Words That Melt A Mountain

"When Taban, one of our own went to Japan, he didn't run first to a Toyota showroom, but he conquered the heart of Japan itself, so to speak, by melting Niko’s heart with poetry. And between those covers the poet invites us the readers to enjoy the journey of love,..."

A book review by Victor Lugala

Professor Taban lo Liyong is well known in the country through hearsay or word of mouth, mostly, or students he taught. Some people know him as the recognisable white-bearded university teacher and writer, a man full of tortoise wisdom, who always shoulders a leather bag.

Yet - apart from stinging articles in his second homecoming inaugural newspaper column Tortoise Wisdom, many South Sudanese have not seen or read his books, most of them out of print. Few people who stumbled on his books found them difficult to digest, owing mainly to his postmodernist style, which in today's digital age of social media would have been loosely associated with high calibre flash-fiction.

The interest and concern is largely in the man’s name: son of a woman (Liyong). For a grown man to name himself after his mother in a predominantly paternalistic and male chauvinist society raises eyebrows.

But this was one of the hallmarks of decolonization in the 1960s, the post-colonial decade of Africa’s independence. In a way, this was an affirmation of gender equality long before the educated African women feminists amplified the drumbeat throughout the continent.

Lo Liyong is a brand name in literary circles, literary discussions, and book jackets like Words that Melt a Mountain (1996), the only book which his immediate family members (including his wife Janet) have read from cover to cover for what it reveals or covers, but mostly for what it reveals about a lonely man's heart melting away in far-away Japan. Does the book spark any domestic jealousies when the hunter returned the way he went, unaccompanied?

Between 1993 and 1994 Taban was a visiting Research Fellow at the National museum of Ethnography, Osaka, Japan, where between January and February of 1994 he was seized with a fantastically fever-pitch outpouring of 222 love poems, brewed deep in his heart.

If love poems are to enchant and touch the heart (any heart), they must be simple and direct, that is why the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is inimitable.

Of all his books of essays, poems, short stories, plays, meditations, and a novel, Words that Melt a Mountain is by far an easy read borne out of loneliness, yet home away from home.

Nikohosan, the Japanese Anyadwe is at the center of the poems. Whether the Japanese beauty is real or imaginary, they say the taste is in the pudding. After all, doesn't the poet enjoy poetic license?

Loneliness (and even in some instances, solitary confinement) is a writer's best companion. In loneliness, longing grows in the heart - the centre of gravity, sharpening the appetite for things which gratify. The poet's longing was so intense and the urge to pen poems was so prolific that he composed a maximum of six poems per day, glorifying cross-cultural bonding, union. May be this was the best way the poet healed his own homesickness, like a seafarer, he had to contain the fire burning the loins.

Nikohosan is the subject of the poems. She may not be fluent in English, so she must find the poems consumable, not like the poet's other poems such as Another Nigger Dead or Cows of Shambat which the poet autographed for her on Valentine’s Day.

But Taban being Taban, that restless poet, he will momentarily veer off from the subject matter when the present reminded him of the past. The poet, Mr Loverman rules the roost. He is naughty. He is transparent. He recalls his escapades with other women in Iowa, Port Moresby, Barcelona, Nairobi, as if to deliberately make Niko jealous. He is proud. He struts like the colourful peacock.

Japan brings to memory the distant past. Did the poet's elder brother commit any war crimes against the Japanese? Oh, that was long time ago during the Second World War when the British fought the Germans and Japs. The poet's brother was a foot soldier who fought somebody's war.

In Words that Melt a Mountain, the poet has mellowed. Unlike his earlier writings which were perhaps much influenced by the Beat generation in America where he studied, and the hippie movement of the 1960s and 70s, where explicit raunchy sex and racy scenes were rife.

Love is not necessarily about sex, so the poems in this book are clean, written in the traditional symbolism of the Zanzibari taarab musicians and the spoken word poets. It is as if the poet was conscious of his own teenage daughters at the time.

The poet's aim is to excite the reader, to empathize with the poet on heat in cold Osaka. The 222 poems are like beautiful feathers to be admired, felt, loved, and recited under candle light. Even if there were other racial issues in the background, the poet does not dig it up lest it spoil the rhythm. Or he goes round clandestinely and brings it in a subtle way while maintaining the tempo, and staying the course, as if speaking to a randy Adam – or even Adonis.

"Beautiful things should be loved in secret"

When a poet travels from Khartoum on a sabbatical stint in Osaka, his eyes may linger on one Osakan Anyadwe, for real or platonic love, only the great poet Kahlil Gibran can succinctly capture thought: " For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings, but cannot fly."

For Taban, poetry is a handy toolbox for self-expression, but also a personal cold war weapon. Traditional poets and composers of song use songs to slander, complain, or lampoon their adversaries. In one of his poems he renews his intellectual warfare with a former Nairobi university don colleague, which almost poisons the nectar which flows in the songs for Nikohosan.

Words of love expressed in poetry or song are endless, from Frank Sinatra, Oum Kalthoum, Franco Makiadi, to Brenda Fassie, their sentimental words will make a eunuch cry softly-softly.

Unlike war songs which boil the blood of young people to commit atrocities, love songs melt the heart even of an Alice Lakwena.

In South South the name Japan only brings to mind two things: Toyota car and JICA - the International Corporation agency. When Taban, one of our own went to Japan, he didn't run first to a Toyota showroom, but he conquered the heart of Japan itself, so to speak, by melting Niko’s heart with poetry. And between those covers the poet invites us the readers to enjoy the journey of love, especially now when our hearts are bleeding!

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