Cianga's poetry chapbook 'Congo, seen from heaven'

  • by Laura Moreno
  • Tuesday March 26, 2024
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Author Cianga
Author Cianga

The new poetry collection by Cianga, "Congo, seen from the heavens," contains 18 intriguing poems, including highly innovative poetry forms. This chapbook delivers dramatic, exhilarating, tragic, sardonic, but always creative. Based in California, Cianga is currently an MFA candidate. Their work has been published in Foglifter Journal, Rappahannock Review, and EcoTheo Review.

The title poem of "Congo" is an ode of sorts to the rat who was the first resident of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) to travel in outer space: "from the troposphere, every human is a rodent."

'l'enfant de la republique, 2018,' one of Cianga's drawings  

Be forewarned, however; the subject matter is heavy. The poems reflect the brutalities of Congo's almost constant state of war since the Belgians barbarously enslaved its people, committing endless atrocities while the world averted its eyes. With 105 million people (down from 112 million), it is the largest French-speaking nation.

The 24-hour news ignores Africa, where between 1998 and 2003, there were 5.4 million deaths and untold "forced disappearances." We scarcely heard a word about it.

With this inhuman backdrop, war and the warped mentalities it leaves in its wake figure prominently in this groundbreaking book.

War is the most racist thing possible. In the poem "the good soil we own(ed)," we see the point of view of an avenger against a man guilty of no crime other than living in Congo while white, a hard-working man browned by the sun, a mere "2 shades lighter."

Intent on murder amid pleas and wails, there is a sudden realization that reality does not fit the narrative that skin color determines who the colonizer is. Plan averted. Numb. "unloving, unhating." The reality just didn't fit.

The cleverly-named poem, "hemo/phobia" is beautiful, with a telling reference to Genesis, one of my favorite books in the Bible. Cain's jealous rage. The soil soaked in blood, still, as Ciara writes:

"when this land forgives
as one would welcome death,
no corpse alives themselves home.
then all our blood,
vengeful platelets clotting graves—
where does it go?"

At times, the language conceals. One of the last poems, "running to[ward]," feels different from all previous poems. It works up to an apology, but the subject matter remains opaque. Like an abstract painting, beautifully constructed:


Of particular interest is "the monolith: a psalm." It conveys spoken word performance art with Congolese drum (Ngoma), annotated as a simple musical score. Rich and full of meaning, but instead of a sacred psalm of praise, this sacred poem is a glimpse into want so cruel it distorts the mind.

Author D'mani Thomas said of this collection, "In between moments that some might call a graveyard, are reminders of triumph. The difficulty in finding joy, or a joy adjacent, can feel impossible at times. It's hard to find the words to accurately describe the space this collection occupies when this collection takes the reader so, so many places: To space and beyond. It is a privilege to have read these poems, and an honor to witness them enter the world."

Cianga is one of two inaugural winners of the 2023 Evaristo Prize for African Poetry. The awards committee noted "an arresting economy and density of language" in the poetry, "and an ear for the multiple directions in which a single word can gyrate."

Excerpt from "the anger of man":

i spit a new world when she calls.
i name the ocean between us a child,

capricious; we must learn to discipline
our rage. no one says

i'm so angry i could kiss you.

but i am.
so angry

it's melancholic. to bandage a tongue;
sharpen a feather. as one would a machete.

forget a blade can be windborn. believe
each call is a fight. and all we have left.

'Congo, seen from the heavens' by Cianga, Foglifter Press. $12.

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