Ant Heald reviews Homelands by Eric Ngalle Charles, a debut which draws on Charles’ early life raised by the matriarchs of Cameroon, being sent to Moscow by human traffickers, and finding a new home in Wales.
Eric Ngalle Charles’ debut collection, Homelands is divided into three sections: Cameroon, Displacements and Cymru. The sequence of poems loosely follows the migrant journey he recounted in his celebrated memoir I, Eric Ngalle (Parthian, 2019), but Charles’ poetry allows him to integrate and amplify the psychological and spiritual interplay of peoples, places and cultures in a way that linear prose narrative cannot.
The opening section, Cameroon, contains several short lyrical vignettes of a largely happy childhood, focussed on his mother to whom the book is dedicated, and who gives the title, Iya, mother of many children to one of the poems, yet the preceding poem Child’s Eyes hints at the restlessness that would take young Eric across continents: “For now, we will make / airplanes with mango leaves”. This first section culminates in two longer poems which include the only explicit references to the problematic father who, in Small Black Box emerges, in picture form, from a box of coloured pencils under his mother’s bed: “That was the first time I met / my father, after thirty-seven years”, then in a lyrical evocation, dedicated to his sister, of the natural beauty and wonder of their childhood, both the title and final lines tell us If Heaven Is Her Father’s Land, Her Father Can Keep It.” Images of heaven and hell, gods and demons, haunt the collection, but are present just as much in the physical places and people Charles encounters, as they are in spiritual or mental experience.
The central section, Displacements, offers far more than just a ‘transition’ between Homelands, and its variety of subject matter and unity of symbolic material acts as a sinuous ‘spine’ that connects the sections that surround it, providing coherence and articulation to poetry of diverse shape and form. The first poem of the section, Bones, begins and ends with the same lines: “A distorted civilization, / is buried here / … Can’t you see the bones?” Indeed, bones — buried, fractured and dislocated — are scattered throughout this section. The ‘distorted civilisation’ is that of his grandparents’ generation, waiting under “equatorial sun” to sing “anthems to foreign kings / and their queens.” The ‘displacements’ then are colonial and geographical, but also cultural and emotional, and the collection as a whole is an exercise in excavation: Charles as a poetic archaeologist, uncovering the fragmented bones of memory and history, piecing them together, and clothing them in the flesh of transitory experience, lived and processed in a range of places and languages.
Other references to bones in this section include “bones of famous Ekulekule”, the wise tortoise of Bakweri myth, eaten by elites sitting “at mahogany tables swallowing/Kentucky fried chicken, French beef stew / Boulangerie” in a linguistic and cultural mélange that is typical of the collection, mixing history and mythology, the transient and the transcendental.
And then there are the bones of Charles’s own body, displaced by people traffickers to Russia, where, in For Natalia, he tells us, “I was not destined to leave my bones on / the snow-filled terrains of Vladivostock.” This is a tender poem of longing and regret, but also of hope and, above all, love. It speaks of a love that “carried / my spirit home, when I was eating leftovers / from my mother’s dirty pots” referring back to the loving but often difficult childhood in Cameroon that was explored in the collection’s first section. But it is surely no coincidence that love emerges in this poem from one of the “Old Russion Ballads, / that filled me with hope so I could not give up / ‘Я вас любил: любовь ещё, быть может’ / I loved you, this love can be again.” The quotation is from Alexander Pushkin, whose great grandfather was a black African probably born in what is now Cameroon. The racial memory of Charles’s ancestral origins meets the culture of mother Russia in an ambiguous liminal space between ‘homelands’ in which “Memories are my hiding place, dreams / of hell and heaven intertwine, from here, / I saw the green fields of my distant home.”
Those green fields could equally be those of the first section’s Tea Pluckers where “When it rains, / they pluck, / when sun comes, / they pluck, / from early dawn / to dusk / for pittance, / our mothers”, or of the final section’s Cymru, who “dresses like a sweet-scented GARDEN: / her smile polite, her speech like morning dew / kissing Mother Earth, drip by drip, aroma of fresh / cut grass”
This final section also allows Charles to explore his adopted homeland of Cymru, yes, with gratitude and lyricism, but also with humour and steely-eyed realism. In Bus 18 to Ely he encounters the casual racism of “You have funny accent… so, where you from then, mate” that forces reflection on origins and belonging: “How long must one stay in a place to become it?” An answer, of sorts, is given towards the end of the poem where, getting off the bus, “just off / Grand Avenue, I said / “‘Thank you, drive.’” Yet, acquisition of local language and idiom is only part of a place becoming ones ‘homeland’, and it is striking that throughout this section, Wales is a setting for dreams, memories and reflections of other remembered and imagined ‘homes’’; for example the titular poem Homeland returns to the Congo basin: “Mokele mbembe, river deity, you alone know / where our dreams have gone / why we wander.”
This collection shows that Wales has acquired, for now at least, a rich and important talent, but one that reminds us that tethering the spirit to one place only can be limiting. In the ‘Displacements’ section, the poem Merci Pour Ton Coeur celebrates a friend, Abdel, who has muscular dystrophy so that “Daily/ your crippling bones glued you to a / wheelchair” yet, surrounded by desert sands, “Swallows of Cymru greeted you, / a kiss on your cheek.” The collection ends with those same swallows in Zugunruhe (a word referring to ‘the experience of migratory restlessness’) that speaks, finally, of “swallows like Cold War spies / peeping through rock cracks / waiting for departure.”
We can hope that this promising debut collection is not the last that Cymru sees as ‘homeland’ to Eric Ngalle Charles, but whatever his next departure, I for one, will be watching for it, like waiting for the swallows of summer.
Homelands by Eric Ngalle Charles is available via Seren Books.