OKIGBO – MYTHMAKER & TOWNCRIER AT HEAVENSGATE by Hyginus Ekwuazi

English: Christopher Okigbo photo

Christopher Okigbo

Osofisan recounts this incident about how Okigbo took him to Mbari club one night to work. He was barely out of the secondary school and Okigbo was mentoring him. How for a few hours he managed to bang away at the typewriter before falling asleep. How in his sleep the smell of the midnight oil mingled with the aroma of tobacco as Okigbo hammered and chiselled the night away. How in the morning, Okigbo showed him the outcome of the long night of creativity: a sheet of paper with some four lines of poetry. Bewildered, he watched as Okigbo read the four lines, crumpled the paper – and threw it into the wastepaper basket…

This incident flows into my mind as I examine the new edition of Okigbo’s Labyrinths, issued by Apex Books (2008). The cover – a picture of a sitting, long-sleeved, youngish looking Okigbo contemplatively lighting a pipe – is a ‘sunny’ departure from the sombre density of the earlier edition(s).

The edition was issued by Heinemann as number 62 of the African Writer’s Series in 1971 and reprinted in 1975. A solid phalanx of over a decade separates the Heinemann reprint from this new edition. Within this time, a lot of waters has gone under the bridge and left the sands thoroughly ruffled. The poems have spawned countless imitations, more often than not, poorly; sometimes, with remarkable success. They have featured in essays, theses/dissertations and symposia: they have been subjected to all manners of criticism, including post-modernism. Icons from the universe of the poems now dot our literary landscape: one quick example – the Ibadan Department of English journal is called Idoto… Okigbo has since become the quintessential study of the making of a classic – in the context of a generation whose posturing indicates that it is more difficult to read poetry than to write it. Anyway, I find it significant that this slim volume of 72 pages has since transformed into the vertebra of African poetry. No wonder the Heinemann edition has since become a collector’s item.

Okigbo is a mantra; a roadmap and a marching song; he is the cultural property of all (would be) poets, critics and lovers of good poetry. He is, therefore, sacrosanct – like a holy book. And no publisher alters a holy book. He may tone up the colours; illustrate; annotate – but the body must remain inviolate. “The versions here,” Okigbo had noted somewhat presciently, “are final”: and his death set them in marble. What I’m leading up to is this: I can’t fathom why this new edition has been titled Labyrinths & Path of Thunder – though it contains all the five poems (‘Heavensgate’, ‘Limits’, ‘Silences’, ‘Distances’ and ‘Path of Thunder’) which together constitute Labyrinths – the title of the Heinemann editions. The other remarkable difference in the new edition is the insightful foreword – the 1994 toast of the poet by his elder brother, Pius.

Perhaps it is the picture of Okigbo on the cover page but as I thumb through this edition and wonder at his enduring legacy, kaleidoscopic fragments of his life mingle with lines from his poems… The Okigbo in the maelstrom of controversy for his unapologetic assertion that he does not write his poems to non-poets… The Okigbo that turns down the Langston Hughes Prize for African poetry on the grounds that there is nothing like African poetry: there is good poetry; and bad poetry… What memory, I wonder, has Labyrinths of this controversy?

From the opening strophe of ‘The Passage’, to the forlorn final notes of ‘Elegy for Alto’, the stock of references are intimidatingly global: Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek; Eliot, Hopkins, Melville, Tagore, etc are interwoven with haunting references to the oilbean, the funerary ram, kepkanly: the fauna, flora and human life of the poet’s world – deftly turning them into “globules of anguish strung together on memory” and, thereby, hanging them on that sublime height “to which all imperishable cries must aspire.” Indeed, good poetry by any standard; and it only happens to be African. Ben Okri, is, therefore, right: ‘Labyrinths…is a meditation on everything from our origins to our obscure destinies.  It should be read by everyone in every country.’

“Fanfare of drums, wooden bells; iron chapters: / And our dividing airs are gathered home…/” Finally home across the Niger, among a people traumatised by the events of 1966, Okigbo divorces his wife on the other side …over the telephone… “Grown are the ears of the secret!” But Labyrinths, published posthumously a year after the war, is dedicated to “Safinat and Ibrahimat/mother and child”: a dedication that pulls at the reader’s heartstrings; and that has since been turned into a formula and recycled to death.

