Book Review: Poet makes shaky transition from spoken to written word

What you need to know:

  • Title: Ivory Footprints: Poem Collection
  • Author: Dennis Ssesanga 
  • Price: Shs40,000 
  • Where:  Aristoc Bookshop

Dennis Ssesanga has made the transition from the spoken word to the written word in his book, Ivory Footprints.

In the poem, Spoken Word Comeback, we see this transition unfolding with a shouted yet calm use of expressions to convey meaning:

“Beautiful masterpiece… hot chocolate….

Blue berry… pink nails…. syrup in the cupcake…

You’re the…

The calm glare on my glass

The blue chip in my blood

The antidote for the toxins…”

The conversational looseness of this poem, which could easily be spoken, is replaced by the poet’s own typographical peculiarities and metaphysical vocabulary to reconcile metaphor with the way he feels.

It must be noted that the barrage of metaphors are somewhat levied upon the reader’s attentiveness. They come fast and furious, changing constantly to conjure meaning out of the same tendency of thought and feeling.

This can be exhausting to the reader, even though it works well to a listener at a spoken word event.

In this poem, to be sure, the reader is tasked with visualising metaphor upon metaphor, which requires a lot of mental effort in visualising the different images used to convey a single image.

Interestingly, the “prosody” or patterns of rhythm and sound comes down a prosaic flow in another poem entitled, Of taking the little thereof without justice:

“You will pay three times the average in taxes

Having a third of your salary go to their authority

And still take some for your social security

Like they love you so much to care enough!

Yet they never bother to redeem your bankrupt accounts

But will steadfastly come to probe the funds on your account.”

The poet’s emphatic fury with the lack of fairness on the part of the authorities has worked its way into this literary opus to highlight injustice, or what the poet perceives as such, eloquently. 

He ably demonstrates the hypocrisy and greed, which the artist is subjected to in the name of social progress. His tone is defiant, his sense of grievance unmistakable.

Although this poem is sterile of the florid word play, this poet often favours, the plain-spokenness of its text easily strikes a chord with the reader. It is clear and straight-shooting, so the reader cannot get lost in any undue verbiage.

Another poem entitled “My pillow” starts exquisitely. The first stanza is literary gold, mirroring the poet’s regard for his pillow:

“My pillow

A gold mine of sweet dreams

Each time I lay I sniff in some gold dust

That sends my mind

To wonderland

A place I thought never existed.”

Then, inexplicably, the poem becomes heavy-footed and clumsy:

“In my dreams I toast glasses with the likes of Barrack (sic) Obama

Patting their heads and say anything in the comfort of KGB

Pat them on the head without the KGB chasing me”.

In the first stanza, each line was smooth, short and sensual. All the lines contained no unclear correspondence between the words used as they married sense and sound in literary matrimony.

It was simple, with the imagery evoking a rhythmic spell keeping the reader attuned to each word and inflection.

Then the second stanza hits you like an alarm bell, just as you’re enjoying the comfort of the pillow. Alarmingly, though, elegance is substituted by inelegance as ordinary prose takes charge with military urgency in this poem. 

The poet assumes, wrongly, that we all know what the KGB stands for and who Barack Obama is.

Sure, we mostly do. However, to assume we do is lazy in the sense that the poet doesn’t make any effort to make us see Obama and the KGB through his own eyes.

Thankfully, he reverts to the smooth flow of words which appeals to our mental ear in the poem: About patriots, politics and family: The next revolutionaries:

“The next revolutionaries

They shall not be musicians

They shall be poets

Their words shall not be bullets

But they shall sound like loaded guns…”

Whether written or spoken, the literary elegance is there for all to see. The plain polish of his written style sparkles with rhetorical oomph which hits you between the eyes and leaves you out for the count as you’re left reeling from such punchy poetry.

In his ode to the waitress entitled “Delighted Waiter,” Ssesanga writes:

“She serves wine never tasted by her

Wine only known by name to her

One wonders whether she would ever taste such

Sweet wine, dry wine all the same.”

We feel his sense of injustice. The dramatic wording of the poem reminds one of Chris Rock’s speech in the movie Head Of State entitled “That ain’t aright”:

“How many of you work in a city you can’t afford to live in?” Chris Rock asks.

The poem’s careful balance of phrases is a rhetorical home run, so to speak.

Ssesanga, in this and most of the poems in this beautiful collection, is adept at deploying descriptive aliases instead of simple nouns.

The operative word here being “deploying”, for Dennis Ssesanga uses words like armies use soldiers: to battle until the war is won.

If that war is for great poetry, then Ssesanga can consider himself a winner.