Notes by Sreekumar K
Kofi Awoonor’s poem The Sea Eats the Land at Home, using a string of concrete visual images, depicts the tragic picture of a people losing themselves and their belongings. It is possible that the poem has an allegorical slant too, since the poet does not say home on land but land at home. However, even without another layer of meaning, the poem is enjoyable for its objectified pathos and detached point of view and narration. The ocean is personified with its insensitive stubborn nature and destructive perseverance. The helplessness of the victims whose wails fall on deaf ears of men and gods adds to the tragic element of the poem.
Repetition is one of the techniques that the poet uses, not only to capture the nature of the sea and its waves but also to reiterate and reinforce the tragic element. More than thoughts, actual lines and phrases are repeated to provide the effect of the unending waves in an ocean. All waves are alike and different in their own way and so are these lines and phrases. Thus we have the title and then,
At home the sea is in the town,
The sea eats the land at home.
repeated twice, followed by
In the sea that eats the land at home
Eats the whole land at home.
Another repeated feature is the use of present participles which gives the poem an eternity and the theme an unfailing continuity. Words like running, collecting, sending, destroying, mourning, cooking, shivering, weeping, raging, struggling and lap-lapping together create the effect of a drama that gets enacted over and over. The use of falling intonation in several lines too adds to the effect of repetition.
The catastrophe being a geographical phenomenon makes it necessary for the poet to bank much on visual imagery. In the first stanza, the sea is more like a mischievous, playful animal that doesn’t know what to take away and what not to. So,
Running in and out of the cooking places,
Collecting the firewood from the hearths
And sending it back at night;
But the poet reiterates that the sea does eat the land and makes it sound like a slow and steady process. In the second stanza, things get a bit more serious as the loss the people suffer is irreparable and irrecoverable. Thus,
It came one day at the dead of night,
Destroying the cement walls,
And carried away the fowls,
The cooking-pots and the ladles,
and thus we know that the game is afoot.
As the depth of the tragedy increases in the third stanza its length and the details it provides are also more. It is in this stanza that the sea becomes demonic in nature and merciless in action. The poet uses Aku’s reaction to what happens more than what actually happens to create the tragic effect.
Her hands on her breasts,
Human life is pictured as uncertain and helpless with all the belief, trust and faith crumbling around her. Having lost everything for no reason of hers, she has no one and nothing to turn to for help.
Her ancestors have neglected her,
Her gods have deserted her,
The rhyme and the rhythm of these two lines make them look more like wails than a statement of facts. The poet uses the phrase ‘cold Sunday’ in the next line to emphasize this thought.
Following this, the poet gives an objective imagery-filled description of, or rather a commentary on, what happens on the sea shore. The images are concrete and recall our own memories of such occurrences.
Goats and fowls were struggling in the water,
The angry water of the cruel sea;
The lap-lapping of the bark water at the shore,
And above the sobs and the deep and low moans,
Was the eternal hum of the living sea.
With Adena’s story of the lost trinkets, the sea becomes an example of stubborn evil which needs no provocation or motive.
Finally we realize that the calamity was unstoppable when we hear the last line
Eats the whole land at home.
Thus, using a very simple language but fresh images, the poet has created a living picture of the sea taking away the very existence of people, leaving them dispossessed.
The sea comes first for things and then for people and ends up taking away the whole land. Reading an allegory in these lines we are reminded of how the poet’s own land Ghana, like several of the African countries, was a British colony for long. Several countries fought with each other to have monopoly over the trade on this land, devastating the country. Thus even though the poet keeps on saying ‘sea’, the land was appropriated by who came by the sea than by the sea itself. Thus the poem becomes an allegory of how the land was colonized and looted by the Europeans.
At the same time, such an interpretation is unnecessary for the poem to be considered remarkable. Focus should rather be on the people who suffered than the cause of their suffering. Being dispossessed is a universal issue which has become the theme of many works of art and literature. Such a theme expressed with such a felicity of expression using a concrete imagery is the strength of the poem.