Verses of Heresy: A Book Review

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By Foday Samateh

Momodou Sallah’s second anthology of poems is in many ways a masterful sequel to his acclaimed Innocent Questions. But The Dictator and the Heretic doesn’t pose questions, especially innocent ones, about why things are not what they ought to be. In this anthology, questions are rhetorical rather than essential.

The poet’s compassion for the hopeless, the powerless and the voiceless, however,  still flows with a ceaseless stream of passion. The marginalized, the disinherited, and the oppressed continue to populate his poetry. We encounter them milling about in squalid streets, crossing turbulent high seas, trudging across treacherous deserts, scraping for a living, and bowing to the powers that be. The imageries are as visceral as visual.

If the poet’s themes are familiar, this anthology distinguishes itself in a way that is unconventional and refreshing. He doesn’t just take on corrupt and unjust powers, he challenges the norms and mindset on which they are based. The foremost among these is language. The powerful are generally performance artists in utilizing the power of language to create illusions about their power. This is the purpose of all propaganda. Those on the throne portray themselves in the best light while they paint their critics in the worst.

Conscious of this binary function of language, the poet dons the orthodoxy’s favorite label of defamation — heretic — not as a libel but a badge of honor. When the gutless would scurry for refuge in apologies or excuses or denials, he owns the denigrating term by redefining it from its negative connotation to a positive. To accomplish this he has to only ask: heretic to what? Corruption? Repression? Falsehood? Enslavement of the weak. Exploitation of the poor? Immoral status quo? Cast in that perspective, the heretic is now viewed as a paragon of virtue, justice, truth, freedom, and empowerment. Rethinking language, especially the language those in power use, is a potent antidote to the deception they perpetrate on the people. This critical scrutiny is necessary to judge the actions of the powerful, the human condition, and the ways of the world. It’s a mark of a free mind. It’s also a requirement for enlightenment and enlightened change. That’s why in the poem I Must Run Away the poet makes a point of saying, “My friend you do not understand / Because my vocabulary / Is defined by who I am.”

This keen attention to language to decipher deceptive or confounding realities is constant in the anthology. The very first poem, Children of the Naked Emperor, begins with an illogical scenario: “Ants lead lions into battle.” Could any good come out of such a situation? No wonder few lines later we learn “Burkina Faso is a wasteland.” The poem shifts to a different setting that beguiles with an idiosyncrasy. “The bees attacked / The perfumed drenched emperor.” Luckily for the emperor, who is infamous for his delusional boasts of grandeur, his stench repels the bees. But unluckily for his subjects, the emperor’s idea of fun is trifling with their lives. In his prisons at Mile 2 and Bambadinka, imams get raped, crocodiles feast on the disappeared, and inmates are executed in the dead of the night. And outside the prison walls, “Press gagged / Soap barred / Opposition tarred / Hoped staggered / Hubris starred.” The bizarre turns into tragic-comedy. “Heretics get roasted / Idiots get boosted.”

We reenter the dystopian world in Feast of the Maggot. The opening line “Flies feast” sets the scene of dirt, death and destruction typifying a failed state. “From the crossing / To the back way / Stealing is good / Corruption nourishes.” The moral turpitude that celebrates disorder as order foreshadows the physical degeneration. The collapse and rot of the human world becomes the “Mansa bengo [royal gathering]of rats, cockroaches and vultures.” All hopes of regeneration are lost thanks to fictitious realities and fake facts. People who should come together to confront common challenges allow themselves to be divided into tribal identities. So they remain trapped in their lives of deprivation, surviving on foods that cause sicknesses with no hope of cures. “The decayed living,” “the lungs of the grave,” and “banal decadence” provide the feed of vultures, and the feast of maggots.

When the poet, in Goodbye My Friend, declares “Treachery flashes,” he is not showing us an action in progress as he does in most poems, but telling us what has transpired or is about to transpire. We are witnessing a dialogue, or rather his monologue to a friend he is bidding farewell. He gives his reason to leave in the form of a backstory. After making references to convoluted events that make staying impossible for him, he brings us to the present or brings the present to us:

I stand under the heavenly radiance of the sun

My sins washed and my heart pure

Anger is a foreigner

Disappointment is an illegal alien

I bow unconditionally

I exit without emotion

Goodbye my friend.

The heavenly radiance of the sun symbolizes the pinnacle of enlightenment; washed sins mean atoned acts of ignorance and shame; and pure heart, a state of nirvana. Anger and disappointment as foreigner and illegal alien are his admissions of banished feelings that still linger despite his awakening.

