A critical appraisal of Elizabeth Semende’s Rays of a Bleeding Sun by Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar

This entry is part 7 of 17 in the series Reviews Season Four

Last Updated on March 31, 2019 by Memorila

Rays of a Bleeding Sun has the pulse of emotions and powerful feelings, invigorated with the power to move readers as no other poem would ever do, Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar appraises

It was William Wordsworth, the 18th century Romantic poet, who defined poetry as the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility and he is correct. His definition of poetry has gone on to receive universal acclaim and has continued to serve as a pointer to what true poetry should read like. So, when I encountered Elizabeth Semende’s Rays of a Bleeding Sun, I had little doubt that Wordsworth, were he alive, would have said much the same thing I said after perusing the young Zimbabwean poetess’ anthology. He would have exclaimed (and Wordsworth was a man given to much happy exclamation too!) thus: “Now, that’s poetry you’ve got there!”

Rays of a Bleeding Sun has the pulse of emotions and powerful feelings running through its poetic lines. Albeit in free verse, the poems come with the kind of rhythmic flow invigorated with the power to move the reader as no other poem would ever do. The thematic troupes range from grief over the loss of a loved one, love, crime and punishment, effects of war, and, of course, feminism. The poetess masterful application of the tools of imagery calls out the reader’s emotions taking them through the familiar terrain of poetry in an unfamiliar manner.

I remember opening Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God and reading him say in the preface that:

“Whenever people have asked me which among my novels is my favourite, I have always evaded a direct answer, being strongly of the mind that the sheer invidiousness of the question is fully comparable to asking a man to list his children in the order in which he loves them. A paterfamilias worth his salt will, if he must, speak about the peculiar attractiveness of each child.”

In the same vein do I find it a Herculean task to say which of Elizabeth Semende’s poems in her anthology (Rays of a Bleeding Sun) fascinates me the most, I would rather say what I find intriguing of each poem.

“O death” reminds me of John Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud”. The poem captures the power of death over the living and its inefficacy on the already dead.

“Take Me, Mama” is a sorrowful dirge lamenting the loss of a mother to death. The final plea of the poem persona strikes a chord deep within my soul:

From a distance,
I watched your body pushed back into mother Earth’s womb
With only one wish on my lips,
I pleaded;
I still plead;
Take me, mama,
Take me back into your womb!
Without you, my eyes are but two taps drawing supplies of tears from the cast of
Sorrow sitting at the core of my heart.

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“How I Grieve” uses the imagery of cultivating a rose flower to capture a widow’s agony over the death of her husband in a war fought to attain freedom. She tells us that her tears are enough to irrigate the planted rose till her husband “calls my name again/Until everything becomes the same again.”

“Aids” as the name suggests captures the feeling of a victim of the disease (a disease that is yet to know total cure and whose victims are on the increase in third world countries), the persona feels confined to an inescapable death and concludes that he or she is a living dead.

“The Rope” talks of suicidal thoughts leading to nightmares. I am intrigued by the diction used to convey images of fear, horrible death, and hallucinations in the poem.

“O, Poor Widow” uses colourful images such as “the nudity of her eyes”, “a mountain that has fallen”, “nest of grey” to capture a widow’s pain over the death of a husband who died long ago but whose presence she still misses.

“Dear Monica” is a poem Okot P’ Bitek and Owen Habel (both Kenyan poets) would approve of. Its theme is that of prostitution and adultery. Monica is the beautiful seductress that all men, especially the married ones, are attracted to. The poem persona happens to be the wife of one of her victims and she employs a sarcastic tone to warn Monica to steer clear or stop bewitching her husband for the sake of her children who are annoyed with her for keeping their father away from them.

People do run out of patience and not everyone can endure a nagging partner in marriage infinitely. For such people, there would come a day to explode. “I’ve been Waiting” examines this issue using the conceit of river and swimming.

Writers are the vanguard of society; the poetess affirms this fact in “I will Cook Words”. She points out the need to keep writing till all the wrongs of this world (such as gender equality, education for all, early marriage etc) are righted.

