By Chinua Achebe
(Anchor, 84 pages)
In the Greek myth of Icarus, a young boy straps wings to his back and flies toward the horizon. He flies so high, however, that the sun melts the wax holding his wings together and he plummets to earth.
Poets love this story: Fly too high and the gods will strike you down. In his career as a poet, Chinua Achebe has always inverted this myth. To Achebe's eye, the world is already fallen and so is mankind. Lyricism, then, is folly. It should be of little surprise that the man who wrote the classic novel Things Fall Apart should give Keats' idea of "negative capability" a different meaning in poetry. Achebe grew up in Nigeria, watched its struggle with independence from the inside, and then survived the country's civil war of 1967-1970.
Interestingly, it was just one year later in 1971 that Achebe first published a book of poems, Beware, Soul Brother, and Other Poems. The title verse ends with this memorable line: "Remember also your children/ For they in time will want/ A place."
Achebe may not be a romantic, but he is no cynic either. A true cynic might argue God no longer exists: Achebe's God is simply disappointed. In "1966," Achebe writes of a buildup to violence, how it confirms "His first/ Disappointment in Eden." It is clear Achebe, too, laments the state of the world. In "Pine Tree in Spring," he asks for strength to resist tyranny. "Fine tree/ Erect and trustworthy/ What school can teach me/ Your silent, stubborn fidelity?"
Collected Poems draws from three separate volumes and includes only seven new poems. This is clearly a celebratory volume, but it also presents a unique opportunity to appreciate Achebe's stubborn fidelity to his own voice and vision. The poems at the beginning of his career are every bit as folkloric and curious as those which came toward the end. Like many African writers, Achebe writes in a flowery, formal voice. He uses words like "artesian," "penumbra," "soporific," "surreptitious." And yet, each of these poems tapers to an elegant closing line. This ability to expand and contract his breath on the page makes Achebe a versatile poet. It allows him to paint a scene, step to the side, and then weep for it all in the same poem. Only a man who understands that things do fall apart could accomplish this so well and so often and never appear maudlin.