Reviewer: Peter Vakunta, Ph.D.
Blot on the Landscape is Ngong’s lament for an abused environment. The poet uses poetic license to engage with issues relating to the intersection of poetry, politics and environmental activism as seen in the following excerpt: “I remember G.R.A./Buea, once so green and clean/now so brown and repulsive/thick with unsavory smells/and infectious diseases.”(3) The poet devotes several poems to the theme of eco-terrorism, a leitmotif that takes the form of a narrative metaphor and runs through the entire anthology: “The beautifully trimmed lawns/the gardens and their flowers/ that made me beam like a child/ each time I visited them/are now blots on the landscape.” (3)
Ngong can be described as an environmentally conscious poet whose consciousness stems from ecological literacy. The poet resorts to poetry as a medium to address sensitive questions related to eco-criticism and environmental advocacy. The title of the book itself raises serious ethical questions about the deleterious impact of human activities on biodiversity and the ecosystem. The title crystalizes a vexing issue that pre-occupies the poet, namely environmental abuse. Having highlighted the imminent danger that faces humans and non-human species, the poet turns the spotlight on the imminent apocalypse that awaits humanity if nothing is done to halt the ecological carnage: “The garbage bags are full/and crows sing above us/ their beaks red with booty/The dirt and filth of fear/thrash us through thin and thick/thinning down our thin lives/ lingering in the cold/at the edge of collapse.”(4) The worrisome specter of an apocalypse is preempted in the following verses: “Livestock and dogs drop dead/ in sunbaked villages / Savage beasts kneel over/ crumple and come to dust in the measureless wild.”(24) Notice that the poet has recourse to the metaphor of the dry season in a bid to underscore the callousness of heart associated with folks at the helm in his native land: “The prima donna here/ gargantuan corrupt flesh/ does not acknowledge you/nor the vermilion tears/burning your roasted cheeks/It is your dry season.”(23)
A myriad of environmental issues constitute the crux of the discourse in Blot on the Landscape, not least of which is eco-terrorism: “Leave me the ravished landscape/the flora and fauna/ brutalized day in day out/by hunters and lumberjack/to keep body and soul warm/My heart is split between them and our scarce ecosystem/faced with total destruction.”(41) This book of poems portrays human beings as eco-terrorists. The poet does not simply label human beings as environmental despoilers, he enumerates the acts of terrorism that man exerts on the natural environment—air pollution: “The smell of dead livestock/drives the rich to wear masks,” (4); “The stomach-turning smell/compels the lungs to scream,”(6); deforestation: “…floods devastate our homes/and bush fires fell forests”(1);ozone depletion: “Pollution everywhere/has knocked holes in the lungs/of the ozone layer/our last hope of living,”(11) and water pollution: “… if we emptied our bowels there/ or dumped carcasses in the stream.”(30)
It is remarkable that Ngong resorts to anthropomorphism as a stylistic trope to drive home his point as the following excerpt shows:” The sick city wakes with mist in her eyes.”(5) The stylistic device of anthropomorphism enables the poet to attribute human qualities and motivations to non-humans as the following citation illustrates: “The sun rises slowly/creeps across the pale sky/and then clenches its hot fists/to strike the head of the earth.”(5) By having recourse to the technique of personification, the poet succeeds in painting the portrait of a country in a state of putrefaction: “Breathing with difficulty/ in the tight embrace of dung/the spokesman of dirty dogs/ lies silent in his vomit.” (7) This book of poems passes for political satire. The poet satirizes the status quo in his land of birth: “If the mouthpiece of carrion/looks carefully around him/ with the eyes of Romeo/ he will see the land in waste/and feel the itch of decay.”(7) Irony is another trenchant weapon wielded with dexterity by the poet logged in an endless vendetta against a government that has degerated into physical and psychological decay: “We live where refuse is wine/in the heart of the nation/ where mucus and afterbirth/are fresh as daisy.”(7) This sort of irony is situational. It alludes to instances where events do not turn out as they were expected to be and emphasizes the incongruity between some expectations or beliefs and the reality of a situation. In the example above, there is remarkable incongruity between man’s psychological bliss in the mist of physical malaise. Notice the poet’s predilection for scatology in his bleak portrayal of a country that has become uninhabitable: “You always flash a broad smile/ willing to have fun on dung/ like maggots in a dead dog.”(7) In this light, the poet poses an ontological question that is intended to be rhetorical: “Why must my life be dung/because of my birthplace?”(11)
In Blot on the Landscape, the poet poeticizes the ferociousness that man’s dogs of war have unleashed on our fragile planet. This warfare is both real and symbolic. In these poems warfare is portrayed largely as a result of human beings’ nonchalant attitude toward Mother Earth. The fierce war waged against the planet leaves it deprived of thousands of species: “Factories churn out lethal smoke/my flesh crawls with wire worms/in the height of pollution/I cannot have a field day/in the backyard of slovens.”(78) This book of poems is also a rap on chemical warfare as the following excerpt indicates: “People who set out to live/to make life worthwhile living/ in a world worn down by wars… are not better than the dead.”77) Having highlighted the havoc that wars wreak on human lives, the poet dwells on the nefarious impact of drones on the environment: “…the forgotten toothless poor/and the drunken drones who run/ over protesting voices/and drive over their bodies.”(77) Ngong focuses on man’s symbolic warfare against Planet Earth. He desires to call the reader’s attention to the fact that warfare and its concomitant outcomes can have undesirable consequences on both natural and built environments.
