Rukhaya M.K

A Literary Companion

Poetry Analysis: Gabriel Okara’s “Mystic Drum”

The drum in African poetry, generally stands for the spiritual pulse of traditional African life. The poet asserts that first, as the drum beat inside him, fishes danced in the rivers and men and women danced on the land to the rhythm of the drum. But standing behind the tree, there stood an outsider who smiled with an air of indifference at the richness of their culture. However, the drum still continued to beat rippling the air with quickened tempo compelling the dead to dance and sing with their shadows. The ancestral glory overpowers other considerations. So powerful is the mystic drum, that it brings back even the dead alive. The rhythm of the drum is the aching for an ideal Nigerian State of harmony.

The outsider still continued to smile at the culture from the distance. The outsider stands for Western Imperialism that has looked down upon anything Eastern, non-Western, alien and therefore, ‘incomprehensible for their own good’ as ‘The Other’. The African culture is so much in tune with nature that the mystic drum invokes the sun, the moon, the river gods and the trees began to dance. The gap finally gets bridged between humanity and nature, the animal world and human world, the hydrosphere and lithosphere that fishes turned men, and men became fishes. But later as the mystic drum stopped beating, men became men, and fishes became fishes. Life now became dry, logical and mechanical thanks to Western Scientific Imperialism and everything found its place. Leaves started sprouting on the woman; she started to flourish on the land. Gradually her roots struck the ground. Spreading a kind of parched rationalism, smoke issued from her lips and her lips parted in smile. The term ’smoke’ is also suggestive of the pollution caused by industrialization, and also the clouding of morals.. Ultimately, the speaker was left in ‘belching darkness’, completely cut off from the heart of his culture, and he packed off the mystic drum not to beat loudly anymore. The ‘belching darkness” alludes to the futility and hollowness of the imposed existence.

The outsider, at first, only has an objective role standing behind a tree. Eventually, she intrudes and tries to weave their spiritual life. The ‘leaves around her waist’ are very much suggestive of Eve who adorned the same after losing her innocence. Leaves stop growing on the trees but only sprout on her head signifying ‘deforestation.” The refrain reminds us again and again, that this Eve turns out to be the eve of Nigerian damnation.

Okara mentions in one of his interviews that “The Mystic Drum” is essentially a love poem:

“This was a lady I loved. And she coyly was not responding directly, but I adored her. Her demeanor seemed to mask her true feelings; at a distance, she seemed adoring, however, on coming closer, she was, after all, not what she seemed.”

This lady may stand as an emblem that represents the lure of Western life; how it seemed appealing at first but later came across as distasteful to the poet.

© Rukhaya MK 2010

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1 Comment

  1. Your notes are extremely brilliant. Thank you so much for posting

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