Book review: Quietly feminist book makes case for ladies

Book cover. 

What you need to know:

  • Book title: I am A Woman I am Love. 
  • Author: Zenah Nakanwagi
  • Price: Shs30,000
  • Publisher: Uganda Museum Library.  
  • Pages: 55

Many a scholar, thinker, lover or activist has written about the true essence of femininity. All agree that being a woman goes beyond the physicality which ensures that whenever a lady enters a room, men “swarm around” her like a “hive of honey bees,” as Maya Angelou articulately put it.

Instead, as Angelou’s seminal poem Phenomenal Woman avers, it is really the “fire in [her] eyes” and the “joy in [her] feet” that transport a lady to her essence. To ensure that her true appeal, sexual or otherwise, comes from her refusal to feel let society define who she is or what she looks like.

Again, it is in the way she carries herself—in her self-assured “stride,” her sunny smile, her sensuous grace, and her self-confident posture. All these things make her a woman. They also give her self-love.

Poet Zenah Nakanwagi’s literary offering “I am A Woman I am Love” echoes this sentiment. This quietly feminist book is divided into five parts which proclaim how a woman is more than the sum of her parts. To Zenah, a woman is much more.

“A woman is a thousand chambered heart that beats for the world,

A woman is a hand that holds the world before it falls,
A woman is the head that carries the world when no one is there to make it cross…”
These couplets, or pairs of consecutive lines of poetry, create complete thoughts, in and of themselves. However, they follow an uneven syllable count with the structured unruliness that often defines “free verse”.

The first line has 15 syllables, the second 12 and the third 19. Syllables are a unit of pronunciation having one vowel sound, eg. Woman has two syllables (wom-an).

The number and use of syllables render the unit of rhythm of each line outside the definition of a meter, which often has two or three syllables.

Beyond this technical aspect, this poem is better spoken than read as it ably expresses the persona’s view on what a woman is when said out loud. The last line is a fair attempt at using the word “cross”, the principal symbol of suffering, especially familiar to Christians, as a metaphor but then again it also comes across (pun unintended) as cross (angry).
This will leave the reader confused.

The rest of the poem should be instructive as to where she is going with this particular line. But these couplets are standalones and so they will not help much in helping the reader out of his or her confusion.

In Part Two of the book, the poem “I want to pursue you” switches to the first person singular with the persona’s use of “I”.

“I want to pursue you daily
Like my childhood dreams...” it reads in part, this is a very clever line.

In Part Three of the book, the verse “Until” is the probably the most uniformly powerful and passionately-held poem in the whole anthology.

“I want to slit you open,
Drink from the big nerve
Until I am fed, Until I am healed
From starvation.”
The images create the anatomy of love in a somewhat literal sense, thereby making them hit home as the persona’s love is expressed by a life-giving force transitioning from line to line as its energy is transmitted from body to body.
My favourite poem is “My father wasn’t man enough”, in Part Four of this anthology. This is because the title is an ironic twist on what the poem is actually about. As soon as one starts to read the poem, then, one is struck by how much of a man the persona’s father was. However, the first two lines echo the poem’s title and brilliantly contradict its ultimate message:
“My father was not much of a man
like men of my generation…”
After these two lines, there’s a segue (a smooth transition from one thought to another) which effectively uses irony (and even satire) to drive home a point about how today’s men are half-men when measured against the towering greatness of the persona’s father.
The book’s last poem, Scars Don’t Bleed, is as smart as its title sounds. The only image I don’t care much for in this poem is “sobbing winds” because it brings to mind ‘wet winds’ which may be described as humid. How such imagery ties into the persona’s bloodless scars is unconvincing.
On the whole, though, Zenah’s book is a well written anthology delving into themes of femininity, humanity, love and self-acceptance in ways that celebrate the spirituality of the words, “I am A Woman I am Love”. Also, this anthology ably challenges the restrictive notions of feminine beauty as well as the conventional wisdom surrounding feminism.
Zenah parries narrow societal, aesthetical and philosophical, standards related thereto by proclaiming her worth from a place of self-confidence.

This rejection parlays not only into the allure of her poetry but also helps the reader identify the actual beauty of a woman beyond narrow physical ideals of feminine beauty. Ultimately, Zenah’s poetry obviates the need to conform to any standards set by society by imploring women to reconnect with who they are in order to find validation from within.