The Flame an Upright Leaf

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Grappling with the problems of an adolescent entering adulthood in a society skewed by violence and oppression, Adam Foulds’ narrative poem is an intellectual, visual, and sensual triumph.

The Broken Word is a breathtaking, precise, beautiful, gruesome, coming of age story set during the Mau Mau revolution, with the storytelling power of the best novels. The sickness of colonialism. The totality of certain bigotries. The hypocrisy of occupier supplied Christianity. The effects of war on the soldier. There is a vibrant density to the work that reminds me of Heart of Darkness and Waiting for the Barbarians. Grappling with the problems of an adolescent entering adulthood in a society skewed by violence and oppression, Adam Foulds’ narrative poem is an intellectual, visual, and sensual triumph.

The poem opens “Compact glare of a match flame in daylight// and the waiter’s dark hand still/as an ornament, the flame an upright leaf/ tending to Jenkins as he sucked his cigarette alight,/ because the train had slowed.” Whether it is lighting a cigarette, putting one out, or the aftermath of an execution, Foulds’ images are as complex and well-composed as great paintings, telling a coherent story while speaking to abstractions in our imaginations. “Jenkins held his cigarette down/ into the ashtray until it was out/ the last smoke crawling up his hand, into his sleeve,” and “he’d have to clean with bucket and sponge/ each wet red gust/ from the station wall.”

Much of the power of these images comes from their almost taxonomical precision. A gas light through a wet window is a “blue daisy of gas flame.” The sounds of pistol practice in the distance are “…faint dry thwacks,/ a fly butting against a window pane.” The upright leaf, the fly against the window, the blue daisy; these exact images are like land mines in a field and the surprising phrases, like “wet red gust,” set them off. And sometimes it does feel like something has been blown off: “Three weeks later two of the men came back,/ worldless and unsteady, heavily edited. Between them:/ nine fingers, two ears, three eyes, no testicles./ No good to anyone, they were let out/ to wander briefly as mayflies/ and die as a warning.”

The structure of verse, with its lines and stanzas, creates a pacing to the story; a natural and significant momentum, that lets the reader feel unrelated events and experiences; a momentum most prose is incapable of creating. Furthermore, in prose, we expect certain events. If we meet a character who is not a soldier, and then see the character as a soldier later, we want to know the how and why of enlisting. But we don’t expect the same kind of phenomenal rigor in poetry. Jenkins does not have to get off the train. Tom does not have to sail back to England. The conclusion of the Mau Mau revolution does not need to be communicated. This imbues the events and images included with an extra resonance, because we know they were included for reasons beyond getting a character from one significant place to another. Foulds’ leverages this selection, along with the imagery and other poetic techniques, to make The Broken Word a powerful story as well as a powerful poem.

Beneath the story of revolution and colonialism is a traditional, almost mundane, coming of age story. The usual events in a bildungsroman are here, but skewed by the violent society. Tom returns from school to his family’s plantation during the Mau Mau revolution. His first adult act is to hunt and kill rebels; “So Tom’s father offered Tom,/ offered him up/ with an awkward shove/ as men offer their sons/ out into the world.” His first experience with sex is when a compatriot on the hunt rapes a native woman in the bushes. He has the same exuberance and folly of all adolescents, but they manifest while he beats a prisoner; “He swung and swung/ across the breaking stave of the man’s forearm and collar bone/ until it seemed the prisoner shivered/ and gradually fell asleep,/ but Tom, Tom had too much energy and carried on.” In a different circumstance, Tom would have come of age as nearly everyone does, and that might be Foulds’ point.

The revolution follows Tom back to England and university. He has a recurring nightmare in which he beats his tutor to death. While on a date with Eleanor, they see two drunks in a harmless fight, “not even a drop of blood,/ all their insides inside,” and Eleanor is concerned. Tom, “Light-headed, made fond/ by her ignorant concern,/ he started to boast./ If you want to see them hurt,/ I know how to make them suffer.” The first chance he gets, he forces himself on Eleanor, though she is able to arrest his ardor before something irreparable happens. And after that incident, he loses sleep to the point of illness. Tom may have left Kenya, but the process of becoming an adult in war, has taken something from him that cannot be replaced, and that void torments him.

All of which makes the ending totally baffling; baffling in that provocative and exciting way great literature is capable of, baffling in the, “Wait, did she just throw herself in front of a train,” way. When Tom finally apologizes to Eleanor for his behavior, she doesn’t just accept his apology, she says, “You sound surprised. Look,/ it’s just, well, if you want/ things to…progress, usually/ young men start looking,/ you know, do I have to/ spell it out? In jewellers’ windows.” Their previous interaction was borderline sexual assault. Tom is clearly suffering from his past and they haven’t talked about his time in Africa. Eleanor is ready to marry him after a few dates. Does she just want to get laid? What can we hope for their marriage? What does this ending do to all that has preceded? What kind of story, exactly, have we just read?

One of the universal themes of literature is the tension between words and phenomena; the gap between what happened and how we tell others what happened. Because of it, all real literature should have unanswered questions; lingering mysteries, that make the reader responsible for the next idea. We write both about that gap and in the hope of closing it. With war writing, there is the persistent, unspoken hope that if we narrow that gap enough, if the right words are written, if we fix the experiences of war and oppression in the perfect line, we’ll finally be able to stop ourselves. Whether that hope is productive and whether Foulds writes with that hope or not, The Broken Word narrows that gap as much as anything I’ve read, making it one of the triumphs of recent literature.

Josh Cook is a bookseller at Porter Square Books, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who grew up in Lewiston, Maine. His fiction, criticism, and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and journals. He blogs for Porter Square Books, and at In Order of Importance, and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. An Exaggerated Murder his first novel. More from this author →