men of song we measure out
our joys and agonies
too, our long, long passion week
in paces of the dance. We have
come to know from surfeit of suffering
that even the Cross need not be
a dead end nor total loss
if we should go to it striding
the dirge of the soulful abia drums. . .
But beware soul brother
of the lures of ascension day
the day of soporific levitation
on high winds of skysong; beware
for others there will be that day
lying in wait leaden-footed, tone-deaf
passionate only for the deep entrails
of our soil; beware of the day
we head truly skyward leaving
that spoil to the long ravenous toot
and talon of their hunger.
Our ancestors, soul brother, were wiser
than is often made out. Remember
they gave Ala, great goddess
of their earth, sovereignty too over
their arts for they understood
too well those hard-headed
men of departed dance where a man’s
foot must return whatever beauties
it may weave in air, where
it must return for safety
and renewal of strength. Take care
then, mother’s son, lest you become
a dancer disinherited in mid-dance
hanging a lame foot in air like the hen
in a strange unfamiliar compound. Pray
protect this patrimony to which
you must return when the song
is finished and the dancers disperse;
remember also your children
for they in their time will want
a place for their feet when
they come of age and the dance
of the future is born
From Beware Soul Brother by Chinua Achebe (1930-2013). The collection was written during the Nigerian Civil War and won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1972.
Today, in Idoto, a small literary festival is being held in honour of Christopher Okigbo. It is nice to know that poets and artistes find the grace of remembrance. One of the poets there gracing the event isChijioke Amu-nnadi who has kept pouring one new verse after the other on his road to that river, Idoto, self-confessed mother that inspired our Okigbo. I drank of this river, drank of Okigbo, took some amu nnadi too, and a few lines not worthy of any of them came up. Here’s my sharing.
echoes of idoto (a poem)
(inspired on amu nnadi’s wall; a poem in chants for christopher okigbo)
the field grows as sounds bellow
no longer will collected thoughts
stop at few pages
for a lengthening grows
from idoto’s river
as spirits bestride the trove
let the wind whisper words
let the sands salute spirits
let the river renew rites
at heaven’s gate
new verses and old merge
as the rivers flow
testimony to the waters
of that one who now has blessed us all
ending even imagined drought…
there’s a shrill…
the field grows as sounds bellow
the elephants march
silencing every tertrach
there’s an echo…
For whom are we searching?
For whom are we searching?
For Okigbo we are searching!
Has he gone for firewood, let him return.
Has he gone to fetch water, let him return.
Has he gone to the marketplace, let him return.
For Okigbo we are searching!
For whom are we searching?
For whom are we searching?
For Okigbo we are searching!
Has he gone for firewood, may Ugboko not take him.
Has he gone to the stream, may Iyi not swallow him!
Has he gone to the market, then keep from him you
Tumult of the marketplace!
Has he gone to battle,
Please Ogbonuke step aside for him!
For Okigbo we are searching!
They bring home a dance, who is to dance it for us?
They bring home a war, who will fight it for us?
The one we call repeatedly,
there’s something he alone can do
It is Okigbo we are calling!
Witness the dance, how it arrives
The war, how it has broken out
But the caller of the dance is nowhere to be found
The brave one in battle is nowhere in sight!
Do you not see now that whom we call again
And again, there is something he alone can do?
It is Okigbo we are calling!
The dance ends abruptly
The spirit dancers fold their dance and depart in midday
Rain soaks the stalwart, soaks the two-sided drum!
The flute is broken that elevates the spirit
The music pot shattered that accompanies the leg in
Brave one of my blood!
Brave one of Igbo land!
Brave one in the middle of so much blood!
Owner of riches in the dwelling place of spirit
Okigbo is the one I am calling!
In memory of the poet Christopher Okigbo (1932-1967)
Translated from the Igbo by Ifeanyi Menkiti
I have always loved Achebe’s poems, from Refugee Mother and Child to Love Cycle and many others collected in Beware Soul Brother and Collected Poems (available on Amazon). I felt him more in Anthills of the Savannah (which I did my undergraduate long essay on).
