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Ode to Ballaké Sissoko

by michwo 

Posted: 19 September 2016
Word Count: 133
Summary: I couldn't make sense of André Breton's "Ode to Charles Fourier" so I wrote a much shorter one of my own and dedicated it to a Malian kora player.

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                                                   Ode to Ballaké Sissoko
                                    Precious like the gold and salt in Timbuktu
                                    Your notes go echoing
                                    Painstakingly plucked
                                    That meticulous clarity
                                    Of scribes’ transcriptions of old Arabic
                                    On goatskin manuscripts
                                    In sand-strewn libraries
                                    Sand is omnipresent here
                                    Leo the African came as a merchant                             
                                    René Caillié came three hundred years later
                                    The first European to see it and live
                                    Bamako is green and burgeoning
                                    The quickly falling notes cascade
                                    Down River Niger’s rapids hauntingly
                                    One thousand one hundred and thirty-one miles away
                                    Is the hot and arid desert of the Hoggar
                                    In Algeria’s south
                                    And Tamanrasset
                                    Where Father Foucauld died
                                    That death heralded a new beginning
                                    For not to exploit or explore did he come
                                    But to share
                                    We are people of One Book that is yet to be read

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Comments by other Members

James Graham at 20:29 on 19 September 2016  Report this post
You relegated your excellent Krishna poem to the archive before I (or other members) had time to respond to it! If you look in the archive you will find a comment. I'll post a comment on this one soon.


James Graham at 20:30 on 21 September 2016  Report this post
It’s so much easier nowadays if there are references in a poem to people, places and things we don’t know much about. Just google. Now I know something about the kora and have listened to a recording (I think it was Toumani Diabate), and know who Father Foucauld was. Taking this a step further, I think poets nowadays can write freely about subjects which may be outside the general knowledge of many readers. The poem won’t be obscure for long; a little internet research will open it up.

Your evocation of ‘sand-strewn libraries’ in which careful transcriptions were done is powerful. Historically of course this preservation of ancient texts was vital, much of the ancient Greek output finding its way into Europe through North Africa and Spain. Your lines set a scene in which this important work is actually being done.

At first the rest of the poem seemed to me to go off at a tangent, mentioning Leo and Caillié  and various places before coming to the idea that Europeans and Africans are ‘people of One Book’. However, after further thought I see there is more than one thread running through. These lines link Ballaké Sissoko’s music to what follows:
The quickly falling notes cascade
Down River Niger’s rapids hauntingly
It’s a contrast that follows, between the fertile area of Bamako on the Niger and the arid desert of the Hoggar. The latter leads to the missionary work of Charles de Foucauld and the conclusion of the poem.
This thread is quite subtle; even more subtle, but perfectly valid, is the fact that at the beginning of the poem we are talking about books – Arabic manuscripts – and again at the end. These threads hold the poem together.
It’s important that the poem holds together because the statement made in the last line is of the greatest significance.                                  
We are people of One Book that is yet to be read.

This recalls the Koranic phrase ‘people of the Book’ (ahl al-Kitab, I think) which extends recognition to the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity. In spite of this and other attempts to assert common ground among the three Middle Eastern religions, historically there has been division, conflict, genocide and terrorism. The ‘One Book’ I take to mean a universal understanding that these diverse peoples share a common culture and a common humanity. The book 'is yet to be read' - we have not yet reached this understanding. The poem is addressed to Ballaké Sissoko, who represents a particular North African tradition, one which can readily be embraced by Europeans. Nothing of any significance divides us.

