Wednesday, December 30, 2015 12:12 pm
When Longman Publishers released his first poetry collection in 1980, it came as the work of someone who already had considerable presence, foothold and toughness. The book stirred a whirlpool of controversy and pitched the 30-year-old poet against the more established JP Clark. The conflict revolved around the title-poem which raised a critique on poetry’s involvement with the public space. Eventually, Longman censored its own book to prevent a legal dispute. Femi Osofisan has remarked that this situation earned Ofeimun a measure of sympathy.
It is certain that The Poet Lied enjoys a prime place in Nigerian poetry. It belongs to the aesthetic shift of the 1970s and 1980s – a synergy of form and purpose which Funso Aiyejina has called the Alter-Native Tradition – that gave a balanced gravitas to our poetic art. It is this character of re-invention that has consistently shaped Ofeimun’s poetry and cultural interventions. His poetry is deeply “implicated” in the struggles of society. For example, in the short poem from The Poet Lied entitled “National Cakes”, the persona gives a frank assessment of Nigeria’s postcolony by using a popular metaphor for the nation’s predatory scramble. It says:
Vultures do not bake their national cakes
They just swoop on the ripe carcass
Of, maybe, human cattle.
We, too, hate to be bakers,
And lo, we despoil the sunrise we seek.
His poetry has the density of collective memory. Lalage Bown says his poetry is outspoken and it attacks hypocrisy, and Afam Ebeogu says his poetry “confronts the reader with a recognizable social landscape” (blurb). Both critics imply that his poems have had abiding resonance among us. Their statements point to the aesthetics of The Poet Lied but we can also apply the statements to his other collections.
The Poet Lied has got its widest distribution from the Hornbill House platform since it was reissued in 2008. The collection comprises seventy-five poems. The poems are grouped into six sections: “The New Brooms” (eighteen poems), “When Bullets Have Spoken” (twenty poems), “The Poet Lied” (the title-poem in four parts), “Resolve” (eight poems), “The Neophytes” (thirteen poems) and “Mother, Love, Dream” (twelve poems). The titles of some of the sections are derived from the titles of poems in the sections. For instance, “The Poet Lied” is the title of the book, the title of a section and the title of a poem. There is also an introductory segment that has three poems.
The all-time favourites in The Poet Lied are many, each with amazing linguistic facility that gives a fresh turn of phrase in every line. There is “How Can I Sing?” which declaims the messy social space where “putrefying carcasses in the market place”are “pulling giant vultures / from the sky”. “The New Brooms” satirizes the irony of change exemplified by streets that are “clogged with garbage” and “the rank smell of swollen gutters,” all ignored by “the world-changers” who boast of their new brooms and well-made timetable (someone would think the poem was written today). “The Messiahs” depicts the self-styled messianism of those who “hound us and butt-gun us / into greater tomorrows;” and” The Prodigals” depicts the pretenders, of the new order, who carry “putrid initials / of yester-palm wine” on their “faceless saunter” and “juju their ways / downhill.” In “Never Ask Me Why,” the persona abhors mere sloganeering; his” corpuscles” does not “readily / marry slogans”; he is angered by a “country” which “chews / the cud of civil strife;” he tells those who “want to know / the sex of lagoons” to “jump into their wombs” and “suffer / the swollen silence of rebirth;” and he tells the trigger-happy audience: “Don’t question your trigger / anymore / with that crooked finger / Or you’ll be tearing the udders off / the lessons you should gain.” In “Resolve,” the people are admonished on how to make amends for self-inflicted tragedies and escape the “willow-whips lurking in time.” Neither remorse nor tears will do: “Only this: Resolve / that the locusts shall never again / visit our farmsteads.” The persona in “Sleep of Innocence” is a man who is troubled by the destructiveness of an avoidable war: a jet-bomber “tears through the womb / of the night,” the persona connects with the victims of war who suffer “in this filthied hour of soot,” the persona weeps for his country. There is a pairing between romantic love and national love here, and thepoem reveals a deep concern for society. Funso Aiyejina says it is “possible to read” Ofeimun’s” poetry as love poems in one vein and as highly political commentaries on the other” (blurb).
It has become usual to consider Ofeimun as a principal political poet in Nigeria. The poet should have no apology for this. It does not diminish his stature given his capacity for aesthetics, but it is important that we should balance our view on his output. No doubt, a great number of his admirers and critics are easily attracted to his poetry on politics, and a greater number of his readers have hardly gone beyond The Poet Lied. Since The Poet Lied, he has published many other volumes of poetry such as A Handle for the Flutist and Other Poems, Dreams at Work and Other Poems, London Letter and Other Poems, Go Tell the Generals, I Will Ask Questions with Stones if They Take My Voice, and A Boiling Caracas and Other Poems. His latest poetry is One Country Is not Enough. There are also volumes of edited/selected poems. It is impossible to ignore his output because of its quality and relevance. They cut across many subjects.
