The Sea Eats the Land at Home is a poem by Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor. The poem is four stanzas long of varying line length. The first three stanzas are similar, four to five lines each. But the last stanza is eighteen lines long, a drawn out conclusion to the poem. The poem has no rhyme scheme but does utilize a good amount of repetition and personification. The sea is the main character in this piece and is described throughout as if it is making considered choices.
Summary of The Sea Eats the Land At Home
This poem is a story of a simple town through which sweeps the anger of a personified sea. The sea eats up the town and all the belongings of those that reside in it. The poem focuses on the general loss of the town but then zooms in on two women who have different experiences with the loss they go through. One, Aku, has lost everything and is left in the cold in what used to be her her kitchen, and Adena, who has lost the trinkets that were her dowry. The poem concludes by saying that the sea that eats the land will eat anything, nothing is off limits. You can read the full poem here.
The Sea Eats the Land At Home Analysis
The Sea Eats the Land at Home begins with a line that is as evocative as it’s title,
At home the sea is in the town,
Immediately this brings to the surface images of water running down streets and flooding houses. Perhaps it has gone even farther than that and the town is more sea than streets and buildings. The reader is given more information about the extent of the damage in the next line. The sea is said to be,
…running in and out of the cooking places,
One can assume that this is a reference to interior kitchens but also areas out of doors in which bonfires and cooking fires are lit. This strange phrase, “cooking places,” supports this conclusion, if the “places” were only indoors they would be called kitchens.
The firewood from the hearths of the “cooking places” is said to be collected up by the sea. It is at this point that the personification begins. The sea does not sweep up, or wash away the wood, it is said to pick it up. As if the sea was in possession of arms and hands capable of this motion. After collecting the wood the sea sends it back “at night.” It has been washed away and then washes back in with the tide. The sea, personified once more, “sends” it back. This first stanza is concluded with a repetition of the title line.
The second stanza begins with the start of the story. How the sea came “one day at the dead of night.” Awoonor writes this line as if it was a conscious choice made by the sea to come at night. The sea is given reasoning abilities, it is portrayed as being sneaking, knowing when the residents of the town will be more vulnerable.
The sea destroys the cement walls, proof of its immense strength, and carries away the fowl. Their homes are destroyed and their livestock is killed. The sea does not stop there but as it washes into the cooking places it takes the pots and ladles too. Once more the title line is repeated at the conclusion of this stanza.
The third stanza begins with a description of the emotion that comes with this kind of loss. The speaker describes the sadness of the wails, and how the “mourning shouts “ of women can be heard. The speaker says these shouts are to the gods to protect them,
…from the angry sea.
Again the sea is personified. It is given sentience and is said to be “angry.” But just as the motives of the sea are impossible to determine, so too is the response of the gods. They do not come to the aid of this town, in fact, their plight is only emphasized.
The fourth and final stanza of this poem is more than twice the length of the other three. In it, a specific woman is named, Aku. The description of how she was personally impacted by the “sea eat[ing] the land” forces the reader to greater empathy with the town in general. Until now the town was just unnamed, but now it has a face.
Aku stood outside where her cooking-pot stood,
With her two children shivering from the cold,
She stands outside in the inclement weather, with no where else to go. She is standing in what was probably her kitchen, a place that used to be symbolic of warmth and home, and is now part of the freezing sea. She is not alone here though, she has the burden of two children to care for. She weeps with her hands on her chest for her home, and for the future of her family.
She does not understand why this has happened to her, it seems to her that her,
…ancestors have neglected her,
They should be watching over her and her family but for some reason have allowed the sea to destroy her home. Her gods, too, have abandoned her. She is spiritually alone.
The speaker then pans out from the situation and looks over the whole town once more and the reader receives some additional context.
Once more the day is said to be cold. But we know now it is morning, perhaps only the morning right after the storm, and it’s a Sunday.
The storm is described as “raging,” and the livestock is placed by the speaker in the water, they are struggling to swim against the sea.
Once again the sea is personified, described as being angry, but now also cruel. As if it, on purpose, swept into this town with the intention to destroy it.
The poem then turns to describing the water, how it is lapping against the shore and how its interior hum, its life force and power, is stronger and louder than the sobs, and deep low moans of the townspeople.
The poem concludes with continued emphasis on what physically as lost. Another woman is named, Adena. She has lost her dowry, much of which were “trinkets.” These trinkets are described as being her joy, turning the poem to a rare glimpse of materialism. The last two lines describes,
…the sea that eats the land at home,
as eating the “whole land at home.” Nothing and no one is left untouched. Some lose trinkets, others lose entire homes and lively hoods.
About Kofi Awoonor
Kofi Awoonor was born in Ghana with the original name of George Awoonor-Williams. He studied at the University College of Ghana gaining a BA, then moved to University College, London to get his MA, and then a PhD in comparative literature from SUNY Stony Brook. Awoonor had a turbulent life, amongst being poet, and professor, as well as an ambassador for Ghana, he also served time in prison under suspicion of involvement in a coup. While in jail, he detailed his experience in The House by the Sea. Eventually his sentence was remitted and he resumed teaching. It was after this that his ambassadorial duties began and he served as Ghanian ambassador to Brazil and Cuba as well as ambassador to the UN from 1990-1994. Throughout his life he authored novels such as, Comes the Voyager at Last: A Tale of Return to Africa and This Earth, My Brother. He died in 2013 in a Kenya after a shopping mall attack.