An Analysis of Alfred Kisubi’s ‘At Sun Set’

Alfred Kisubi is a Ugandan-American poet and instructor born in 1949. The poem ‘At Sun Set’ has as its background the plethora of conflicts around the world often instigated by the world powers like the United States against less powerful nations with the aim of executing hidden agendas other than the ones they tell to the international community. Specifically, the poem is set against the background of the US-British invasion of Iraq in 2003 in search for weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be false, as there was no evidence eventually that Iraq had resumed its armament project. The United States probably wanted to take out Saddam Hussein in order to have easier access to the Iraqi oil wells and other resources. Saddam Hussein was captured in 2003, charged with using chemical weapons and other human rights violations, including killing his people. He was hanged on 30th December, 2006. The poem equally captures the aftermath of the invasion characterised by protests and internal conflicts in the form of insurgency led by the different militia groups with religio-political overtones. The poem demonstrates that when a strong man of power abruptly leaves office, the resulting political lacuna is usually difficult to fill. This case is also justified in the case of the Libyan invasion by the Obama administration in 2011 through the instrumentality of NATO.   

The subject matter of Kusibi’s ‘At Sun Set’ is the recurrent instability in the postmodern, post-cold war, world, often caused by powerful nations with selfish interests imposing their will on other less powerful ones. The poem also talks about the incessant interferences of the powerful nations in the affairs of less powerful ones, often resulting in endless conflicts that, in the end, profit those oppressive super powers, as most of these conflicts have economic agenda, but are often fronted as the need to restore democracy or punish human rights violations.

Kisubi’s ‘At Sun Set’ is organised in four (4) stanzas of unequal number of lines. The poem is written in free verse and makes use of run-on-lines or enjambment. It is equally written in the narrative mode, as it aims to tell a story of conflict and destruction. The first stanza of the poem is a septet and reads: ‘At sun set, lit oil-filled trenches far afield/Create a smokescreen over the city on the Tigris/Rising up above the eight-lane flyovers/Lingering high above Mesopotamia plain/Sweeping over grandiose war memorials, /Pervading mosques and walled-off presidential palaces/Gliding over the flat skyline of a few high-rises’. In this stanza, the persona pays attention to the description of the setting of the poem or the scene of conflict. The description is panoramic, done as if a camara is panning over a movie scene. I guess the camara motif in this description, as well as the picturesque depiction of the scenes, is inspired by modern war movies. The persona deploys visual and kinesthetic imagery in the description of the war scenery. The temporal setting of the poem is sun set, which is also a metaphor for an ending. It is a sinister word that suggests the end of an era and an omen for the monstrosities that will follow. Night is also a proper time to execute an invasion that did not receive the general approval of the United Nations Security Council.

The expression ‘lit oil-filled trenches’ refers to the first sign of chaos as the Iraqi oil wells are set ablaze to cause distraction and confusion. This act was likely committed by the Iraqi forces to slow down the advancement of the US forces as they retreated. The word ‘trenches’ is a military register just like ‘smokescreen’, which is caused by the burning of the oil wells, which serves as a cover as the invading forces attack the vulnerable nation. Some of the geographical names and features mentioned in the poem help to situate or specify the spatial setting of the poem. They include ‘city on the Tigris’ and ‘Mesopotamia plain’, where the Tigris is a river in Asia and Mesopotamia best describes Iraq in modern times. Present participles such as ‘rising’, ‘lingering’, ‘sweeping’, ‘pervading’ and ‘gliding’ constitute kinesthetic imagery in the poem, where the smokescreen travels and takes us on a tour of the city Baghdad, where there are war memorials which speak of past wars in the country and mosques to suggest the dominant religion of Iraq which is Islam.

