The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry, translated by Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier: Cameroon

Reading through The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry has been bringing out the literature student in me. I have started annotating and analysing the poems just as I used to do when researching during my degree, and I am really enjoying stepping back into that world as I try to unpack the layers of the poems in this anthology. I enjoyed my read through the poets from Cameroon included here and I’m looking forward to continuing through the anthology over the next few months.


Poets Included: Simon Mpondo, Mbella Sonne Dipoko, Patrice Kayo

There were three poets from Cameroon included in the anthology, with the Mbella Sonne Dipoko having the most poems included. Of the three, I found I enjoyed Dipoko’s poetry the most, particularly the poems reflecting on his time in France. ‘A Poem of Villeneuve St Georges’ and ‘From My Parisian Diary’ stood out to me because so far in this anthology, while there has been lots of mention of missing home during a period of exile or the complicated emotions of returning home after exile, there have been few that have explored the reality of life during an exile. ‘A Poem of Villeneuve St Georges’ is a fascinating, bittersweet reflection on a romance that was never going to last since the stay in France was not going to last. ‘From My Parisian Diary’ focuses more on the daily reality of life in exile: needing money, writing to promote ‘slogans of a better world’ (‘From My Parisian Diary’, l. 13), and the mindset the speaker needs to keep going. It is both optimistic and realistic in equal parts, making for a very engaging poem. Dipoko does also explore life in Cameroon, and what stood out to me in ‘Our Life’ and ‘Pain’ was the way in which he used nature to reflect the suffering of his people with the image of a bird and a storm respectively being the key metaphors. This was surprisingly effective at engaging the reader simply with the deeper meaning behind the poem.

Simon Mpondo has only one poem included in this anthology, but it was one that I quite enjoyed. ‘The Season of the Rains’ is a fairly tongue-in-cheek meditation on the signs that people look for to tell the future and the meaning that people give to random occurrences. The speaker concludes that there are too many contradicting ‘signs’ to be useful, and people only use them to hear what they want to hear. Yet there are some things that are certain: in all the debate about signs pointing to when the season of rains will begin, there is an assumption that there will be a season of rains. I thought this was an interesting take on an aspect of Cameroonian culture that I was not aware of, and I enjoyed Mpondo’s take on it.

Whilst I enjoyed the poems from Simon Mpondo and Mbella Sonne Dipoko, I struggled with the poems of Patrice Kayo. The second of his two poems included, ‘War’, I could not fully make out the meaning behind which meant that I was far less engaged with it. However, I have a feeling that, as I learn more about Cameroonian history, this is a poem which would come to have a lot more depth to it than I currently see. By contrast, the meaning of ‘Song of the Initiate’ is far simpler but the subject matter was much more troubling to me. A poem all about a fractured family, there are definitely a tone to it that I didn’t take to, especially with the competitive element leading the speaker to boast in a way that is particularly discriminatory towards the disabled community and leans into the patriarchal tactic of pitting women against each other. From the opening line, I assumed it was going to be a more nuanced exploration of the flaws of that forced competition but instead, it is simply a poem boasting of the speaker’s mother having ‘won’ the competition by virtue of him being an able-bodied boy.

I enjoyed the poetry of Cameroon and may well look up some more of the poems of Simon Mpondo and Mbella Sonne Dipoko in the future. I feel that I learned a little about Cameroonians culture through reading these poems and through researching the poets themselves, but I think that the more I learn, the better I will understand the real depths of each poem. I am looking forward to continuing my read through of this anthology and discovering new poets to enjoy as I do so.

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