13 April 2007

reading the old lions

This is more a bibliographic exercise than anything else, in no small part because it has been so long since I've read the work, but let's consider, for a moment, Achebe's Collected Poems.

When it came out in 2004 I was quite excited. I'd quote thoroughly -- and somewhat to my surprise I must admit -- enjoyed his only other collection to date, Beware, Soul Brother (as an aside, I find the poem "Misunderstanding" to be a quiet, comic masterpiece). Surprising, I suppose, because I don't feel myself as besotted with Achebe as many in the field seem to be (by far I think his strongest work is the too easily over-looked No Longer At Ease).

So it was with a degree of anticipation and excitement even that I began the volume, slim as it is, hoping to uncover a few more gems that I might have missed. But, and here the disappointment is bibliographic and not substantive, I suddenly realized, not far into the book (and I should have realized it from the start, I suppose, if I had read the "In Lieu of a Preface: A Parable" closely enough), that I'd read the book before.

Well, not the entire book.

Okay, okay, it is, after all, a "collected" volume. Thus, if you read (and try to read) as much of any one author as possible, his/her collected works should, at the very least, ring familiar.

But the further I got the more familiar it seemed. Eerily so. And then I pulled my copy of Beware, Soul Brother off the shelf and I finally saw it (okay, okay, it probably wasn't as dramatic as all this -- I wasn't huffing around my upstairs office wracking my brains, wondering, murmuring aloud, "why? why? why does this feel so... so...?!?").

I felt a bit cheated.

The Collected Poems essentially mirrors -- reproduces -- not just the poems, but the structure and the section headings of Beware, Soul Brother (which, if we are going to get particular about things, originally appeared as Christmas in Biafra). The Parable has replaced a brief preface and most of the poems that were included in Achebe's really beautiful coffeetable collaboration with the photographer Robert Lyons, Another Africa, are salted throughout -- 8 additional poems to be precise (the only one from Another Africa not included? "Butterfly"). Additions, without comment. The acknowledgments that opened Beware, Soul Brother are gone, though Achebe notes the inclusion of the verses from Another Africa in his Parable (see, I should have known! and, in fact many of these "added" poems were actually published even earlier in the journals Callaloo and AGNI). Even the notes are the same.

There is, interestingly for me, something about this continuity of structure, unacknowledged after a fashion, that irks. It does, I think, feel a bit dishonest. My expectations were for a collected works that not only gathered his verse but in some way compelled a reconsideration. And for me, in poetry, so much is in the structure; and what my encounter and subsequent bibliographic sleuthing has shown me is that meaningful structure is not just how individual poems are constructed but how they are put together in a volume, any volume.

And to have a volume constructed around one set of poems and to have subsequent poems "slotted in" seems...

Perhaps I'm being petulant.

Does the volume work, structured as it is? I can't tell you, because I can't read it without that gnawing disappointment.

Maya Jaggi, in a review in The Guardian, is deeply appreciative. Though unless the UK version is substantively different, and I doubt it is, she's wrong in asserting that the poems are "taken from three collections, with some previously unpublished": she's most likely improperly considering Christmas in Biafra and Beware, Soul Brother as two separate works; and there are no verses in the Collected that don't appear elsewhere: "A Mother in a Refugee Camp" is in Another Africa and simply "replaces" (though itself pretty closely mirrors in line) Beware, Soul Brother's "Refugee Mother and Child".

I don't -- I couldn't -- disagree with Jaggi's assessment. I didn't when I first read these poems. But when I do revisit Achebe's poetry it will be by reading Beware, Soul Brother and Another Africa. Knowing that newer works are being pushed into an older mold will always trouble me. Just a bit. And probably just enough.

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