“Soul Tragedies Triggered” likens dependency in marriage to being imprisoned. It is a plea for society to provide women with means of sustenance, rather than expect them to depend on their husbands.

“Mummy, Please, Forgive Me” is the plea of naive girl to her mother to forgive her for letting herself be deceived by a rich man who has put her in the family way (I hear the voice of Wangira in Ngugi wa Thiong’o Devil on the Cross in this poem). The rich man had her impregnated and abandoned her to a horrible fate, the same fate her mother suffered as an uneducated young lady. A pity history should repeat itself in both generations of mother and daughter.

“I’m Still a Woman” has a persona who has been branded a prostitute by society. All scorn her and no one would associate with her but what she cannot survive is to be detested by her own mother so she pleads to be accepted, for even if she is fallen, she remains a woman nonetheless.

“Dear “Blesser” Generation” aptly captures the idea in Buchi Emecheta’s Joys of Motherhood where the children (especially the male children) which are regarded as the blessing and joys of every mother ironically because the source of sorrow to their mother. The poem addresses the African society which places premium on male children over female ones. The poem possess the question of why male children are regarded as “blessers” even when they grow up to have families of their own and become strangers to the wombs and hands that nurtured them into manhood.

“But I’m Human” deals with the issue of prostitution. The poem persona is a prostitute who affirms her humanity despite the illicit trade she is involved in. She says she once had dreams too but never attained them.

“Deja vu” is about unrequited love. It is of a woman’s inability to stop loving a man who does not love her in return; it is of giving herself time and time again to this same man knowing quite well that he is one with a barren heart.

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Poverty is the bane of Africa. We are third world nations because our people barely have enough to feed themselves three times daily. In “African Panga,” the poetess compares “panga” (a large broad-bladed knife mostly used in East and South Africa as a farming tool and weapon) to poverty which cuts us all down to size in Africa.

“Gigolo” is a sarcastic poem targeted at lazy men who do nothing but depend on hard working women for their survival. The use of hyperbole makes the poem a memorable one.

“I wear Dreadlocks” affirms the need for one to be proud of his or her personality. The poem persona wears dread because the dreads have special significance to her. As they grow beautifully, so do they inspire the growth of her person. Hence hair growth becomes a metaphor for personality growth.

Poetry to a poet/poetess goes beyond just scribbling words, it is everything. Poetry keeps the poet/poetess company in moments of loneliness, it is a weapon that can be used to conquer the challenges of life, it is a succor for lovers, and has the ability to heal wounds. Such is the power of poetry captured in “Echoes of Poetry”.

Song and poetry were as Siamese twins whose distinction was initiated by the advent of writing and modern civilization. Even when song and poetry had divorced each other, they have often found common grounds and both still share basic similarity so that poetry becomes a kind of song and song becomes a kind of poetry. In “A Different Song,” the poetess defines what kind of song poetry is:

I am a song
But just a different type of song
I can change the world if you let me in your hearts
I am a poem.

In “Silent Echoes of Poetry (2),” we see the power of poetry communicated in flowery diction. Even when the world is bleak, poetry still remains the last of salvation.

Elizabeth Semende has indirectly provided for us various ways to examine and define poetry in some of the poems discussed above but nowhere are her ideas more succinct than in the poem she titles “Poetry”. She defines poetry as the “mouthpiece of a voiceless heart”, “A remedy to the youths of a paralyzed nation”, “the dream I see when my eyes are closed”, “the trigger of a gun with no bullets”, “the evolution of love unexampled”, and “the revolution of the mind”, all memorable quotes! She concludes that “Poetry is me/Poetry is you!” thereby affirming the fact that poetry is of humanity, by humanity, and for humanity.

“Atrocious Love” is a poem I would read again and again, not for its thematic value but, for the comparisons made to atrocious love in the poem. Metaphorical language dominates the poem.

“What is Distance” is another poem I cannot flip past whenever I open the anthology. Really, distance in love is but a nuisance as lovers’ affection would scale any barrier to reach “its craving host.”