All of which means there’s considerable depth to this poem. It has been most interesting to explore its subject-matter and ideas. Just coming back for a moment to continuity, which puzzled me to begin with, I wonder if it’s necessary to mention Leo Africanus or René Caillié? They’re important enough figures in North African history, but are they relevant to the poem? Also, there would be a certain impact in having these lines juxtaposed:
Sand is omnipresent here
Bamako is green and burgeoning

I hope you find this commentary useful. Looking forward to your reply; if my interpretation of the poem seems not quite right in any way, let me know.


michwo at 21:56 on 25 September 2016  Report this post
Initially with this poem I was trying to create sound harmonies imitative of the kora's distinctive sounds:
... go echoing
Paintstakingly plucked...
... meticulous clarity, etc.
I once studied articulatory phonetics as part of a Linguistics course at Reading Uni, but no longer necessarily use the terminology correctly even so.  Are the /p/ sounds voiced plosives?  Are the /k/ sounds palatal fricatives?  Something like that.  The /è/ and /ou/ of 'echoing' are mirrored in the /ou/ and /è/ of 'possess'.  Is that overly fanciful?  Perhaps.
Once I'd showed off phonetically at the start of the poem I wondered where to go next.  I'd just finished watching a programme about Timbuktu on TV, but Ballaké Sissoko was born in the south-west of Mali in Bamako and when I looked at an aerial view of the place on Wikipedia there seemed to be quite a lot of green and the River Niger's rapids suggested the falling sounds the kora sometimes makes.  Father Foucauld's fate was to be killed for no good reason and I'd read about him in a book called "Martyrs of Our Time".  His desire to make himself available to those who had once been his enemies, the Touaregs of North Africa, was an impressive act of genuine Christian love and where Leo the African had come to trade and possibly exploit the Muslim population and René Caillié had come as an explorerr, Father Foucauld had come to share his life with the locals quite simply.  And I was familiar with the expression People of the Book meaning Jews, Christians and Muslims and Foucauld had once reconnoitred Morocco disguised as a poor Sephardi Jew.  That's it in a nutshell basically and you worked that out for yourself without any prompting from me.  The message I wrote but you didn't get started off with:  Your understanding of this poem is quite as good as anybody's anywhere... or words to that effect.  Rather than get André Breton's "Ode to Charles Fourier" I think I'd have enjoyed "Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares"/ "Cerisiers garantis contre les lièvres" far more as the subject matter might have been more approachable.  I'd have enjoyed the bilingual edition too with French on the left-hand page and English on the right.  Does surrealism press any buttons for you or are we better off without it?  At its worst it's nihilistic and incomprehensible and 'automatic writing' has never been my forte anyway though I did once translate "The Night of Loveless Nights" by Robert Desnos which is anything but 'automatic writing' as far as I can see.

James Graham at 20:01 on 28 September 2016  Report this post
Your ‘sound effects’ (assonance, to use the proper term) are not fanciful at all. If I didn’t take note of them at first, it was just careless reading. We should expect readers of poetry to be aware of the sounds of words, and their deliberate use to suggest  natural or musical sounds.

I listened to the kora and heard the falling notes, which seem to be characteristic of the way the instrument is played. Your association of these notes with the Niger rapids is apt.

I owe you an apology. I said in a comment – not entirely seriously – that you don’t know the joys of free verse. This poem is in free verse. Your lines
Your notes go echoing

are a very good example of free-verse technique: having ‘echoing’ at the end of a line and ‘Possess’ in a line to itself draws attention to these two words, which you want the reader to take notice of for their sounds. The line-break strengthens to impact of the words.

The poems you’ve posted in WW so far have all had a lot going for them, but for more than one reason this is my favourite. Partly it’s because I’m interested in (though not very knowledgeable about) North and West African culture. Mainly, though, it’s the quality of this poem: the way it moves from the musical notes to the meticulous work of the scribes in ‘sand-strewn libraries’, then to Foucauld and finally to that memorable final line. A subtle but clearly discernible thread runs through it.


michwo at 22:21 on 28 September 2016  Report this post
You are a great encourager and not just to me.  I wish I could go with the flow far more than I do and fixed forms do tend to pin me down unfortunately.  The only other free verse poem I've written, which I hope you'll get to read in due course, is something called "Flower Arranging".  It's a poem I've always wanted to preserve for the ideas in it rather than just the words and I have done.  Quite a few things I've written are quite simply no longer there.  Next up in October:  "The Chart of Tenderness".  Thank you once again for all the encouragement.

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