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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

The Cows of Shambat

Taban lo Liyong

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To purchase The Cows of Shambat

Title: The Cows of Shambat
Author: Taban lo Liyong
Genre: Poetry
Written: 1992
Length: 99 pages
Availability: The Cows of Shambat - US
The Cows of Shambat - UK
  • Sudanese Poems

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Our Assessment:

B : varied, uneven collection -- but always enough that is of interest

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
World Lit. Today B Summer/1994 Tanure Ojaide

  From the Reviews:
  • "Generally the poet's lexicon is close to prose and is not sufficiently imagistic. His language may be defended as attempting to reflect African orature, but there is too much of the speaking voice and no mediation with the poetic in images. Still, these are minor short-comings in an interesting collection. In The Cows of Shambat Taban lo Liyong speaks with a more mature and moderate voice than in his other poetry collections." - Tanure Ojaide, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Cows of Shambat is a collection of "Sudanese Poems" in nine movements. They include retold Sudanese stories, prosaic tongue-twisters, a dialogue (with "GrandPa Noah"), and even an epistolary "Open Letter".
       Taban doesn't go for the punctuation-less e e cummings style that dominates in Another Nigger Dead (see our review). He is willing to play with style and form (refreshingly so), but he doesn't go to quite the same extremes.
       In Underdevelopment - Again he sums up his poetic career:

Long have I burnt up candle and wasted ink
Entangled by and disentangling myself from
The theme of underdevelopment, underdeveloping
My poems by reducing them to abstractions and arguments
       Still, even recognizing this he can't quite leave polemic alone. But The Cows of Shambat offers a good mix of political and personal.
       There are the odd touches here. Lament For Younger Brother Born Too Late is almost nostalgic, suggesting that: "The major themes are already covered". It does offer, in its last lines, the suggestion that these times too are heroic, but the focus is on the past, on what has been done.
       The politics on offer in the collection are, as usual, fractious -- no more so than in An Open Letter To A Distant Friend, in which Taban seems again to have changed his mind about population control (cf. essays endorsing both sides of the debate in Another Last Word (see our review)). Here he goes so far as to suggest that, for example in war-racked Sudan "we need more people" -- essentially for cannon fodder:
With so many people dead and dying, do we need apostles of birth control ? Who will fight the third round ? Who will rebuild ? This had been the case over one hundred years ago. So we increase, and decrease. When we are strong, we fight. When we are few, we bide our time.
       This ridiculous combative stance is, of course, completely misguided. It is unfortunate that Taban offers not a word of criticism about warfare and violence, and that he does not acknowledge the damage that has been caused by warfare all over Africa (not least in the Sudan, where he taught when he wrote much of this collection). Instead he seems to relish it and consider it wholly natural.
       Fortunately, there is considerably more than this to this collection.
       It's not all grand poetry. Indeed, some of the wordplay is quite inept:
E. : This here land is called Inchalla
N. : Inch-alla ? Why is it called that ?
E. : Because we inch ourselves slowly by slowly -
       But some of the stories and arguments are decently done. More significantly, the collection benefits from the variety Taban offers: folkloric pieces, autobiographical musings, stark polemics. And there is a nice movement to the movements. It's not exactly symphonic, but there is nice flow and progression to the pieces here. The whole is more than the parts.
       It is an interesting enough collection. A few of the ideas stand out, and most of the writing is serviceable.

       Note: Amazon.co.uk lists this volume under "Children's Poetry". This is a collection with section-titles such as "Formulaistics" and "Circumspection" -- so we suggest Amazon.co.uk might want to be a bit more circumspect in their formulaistic categorizations. (I.e.: while this may be something the kids should be exposed to, it ain't children's poetry.)

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Reviews: Taban lo Liyong:
  • Q & A at the Daily Monitor
Other books by Taban lo Liyong under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books relating to Africa

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About the Author:

       Taban lo Liyong was born in Kajokaji, in the southern Sudan, in the late 1930s. He grew up in Uganda, and studied at National Teachers' College (Kampala), Howard University, and got an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa. He has taught at the universities of Nairobi, Papua New Guinea, Juba, and now at the University of Venda in South Africa. He is the author of numerous works of poetry and fiction.

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