The mention of the ‘walled-off presidential palaces’ infers that the city is the seat of government, as well as being a secure place for the rich and the powerful, separated from the rest of the populace – a society marked by gaping inequalities. The expression is one of the instances of alliteration in the poem exemplified in the repetition of the voiceless bilabial plosive /p/ in the ‘presidential palaces’. Another instance of alliteration is seen in ‘flat/few’ used in the last line and exemplified in the repetition of the voiceless labiodental fricative /f/. There are instances of assonance in the words ‘smokescreen/over’ in the second line and ‘up above’ in the third line. The expression, ‘a few high-rises’ speaks of the disparity in the distribution of wealth or the poor social justice system in the milieu described, as only a handful people could afford such buildings. It also speaks of the provincial nature of the setting compared to other developed cities of the world. In all, through the device of metaphor, visual and kinesthetic imagery, as well as assonance and alliteration, the persona in the first stanza paints a picture of both the temporality and the spatiality of the scene of the conflicts that will follow, preparing our minds, through tropes that are suggestive of violence and war, for the events that will follow.

The second stanza of Kisubi’s ‘At Sun Set’ is an octave and reads: ‘As darkness falls, new air raids rock/The sprawling city of mud-brick houses,/3rd infantry brigade advances/Fracturing the bedrock of a people in pain/Tight tiger-claws on the trigger of the grenade/Take command to, ‘Go ahead invade – /Bang, break and ransack the palaces/For Weapons of Mass Destruction’. The stanza captures the moment of invasion shortly after dark and the final command to attack the city of Baghdad through air and land attacks. The expression, ‘As darkness falls’ establishes the narrative texture of the poem, as well as the sinister temporality of the attacks. Another device that enhances the narrative style of the poem in this stanza is dialogue, which creates a sense of drama in the poem. Other devices deployed in the poem are visual and auditory imagery, alliteration, onomatopoeia and oxymoron. The expression ‘sprawling city’ and ‘mud-brick houses’ are visual images. The word ‘sprawling’ gives us a sense of the disorganised structure and large size of the city while the expression ‘mud-brick’ is oxymoronic and captures the coexistence of the old and the modern, past and present, in the city space.

The invasion of the country through the land is described in line three as the ‘3rd infantry brigade advances’, where by the word ‘advances’ constitutes kinesthetic imagery. The destabilisation of the country or city space is portrayed in the expression ‘Fracturing the bedrock of a people in pain’, where ‘fracturing’ is an implied metaphor as it indirectly compares the country to a person whose bones have been broken. The expression ‘a people in pain’ is an alliteration just like ‘tight/ tiger-claws/trigger’ in which is repeated the voiceless alveolar plosive /t/ that helps demonstrate the seriousness, concentration and the fierceness of the invading soldiers. Alliteration is also seen in the expression ‘Bang/break’ exemplified in the repetition of the voiced bilabial plosive /b/. The word ‘bang’ itself is an instance of onomatopoeia, as its sound echoes its meaning, reinforcing the sound of violence and war.

The purpose of the invasion, at least the one told to the international community, was the search, identification and destruction of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. This is captured in the final lines of the stanza in the dialogue. The presidential palaces are to be ‘ransacked’ in search of these deadly weapons so as to keep the world safe. Unfortunately, in the context of this poem, the weapons were not found. This equally reminds us of the US-NATO invasion of Libya for the same purpose but with the same futile and tragic results.

The penultimate stanza of the poem is a septet and reads: ‘Though smoke bites their eyes/Thousands of poor people take to the streets/Looking for the loadable loot and eatable treats/Air raid sirens drown their voices. /As sun sets on their freedom and fame/Shiite militias tote their AK – 47 assault rifles/Sunni insurgent shoot their IEDs, fomenting scuffles’. This stanza records the aftermath of the invasion; the protests, the looting of shops by the hungry and beggarly people, as well as the internal conflicts that began which will later lead to a civil war. This stanza equally captures the irony of the US-British invasion of Iraq whose aim was to make for a safer world but which brought about the perpetual destabilisation of the country through protracted war and conflict.