And his untimely death. “The wailing is for the fields of men/for the barren wedded ones/for perishing children…” Sporting the emblem of half a yellow sun on his sleeves and on his shoulders, the lone eagle of a major, he was among the Biafran troops that fought to the last man to hold Opi Junction. Had the outcome of the war been different, I’m sure a sagacious Biafran directorate of national orientation would have placed a plaque there exhorting any passer-by: Stranger, go tell Biafra Okigbo lies here in obedience to her command. A romantic death – though contentious. Thus we find Ali Mazrui (The Trial of Christopher Okigbo) condemning him for wasting his life on the altar of sectionalism; and Odia Ofeimun insisting that when all else fails, it behoves the poet to take up arms and fight for a poet’s vision of the world. I stand with Odia.

Like Byron, Okigbo was a romantic: the evidence is strewn all over the poems, especially in ‘Silences’, ‘Distances’ and ‘Path of Thunder’: a swashbuckling cavalier who’d fight for liberty – his, or anyone else’s. Biafra only chanced by, and his roots happened to be there. The Okigbo so vitally alive in Labyrinths and in the retold tales of his friends would have found enough casus belli in the Niger Delta: “The wailing is for the great river; / Her pot-bellied watchers/Despoil her…” and we can imagine him “Riding with the angry stars/Toward the great sunshine.”

Okigbo saw only too clearly, the abyss into which Nigeria was plunging: “The smell of blood already floats in the lavender-mist of the afternoon. / The death sentence lies in ambush along the corridors of power; / And a great fearful thing already tugs at the cables of the open air, / A nebula immense and immeasurable, a night of deep waters – / An iron dream unnamed and unprintable, a path of stone.” The time was really out of joint; and like all romantics, he felt he had been born to set it right. Living in a state of emergency, he knew the perils of talking in the wrong company: “If I don’t learn to shut my mouth, I’ll soon go to hell, / I, Okigbo, town-crier, together with my iron bell”; and the intimations of morality was heavy on him: “So we must go, even mist on shoulders, / Sun’s dust of combat  / With band end burning out at hand-and.” When Okigbo penned those words (“The version here… are final”) on his manuscripts, it is not unlikely that he was seeing through a grave darkly: “And the horn may now paw the air howling goodbye…”

I like to think that I was a witness to the canonisation of Okigbo – “The mythmaker accompanies us…/ Okigbo accompanies us the oracle enkindles us.” Obumselu, Anozie, Azuonye, etc: their works have been in inestimable in the Okigbo cause. Besides, to be published under the Heinemann African Writers Series was a much coveted prize. To my mind, however, the apotheosis of Okigbo was done in Echeruo’s Poets, Prophets and Professors, his inaugural lecture at Ibadan. The title, I believe, must have been cribbed from Okigbo’s ‘Heavensgate’: “Screen your bedchamber thoughts/with sunglasses/ who could jump your eye/ your mind-window/ And I said: / The prophet only the poet/ And he said: Logistics/ (which is what poetry is)…” Echeruo’s inaugural, in effect, rifled the contents of Okigbo’s ‘logistics’ and scattered the contents every which way. Scholars and would-be scholars of Okigbo are still picking up the contents. It was only after that inaugural that Okigbo started figuring prominently on reading lists in our universities.

The enduring legacy of Labyrinths can be traced to a number of reasons. The romance of the poet’s life and death. Also, the uncontainable and uncontaminable passion of Okigbo lovers. But in the main – and this is the point – because, in the words of one of his protégés, “Okigbo wrote damn good poetry.” “O mother mother Earth, unbind me; let this be/The ram’s hidden wish to the sword the sword’s/secret prayer to the scabbard.” In other words, we have in Okigbo that vintage poetry that makes “broadcast with/eunuch-horn of seven valves”: the poetry that remains evergreen.

This vintage poetry will be encountered less through secondary sources. That, for me, is the value of this new edition of Labyrinths by Apex Books.

Dr. Hyginus Ekwuazi, multiple award winning poet and writer is a lecturer in the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan, Oyo, NIGERIA.

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3 thoughts on “OKIGBO – MYTHMAKER & TOWNCRIER AT HEAVENSGATE by Hyginus Ekwuazi

  1. Pingback: BRINGING WELCOME VERSE HOME: A READING OF SU’EDDIE VERSHIMA AGEMA’S BRING OUR CASKET HOME by Emma Inedu « ANA Benue's Blog

  2. Pingback: PUBLIC PRESENTATION OF SU’EDDIE VERSHIMA AGEMA’S BRING OUR CASKET HOME: Tales one shouldn’t tell | sevhage

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