Author: S. Asamoah
Publication Date: July, 2020
Publisher: Lunaris Review
Sarpong Osei Asamoah’s “Sand” alludes to the Bible throughout the treatment of its subject in which the preordained intensifies the reasonable in the beginning when the poet throws at the reader, rather boldly, the fate of the sand from which everyone, according to the Bible, is created by God:
“Sand must go where sand belongs—
Into a man, into earth.”
The poet affirms his sound deliberation, in this allusive fecundity, because the implied reference is not only achieved in idea alone but also in the same simple but lofty language as that of his source, and quite an aspiration toward the Whitmanian spiritual assertiveness, although reversed in conviction as we have seen in one of Whitman’s grandest imaginative moments in his notebook entry about “Black Lucifer”: “I am the God of revolt—deathless, sorrowful, vast,” a declaration qualifying our Whitman the poet more than it does the fallen angel—both secularly and in his poetic reality.
“Sand,” for Whitman in the thirteenth section of “Starting from Paumanok,” is one of the entities that “…hold spiritual joys and afterwards loosen them” while he goes on to question, with an acerbic undertone, as opposed to the Asamoahian mode of scepticism to the same, the plausibility of the death of the body, not of its physicality, but of its being, its quintessence, in its equation with the real yet unperceivable soul: “How can the real body ever die and be buried?”
Sarpong, unaware of Whitman as a stronger source of his imaginative questioning, tries expounding the Whitmanian question to no avail other than to the limit of our imagination, of both poets included except for the Bible, whose mythological understanding of the world takes the oversimplified route, at least against the dialectic suggestiveness of the poets, of concluding the ultimate end of every worldly thing to be nothingness, oblivion, which is as destructive to the imagination as the imagining of the end itself.
The sibilant alliteration in the first line of “Sand” suggests something of poetic and historical interest: definitely a contempt toward the temptation Eve fell into when she was ‘beguiled’—in her own words to God when asked in the Book of Genesis 3:13 (KJV) “what is this that thou hast done?” —by the serpent to eat from the tree of the knowledge of evil and good which she later gave Adam the same fruit to eat. Initially, as Whitman understands, humans are deathless and comfortable, but after the first of the humans’ disobedience to God’s utmost decree, their expulsion from Eden is certain, which sees to the documentation of the materialisation of the divine warning in Genesis 2:17:
“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”
Asamoah achieves his allusive deliberation from Genesis 3:19 more than anywhere else in the Bible where God tells Adam and Eve their ultimate fate—a fate from which they can never escape; the divine creation ‘earth’ becomes the final home of the dead, and where the dead over time decomposes into the same ‘sand’ from which The First Man was once brought into existence:
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou has taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
In the second and third couplet of the twelve-line poem, Asamoah turns to historical, and certainly poetic, allusion once again upon which he can vividly represent the sense of the end, and ironically of eternity, to bring to our consciousness the biblically-influenced actuality of his absolute statement in the beginning of his poem:
“The king has lost his name,
And his sand torso gallops with desert.
Let Exodus mourn its Pharaoh.
Let Exodus mourn ruin.”
In 1816, Henry Salt, an Egyptologist and collector of antiquities, discovered the statue of Ramesses II from the Pharaoh’s family temple and shipped it to England. But Diodorus Siculus, an ancient Greek historian, has said something about the giant statue of Ozymandias, the Greek name of Ramesses II, which he describes as the largest in Egypt, and claims this inscription to have been written on the statue: “King of Kings Ozymandias am I. If any want to know how great I am and where I lie, let him outdo me in my work.” When the statue was discovered in the 19th century, what remains of it is just the head to the chest; the other parts are nowhere to be found, including the part on which the inscription is said to have been written. The popularity of this discovery by Salt in England is what moved Percy Bysshe Shelley to write one of the most famous sonnets in the long tradition of the form, a poem simply titled “Ozymandias.”
“Ozymandias” being the precursor poem, the second couplet of “Sand” is completely Shelleyan, although consciously so, in its personified intensity:
“The king has lost his name,
And his sand torso gallops with the desert.”
To Shelley, who did not see the statue before writing his sonnet, the statue’s “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/Stand in the desert.” By mentioning these parts which in truth have been swept away by the desert sands, both poets, Shelley and Asamoah, create a sense of subtle sardonicism toward the inscription which boasts of the king’s unparalleled greatness. Although in Shelley our conviction of Ozymandias being the Pharaoh of the Exodus is justified in his blunt, violent figuration of the king which suggests his historical tyranny which pragmatically is only heightened by the self-elevating inscription Diodorus once testified to:
“Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;”
But in “Sand,” the allusion of the Pharaoh of the Exodus is treated differently but independently since he [Asamoah’s Ramesses] too and his remains are nowhere to be found despite his pronounced power and achievements. Therefore, it is only the Book of Exodus, or its author to be more precise, that seems to know of this enigmatic figure. So, the Shelleyan ‘cold command’ significant of the Pharaoh in “Ozymandias” becomes a trope for the divine unquestionability and superiority, which is adroitly intensified and exposed by the biblically rooted word ‘let’—as in when God commanded: “Let there be Light,” and there was light. Therefore, to hear the voice of the poet in the fifth couplet will be a critical oversimplification:
“Let soil remember your reign,
Let height know ruin.”
