by Jean Harrison
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These poems, reflecting on a period of time when the author was teaching in the newly independent Ghana, evoke something of the mystery and excitement Africa of that time presented to a European, a tilt from a familiar world view towards a new and very different one. Focusing on personal experience, the contradictions and tensions between a recent colonial history and emerging independence are subtly apparent in Jean Harrison’s clear-eyed writing, which also displays her precise and distinctive powers of description.
If nothing touches the palm leaves they do not rustle
It’s one of the things I came back for,
to hear that glug, glug, glug and know
the bird’s there, somewhere in the hibiscus,
brown, speckled, much the size of a thrush
but even less flamboyant, revealing
its presence by a call ‘like the sound
of water poured out of a bottle’,
bizzare but I love it.
The coucal calls to the sun
that sparkles off the leaves that hide it,
to some invisible rival or partner,
to a tiny scrap of brown feathers
building its nest on a broomhead,
to a watchman puffing a cigarette,
to women apparently haggling, lives
I watch. The call reaches me
where I’m seated, beside a window
whose metal frame and louvres
cut off that life out there from me,
downing the European breakfast
my friend insists I have. She thinks
I’m entranced by archaic spells, wants me
to see her clearly with all her achievements,
her soon-to-be-bestowed doctorate,
to fix my eyes on modern Africa.
And I do, I do, but my ear still leans
towards a sequence of glugs
and conversations not addressed to me.