Book Review

The Congo River of Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s The River in the Belly is more than a river located in a geographical region or a depiction on a map. As the world’s deepest river—measuring 720 feet in depth and at certain places impenetrable to light—the Congo, as described by the speaker in each of the collection’s “solitudes,” “has no reason to envy other rivers.” The collection itself embodies the Congo—its violence, its stillness, its cultural and economic significance. At the same time, the collection utilizes the Congo’s brutal and inhuman attributes to represent the ravages of colonialism.

No poem makes this more evident than “Solitude 86.” The poem establishes the Congo’s strength: “It’s got their froth, their hard on, and virulence to scare you stiff.” However, as the poem progresses, it becomes more evident that the river represents the multitude of languages and cultures that originally called the Congo basin home under colonial oppression. The speaker establishes that history affirms these identities: “At the end of the day, it doesn’t need to even take the family deduction or apply for a visa to be a river.” The cry against colonialism continues, and as the poem concludes, the tone shifts to rage: “A free river. An independent river. An uppercase river. / A RIVER-RIVER.”

The rage continues in such poems as “Solitude 41.” The speaker adds another personal layer to the continuing story—that of exile. The rage, however, is more subtle:

I’m not the first to leave the continent
my exile won’t be the exile of a race
even if I die today in Minsk
or in early afternoon in Vladivostok
no city will fall quiet, no nation will mourn
I see only my mother crumple—her eyes tear up.

Interestingly, this poem mentions cities such as Minsk and Vladivostok. Minsk is the administrative capital of Belarus, the last remaining dictatorship in Eastern Europe. Vladivostok, a city historically occupied by Japan and reclaimed by the Soviets, translates to “Ruler of the East.” These cities, in their names alone, signify the power and power structures Europe has forced upon the African continent. As the poem continues, the speaker focuses on cities like Isiro, the capital of Haut-Uele province in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Buta, a city in the northern Democratic Republic of Congo. What readers may notice most is the significant place names at the poem’s end: “and the freight trains will depart from Musumba to Ngandajika passing through Ilebo, Kasangulu, Lwambo, Lodja and Kamituga.” The placement of these populous places at the poem’s end sends a stronger message: that for the speaker’s identity, the Democratic Republic of Congo is the foundation on which all else is built.

The affirmation and fortitude of identity and culture is paramount and solidified in “Solitude 77.” This poem embraces all that the Congo River is: “beautiful, supple, raging.”  It firmly and defiantly attests that “The Congo won’t slide easily into old age,” and this defiance supplements the rage exuded in other poems, and the statement—due to its simple sentence structure—possesses a boldness that grabs readers and holds their attention. What readers will also notice is that the poem is layered in its representation of the Congo: at the poem’s beginning, the Congo’s positive attributes shine brightly; by the poem’s end, the river and the history of it, is “a wound, fresh and suppurant, a filthy wound, a crushed up vimba.” It is this powerful duality throughout The River in the Belly that continually lures readers into the poems.

Exile, of course, possesses its own duality, one that The River in the Belly continually reminds readers exists. “Solitude 55” is an eloquent, pleading example of the often-indescribable difficulties of being apart from one’s home. Readers have only to consider the repetition of “I try” in statements such as “I try to speak to you about the Congo River. . . ” and “I try to tell you the Sahel’s true name.” For example, line 13 reads: “I try, I try, I try.”  The repetition of “I try” three times in a single statement punctuated by commas forms a plea, a beg, that readers cannot ignore, and the plea segues into an acknowledgement of disconnect: “but you are not here. . . ”

The River in the Belly is cyclical in its themes. Just as themes of exile and displacement ebb and flow throughout the collection, so do those of affirmation of identity and resilience. The collection concludes with the simple and brief “Solitude 87C,” a poem that leaves readers understanding that the speaker’s identity is concrete, undeniable, that the speaker is choosing the path of being true to one’s self and one’s culture. Bold and brief, the line “I swallow my spit” opens the poem. It continues with an allusion to Matthew 15:27 as the speaker states “since I refuse to feed / on the crumbs that fall from your table.” This refusal establishes not only the speaker’s self-reliance, but also the rejection of colonialism which strove to eradicate traditional and tribal beliefs, customs, and languages in the Congo region.

In an era where authors and presses are working collectively to promote marginalized cultures and voices, The River in the Belly is an important contribution, one that must not be overlooked. Its bold experimentation and its resistant voice that focuses on existence and how history cannot be separated from the present will remind readers of Jose Hernandez Diaz’s The Fire Eater and Yusef Komunyakaa’s Night Animals. Its resilient, unyielding voice and experimental forms sear themselves into readers’ minds so that long after readers have left its pages, the poems and the messages they harbor beckon readers to return to the Congo River’s offerings, reckonings, longings, and tongues.

About the Reviewer

Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University. Her poetry collection Triskaidekaphobia is forthcoming from Black Spring Group in 2022. She teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University and works as a career counselor for Blue Ridge Community College.