I smiled as I read this poem…thinking of how fast life flows in its fluidity. Achebe wrote this poem forever ago in honour of Okigbo… I watched him recite the poem at a birthday in his honour, some six or so odd years back. It was moving. Now, Achebe has passed on and a friend of mine, the beautiful poet, Dike Chukwumerije, did a poem in Achebe’s honour similar to this. Who can forget Niyi Osundare’s tribute... The poems would always be here to sing the song of the one for whom it is dedicated, to boast the prowess of the one who carved the lines of the verse… But always keeping to eternity the memories of the two… Thus in the end, life’s flow doesn’t drown the voice of the singer or the one sang for. . .
May the verse of our hearts never go out of tune. Cheers! SVA)
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 Okigbolies 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.
Conversants: Ada Agada and Su’eddie Vershima Agema
Ada AGADA: I promised this piece on Su’eddie’s prodding. Let me start by saying I believe in the universality of art, in the structured unity of the human mind regardless of race and cultural plurality. I will define universality simply as the transformation of the particular by lofty thinking and lofty sentiments into a transcedent mode everywhere recognizable as a creation and achievement of the human spirit. While the particular remains time-bound the universal escapes time. It becomes timeless. This means that the universal is present in every author. The problem then is whether this presence has become a transcendence. Shying away from social themes which my friend thinks is peculiarly characteristic of Western literature (and I disagree even with the average in consideration) does not guarantee universality, as surely as writing about so-called universal themes like love, hatred, death, and marriage fails to satisfy the universalist conditions in the absence of loftiness of thoughts and feelings. It is the human intellect, uniform in its structure, that organizes these lofty thoughts and feelings. The universality success rests substantially on the quality and advancement of a writer’s brain. This is not to say the writer should write a textbook that will send you to sleep from page one. Here the intellect serves the interest of art, not of thought. Why is L.S. Senghor greater as a poet than Christopher Okigbo, a great poet in his own right? It is because Senghor is more universal, more elevated in his thinking, more expansive. So the question is not whether one writer is universal and the other is not but why one writer is said to be universal even though all writers reflect universal concerns in their writings. I have answered this question. Now I will proceed to illustrate my point with concrete references to two magnificent writers in the second part of my submission – the English Thomas Hardy and the Nigerian Chinua Achebe. Keep a date with me.
Su’eddie Vershima Agema: When I mentioned that we would be having this conversation long, I knew it would be so. Hmm.
Since this is a conversation aimed directly, I take it head on.
I start by correcting that faulty line of Senghor being greater than Okigbo… M zambe [please] my brother, check that properly. Okigbo is seen as one of the best poets of African extraction &no one contests… Check. Literary tradition, the critics, connoisseurs &even readers have long done the coronation… Check.
Now to the talk on this all…
I believe that writing should not always be consigned to the way you put it my brother. The art should have more than the philosophy… it should have ‘art’. What then is art? It has been described by many people to mean different things but I hold it to be an expression of an innermost feelings. It captures our entirety through a rendition of all there is within us. Now, any work that carries this &does so fully wins us. It needs a little sprinkling of finesse to give it that extra crunch plus…
Some editing &proper carriage put in a way that is easily carried gives it that grace that is the universal. So in this way, it transcends just philosophy stated &other such things told to be a story of one &all that can be accepted everywhere, adopted &claimed for each one’s own. This forms the heart of my argument which I continue on the thread of the second part to your talk.
Ada Agada: @S’. I only read that Okigbo is the most exciting poet from English-speaking Africa. He is the most musical of the black poets but is surpassed by Senghor in magnificence and originality. Kofi Awoonor also noted this point of Okigbo’s heavy borrowing especially from Eliot. Those who rate Okigbo higher have not read much of Senghor who wrote in French. I have read the best poems of both. @S’. I don’t mean philosophy per se but thoughts, elevated thoughts.
