Poetry: “Piano and Drums” by Gabriel Okara
Here’s the poem:
Piano and Drums
When at break of day at a riverside
I hear the jungle drums telegraphing
the mystic rhythm, urgent, raw
like bleeding flesh, speaking of
primal youth and the beginning
I see the panther ready to pounce
the leopard snarling about to leap
and the hunters crouch with spears poised;
And my blood ripples, turns torrent,
topples the years and at once I’m
in my mother’s laps a suckling;
at once I’m walking simple
paths with no innovations,
rugged, fashioned with the naked
warmth of hurrying feet and groping hearts
in green leaves and wild flowers pulsing.
Then I hear a wailing piano
solo speaking of complex ways in
of far away lands
and new horizons with
coaxing diminuendo, counterpoint,
crescendo. But lost in the labyrinth
of its complexities, it ends in the middle
of a phrase at a daggerpoint.
And I lost in the morning mist
of an age at a riverside keep
wandering in the mystic rhythm
of jungle drums and the concerto.
Piano and Drums is quite clearly a poem about the cultural dichotomy of traditional and Western cultures in post-colonial Africa, but the raw emotion of the poem makes it an expression of confusion that anyone tied to more than one culture (which is a lot of people in this day and age of globalisation) can relate to. Even failing that, the imagery of the poem is powerful enough to express his confusion - we can almost feel Okara’s indecision seeping through the page.
Okara’s metaphors are simple but fitting: the drums represent traditional African life, while the piano represents the Western world. What I love so much about the writing in this poem is how his reaction to each “instrument” is portrayed. Both the first stanza (drums) and the third stanza (piano) are arranged in a similar way. There are essentially three parts to each one. First, we hear the sound of the instrument. In the case of the drums, it has a “mystic rhythm” that is “urgent” and “raw”. As for the piano, it is said to be “wailing” and “a tear-furrowed concerto” is being played. We get an impression that while it is seductive, it is far more complex and multi-layered. Next, we find what the music “speaks of”. The drums speak of primal life. The piano, on the other hand, speaks of “complex ways” and of “far away lands and new horizons”. Each stanza closes with his base reaction to hearing each instrument. The drums induce memories and images of hunting in a primal lifestyle, and the simple life with natural beauty surrounding him that he can lead in that culture. The piano, while seductive, turns it to be too complicated for itself.
The expression of those ideas only works on the level it does because of the way each line of the poem flows into the other. Although it appears simplistic, exposition is handled very well here, in a way that many authors of prose could learn from. As the poem begins, the drum beats recall in him the primal nature of traditional life as a hunter-gatherer. The placing of the word “telegraphing” here is interesting due to its difference from the rest of the diction in the stanza. It conveys to the reader a subtle feeling that Okara is no longer part of the beating of the drum; it is implied to be a kind of message - although it brings out raw and fresh emotion in him, it is telegraphed, not played in all its purity.
As the hunters stand poised to take action, Okara’s memory shifts from a situation of primal aggression to memories of his childhood. He revels in remembrance of being in his “mother’s laps a suckling”. Here there are “no innovations”; paths are shaped by the pulse of life in all its simplicity and glory.
However, his love of the drumming is not strong enough to prevent his distraction. In a mere moment, his focus is on the “wailing piano / solo”. The complexity of the piano is seductive; the “far away lands” and “new horizons” present a counterpoint to the simplicity of his reminiscing of traditional life – but its complexities reach a point where it stops abruptly, lost in itself.
It might sound at this point as if Okara has already made up his mind to follow the path of the drums, but he still finds himself lost. This confused me the first time I read the poem, but on re-reads it makes perfect sense. Despite the fact that the piano seems to crumble upon itself, he is still seduced by it – its arrest at a “daggerpoint” almost adds to its layered and complex nature, which is what attracted Okara to it in the first place.
The last stanza, seemingly calmer and more restful in its rhythm than the first three, feels to me as if fueled with raw, pure emotion. He is lost, wandering aimlessly as the music of the two instruments meld around him. Confusion surrounds him and, for the moment, he succumbs to it.
I always got the feeling that this poem was the kind that would be interpreted slightly differently by each reader. I also wonder whether I love it so much only because I can relate to it to a small extent. So, go on, leave a comment. Tell me what you think.