A Handle for the Flutist and Other Poems has forty-four poems. It was first published by Hornbill House in 2000. It begins with a “Matriarchate” section that reveals the poet’s fascination with the mother-motif. The poems touch on a number of subjects from Wole Soyinka’s mother in “Our Wild Christian” to “Medina of Greece”. The rural woman is also extolled in “To Mother on Mothers’ Day”.
The “Matriarchate” section has five poems. The other sections are “April Wise” (four poems), “A Handle for the Flutist” (six poems), “Memos to Papa” (nine poems), “Break Me Out” (seven poems), “Comrade Labourer” (six poems), “After the News” (four poems) and “Come to Our Rally” (three poems).
The section that has the title-poem is a marriage of poetics and solidarity/empathy with other writers. “A Handle for the Flutist” mocks those who aim to “banish poets” from the “People’s Republic”. They are those who say:
That poetry makes no water jump
Blows not the wind it divines
Builds no pyramid nor does it
Repair bridges or start anything afresh….
The author argues that those who say so are liars. They do not know the value of poetry. Therefore, they too “will not live with poets in the People’s Republic”. It is a bold testimony through and through. The poethas faith in writingand it makes him show solidarity in “Beyond Fear” with the four Dutch journalists killed in El-Salvador on 17th March, 1982. In “To wa Thiong’o”, the poet has solidarity for the Kenyan novelist in detention at a time. The poem enjoins Ngugi to shed”No Tears: their party will end….” It is a clear statement on the transience of power and an emphasis on the permanence of art. A society that does not understand the value of its writers maltreats them. When a society does not cherish its finest minds, it loses the light of sound thinking. This is why this poet pays tributes to writers and statesmen. In the collection, there are other tributes such as those paid to Bola Ige andObafemi Awolowo.
Dreams at Work and Other Poems has twenty-nine poems. It was released in 2010 by Hornbill House. The poems are in four parts. The title-poem, “Dreams at Work”, lends its title to part one. It is a long poem in ten sequences. Part two is called “Gods and Tongues” (seven poems); part three is “True Worship” (five poems); and part four is “Muafangejo’s Kraal” (sixteen poems).
The collection takes its title from along poetic conversation between Ofeimun and Soyinka. Soyinka had taken the trajectory of his own poem (“My Tongue Does Not Marry Slogans”) from Ofeimun’s “Never Ask Me Why” and Ofeimun takes the trajectory of his own “Dreams at Work” from Soyinka’s “My Tongue Does Not Marry Slogans.” It is beautiful to see the two poets bounce off each other: one of the finest examples of intertextuality around. The title-poem starts with: “some wounds cut so deep we forget…/… we forget how to flow…/…yet we must learn again to fly”. The poem speaks of the “capacity” of power/experience to either emasculate or provoke resilience/resistance within a social space. The poem is an opener into a hall of mirrors that holds the images of Obafemi Awolowo, Dambudzo Marechera, Che Guevera, Atukwei Okai, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Sheik Abubakar Gumi,John Haynes, etc. The section called the “Muafangejo’s Kraal” is provoked by Judith Crowle and the Musuem of Modern Arts in Oxford who got the poet involved in the exhibition of the Namibian artist, John Muafangejo. It is a gem-field of robust poems that spans Africa and its troubled or uneasy spots.
Go Tell the Generals has twenty-four poems. It was first published by Hornbill House in 2008. It is in four parts: “Martial Music” (six poems), “Our Kingdom of Chance” (three poems), “Children of the Creeks” (seven poems) and “Elegies” (eight poems). This is a collection of poems written during the period of the military but it extends to subjects beyond that era. In “After the Coup”, which is dedicated to Chinweizu, the persona writes that the people have fallen too low before rapacious power:
There are those who have no grace to fall from
Buried already in landslides moon slides
And sea slides of collective pronouns:
‘We the people’…
The social context is too grim: “Generals” are said to be “dreaming of manifestoes;” their action “turns cornrows into a field of flags/ green and white flags hoisted with guns moke.”
The poem entitled “Soza boy” echoes the title of Ken Saro Wiwa”s famous novel, but it is a general take on abusive power. There is a poem on Saro-Wiwa proper, entitled “Ken”. There are poems on Kudirat Abiola (“The Heart Has No Bone”), Alfred Rewane (“Ogidigbo”), Bola Ige (one with an eponymous title and the other as “A Chant for Uncle Bola”), Kunle Ajibade ( “A Letter to Makurdi Prison”) and Wole Soyinka( “Ogun”). The title piece is “Go Tell the Generals”. The emphasis on engagement is clear: “We told the General we shall not retreat.” We should love to say we did not retreat. For in the end, as noted in a poem that echoes W.B. Yeats, in “Rap Anti- Text”: “thighs fell apart / the General appeared” and “thighs fell apart / “the General fled.” It is a reference to Gen. Sani Abacha. Like all men, he came to the world through a woman. Only that he had the infamy of reportedly “dying” by the thighs of a woman.