Blot on the Landscape is a clarion call to all and sundry to take action against ecological spoliation: “Dog days will kill us unless we stand up/against both blue funk/and bloody beasts/ tearing our hearts out for more leaves to fall.”(26) By the power of poetic verve, the poet raves against environmental abuse; he chastises governmental officials for dereliction of duty in environmental protection matters. By this token, Ngong’s poetry could be characterized as protest poetry par excellence. The thing that irks this poet the most is prevarication and outright lies that have become the trade-mark of the powers-that-be in his native land: “Leave me a place my beloved/on the cushion of your heart/ where I can lie down and rest/when tongues yellowed from decay/ drive me crazy with their lies.”(50) Desperate for a solution to the aforementioned problems, the poet seeks solace in magical realism as the following excerpt seems to suggest: “Before we ceased to be anything/ we could ride on the wings of a storm…/ we spent much time searching between cracks/scorpions and other poisonous bugs/ to keep our offspring from dying young.”(51)
The poet is strong in his conviction that poetry is not social dead wood. Poets reserve the right to adjudicate over the affairs of the world. That is why in the poem titled “Time to Clean” (77), the poet describes those who sit on the fence as dead wood. As he puts it, “People who set out to live/ to make life worthwhile living/ in a world worn down by wars/ but are at ease not speaking/ in the face of oppression/ the blot on our landscape/ are not better than the dead.”(77) The poet calls a spade a spade; he couldn’t care less whose ox is gored. He remains unfazed by police and military brutality: “…the drunken drones who run/ over protesting voices/and drive over their bodies.”(77) There is no gainsaying the fact the Ngong uses poetry as a cannon to fire ammo at corrupt regimes in Africa in a bid to “…bring to light the bright green/ face of a brutalized land/ and a corrupted landscape.”(77)
This poetic anthology is captivating in many respects but the feature that distinguishes it from the works of other poets is the poet’s impressive choice of poetic devices. Ngong’s choice of a metaphor, the “blot on the landscape” as a leitmotif is germane to the themes discussed in all forty–two poems in the anthology. By choosing this metaphoric medium of expression, the poet is able to create a nexus between physical and psychological pollution in Cameroon. Similes or poetically generated synonyms permeate Ngong’s poetry as seen in the following excerpts: “I can call to mind/ the very last time/ I laughed like the moon.”(69); and “I stared at it lame and felt rage well up /inside me like rain…” (55) Other poetic devices used with noticeable dexterity in these poems include personification: “At the drop of the hat/ the overburdened sky/emptied its large bladder/on the bald head of the earth.” (44) The poet frequently resorts to satire as a versification device: “The blood on their laps/reminds me of vamps, /torture and abuse.”(22) The technique of reduplication is used effectively by the poet throughout the anthology to underscore intensity: “It rained and rained hard” (44) and “Stretches of green here and there/ sometimes very very thick.”(54) The device of narrative reduplication permeates the anthology as seen in the following excerpt: “Storm on, storm on wild wind/ for darkness to tremble.”(66)
In sum, Blot on the Landscape is the poet’s lamentation for the ecological holocaust that seems imminent in Cameroon. In forty-two well-crafted poems, Ngong opens a can of worms on the environmental time-bomb on which Cameroonians are poised today. Written in impeccable English, this anthology of poems is suitable for all age groups. The subject matter—environmental sustainability—is a theme of global interest in contemporary society. This book is a masterpiece that should be read by environmental activists, students and instructors of environmental education as well as environmental scientists and political role-players all over the world.
About the reviewer
Dr. Peter Vakunta is a prolific writer with over forty works on literary theory and fiction under his belt. He teaches in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Indianapolis in the United States of America.