book excerptise:   a book unexamined is not worth having

Collected Poems

Chinua Achebe

Achebe, Chinua;

Collected Poems

Anchor Books 2004, 84 pages

ISBN 1400076587

topics: |  poetry | africa | nigeria

Despite his enormous reputation, and personally being a huge fan of Achebe, I must say I was disappointed in some of these poems - e.g. the Pine tree of "green memory", standing guard in "austere emeraldry", seems rather cliched. Perhaps it would help if I knew the infidelity that faced Leon Damas, but still... However, some of the poems are still powerful, like the glazed starved child in Christmas in Biafra, or the butterfly that hits his windshield in Benin road.


our thoughtless days
sat at dire controls
and played indolently

slowly downward in remote
subterranean shaft
a diamond-tipped
drill point crept closer
to residual chaos to
rare artesian hatred
that once squirted warm
blood in God's face
confirming His first
disappointment in Eden
	       Nsukka, November 19, 1971

Benin Road

Speed is violence
Power is violence
Weight violence

The butterfly seeks safety in lightness
In weightless, undulating flight

But at a crossroads where mottled light
From old trees falls on a brash new highway
Our separate errands collide

I come power-packed for two
And the gentle butterfly offers
Itself in bright yellow sacrifice
Upon my hard silicon shield.

Mango Seedling

Through glass windowpane
Up a modern office block
I saw, two floors below, on wide-jutting
concrete canopy a mango seedling newly sprouted
Purple, two-leafed, standing on its burst
Black yolk. It waved brightly to sun and wind
Between rains-daily regaling itself
On seed yams, prodigally.
For how long?
How long the happy waving
From precipice of rainswept sarcophagus?
How long the feast on remnant flour
At pot bottom?
       Perhaps like the widow
Of infinite faith it stood in wait
For the holy man of the forest, shaggy-haired
Powered for eternal replenishment.
Or else it hoped for Old Tortoise'smiraculous feast
On one ever recurring dot of cocoyam
Set in a large bowl of green vegetables-
This day beyond fable, beyond faith?
       Then I saw it
Poised in courageous impartiality
Between the primordial quarrel of Earth
And Sky striving bravely to sink roots
Into objectivity, midair in stone.

I thought the rain, prime mover
To this enterprise, someday would rise in power
And deliver its ward in delirious waterfall
Toward earth below. But every rainy day
Little playful floods assembled on the slab,
Danced, parted round its feet,
United again, and passed.
It went from purple to sickly green
Before it died.
       Today I see it still-
Dry, wire-thin in sun and dust of the dry months-
Headstone on tiny debris of passionate courage.
			Aba, 1968

Pine Tree in Spring

	(for Leon Damas) p.7

Pine tree
flag bearer
of green memory
across the breach of a desolate hour

Loyal tree
that stood guard
alone in austere emeraldry
over Nature’s recumbent standard

Pine tree
lost now in the shade
of traitors decked out flamboyantly
marching back unabashed to the colors they betrayed

Fine tree
erect and trustworthy
what school can teach me
your silent, stubborn fidelity?

Christmas in Biafra (1969)

This sunken-eyed moment wobbling
down the rocky steepness on broken
bones slowly fearfully to hideous
concourse of gathering sorrows in the valley
will yet become in another year a lost
Christmas irretrievable in the heights
its exploding inferno transmuted
by cosmic distances to the peacefulness
of a cool twinkling star. . . . To death-cells
of that moment came faraway sounds of other
men's carols floating on crackling waves
mocking us. With regret? Hope? Longing? None of
these, strangely, not even despair rather
distilling pure transcendental hate . . .

Beyond the hospital gate
the good nuns had set up a manger
of palms to house a fine plastercast
scene at Bethlehem. The Holy
Family was central, serene, the Child
Jesus plump wise-looking and rose-cheeked; one
of the magi in keeping with legend
a black Othello in sumptuous robes. Other
figures of men and angels stood
at well-appointed distances from
the heart of the divine miracle
and the usual cattle gazed on
in holy wonder. . . .

Poorer than the poor worshippers
before her who had paid their homage
with pitiful offering of new aluminum
coins that few traders would take and
a frayed five-shilling note she only
crossed herself and prayed open-eyed. Her
infant son flat like a dead lizard
on her shoulder his arms and legs
cauterized by famine was a miracle
of its kind. Large sunken eyes
stricken past boredom to a flat
unrecognizing glueyness moped faraway
motionless across her shoulder. . . .

Now her adoration over
she turned him around and pointed
at those pretty figures of God
and angels and men and beasts-
a spectacle to stir the heart
of a child. But all he vouchsafed
was one slow deadpan look of total
unrecognition and he began again
to swivel his enormous head away
to mope as before at his empty distance. . . .
She shrugged her shoulders, crossed
herself again, and took him away.


I quit the carved stool
in my father’s hut to the swelling
chant of saber-tooth termites
raising in the pith of its wood 
a white-bellied stalagmite

Where does a runner go
whose oily grip drops
the baton handed by the faithful one
in a hard, merciless race? Or
the priestly elder who barters
for the curio collector’s head
of tobacco the holy staff
of his people?

Let them try the land
where the sea retreats 
Let them try the land
where the sea retreats


In lieu of a preface : a parable        
1966                                     3
Benin road                               4
Mango seedling                           5
Pine tree in spring                      7
The explorer                             8
Agostinho Neto                          10
The first shot                          15
A mother in a refugee camp              16
Christmas in Biafra (1969)              17
Air raid                                19
Biafra, 1969                            20
An "If" of history                      22
Remembrance day                         24
A wake for Okigbo                       27
After a war                             29
Love song (for Anna)                    33
Love cycle                              34
Question                                35
Answer                                  36
Beware, soul brother                    38
NON-commitment                          40
Generation gap                          42
Misunderstanding                        43
Knowing robs us                         45
Bull and egret                          47
Lazarus                                 49
Vultures                                51
Public execution in pictures            53
Penalty of Godhead                      57
Those gods are children                 58
Lament of the sacred python             63
Their idiot song                        65
The Nigerian census                     66
Flying                                  68
He loves me; he loves me not            73
Dereliction                             74
We laughed at him                       75


A collection of poetry spanning the full range of the African-born author's
acclaimed career has been updated to include seven never-before-published
works, as well as much of his early poetry that explores such themes as the
African consciousness, the tragedy of Biafra, and the mysteries of human
relationships. Original. 20,000 first printing.

amitabha mukerjee (mukerjee [at-symbol] 2010 Aug 25