The poet is a rower, that dutiful oarsman, guiding the society along, “in the currents that [sweep] this land, for many moons and many nights, under the Southern Cross…”
We, as the poet’s guests, need only jump on board and witness with him what he sees, what he hears, how he responds to the noise and voices around him, as he takes us out to the deep sea of thought, wonder, expectation and, of course, revelation.
Thus, Steven Winduo’s new publication, a collection of poetry titled A Rower’s Song. Published in 2009 under the imprint of Manui Publishers, a self-publishing venture, the volume runs for 146 pages and sells at the UPNG bookshop for K60.
It contains 112 poems. More than half of this number is devoted to the “candle city”, observations of life and daily activity in the urban settlements of Papua New Guinea. The remainder covers observations from the poet’s travels overseas as both writer and scholar, to places such as mainland America, Canada, Hawaii, Samoa and New Caledonia.
While the poems set in Papua New Guinea are written in a tone that we are familiar with, about the ordinary and the everyday occurrence, all of them, in fact, cause us to pause momentarily and ask: “Wait a minute. What am I reading here?”
As we thus ponder over each poem, the persona of the whole collection, not Steven Winduo as the poet or writer, gently nudges us: “Mystery deepens everyday/I yearn for the spoken truth/In art, poetry, music/Even in their surreal moments/there is a story behind them.”
And so the persona takes us further in this journey of poetry that is constantly in motion; that will never stop buzzing. There, in A Rower’s Song, in every poem, in every line, is everything the reader would want to know about the “candle city”. In this city, no one sleeps. Everyone is awake, not for the fear of some natural calamity or the fear of war, but to “create betel nut wars, peddler wars, lamb flap wars, second-hand clothes wars, settlement wars” and even “create traffic chaos.”
Sounds familiar? “And watching the dawn break”, continues the persona, “I have forgotten all this time [that] the candle city is their world.”
So to the “candle city” is devoted the first segment of this volume of poetry. In there, we learn of betelnut vendors, doing all they can to earn their keep. We learn of a young woman whose father, a tucker shop owner, wants her to become a lawyer but she cannot because her peers and the habits of the candle city divert her attention to other interests. We learn of a politician promising his voters so much just to become a total stranger to them the moment he wins the elections. We learn of music turned up full blast at a certain neighbourhood and the shouts and screams and cursing of the new generation of youth drowning that genre of cultural sensibilities. We learn of how much we earn each fortnight and how much we lose to income tax or “troubled youth who cannot sleep at nights”. Then, of course, we take a peek at our pay slip and lo and behold, all this, this becomes our life style in the candle city. “Every day after work/we go to the shop/we spend all we have to keep the house/our living is a borrowed one/the money we earn disappears/on the first day we are paid/our lives are sold to someone.”
Yet the persona does not merely take us on such a trip just to dump us if the weather gets rough. He rather assumes a new voice with the next poems that follow. Poems that lament, that instruct, that remind us of our sense of belonging, such as when we spare a thought for our betelnut vendor: “I wonder how you go home/every evening… to your family/do you count your day’s earnings first/or cook your meals before doing your accounting.” And above all, poems that give us direction in our search for destiny itself. One such poem is “Date with Destiny” and those familiar with the Waigani campus may recall the same poem that forms part of the mural art work leading to the students mess. But the best of these would be “Urban Natives” and “Glimmer of Hope” in which we learn, respectively, that “we brought the village to town/we are the urban natives/we will never return home” and “never mind the corruption debate/give the people a glimmer of hope/let the candles burn in the city.”
As a concluding remark on what it is that we must do for the candle city the persona suggests work. We must never stop working such as the poem “Scent of Jasmine” intones, when the persona stays up at night working and looking forward to when his children will wake up to a “new morning scent of jasmine”: “They sleep while I work/And listen to their breathing/I am thinking of them/Someday they will know/What I thought tonight/About their future in this world.”
The second segment of A Rower’s Song takes the reader to another level of poetic consciousness. This covers reflections on things observed during the poet’s travels overseas. What is significant here is Winduo’s experiences in meeting, knowing and working with poets from other cultures. Through Winduo, we see our persona, both as poet and scholar, re-living the thoughts, experiences and insights of great men of poetry such as T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Walt Whitman and Borges et al.
It is always an exciting experience for a Papua New Guinean to find himself at certain settings once walked upon by these great men of poetry. What was Walt Whitman thinking when he last visited this part of America, or Auden that college or university? Other literary figures the persona mentions include Langston Hughes and Mark Twain, and in this volume of poetry we feel certain affinities developing between the PNG poetic consciousness and the American one as “we walk on the same road twice/Or more, to be reawakened/To the slightest of ruffle, or/To the sudden awakening of the spirit/That brought me all the way here/And would take me all the way back.”
In all, A Rower’s Song becomes an important addition to Winduo’s checklist of publications, where the literary flame, like the savannah years of the University of PNG, will never stop dancing.
Students of literature and the general reader alike will find this volume invaluable. But for the enormous amount of influence that the author has within our region of the Pacific what better way to say of his work than to quote one of his fans from Kamehameha schools in Honolulu, Hawaii: “I would like to say that I enjoyed the subject of your poem the most, the dancer. Just the subject of this poem has so much emotion and vigorous feeling lying within the name itself. A dancer, a person who uses their body to express themselves is a wonderful way to embody the feelings being expressed. I derived passion, heat, envy, love, and energy from the lines of your poem. The line, “Finger tips of flames”, brings these emotions out to me through the personification of the flames being fingers that can reach out and touch people.”
Responses to this review: [email protected]