Beware Soul Brother is a collection of 30 poems written by the renowned Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe. He first published this collection in 1971 in Okiki, a Nigerian journal that he edited after the war ended. Achebe wrote the majority of these poems between the years of 1968 and 1971. This was a painful and bitter time for his homeland. The Nigerian/Biafran War raged in the country from 1967 until 1970. During this time Achebe did not devote much time to writing novels, but used his poetry as a means of coping with the devastation he was feeling for his country. Nearly one third of the poems in Beware… speak directly of the war. Though this collection of poems is both accessible and so brief that the entire volume can be read in less than 90 minutes, the images it conjures to the mind last much longer. Achebe possesses the talent of writing poetry that is eloquent to the point of beautiful, while not being the least bit sugar coated. In his section on war poems we read of mothers who can no longer give suck, children whose faces are reduced to skulls (Refugee Mother and Child), and a Christmas where a mother cannot immediately discern whether her young son is still living or has died (Christmas in Biafra).
Achebe writes his poems in a style of brevity and clarity that adds to their potency. For instance, his poem *Air Raid depicts the war from a civilian’s perspective. It has a total of ten lines, two stanzas, and only contains words that are utilized in everyday speech. Yet the accessibility of its style, the melodic way that the words are strung together, and the vivid and methodical images that it gives the readers, make us feel uncomfortably close to the war. The first stanza describes a civilian’s reaction to the war, which he call “the bird of death” and the next stanza depicts a pedestrian watching his friend get “cut in half” before having time to cross the street to greet him. This tragic image reveals how death was literally descending on the citizens from the sky and imposing itself on their everyday lives. This poem is not devoid of dark humor either. As the pedestrian observed, his dead friend “has other worries now than a friendly handshake”.
Like I said above, only a third of the poems in this collection are specifically war centered. There are also poems about lovers, and a poem about comparing the relationship of two lovers to the sun and the moon (Love Cycle). Many of Achebe’s poems depict aspects of Nigerian culture. For example, in one of his more humorous poems (Misunderstanding), the narrator’s character tries to use the Igbo’s belief in the duality of things to justify his actions to his wife who has caught him having an affair.
In brief, I recommend reading this book in its entirety. It will take you less than 90 minutes and you will gain new insight into the Biafran war and Igbo culture and will feel a whole range of emotions in a very short time frame.
* Air Raid
It comes so quickly
the bird of death
from evil forests of Soviet technology
A man crossing the road
to greet a friend
is much too slow.
his friend cut in halves
has other worries now than a friendly handshake