But his claim of exiting without emotion is belied by his heavy heart, overflowing eyes and melancholy fuming chokes in the second stanza. Instead of reconciling the apparent contradiction or explaining it away, the poet proceeds to assert that he must leave because the dreams of their world are too dull and the nightmares too depressing compared to the stellar brightness of the North Star. In the heavenly world that beckons him, existence transcends the time and space of the sublunary world. And this boundless infinity of sublime life with no past, present and future is there for a dreamer’s taking. Hence, he must bid the friend farewell.

In stanza three, the monologue returns to the backstory. We learn that the poet had vowed his heart and soul to his friend. Is their relationship, in fact, more intimate than the euphemism of friendship implies? We hear the poet attesting to his willingness to perform the most Herculean undertaking ever attempted by a human for his friend, but he must still take his leave. Why? “I will not wallow in this quagmire.” Left unsaid is the friend’s refusal to take the same leap of faith to flee the unbearable circumstance for something spectacular but unfamiliar. The friend wouldn’t dream, wouldn’t imagine, wouldn’t aspire, wouldn’t seize opportunities to achieve a desired life. The inaction is tantamount to a concession to the forces that keep the friend down and out. In other words, by being unwilling to make a bolt for the exit, the friend is effectively participating in his (or her) own subjugation. This is the poet’s running, if unexpressed, frustration with the poor and the oppressed. They too often accept the high-handed rules and low expectations set for them. To free themselves of hardships, they must free their minds first. They must rethink their conditions before they stand the chance of succeeding in attaining lives that are worth living.

The Dictator and the Heretic, the poem that lends its title to the anthology’s title, comprises four stanzas of nine short lines each. Its brevity and simplicity of style give its serenity the profundity it deserves. Given the two characters involved, we already know the genesis and revelation of this poetic parable before we even delve into it.

It’s a contest of wills between demand and determination. The dictator by nature demands obedience and submission from all who breathe within his dominion. The heretic, imbued with a stubborn fidelity to his principles, risks his life for his rights and freedom by defying the dictator. So the poem’s thematic lines state: “The heretic spoke / His mind.” Then he raises the stakes higher treading, “On the abnormal normality.” Once he violates the inviolable, “The other one / Huffed and puffed / And threw him / All the way out.” Besides objectifying the dictator, the poet doesn’t dignify him with so much as a name.

The public’s reaction to the persecution of the heretic is deafening silence. No one wants to suffer the same fate. So no one summons the courage to speak for the heretic. They all get on with their dehumanizing lives in the concentration camp called a country.

Their little consolation would be feeling absolved of responsibility when, in the darkness of the night, a sparkling blade is swung against the heretic’s neck. What nagging scruples or pricks of conscience they may have are assuaged by their need for self-preservation, which makes their silence appear logical and rational in the reign of terror.

With the heretic beheaded, the dictator’s minions rushed about searching everywhere for the next nonconformist. The public keep their heads down to keep their heads. And so the dictator thrives on their fear.

The poet’s compassion for the deprived and the exploited extends across borders and hemispheres. In the poem Lisboa, he subpoenas out attention to the misery in an epicenter of the Eurozone crisis. A very modern disaster threatens the future of a civilization that is rooted in antiquity. When America’s housing market tumble brought on the Wall Street crash that escalated into the Great Recession, the contagion went global. No continent bore the brunt of this economic calamity more that Europe, especially its less wealthy southern countries like Greece, Portugal and Spain. Who could have predicted capitalism’s chicken would come home to roost in the dawning decade of the century? A Marxist, whose language the poet borrows here and there, may contend that catastrophic shocks and volatilities are inherent in a system of boom and bust.

Though the poet points out that the plunder of distant worlds and empires built this civilization, he is in no mood for a schadenfreude. His heart aches with beating for millions of the working class whose jobs disappeared, homes foreclosed and savings wiped out in a blink of an eye in these countries.

After depicting a litany of reverberating economic woes in the rich West, the poet realizes he cannot convey it all and simply concludes: “Only the height of vantage / Reveals the depth of despair.” Why does he empathize so much with victims of greed and fraud in Lisbon as much as with victims of a failed state in Burkina Faso? In the most human way, he renders his reason:

But this heartbeat

Is a universal heartbeat

That transcends

The flags of nations. 

The Dictator and the Heretic is available at Global Hands Publishing, Amazon, and other major bookstores. 

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