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In today’s class, we will be talking about reading and content analysis of African poetry- “The Dining Table” by Elvan Gbanabom Hallowell. Enjoy the class!
Reading and Content Analysis of African Poetry- “The Dining Table” by Elvan Gbanabom Hallowell
The poet persona in the poem, “The Dining Table,” x-rays the gory experiences of the Sierra Leoneans during a decade long civil war of 1991 to 2002. For a country as Sierra Leone, the effects of the fallout which grew in war are unimaginable as manslaughter became a part of their society. The failure on the part of Joseph Momoh led administration transforms the country into a spate of degeneration and collapse in governance. At a period when the people expect to enjoy the dividend of independence, the shocker came. In his words, “Dinner tonight comes with/gun wounds.” The parallel lines between dinner and gun wounds project the shocker. At this moment, war has broken out and the poet speaker hears sounds of gunshots. Immediately, a sensation of fear is sent round everyone in the room as “Our desert/tongues lick the vegetable/blood – the pepper”. No one in the room can continue with the meal as their tongues go dry right in the face of war. The abrupt nature the war started terrifies the poet and his inmates at the dining table that they consider it best not to continue with the food as it can “…push scorpions/up our heads” by “the pepper/strong enough….” The fear caused by this war makes “Guests/look into the oceans of bowls/ as vegetables die on their tongues.”
In a tensed moment, he tries to describe what his physical environment has turned into “The table/that gathers us is an island where guerrillas/walk the land while crocodiles/surf.” At the outbreak of war, the poet persona signals that they were surrounded by a group of newly recruited armed boys as ‘guerrillas’ while behind them were ‘crocodiles’ which surf in the river behind. This is the atmosphere of fear that accompanies war and they are all in a fix. To the poet’s amazement, the core of the guerrilla group comprises “Children from Alphabeta with empty palms dine/with us; switchblades in their eyes,” and their school ground has been completely deserted. He says “… the playground/is emptied of children’s toys”. As an effect of war, the poet speaker identifies that there is a breakdown in government and movement of people as unnecessary roadblocks are mounted. No wonder he asks, ‘who needs roadblocks?’ Besides the hunger and starvation that threatens the people, the poet persona realises that “When the hour/to drink from the cup of life ticks/cholera breaks its spell on cracked lips”. He sees war bringing the disease called cholera on the people of the land of Sierra Leone. All these are born out of the insensitivity of the government of Joseph Momoh which refuse to attend to the plight of the masses until it degenerated into war.
In the last stanza of the poem, we see the poet speaker driven by emotion promising to ensure that an end is brought to the crisis in the land. But on a second note, we deduce that his attempt had rather come too late to have an impact. He recounts “Under the spilt/milk of the moon, I promise/to be a revolutionary,” but at contact with realities of war, he understands our unfit he is in “but my Nile, even/without tributaries comes lazy/upon its own Nile.” He observes that without the support of others, he can do little or nothing to salvage to situation the country is brought into. The bewilderment that surrounds the poet and his guest is wrong timing or a sudden outbreak of the war. He says, “On this/night reserved for lovers of fire, I’m/full with the catch of gun wounds, and my boots/have suddenly become too reluctant to walk me.” When the poet intends to enjoy with his loved ones, he is distracted by sounds of gunshots and he sees how helpless he is to do something.
POETIC DEVICES IN THE POEM
- Imagery: This is one device that the poet employs to paint in our minds’ eyes the pathetic experiences the Sierra Leoneans went through. With it, a sense of empathy is created and a better understanding of their plight is realised. This device runs through in the whole poem as we can deduce how tensed the poet speaker and his visitors had been when the war suddenly caught up with them at the very moment they were to have a sumptuous meal. A practical picture is conceivable with this device.
- Oxymoron: To effectively state how traumatised they were at the abrupt nature of the war, the poet speaker decides to employ the oxymoronic expression, ‘Our desert tongue….’ Tongue can’t be dry as desert except in situations where gruesome fear is in place and this is only possible where war is on.
- Personification: In establishing a clearer picture of the thought of the work, the poet speaker deploys personification to effectively present the helpless situation they found themselves as a result of the war. In ‘… vegetables die on their tongues’, the gruesome fear that envelopes the poet persona and his guest can be imagined. They seem to see their taste-board stop functioning when faced with the sudden nature of the war. Also the line, ‘cholera breaks its spell on cracked lips’, reveal the bold way the disease announces its presence on the people due to lack of good water; an effect of war.
- Metaphor: This device helps to show the true state of mind of the people through the employment of comparison. In ‘switchblades in their eyes’, he compares the wrath in the children who are the most affected by the war, with ‘switchblades’ ready to attack whoever stands in their way during the war. When saying ‘Under the spilt/milk of the moon’, the lateness in the poet’s reaction to the war is noted. The face of the sky during the appearing of the moon is effectively painted when compared with ‘spilt milk’.
- Repetition: To emphasize the several points identified by the poet, some words as ‘vegetable’, ‘gun wounds’, ‘Nile’, ‘Children’ and ‘tongue’ are repeated.
- The adverse effects of war: The poem, ‘The Dining Table,’ reveals that war has to positive gains to offer a nation or a people. The first thing noted is that war comes with great fear and tension on the people. The uncertainty war brings caused the poet speaker and his guest to cease eating and they had ‘desert tongues’. He realises that ‘the pepper/strong enough to push scorpions/up our heads’ when ‘Dinner tonight comes with/gun wounds.’ To situation led to the closure of schools or rather students deserting schools as noted in ‘Children from Alphabeta with empty palms dine with us’. These children are in the poet speaker’s house instead of staying in school because, ‘When the playground/is emptied of children’s toys’. The whole areas look unsafe for not only students but also teachers who would teach them. War also brings sicknesses and diseases as part of the adverse effects. He recounts that ‘cholera breaks its spell on cracked lips’. During wartime, the waters are no longer safe for a drink and food scarcity sets in. The people are displaced by war. No wonder the poet speaker cannot find support, so that, he can champion a revolution. He says, ‘I promise/to be a revolutionary, but my Nile, even/without tributaries comes lazy’. The poet identifies his helpless state as those he wishes to count on for change have also been displaced by the war.
- The theme of bad leadership: From the poem, it is deductible that bad leadership is the sole cause of the war in the country. The people had experienced failure in government for a very long time that they could no longer bear it, and they forcefully ejected the government of the day which resulted in a war. The leaders were insensitive to the plight of the children that the ‘Children from Alphabeta with empty palms dine/with us; switchblades in their eyes/silence in their voices.’ The hunger in the eyes of the children has driven them to join the R.U.F. (Revolutionary United Front). They left the school ground due to ‘the playground/is emptied of children’s toys’.
- What is the poem all about?
- What are the dominant ideas in the poem?
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