Blue mothertongue is a pretty small book. In fact when I fist got it what ran through my mind was “let me read this in thirty minutes, write the review in an hour and get through with it.” However, as with all ‘smart’ ideas that didn’t really go anywhere seeing as I had to pause for between 10 to 15 minutes after every poem and reflect. The poems in this anthology (to use Stephen Partington’s words) speak to you. Touch you at that little corner in your mind where you hold your fondest of memories. Maybe I am jumping the gun a little bit though, so ladies and gentlemen allow me to take you to the beginning.
The first time I heard of Ngwatilo Mawiyoo someone was trying to get me to take them for the puesic project (a show, by the author, of poetry and music, it isn’t half bad, or so I hear). Sadly, I couldn’t make it. However since that fateful day the name Ngwatilo seemed to haunt me every where I went and hence it was to my delight when I finally saw her do an impromptu performance of her piece Odetta in Debt at one of Sitawa Wafula’s poetry workshops. I fell in love, well not actual love love but I really loved her work. I thought to myself I must get that book. So I did, well sort of but that is a story for another day.
The book is the first (of many?) book that the lady has published and features 29 selected poems that, to me, are a sort of reflection on the author’s life. All through the book you can see allusions to Kenya, living away from Kenya and a hint of a Caribbean influence in Odetta in Debt and Oh! Men. The name of the book “Blue Mothertongue” reminded me of a more sad time, of a language and a culture that is fading, slowly dying down into oblivion and is saddened by the fact. The poetry says the same thing. It shows you a culture, and a difference in cultures, from the global village that is our home. A young Lady who travels the world to study comes back to Kenya and shocks her villagers when she can speak in her native tongue.
When I was reading this book I could sense myself being taken on a journey starting with a child somewhere in Nairobi, then she finds herself studying in New York (I presumed New York because of the piece Two Clocks), then there is the homecoming all leading up to the final piece Spring in Nairobi. All through the book you can see the poet leading you through her life. You see life through her eyes experience what she experienced from various perspectives whether it be hers, a shop owners or a random plant’s she shows you that everything that life, has thoughts and such thoughts must be shared. Sure there is that one randomly misplaced poem in the book (Sins We committed comes at the wrong place in my opinion) but that doesn’t take anything away from the structure in which this book was organized. If anything it makes you notice you were following a story. I came to the conclusion that the piece is meant to be a daydream.
When it comes to style the author employs imagery and allusion with an expertise that should be illegal. Very rarely will you find rhyme in her poetry, or alliteration while we are at it, but the imagery and allusions that you get more than compensate for what you miss in rhyme (for all you rhyme lovers like me). Her poetry takes you all the way into the room, puts you on a chair and offers you tea while at the same time going on to explain to you every single thing that is happening around you. Then when it is done talking it sits back like Dr. Phil and listens to your thoughts, never deeming it necessary to give a solution but the listening in itself is half the problem solved, or so some English men would like to think. What I am saying in many words is this is thought provoking poetry at its best. Here’s an example from Mothering Long Distance:
I protest as usual,
I don’t want a family.
She in turn divulges
How she hated childbirth
Never wanted to get married
“but if I didn’t
you wouldn’t be here.”
I cannot say,
“would that be so bad?”
Then there is how she picks her words. Every time you read a poem in this book your mind’s eye can see a lady sitting at a desk with a vacant expression on her face for 15 minutes, writing a line or two and then repeating the process until the poem is complete. Agreed that one or two of her pieces end after they should have but then again wasn’t it the same with Wilde? Ngwatilo’s pictures, as I have decided to call them, are worth a thousand words.
The review however, wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Jacaranda trees. All through the book this tree keeps coming back to haunt you and if any of you have seen a Jacaranda shed it’s flowers then you would definitely know why she finds them so enthralling and poetic. If you haven’t, you should. Blue Mothertongue is definitely a recommended read especially if, like me, sometimes you just want to sit and reflect. It is like the mirror that doesn’t judge. Don’t believe me? Get yourself a copy.
About The Author
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo’s talent is undisputed across, and beyond, the African continent; her voice at once bold and thoughtful, on paper and in performance. A native of Nairobi, Ngwatilo has steadily built a name for herself as a poet, performer, actress and musician. A keen observer and devoted student of the written word, Ngwatilo Mawiyoo’s book of poems, “Blue Mothertongue” (2010) is set in Nairobi and the African diaspora around notions of home, loss and healing. Critics say the work is “crafted with beautiful pace and intelligence,” “a worthy testament of her times.” Lauded “a priest of the art of performed poetry,” Ngwatilo has presented her work at various African and European festivals, and also enjoys creating unique collaborative poetry-in-performance concepts independently and in association with various cultural institutions.
Ngwatilo’s new research documents the lives of diverse rural Kenyan communities. It will ultimately produce, among other things, a book of poems due in 2012.
You can buy a copy of blue mothertongue at Bookstop, Textbook Center and other bookshops.You can also check out what Ngwatilo is upto from her website. Watch the video of her performing ‘Two Clocks’ here