When I write poetry, I try to draw from a well deep within my soul, sometimes, this well dries up and I have to wait for a while before I can run to scoop words from within and give them a form.
However, while I was reading Toni Kan’s Songs for Bar Beach, I felt this emptiness, like I did not have a drop of poetry within me. It was like taking a child who has always known his father’s swimming pool as the biggest gathering of water and pushing him into the Atlantic.
It was like a redefinition of what poetry was, is and should be because he writes with such versatility that makes one appreciate the flexibility of poetry and leaves them wondering how his mind could think of so many “acts” for a single “scene”.
The collection is a ‘memorial in verse’, a eulogy for a certain, mighty Bar Beach that had been reduced to mere stories on the lips of those who witnessed its glory. It’s a wonder, how a place once full of life, smoke, sex, prophecies and human beings of all sizes and languages could be permanently erased from existence, its mouth, stuffed with sand till the water suffocated and vomited dry land from its belly.
Toni Kan has immortalised ‘Bar Beach’, and he has immortalised his name as well because I can never think of Bar Beach without remembering his own and I am sure it is the same for many others whose poetic life would be illuminated by this collection.
From the first poem in the collection, ‘I sit by the seashore’ to the last one ‘Dear all, I formerly known as Bar Beach’, the poet presents Bar Beach at once as a pretty woman; a lover to some, a daughter to others, a mother to many and a roaring, hungry beast to those who dared defy her. Perhaps that was why the poet fell in love with Bar Beach in the first place, because of its chameleonic nature.
He starts the collection with a poem which states that no matter what happens, Bar Beach will remain the same, because ‘you cannot dilute the ocean with your tears’ and he ends with a poem about ‘defeat’, an outcry of how Bar Beach met its end, ‘chased from the shore…with mouth stuffed with sands’. This contrasts with the mighty, unending nature of the Bar Beach presented in the first poem.
But, the fact that Bar Beach knew when to stay and when to leave was not the most striking thing about the collection. For me, it was how the Bar Beach could be a home and a final resting place, a source of healing and a source of pain.
In the poem ‘heartbreak does not kill’ the poet persona recounts how he ran to Bar Beach because he needed a place of relief, to scream ‘I don’t want to be strong’. In a ‘girl has no name’, Bar Beach plays the role of a final resting place for a heartbroken girl who finds life too hard a puzzle to solve and decides to sleep to the lullabies of the ocean, but, this is a mutual agreement between the ocean and the lady so no tears should be shed.
However, in ‘Bar Beach hangs its head in shame’ the ocean seduces a child and leaves the parents in agony and, I have seen a mother wail for her dead son, it was like a howl, laden with a thousand questions that no one could answer. The same friendly Bar Beach becomes a villain here and this is what excites me the most, the fact that he romanticizes the beach yet he does not hide its bad nature.
In ‘For Ali Baba’ Bar Beach is a home to a young man pushed away by his two uncles, stating that no matter who you are, the Beach does not discriminate. It welcomes all, even criminals are allowed to die a glorious death on her watch like in ‘Oyenusi’ and the poetic persona, Dimka.
Songs to Bar Beach is a beautiful collection with only one fault. I could go on and on about the beauty of this collection, however, the flutist must take a break to wipe his nose and while he wipes his nose, he would tell the king in plain words of his displeasure.
Well, I only wish that the poet did not choose a mass of water over human existence by reminding us that the ocean will not stay buried forever…It is vanquished and it will remain vanquished no matter how much the poet loves the Beach.
I pray, too, that someday, the poet will finally decide to get a puppy and a cat, and watch them waddle through the silliness of growing up…He would love it!
-Arinze Chiemenam is a budding writer, editor and poet