The tyrant’s sickest triumph is to make his subjects watchful. The landscape of Nick Makoha’s first collection – an abstracted, mythologised yet sometimes bitingly concrete version of Amin’s Uganda – has been scarred by tyranny, to the extent that it adopts the vigilant gaze of its population. ‘The stones on the riverbank have seen you’, announces the first line of ‘A Crocodile Eats the Sun’: ‘A praying mantis skating along blue mud / knows your secret.’ These might be ironically deflected internalisations, but the point is serious: if you can get rivers and insect life to do your surveillance then martial law becomes superfluous, almost, and self-sustaining. Watchmen are important characters in Kingdom of Gravity, taking their place alongside informers and collaborators in the network of acolytes who make a violent world go round. ‘Watchmen’ intimates the allure of life on the right side of the tyrant’s law. A ringleader (‘the one who Gaddafi knew’) ‘picks up a sheep in the soft grass and tears it apart by the ribs’. His followers lean into the spectacle:
By now all the herders and huntsmen have a gleam in their eyes
and have stripped down. All their sighs are of victory.
I am one of them, my hand carrying coals to set up fires.
But spectacle is by its nature open to interpretation, and watchfulness can quickly turn to paranoia, seeking meaning where there might be none. The men pass round the sheep’s heart:
Those who could see better than hear,
read too much into the gesture.
Some of them let off a few rounds,
using whatever their palms and feet could find as drums.
In a world of danger and shifting circumstances, sight has to compensate for failures in hearing. Hearing is a vulnerable sense, perhaps too close in a warzone to its empathetic relative, listening. Seeing, on the other hand, is summary and acquisitive. It scans the horizon, makes a snap judgement, and fires off ‘a few rounds’ to be sure.
The ‘I’ that strafes through this collection mutates with the settings, striking notes of complicity in one moment (‘I am one of them’) and condemnation the next. More often than not it is trying to elude notice for just long enough to slip through the net, though its wariness competes with the panoptic vigilance of the authorities. This tension creates the hyperrealities and suspense sequences of an action film that the speaker can’t help but enjoy slightly, as if from outside: ‘My body is the protagonist watched by soldiers / in patrol cars’ (‘At Gunpoint’). ‘Drive-In’ embellishes the conceit, providing ‘Plot’ and ‘Scene’ stanzas followed by a commentary in which the speaker positions himself as ‘the voyeur trying to fit the images to the frame’. To be a voyeur of one’s own life is a peculiar type of dissociation, or shame, and other poems suggest that this divided self might originate in a form of survivor’s guilt. ‘Stone’ articulates the relief of fleeing your home country, though the corruption required to engineer this escape contaminates the happy ending, stranding the speaker in an arrested memory that they can’t abscond from as easily as a nation’s borders:
The best thing I did was
move my body from one side of the world
to the other. This required a visa,
which required a bribe.
Kingdom of Gravity bears the exhausting weight of that chain of consequence in every line. However far the speaker strays from his plundered homeland – his ‘cracked republic’, in the words of ‘At Gunpoint’ – its essential gravity pulls him back into familiar violence, familiar kickbacks, familiar traumas. It is one of the collection’s many virtues that it doesn’t allow us the redemptive enjoyment of knowing that this person escapes at all, even though the pacing and the narrative voice imply that he is speaking, at some level, from the other side of exile – the safer side, if not necessarily the happier side. A sequence of short lyrics named after international airport codes divides the collection into loose, untitled sections that give the impression of constant migratory pressure. Airport scenes turn into showdowns as confrontational as those encountered on roadsides in Uganda, with border security reproducing the minatory role of the dictator’s watchmen:
In the terminal my ears are popping
when the immigration officer steps from his desk,
with my mother’s passport in hand and asks me,
just like you did, Tell me that story again.
(‘The Self (1979)’)
The immigration officer isn’t really ‘asking’, of course, just as he doesn’t really care to hear the speaker’s story. For the vulnerable migrant subject, stories get hollowed out into precarious charms used to win survival, or admittance to a new tyrant’s home.
In a collection that is often so watchful and considered in its effects, it can be disconcerting to encounter language that tells too much. Sometimes narrative slackness enters as a consequence of trying too hard to decode the surreal texture of life under tyranny:
The scratchy radio broadcasts tells him that the Romans –
code word for rebels – are gathering by the Empire
(you guessed it – Lake Victoria).
But at other points it crops up unbidden, through an excess of imagery. Similes abound, fleshing out in negative a more innocent and tantalisingly available world, though sometimes they crowd one another out or fail to earn their place. When bodies disappear, is it commensurate to say that they are ‘discarded like the husk of mangos’ (‘Beatitude’)? Is sexual violence condemned or rendered picturesque by the image of ‘Rebels kneading your breast / like posho in their palms’ (‘Resurrection Man’)? The voice bites down with the greatest authority when it is relatively hardboiled and restrained, picking out brilliantly sufficient concrete details:
I’m reeling in weighted jerry cans full of antibiotics, rice, oil and salt…
Two men who have never had a country of their own
fall out over a girl in a bar. In place of war they pull off their shirts,
lunatics in an embrace, as a barmaid fills my glass with local ale.
In the second example, Makoha telescopes an entire colonial history into that relative clause between the subject of the sentence (‘Two men’, who could have walked into that bar out of any lame joke anywhere in the world) and its predicate, exposing both the humdrum pity of this fight and how it emerges from a context of entitlement and empire. Kingdom of Gravity balances these two scales of critique with journalistic clarity and poetic compression. The tyrant is denounced for his opportunism and thuggery, but we’re never allowed to forget what enabled him. You have to stay watchful to unravel the threads of this murderous, tangled history.