The expression ‘Though smoke bites their eyes’ is personification and ‘thousands of poor people’ is a hyperbole where ‘poor people’ is an alliteration. Alliteration is also seen in the repetition of the alveolar lateral sound /l/ in the expression ‘Looking for loadable loot’. Assonance is seen in the expression ‘eatable treats’ in which vowel number one /i:/ is repeated. The expressions ‘voices’ and ‘sirens’ constitute auditory imagery. The word ‘drown’ is an implied metaphor as it generates imagery of an ocean where the voices of the people are lost. The expression ‘air raid’ is a repetition as it can also be found in the first line of the second stanza. Another instance of repetition is ‘sun set’, which is part of the poem’s title and is repeated in stanza one, synonymised in the first line of stanza two and repeated in stanza three. They emphasise the end of an era in Iraq at the time of the invasion. The expression ‘freedom and fame’ constitutes alliteration and it is also a repetend in the poem as it recurs in the final stanza.

This invasion also triggers internal conflict which is captured in the insurgency led by the two Islamic sects – the Shiites (Shias) and the Sunnis. The tropes of violence can be seen in words like ‘AK – 47 assault rifles’ and ‘IEDs’ which means ‘Improvised Explosive Devices’. This insurgency would last from 2003 till 2011. The comma that comes after ‘IEDs’ in the last line of the penultimate stanza is a caesura: a pause in the middle or near the middle of a line of a poem, often created in order to bring in an important idea. The expression that follows this caesura is ‘fomenting scuffles’, which is what the weapons and their shooters do. The expression is an instance of euphemism as it is a mild way of rendering the pockets of internal conflicts that followed the invasion of the country. Other instances of caesura in the poem can be found in the first line of the first stanza, the first line of the second stanza, the sixth line and the seventh lines of the second stanza and the first line of the last stanza.

The final stanza of the poem has eight lines and reads: ‘After Friday prayers, Sunnis protest/Joining millions in cities across the Globe/To manifest newly found freedom and fame/Burning flags and effigies of those who grab/As sun sets on the foreign forces and mayhem/Nearby checkpoint smolders in flames/Smoke rises up above and beyond/Their newly exported freedom and fame’. The Iraqi invasion through the combined forces of the US and Britain began on Thursday 19th March 2003 through air strikes. Thus, the idea of the after Friday protest by the Sunnis is realistic enough in the poem. The invasion of Iraq actually sparked a world-wide protest beginning from late 2002 when the invasion was being touted and planned, and culminating in the protests that trailed the actual invasion.

The expression ‘freedom and fame’ speaks for both the internal protesters and the invading forces. War is usually predicated on the grounds of patriotism and heroism. And in the case of the Iraqi invasion, the idea was to encourage a safer and freer world. The Sunnis and the other protesters are seen by the persona to be protesting for freedom, apart from the fact that in a dictatorial regime like that of Saddam Hussein, freedom of speech and other human rights were stifled. Hence, the US invasion is seen as granting them the opportunity to be free and to protest. The imagery depicted in ‘burning flags and effigies’ enhance the tropes of protest and chaos in the poem. ‘Those who grab’ refers to the invading super powers, especially in their loss of popularity around the world after the infamous invasion. The word ‘grab’ also depicts them as dictators in the same mould as the one they are trying to overthrow, especially as their invasion was not through a democratic process specified by the United Nations. The smoke mentioned in the penultimate line of the final stanza symbolises the internal conflict that ensues in Iraq following the invasion.

In conclusion, Kisubi’s ‘At Sun Set’ portrays the US-Britain invasion of Iraq during the George W. Bush and Tony Blair presidency and the consequences of that invasion. It also alludes to the invasion of Libya by the Obama presidency still on the ruse of finding weapons of mass destruction. This invasion has also been revealed to be a mistake, one that will continue to haunt the Obama presidency. The poem exposes the arrogance of the super powers who feel that because they have the might, they can take at will. They also see themselves as the police of the world, taking upon themselves the task of ‘exporting freedom’ to climes and spaces that they adjudge to be dictatorial.  

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