On the edge of eternity: Book delves into plight of soldiers

The cover of ‘Echoes of Military Souls’ by Jerusha Kananu.

The cover of ‘Echoes of Military Souls’ by Jerusha Kananu.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • ‘Echoes of Military Souls’ by Jerusha Kananu deals with themes of love, betrayal, loss and death.

‘I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, where, and I said, to be with the Good Lord, and you said, why, and I said, because I’m old, and you said, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, you aren't very old, as if that settled it.

I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life.

And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, don't laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother's.

It's a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I'm always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I've suffered one of those looks.

I will miss them. It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything,” so wrote Marilynne Robinson in her novel, Gilead.

These are words of a character who is an old preacher who has just discovered he is dying—his life slipping away the way a balloon’s string slips from a child’s fist. He is at the penultimate episode of the biggest drama of his life—just before the end of it.

As the old preacher wrestles with his impending death and what won’t be, it brings to mind Kenya’s latest poetry book, titled Echoes of Military Souls, by Jerusha Kananu, launched in Nairobi on August 24, 2023.

The anthology of poems that just won the Afrika Redefined Indie Book Prize deals with themes centred on the military: love, betrayal, loss and death. It has been said that “a true homeland is a country that can kill you”.

This is literally true for the military and this book places death squarely at the centre of war. It’s a familiar, heartbreaking tale: a gruff soldier roars off on a fiery trajectory to the front line and never returns to his family.

The poetry collection’s opening conjures a paradise lost in the poem titled, “The Promise” with the words: “This dark grave is still silent/Even with the fresh flowers I brought/ How have you been my soldier?/… I miss you my darling.

Norman, our son came along/Now a grown man/You have been gone so long... Mother is growing old too fast/She bleeds inside/... She dreams louder at night/Calls your late father/...”.

A wife smell—a smell of the past—remembering the rustle of his husband’s army uniform and the thud of his army boots. There could have been the short breath of a parenthesis, a pause, a certain tremor in her psyche, something deep.

There was something fragile just below the surface. Haunted by a world left behind, completely bereft, there may have been specs of glitter caught in the illusion of the light that shimmered, iridescent.

Like a string pulled taut and choking on tears, the smell of lilac may have awakened the widow’s memories emerging from the evening mist, some frozen in time and others receding in the distance. In the many faces she sees every day, there is the conspicuous absence of one.

Kananu uses a narrative approach in poetry that clearly tells a story in each poem. And each poem swells with the metaphor of loss—language struggling to carry the weight of loss.

There is the dead soldier in “his resting place” where there is the “silence of the tabernacle”. In another poem titled “Biting Betrayal”, “Two soldiers left for the war, leaving their betrothed in the cold”.

Operation Linda Nchi

Probably recalling “Operation Linda Nchi,” the October 14, 2011 military incursion when Kenyan troops went to Somalia to pursue Al-Shabaab terrorists, in the poem titled “Reminiscing Billy,” Kananu writes, “After your return to Mogadishu/You called at midnight/….your voice clipped”.

Kenya’s war in Somalia has been the source of much concern and pain in many military families. There have been risky missions by Kenya Defence Forces like “Operation Sledgehammer”, the daring amphibious assault on the port of Kismayu on September 28, 2012. The soldiers landed on the edge of eternity as they wrestled the port out of the hands of Al-Shabaab.

What is unique about Kananu’s collection is that it wholly focuses on the plight of military officers and their families. In every mission, whether within the country, in Mogadishu or elsewhere, Kenya’s military has landed on the edge of eternity—risking life and limb to defend our country. Sometimes they return home and some other times, they cross over to eternity. Kananu has given soldiers a perfect, poetic salute. We all join in that salute.

- The writer is a book publisher based in Nairobi. [email protected]