A Review of My country, tonight

Dexter L. Booth
My country, tonight
Josué Guébo
translation by Todd Fredson
Notre Dame, IN: Action Books, 2016
121 pages. $12 (paperback)

My country, tonight refers to Josué Guébo’s home on the Ivory Coast, and while it reads as the title for the work in the book it also functions as the first line of what can be read as a book-length poem — there are no individual titles and no table of contents, an aesthetic choice common to African Francophone poetics — lending an immediacy to the title’s statement and giving it forward and backward momentum so that the reader is engaging with the poem even before they open its pages. As a stand-alone sentence the title invites readers to share in Guébo’s ruminations about the past and future fate of his homeland — perhaps invites is the wrong word, he might not be giving the reader a choice at all in the matter (the book’s cover features an illustration of a dour-faced Guébo, hands crossed under his chin, eyes searching). The tone of the title (and the majority of the works in the collection) implies a writer in deep turmoil; troubled by the trajectory of the Ivory Coast, needing to be unburdened, like a friend in a coffee shop telling you a story, hoping you’ll listen but telling it all the same even if you don’t. It is this unburdening, delivered as only poetry can, that makes Guébo’s account of his homeland’s subjugation such a powerful and important political statement. After listening and mulling it over, the attentive reader is left at the end to ask, what has become of my country?

From the start, My country, tonight calls attention to injustices committed against the African continent and its people, injustice contributed to by the United States. The reader is pulled into Guébo’s world “[T]hrough the open artery / Of the city,” a powerful refrain that is altered across the course of the book. This association of anatomy with place plays out as an extended metaphor — violence against Cote d’Ivoire is violence against the bodies of its citizens, whether that violence come in the form of the assassination of political leaders, draining of the land’s oil, or “Two bombs / Somewhere / On a hospital / A classroom.” The city’s veins spurt both oil and wine.

There is much to be said about the history of the Ivory Coast and the politics that guide these poems, and Todd Fredson does a lovely job dictating the necessary background in his introduction. Yet, even without the translator’s notes Guébo’s expression of the results of that history paint in vivid, stark language a poetry of witness, what Carolyn Forché in her introduction to Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993) terms “the social,” the space between the political and the personal. Guébo’s relationship to his home is indeed both political and personal. When the French bring tanks from the Prague Spring across a bridge into Tchaman they “… shock the heart / Of Abidjan.” Guébo’s world is one of deep history and violence, and his indignation towards the West should come as no surprise. In speaking of the US and UN he states:

Tossing its scarf

Promise of deep drilling

Amid the informants

Their carnival of scandals

[…] dampens

My most slender


In the world’s Trusts.

This distrust, often manifested as ire, is a driving force in the book, and Guébo is not shy about his feelings that the United States and the UN are “Drowning the April Fool’s pledge / Of good old universal equality.” Bringing into question issues surrounding globalization, Guébo assesses the United States and UN entanglement with Ivorian political affairs, their taking of cacao and oil, their destruction of the land and displacement of its people for financial profit, and asks, “Detention / Deportation? / Where is the slightest ounce / Of Justice?” Perhaps justice is blood squeezed from a stone.

In his introduction Fredson calls attention the importance of silence in Guébo’s work, noting that the collection is constructed of vanished voices, particularly highlighting “African independence leaders who were assassinated with the support of or directly by the European and US governments.” If silence is a kind of death then My country, tonight is a shouting affirmation of life. Taking up the mantle of revolutionaries before him, Guébo’s book even further manifests “the social,” defined in detail by Forché as “a place of resistance and struggle,” where protest is disseminated. “It is the sphere in which claims against the political order are made in the name of justice.” Though not openly quoted, the DNA of these independence leaders, their resistance and struggle, is all over this book. In his angry pleas for freedom Guébo revives the voices of Thomas Sankara, Patrice Émery Lumumba, and Toussaint Louverture, military leaders and revolutionaries assassinated or killed with U.S. involvement. He asserts that


Won’t die

He won’t die

In the heart

Of my voice

He won’t die in the blood

Of my faith

Guébo harnesses these leaders and their mission and encourages his people that they “… are the fist / Made from all the pain / Of trampled centuries / Standing in the pubescent field / Of Truth.”

James Baldwin once suggested that poets are the only ones who know the truth. He also claimed that something terrible happens when a society ceases to produce poets, but worse, when we stop believing in the report that only poets can make. Guébo knows the truth and we’d be foolish not to believe in the report he makes. Where social media and news outlets have failed the poem always seems to succeed, to remind us of who we are and what we encounter and live through.

As we work to accept our own bloody histories, both on a micro and macro level, further questioning our place as citizens, a number of the book’s themes seem resonant and reflective of recent events here in the US. Guébo grapples heavily with reconciling the effects of the Atlantic slave trade. When contemplating Gorée (a former slave port on the coast of Senegal) he states that it “… will become / A place of worship / Only by the measure / Of [his] caesura / At last sewn shut.” Popularized as the home of The House of Slaves, a museum and memorial, Gorée has become a tourist attraction, a historical monument. It is a reminder that “Brother still sells brother.” It’s difficult to read this today and not see shades of recent events in Charlottesville, but Guébo’s work is not about Charlottesville, it is about loving one’s country, about rebellion and resistance. We are all wrestling with the issue of memorialization. What should we commemorate and how? Why? Why should we commemorate? As Forché notes, we are fortunate in North America — war is fought in far away countries, bombs dropped on schools are an abstraction, simply a thing we encounter on the news or via social media, we accept or own pain but ignore the pain of our neighbors, we don’t live under tyranny. My country, tonight is a book that feels achingly intimate and simultaneously expansive in its questioning and its arrival in America couldn’t be more timely; while Guébo’s topic is becoming ever more universal, the greatest gift he gives to readers in the West is the reminder that the whole world is hurting and everyone hunting for an identity. Perhaps identity is found outside of the self, where empathy is built.

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