What is distance, when the dreamland is our daily rendezvous?
What is distance, when my lips are juicy, longing to kiss yours?
What is distance, when your picture makes love to my senses every time I look at it?
What is distance,
But a nuisance in the heart of our enlaced souls?

I find “Beautiful Pain” interesting because of the artful deployment of oxymoron, paradox, and of metaphor in the poem.

In “First Love”, the poem persona reminiscences on her first love and shows us how much she misses him still even though they “were but clandestine lovers.”

“Love Lost” expresses a lover’s regret over separation with the spouse and deep within is the urge for reunification.

When lovers quarrel, it often happens that both wait for who will first tender words of apology and while both are waiting, the separation lingers while love gradually metamorphose to hatred. Yet, in the deepest part of their heart, the lovers continue to yearn for each other’s companionship. This is what the poem “The Words I Craved” is all about. The expressions of what should be but might never be in the poem attract my interest in the poem.

“The Stranger Allure” aroused my interest because of its use of sound devices. Indeed, the poem reads like music. I love the use of rhythm, repetition, onomatopoeia, and rhyme. Good poem!

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“Where do Broken Hearts Go” reminds me of one of James Langston Hughes’ poem, “Harlem,” a poem which also inspired Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun. Elizabeth Semende’s poem adopts much the same style as that of Hughes, especially with the use of the rhetorical question, only that that of Elizabeth is longer, does not end with rhetorical question and has lovers’ heartbreak rather than racial frustration for its theme.

Unrequited love has often been discovered to be the subject matter of many a sonnet and so do we find in Semende’s fourteen lines “The Reflection of Flame”. Flame is a metaphor for the lover’s attention which the persona has been denied of yet appeals for: “For years/My kisses have been searching, but your mouth is out of reach/Come now, warm my molten heart with the reflection of your flame.”

“Witness to Evil” is a tercet that would have passed for a Haiku had it maintained the traditional number of syllabic units yet it is perhaps for this reason that I take a liking to the poem, rather than allow form disrupts content, the poetess chooses to break away with form, although not entirely as it is still a tercet, and employs nature to reflect human truths.

A birthday poem is meant to eulogise the celebrant. However, this “Birthday Poem” shifts focus from the celebrant and celebrates her mother or motherhood. Truly, mother and child are one for we always must see one in the other.

“Trip to Sobriety” would read well to the ears of those who have problem with addictions, it tells of being brave by making the choice of abstinence.

When freedom is a stranger to one’s being and he goes on to invite incarceration, such one would receive freedom of not being able to commit crime or freedom of being unable to go against the law when he or she is sentenced to imprisonment. Such is the irony in “Little Delinquents”. The poem addresses the young people urging them to avoid irresponsible acts.

As the foregoing poem, “Jailbird” uses the same ironical sense of expressing freedom to examine the life of a felon who is accustomed to nowhere else other than the world of crime and the walls of a prison. The urge to remain righteous always comes but he is accustomed to being a felon. For these kinds of people, freedom is only when they are cooling their heels in the jailhouse.

The last poem, “Prison Drakes”, aptly captures the feelings of prisoners and hints at regrets for their crime.

Elizabeth Semende’s Rays of a Bleeding Sun is well edited, although I think in some instances she gets carried away and ends up subjecting her lines to much elongation. Nonetheless, her poetry comes with fresh and scintillating images which I am quite sure will not fail to woo the ears of her readers.

Having journeyed thus far with me in Elizabeth Semende’s world, the world of Rays of a Bleeding Sun, you would agree that the young poetess knows her object and she handles it quite well. Her poetry arrived maturation even before she did and they would definitely grow wings and fly where she could not reach. Her kind of poem shows the kind of spark one gets when emotion meets with art, nothing else can be birthed from such romance but pure poetry. She should cook more words for us, we are eager to eat of the food she cooks!


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Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy holds a degree in English language and literary studies. He is a short story writer, copy editor, book reviewer, literary critic, poet, and essayist. He teaches English as a Foreign Language in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

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