Book Review: My Husband is a Cuckoo and Other Poems of My Youth by Esther Lamnyam. Createspace Independent Publishing, 2012, 76 pp. Paperback, $15.00. ISBN 147762340X
Reviewer: Peter Wuteh Vakunta, Ph.D
In the wake of the publication of her riveting book, Love under the Kola Nut Tree: What City Moms Didn’t Tell You about Creating Fulfilling Relations (2007), Lamnyam has come up with yet another masterpiece titled My Husband is a Cuckoo and Other Poems of My Youth (2012). This new brainchild details the poet’s conversations with herself, with God and Man. This book of poems is captivating in several aspects but the quality that captivates the reader’s attention is the poet’s meticulous chronicling of her childhood experiences as seen in the following eulogy of her birthplace: “Land of smooth undulating hills/sinuously manifesting meandering rivers/land with valleys impregnated with rich fertile soil/with the hill-side savanna on natural Olympics in the wind…/ Land of my birth” (12).
Notice how Lamnyam resorts to figurative language in a bid to create vivid images about Mbot, the cradle of her birth in the minds of readers: “Land with valleys impregnated with rich fertile soil” (12). By endowing Mbot with human qualities the poet underscores the affectionate relationship she entertains with her place of birth. In a similar vein, she utilizes the poetic device of parallelism for the purpose of creating impactful images in the mind of the reader as seen in the following excerpt: “Land of smooth undulating hills…/ Land with Valleys impregnated…/ Land of my birth. / Land with the originalities…/Land with down-to-earth people…” (12-13).The esthetic value of this poem derives from the poet’s use of the rhetorical device of repetition.
It is repetition that gives dynamism to the poet’s recollections as seen in the passage above. Each time the word “land” is reiterated, the impact grows stronger. Put differently, the word relates the kernel of meaning which it embodies. Other repeated words in the poem like “people,” “hill,” and “hillside” recall the utterances which have preceded them. These words bear dual verbal significations. Parallelism is a technique that Lamnyam exploits skillfully to translate orality into the written word. A proper appreciation of the poems contained in My Husband is a Cuckoo and Other Poems of My Youth would depend on the reader’s awareness of the oral material from which the artist draws her inspiration.
My Husband is a Cuckoo and Other Poems of My Youth broaches a myriad of ontological themes, not least of which is the Manichaean partitioning of time in the rat-race on which humankind has embarked: “There is time for everything/ a time to make friends/ and a time to ignore friends/ time to be rude/ and a time to be polite…/ a time to quarrel God/and best of all /a time to worship Him” (9). The Manichaeism implied in this poem is quite inspiring given its ability to egg the reader onto surmounting the superficiality of social intercourse and daily reflections. This urge to transcend the superficial is captured in “What’s in a name?”(10) in which Lamnyam calls into question the quintessence of nomenclature: “There is reputation in a name/When the bearer is one of great deeds/ When the bearer has great achievements/There is shame in a name /When the name provokes consciousness of guilt/When it brings disgrace(10-11).
In “Love’s agony” (53), Lamnyam adumbrates the paradoxes of love, notably the downside of affection: “She loved for many years in vain/ Her idol never noticed her suffering/Hers was a type of love/ With constant fear of criticism” (53). These existential tribulations unveil the ugly face of unrequited love that often engenders despondency and hatred as the following excerpt seems to reveal: “Loneliness saddened her / Passion overwhelmed her/ Joy-killing love transformed her” (54). Some of the poems in this collection complement each other. The theme of unrequited love, for instance, resurfaces in “Things Change” (55) when the poet laments: “Today your child in me yearns for you/We are separated in thoughts/We plan our quarrels/ We walk and sleep apart” (55). So much for love! But a glimmer of hope surfaces toward the end of the poem: “Let’s give each other a chance/For our baby’s sake/For love’s sake/Because you know you love me/And I love you” (56).
