By Su’eddie Vershima AGEMA
The name Hyginus Ekwuazi is no longer strange in poetic circles. He has made a mark on the Nigerian poetry scene with more than three books of poetry published already. A notable fact is that each of his books has a theme, symbol or idea that all the poems reflect. Mercifully, the poet always carries this dominant image or theme in his title. Perhaps he does this in the true knowledge that Literature in whatever form, is different from Mathematics and seeks to entertain, not ‘punish.’ Hence, the readers do not have to do a puzzle and look for the common denominator in all the poems. And for those who still do not get it in the title, he takes his time to explain or rather, explore this idea in a preface given a particular title, and subtitled “In lieu of preface…” In Dawn into moonlight: all around me dawning, the idea is that of the moon and twilight. So, all the issues discussed therein are shown in relation to this. A person might quickly jump to the conclusion that all the poems would be monotonous or plain boring since they are all tied around the same thing. This is where Ekwuazi delights in showing that person wrong. Ekwuazi with the thoughts and imaginations of a million tales simply weaves them up in fine verse describing different situations, events, feelings, people and the like in poems that are simply related to, but not confined to the already mentioned dominant vehicle, memories.
It is in this light that we find varying themes in each of his work ranging from love to betrayal, missings, national consciousness, Biafra, and the like… but kept organized by that one denominator, which we are introduced to even before the first poem.
This is what he does in all his books and centralizes as theme in That Other Country, his latest collection. The amount of poems in this collection boasts thirty-nine poems which begin on the Dedication page, to the Preface right into the main section of verse…
That Other Country is a collection of several memories, that true definer of man, which the poet defines and explores from different views in lovely flowing verse. In an illuminating preface, the poet describes memory as the best gift to man and its meaning to him (the poet). He goes ahead to define memory in the first poem of the collection, ‘Memory is’ (9). In it, the persona explains memory as another country, “that other country/of a trillion trifles time has tossed aside.” It is not, (s)he explains, a graveyard but something moving- “A life already lived/& a journey already made.” With this definition, one understands the reason for the poem being the first in the collection, and indeed, this review. In the very next poem, the poet defines memories as “…bats/that are hanging upside down/in the cave of the mind…” Indeed, bats are creatures of the night who like memories come out in full force in the dark. They, memories, cling upside down in the cave of our minds in the day but take over in our private and quiet times – our darkness. We try to shoo them off severally but like the bats, they never go extinct, flying evermore in our hearts, drowning us in emotions and thoughts.
In ‘Today is Father’s day’ (33) we ‘see’ a father who fought on fields and lost, but won at home. The war of the fields is probably the Biafran war – which we get to see a lot as the collection progresses. From another perspective, it can be looked at as the various wars that life places before man – wars of catering for one’s self and family, wars of want, wars of social stance, wars of a failed country, career and all. However, this father wins the home war, perhaps the greatest of them all. There is an allusion to the bible (Isaac and Abraham) which gives humor to this otherwise grim remembrance. Also there are hints at the prodigal son that bring deep thoughts. In this poem though, he arrives a day too late to see the final mound of his father. There is a longing expressed in the thoughts of the persona that slowly begged to be shared, and spent on another father. This poem which is multi-themed calls for deep introspection and reexamination of values.
There is the recurring symbol of the half of a yellow sun, the symbol of Biafra. There is nostalgia for this nation that died before its birth cries could be heard fully. Ekwuazi brings into contemporary poetry all the several showings that we are now getting accustomed to in prose as best exemplified by Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (which reawakened interest in that literature). Several poems concerning this symbol in full are evident while there are others that show an allusion. The poet uses varied personas to show that the memories of Biafra are very much alive and living. ‘The Pied Piper sang of a home he didn’t know’ (64) is concerned with children affected by the war who are taken to a camp. They are forced to see the horrors of their family killed and in the camp. ‘A dear frank’s letter’ (69) is the most obvious of the Biafran poems as all devices are thrown with a vivid and direct tale told. Okigbo is recalled in nostalgia, Biafra and Nigeria spoken to. The persona recalls Frank, a dear friend, with whom many a drink and poem was shared. It is shared into six sections. There is the memory of an “evening of/drinks and readings at the British Council” the persona and Frank have a swell time. The lines run-on (literally too) and soon we find that Frank is dead. We are then introduced to a book that Frank had written on the several people killed in Asaba during the war; a planned pilgrimage to Opi junction (where Okigbo fell); plaques that might have been put there (at Opi); … Then, the poem comes back to where it started, at the British council. A disagreement drank away is remembered and in the final lines, the persona expresses a deep missing of Frank. (It is worthy of note that this same Frank – Frank Mowah, appears in Love Apart –Ekwuazi’s first poetry collection) and is the person to whom That Other Country is dedicated to.)
Biafra also comes alive in ‘I shed lava-hot tears for/both halves of the yellow sun’ (17) where the persona talks of the feelings that he has at the remembrance of the several evils that befell the people. ‘…why the sea is boiling hot’ (20) and several others follow the theme.
A feminist leaning comes in ‘Isn’t Biology destiny?’ where the poet through his persona looks at how the maturity and the institution of marriage limit women and changes their lives, downwards. There are the usual love poems Ekwuazi is known for (though most told with pain); parenting tales and some nationalist verses. Major Nzeogwu finds space in the pages of this work and is honored in a poem ‘It isn’t only mystics who wear their sadness like a halo’ (102).
