kenyans (youths especially) if asked to describe signs of beauty will choose the urban symbols of civilisation such as great roads and massive buildings.

Rural places and their pristine landscapes are perceived as ugly locations of stagnation, darkness and death (burial sites).  It is difficult to sell the idea of ushago as a locus amoenus to many a Kenyan youth today.

What with the intensifying patterns of rural-urban migrations occasioned by many forces including hunger and poverty? How can a place of pain be a place of beauty?

It is, therefore, interesting to come across poets who still wander among us penning odes to nature and the pastoral. Ten years ago, I met Ngwatilo Mawiyoo’s debut poetry collection, Blue Mothertongue (2010) and was dazed.  

Her nostalgic descriptions of the nature scenes of Nairobi of her childhood and now, made me look a new between the suffocating stone edifices of the CBD in this urban jungle of my birth.

Her book in one palm, once I stood in the Jeevanjee garden and touched a ladybird on a purple hibiscus. I counted the trees of the two sides of Kenyatta Avenue from end to end.

Since then I have wandered under the blue sky and the black one in search of the new pastoral poetry from Kenya. I have haunted several bookshops.

 Occasionally, I would hear of a new collection bearing a handful of such nature-loving pieces. Many would be of the political or Romeo-Juliet kind after all.

But today, a decade later, I have finally come across a new tiny green collection with poems in dalliance with the green in these times of the urban.

My Six Little Fears (2020) is a tiny chapbook of poetic delight by Venezuela-based Kenyan poetess, Cynthia Abdallah.

It fits in my sky blue khaki trouser pocket quite well. The blurb reads:

My Six Little Fears is a collection of 32 poems that addresses…. With its setting ranging from the villages of Turbo to the little town of….” More later!

For isn’t mine the premier pleasure of keeping warm this week as I read their heated lines and stanzas one by one? Then I look into your curiosity as we together discover the tiny fears and their poetic meanings with you in the upcoming review. Welcome, August.

Dr Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University