My Husband is a Cuckoo and Other Poems of My Youth could be read as a treatise on womanhood. In “Laboratory Report”(49) the poet pontificates on gender equality: “ Man talks to its woman…/ Main objective is to be with woman/ Is most productive when supported by woman/ Win more battles when it has Woman to come back to”(50). It is tempting to infer that Lamnyam puts a higher premium on femininity, strong in her conviction that man is doomed without woman: “Its species could become obsolete without Woman,” (50). The morphology of the word “Woman” is significant. The poet uses upper case each time she writes” “Woman” to underline the importance of the fair sex. It should be noted that she resorts to the possessive pronoun “its” and the personal pronoun “it” in reference to the masculine gender, thereby downplaying the importance of this sex that is assumed to be the root cause of woman’s woes. Like French feminist writer, Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex, 1953) Lamnyam insinuates that a woman is not born, but rather becomes a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.
Lamnyam’s book of poems is a tribute to penmanship. She contends that poets are not dead wood, and attributes much leverage to the weight of her pen: “You look so little/ But you are so great/You seem so fragile/ But you are so strong” (16). This poem could be re-christened “barrel of the pen,” given the hyperbolic epithets the poet uses to qualify her pen: “Fragile little Queen/Strong great king/ Queen for determination/ King for success” (16). In another poem, titled “I’ll Write a Poem” Lamnyam meditates on the concept of divinity: “I’ll write a poem/about God and His wonders/ About His love for mankind…/ I will write a poem about me/ and my life…/ why I believe there is a God” (3). Suffice it to say that this poet uses her poetic verve as a medium for musing on ontological questions, not least of which is man’s relationship with God. Some of the poems enable the reader to ponder the vagaries of life as seen in “Free Thinking”: “It’s interesting the myriad natural trend of events which matter to different people” (4).
It is impossible to read Lamnyam’s poetry without being struck by the poet’s exquisite diction. For good reason, she resorts to oxymoronic titles in a bid to underscore a point. In “Words of silence,” for instance, she reiterates the fact that life is an attitude: “Your actions tell who you are/ Words might belie your genuine self/My recipe is words-action blended” (5). Lamnyam puts oxymorons to effective use throughout the anthology as this example suggests: “Soft when hard and hard when soft” (49).Other tropes exploited by the poet include metaphors. She chooses metaphorical expressions to make the abstract seem concrete as seen in the following excerpt: “Life a gradual metamorphosis/Life a natural sol-fa” (39). Notice the alliteration produced when words like “gradual” and “natural” are articulated in the excerpt above. Metaphorical constructions such as “She made a gracious gesture and/ Put on an iron melting smile” (28) create striking images in the mind of the reader. Lamnyam’s arsenal of idiomatic expressions includes similes. This figure of speech enables her to create visual correlations between antithetical entities:”Alone the man was like cold water/Lonely the woman was like the hot sun” (38).
My Husband is a Cuckoo and Other Poems of My Youth is the poet’s musings on the fatality of humans. There is no gainsaying the fact that the poet subscribes to the Christian belief that man was created from dust and unto dust he will return: “Death/ A period of certainty”(48). Man’s demise is of such grave importance that the poet devotes an entire poem to the concept of mortality. In “Death” Lamnyam looks death in the face and chides it for being a terminator of terminators: “Cold blood murderer/Separator of lovers” (48).Last by not least, the title poem of this book “My Husband is a Cuckoo” (18) is weighty in the sense that it is an interrogation on the place of women in matrimony. Lamnyam seems to have the conviction that women are made to play second fiddle in marriages today: “For me and my species/Forever we remain mother cuckoos” (19).
Read through this prism, the title poem would be considered a pun of sorts, the more so because it is the female and not the male that is taken for granted in the matrimonial set-up. Like Simone de Beauvoir, Lamnyam seems to argue that marriage has always meant different things to the different parties involved. Man and woman need to relate to each other, but this does not presuppose affectionate reciprocity between them; women have never constituted a caste making exchanges and contracts with the male caste on equal footing. A man is socially an independent and complete individual. The poet seems to contend that the reproductive and domestic roles to which woman is confined do not guaranteed her an equal dignity. Thus, the title poem actually makes a mockery of the whole hype on gender equality.
In a nutshell, My Husband is a Cuckoo and Other Poems of My Youth reveals the multiple faces of Lanmyam as a creative writer. To gain a deeper insight into the musings of this talented poet who describes herself as consultant, coach, speaker, writer, iridologist and healer, a meticulous reading of this enrich collection of poems is strongly recommended.
About the Reviewer
Dr. Peter Wuteh Vakunta is professor of Modern Literatures at the United States Defense Language Institute, California