For those who love long poems, there is a lot in store here as there are a lot of them in this collection. The longest poem is the book is ‘Memories linked one to another like Stations of the Cross’ (51) which span six pages of a hundred and fifty eight lines. It is also one of the few poems in the collection that a reader might find a bit difficult to understand at first glance. The poem revolves around traffic lights and memories that they evoke in the mind of the persona as he awaits the green, on red. The memories become like the Stations of the Cross. The headings for these stations are emboldened and tell three different but difficult to completely decipher stories that might leave a searching reader puzzled. There is hardly any link between the three of them but come to the mind of the persona as the memories are laid in the sepulcher of the mind (another section of the poem). At this moment, the persona comes back to himself in time to see the lights change, “signaling not so much the end/as the beginning to every memory…” He drives off into a day, “over-burdened with memories.”
The problems one might find with That Other Country, like those with most works of poetry, are specific to picky readers. The first would come in the length of poems. Like in his previous collections, there exist a lot of long poems (like ‘Memories linked one to another like Stations of the Cross’ explained above) which span several pages and lines. His exploration of Biafra in several poems might also not sit well with a lot of readers who might not take his side or others who believe that this particular theme has been ‘over explored’ in diverse genres would out rightly oppose its appearance. The major preoccupation with pain that form a huge part of the tale behind the collection is another issue that some readers would not like. Furthermore, one notices a great sense of Christianity shown in the general body of the work through biblical allusions (this is particularly evident in the poem, ‘Today is fathers’ day’ (33) and a specific title that even has ‘Stations of the Cross’ in it!) The romantic musings of some of the poems would also pose trouble to some readers who would have wanted a thorough political work telling of the issues of the land, either challenging or proffering solutions. His usual style of simple diction and verse would also pose a challenge to critics who prefer hard to understand, ‘poet’s only’ poetry. Then, there is the presence of a few typos (poetry’s worst distorter) that might go unnoticed…
Like in all his collections, Ekwuazi proffers solutions as best as he can to sooth these seeming problems. He takes more time on the longer poems so as to enrich them and make a reader get lost in the thickness of theme and depth of it making the length disappear. Indeed, a reader might be caught asking for more after coming to the end of such poems. There is no excuse for Biafra but sincerity that is used to weave its lines so that it is not a mere re-rendering of the overtly told tale but a new twist in a new tongue that sings a melody that gives honor to the Nation, child died in death while embracing Nigeria, ever mother. It is the words of a patriot longing for a country he knows would never live, devastated by the murder yet loving still, his forced country in a unity that he wishes would have been merciful in leaving. One notices that there isn’t much Christian imagery that one can hold firmly to in the collection except in ‘Today is father’s day.’ Most of the romantic musings have an undertone to them that when properly evaluated show diverse themes that in some cases, centre on issues of state. The love of country and politics is also shown clearly in some poems. ‘The almanac’ (81) for instance, talks of the various military coups that have occurred in Nigeria (and Africa too) and what might have been if they did not occur. The simple diction used in the poems is a façade to very rich imagery. Ample uses of devices that stem through the entire collection further make the simplicity colorful. This deceptive simplicity is something that Ekwuazi thrives in and is evident in the several themes in each of the poems and the confusion that some readers might find in deciphering some poems.
In the end, one discovers that That Other Country is centered on memories – majorly, painful memories. The memories of lost ones, loss, longing, disappointment, death, Biafra, bitter happenings, among others, are dominant. This might be the reason why memory is compared to the bat whose time of abode is the night. Memory, like the bat, is hidden away in the day as we all rush to do different things. In the night, with nothing but our thoughts for company, our memories like the bats fly out, soaring the skies, taking over. These poems, very personal ones, tell the tales of a poet – a man, through diverse personas, who has harbored a lot of painful memories that he wants to get rid of, but must tell the world before shutting the gates evermore. This might also be why Ekwuazi in the preface says that the gift of forgetting is God’s greatest gift to man. In this collection, there is no hiding under the sweetness of words to show emotions as the lovers’ tale of other collections. He speaks in clear terms of his heart wrench as occasioned in the various crises that have beset the two countries of his love, Nigeria and Biafra. The pain of the continuous persona in the loss of friends, loved ones, and family among others are part of the conclusions that the pain bring. Somewhere, one finds the misplaced cherry thought (like ‘Memories that tear cheerfully through my day’ (57), a poem of parenting and pride in one’s offspring). There is also the sprinkled humor in most of the poems that the poet brings to bare in most of the poems to give soft bedding.
The beauty of Ekwuazi’s poems lie neither in the powerful and vivid imagery used nor the musicality of his lyrics that leave a reader tapping in enjoyment, alone. These ones stand strong on their own, but can be found easily elsewhere. The basic strength behind his verse is the tales that lie behind each poem. For in each poem, one notices a pretty tale replete with all characteristics. This is the magic that he wands into his latest collection, That Other Country where with the vehicle of memories, he uses all the freedom of theme, to navigate to the best of tales and renditions in a delight one cannot – wouldn’t want to miss for anything else. Indeed, within the covers one finds worthy memories that the few kobos and moments used on the book would get justified.
- The Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa Longlist 2012 (sueddie.wordpress.com)
- Thoughts on Hyginus Ekwuazi (sueddie.wordpress.com)
- Hyginus Ekwuazi, Su’eddie Agema and D’Tone at Ibadan Atmosphere (sueddie.wordpress.com)
- My Poetry, My Art by Nine Literature Prize Finalists (fromapoemtoitscreator.blogspot.com)
- Poetry’s Surprise Begins December (2voices1song.com)
- Poetry – Pablo Neruda (sharonsbooks.wordpress.com)
- What Makes a Good Poem? (thereadingworkshop.com)
- Chandler’s Poetry (themillions.com)