Nothing short of personifications per excellence, this is God refreshing human memory or consciousness of the divine promise in the Book of Genesis with the lives of some of the near-immortal beings to have ever lived, as an example or experiment. Ozymandias, for example, in his time, reigned for approximately sixty-six years, outliving many of his children and wives, a reign which was uncommon in those times, and many of his contemporaries were moved to believe in his immortality, and perhaps divinity, too. The question asked in the fourth couplet, essentially Whitmanian more than Shelleyan, exudes sardonic intensity:
“Who will conquer Ramesses’ titan?
King of kings, O Ozymandias,”
The penultimate line echoes the first line word for word, and in a similar context because for an imagination that believes in the inevitability of the end of everything, the sand, common and bio-theologically relatable to human, in this case, is, more than anything else in nature, the perfect symbol of this end, at least according to the Bible. But something interesting and shocking happens when the poet becomes sceptical in the last line, something that cannot be registered for the line that followed the first where the sand is part and parcel of man, where sand is man’s ultimately inescapable fate: in the figuration of the king’s statuesque torso galloping with deserts.
The sand that ‘stretch[es] far away’ in Shelley’s “Ozymandias” after the decay of the giant statue which shows once again the little space human occupy in the world as compared to everything else God created, is what Asamoah, in his astuteness of figuration and allusion, writes in this poem against or in favour of. Although the imminence of death is established as much as the decomposition of the body to the soil, Conrad Aiken in his longest, most powerful poem “Preludes for Memnon,” gives a warmer representation of the same when he assimilates the earth to our last reminiscence, however theurgical his tone:
We are unworthy, father, to be remembered,
We are unworthy to be remembered, mother,
Remember us, O clods from whom we come—”
The last line of “Sand” is the heart of the poem in the sense that in its dealing with its rather delicate subject. It doesn’t treat it as dogma, despite the concept of death which no one can dare argue with, nor evade:
“Sand must go where sand belongs—
Maybe into eternity, maybe beneath our feet.”
Here, the Asamoahian scepticism paradoxically, and ironically, believes in the end of everyone, and the eternity of existence, of consciousness: that dying, as much as living, is certain, which is quite a Homerian cycle—endlessly recurring simultaneously. In the poet’s mind, as evident in the repetition of the doubtful word, “maybe,” the last residence of the dead—the biblical sand—must also have the sort of ending that it represents for human in mortality, somewhere the poet’s imagination could not possibly reach nor provide in its buoyant creativeness. Only then does he settle for the reasonable just like Homer in the Iliad, the beginning of the imaginative demonstration of human mortality as the archipoet assimilates the phenomenon with the process of nature in trees and leaves:
“…why ask of my generation?
As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the fine timber
Burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another
Book VI, lines 145–50, translated by Richmond Lattimore.
Asamoah’s authentic belief in the impermanence of life that stretches endlessly towards eternity, in both philosophical and realistic sense, is not absolute nor final in any critical sense although the aesthetic success of the poem lies in the poet’s apparent struggle to accept absolutely what he believes to be true. This paradoxical paradigm is prefigured, with realistic sorrow, in the beginning of Loba Ridwan’s “Spectrum” where the poet “[sees] eternity in two-folds” neither of which is an easy choice, at least in personal satisfaction:
“of living, of dying, of the dilemma
that visits the heart like a long-lost lover
who comes to apologize with roses
on valentine’s day, when loneliness
has taught you that you’re not enough
an organ for your horny skins.”
What makes “Sand” a powerful poem, a provocative reminder to us of how the world is formed and ordered from the beginning of time, is its accommodation of insufficient though appropriate allusions, and the mood of its troubled appreciation of the prophecy and phenomenon of mortality, older than the histories of the biblical creation—in that the Fall of Lucifer is a spiritual, or rather, a divine mortality in itself—and that of Ozymandias, the Egyptian self-proclaimed “King of Kings.” This poem, with a subject as complex as the end of everything which almost all of our greater poets have attempted to represent imaginatively, is too conscious of its boundaries, or limitations, if it has any, to fail.
An undergraduate student of English Language and Literature at University of Ibadan, and shortlisted for Alpine Fellowship Academic Writing Prize in 2020, Ancci (pronounced: /əntʃɪ/) is an aesthete, and literary critic. His work has appeared in Afapinen. You can reach him on Twitter @ThatAesthete and @thatesthete on Instagram. He goes by Arasi Kamolideen Oluwapelumi on Facebook should you want to say “hi.”