In Serengeti Songs Chris McCully plays poet-guide on a safari through East Africa’s abundant wild landscape. Dik-dik, topi, elephant and impala roam these pages, darting between the acacia’s ‘burnt star-dome’ and the baobab’s myth-rich shade. The poems conjure a Serengeti both glorious and savage, its light ‘stained with blood’, its marshlands steeped in ‘murderous silence’. But McCully’s writing is formally playful and diverse, the collection a safari in itself; accompanying photographs and taxonomic endnotes riff on the guidebook form.
The poems also play with gazes: they inspect not only wildlife but also the human need to inspect. Wealthy interlopers demand to see the lions ‘do what they do on TV’, yet ‘know nothing of how the river-pool devours starlight’. The collection’s post-colonial alertness, however, does not compromise the core of wonder hinted at by its title: McCully’s songs are awe-struck celebrations of a unique and delicate landscape. They are, too, protest songs, swansongs: they bear witness, even at their most rhapsodic, to the threat of extinction resulting from human zeal. ‘How many dawns have the great herds run the rim of the world?’ he asks. These poems engage with the Serengeti’s complex symbolism, an emblem both of bounty and scarcity, wonder and loss.