A Man, an Axe, a Forest
“Man’s debt to man will be forever in arrears,” so wrote the New York Times literary critic William Du Bois in his 1948 review of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. Our debt to the artists that we love will be always in default, it would appear then. The artists- singers, novelists, sculptors, painters, and poets- that we love, how do we apprehend them? (And I’m playing on both senses of the word.) How do we understand and appreciate them? How do we capture their essence and a sense of whatever message they may be trying to pass on? How do we repay them?
For my part, we can only start to do something close to settling the account by a constant quest of the essence that they have, a regular, insistent questioning of what these artists present to us. Then and only then do we begin the process of apprehending. But there’s a fugitive aspect to the whole enterprise. For just when we believe we have them cornered and bagged, they escape our grasp and blend in with the forest and a mocking tail beckons us still. Perhaps that’s why we love these artists, because they’re so elusive. Sometimes we’re tempted to take the easy way out. They cease to be a quarry; instead we see them as the forest that gives them shelter. We’re stumped by the opacity of that mass of trees. We take an axe to the forest presented before us and we start hacking at the towering trees, thinking that this way we’ll finally bring light to the dark undergrowth. “You don’t hand a man an axe in a forest earmarked for farming,” so said Salia.
What if we tap around, in the dark, patiently trying to find our way into the light?
But isn’t that what they do as well, these artists that we frequent? They’re questioning. Always questioning. They repeat themselves in ingenious ways, hoping that taking a new direction would lead somewhere truthful and full of light and understanding. So I’ll come back to Salia Koroma, constantly, always questioning; not with an axe in the forest that he presents. With him I’ll be able to identify, even in my blind ignorance, a little bit of the Sierra Leonean landscape that he presents: a bamboo grove over a clear-running stream; a kolanut tree, an orange grove, an overgrown whetting/foundation stone, the remains of a round-house with its thatched roof caved in and overgrown, a termite-eaten mortar and pestle lying in the reclaiming forest, all a palimpsest of a once thriving village. With Salia as guide I’ll come across the people that made up/that make up the Sierra Leonean landscape: the deceitful, the cunning, the cruel and power-drunk, the envious, the lustful, the ambitious poor, the section chief playing paramount chief, the jealous husband, the much put-upon junior wife in a polygamous household…
Salia Koroma is a discovery for me; or perhaps I should say rightly that he’s a voyage of discovery. Discovery of new meanings. Discovery of new levels of meaning to what I think I already know. This is a an enterprise of appraisal. It’s a not a homage. An homage would mean my eyes will be too close to the ground to appreciate, to see. An homage presupposes an awe-stricken attitude. No genuflections here, my brother. No alo akbas here, my sister.