Su’eddie Vershima Agema: I still think you should do your views on Okigbo are not so concrete. I have read much on him to know that above his ‘borrowing’ and the ‘musicality’, there’s a depth to him that is beyond words to express at this second. Talking of originality, what do you say of his own moulding of tradition into the fabrics of his poetry? Of course, I know Leopold Senghor and have read on him, his works extensively. What you have raised is a big argument but oh well, several scholars have gone on and on in several arguments on the greatness of who is greater – their loves or someone else.
NOTE now that I am not just saying that ‘I read’ that Okigbo is something. I have read enough of both him and others to know that he is worth the honour of his crown as one of the very best that black Africa has produced…
When it comes to our concepts of universality again, I think of it in this way: you being a philosopher look more towards it in terms of elevated thoughts. I being just a lay man look at it from the view of expression – an expression that can be felt and owned by people everywhere. Our very stands are created based on our personas, learnings, and thinking. Would we ever agree? I wonder. We would argue based on our various thoughts and leanings… We have read much to support our stance and would easily argue to that effect. Would we reach a compromise? Can we agree to disagree?
Ada Agada: @S’. I think we have already reached a compromise although our core beliefs stand. The agreement is that there can be no universal without the particular. We only disagree about the dimensions of universality. In fact I suspect you are a particularist, one who believes the universality thing is superflous.
The discussion continues here…
Ada Agada is the author of the novel, The Anxious Life (Aboki Publishers, 2011). He is also a poet. He holds a Masters in Philosophy from the University of Nsukka, Nigeria.
NOTE: This conversation was extempore and is largely based on direct talks between the two conversants.
For the first time, I am publishing my ‘Thoughts’ not on a book or article but on a person, a friend, Dr. Hyginus Ekwuazi – no, not the fine medical Dr, a great man in himself but the elder Dr. For those who do not know this literary giant – and it would be surprising, Dr. Hyginus Ekwuazi is a man of many talents. He is a lecturer in the department of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan – a former Head of Department. He is a giant in the famous Nigerian movie industry, Nollywood. In poetry, he is a name feared by competitors in any category that his work appears – quite justifiably.This might not be unconnected with his continuous swooping of prizes year by year since his debut collection in 2007. He has won the Association of Nigerian Authors’ Poetry prize with almost all of his four poetry collections. It has gotten so bad that people have suggested that he should be made a permanent judge so that the slot can be left open to other people to win – haba! Several prose writers need beware as he has joined the field. Dr. Ekwuazi recently published a children’s book, I’ve Miles to Walk Before I Sleep. And he isn’t stopping there, if he is the man that I know and yes, I think I do – to some point.
Dr. Ekwuazi’s poetry collections are Love Apart (2007); Dawn into Moonlight (2008); The Monkey’s Eyes (2009); and That Other Country (2010). They are all fascinating books including the ‘worst’ of them all The Monkey’s Eyes of which I wrote ‘You do not need to go beyond the cover of the book to see its ugliness.’ 🙂 (He laughed when I showed him an excerpt of the essay with this ‘yab’ or claims to have laughed. Hmm, one wonders if it is not the changing ‘I dey laugh’ sort of laughter of Nigerian politicians these days:)). Jokes aside, Ekwuazian poetry is beautiful. I should know this especially as I have had all my copies of the book in my possession ‘borrowed’ without my permission. Those which I got back as a gift from the author have exchanged so many hands of my friends and students. It is no surprise also that many of the students I have introduced it to have had need of very little convincing to write their final essays on. Themes that he focuses on behind love notes and simple verse include Biafra, nationalism, corruption, decay, love, life and death, among others. For style, he adopts a narrative stance that flow his poems as being story like. This indeed might be the magic of his poems that are also told in simple words, without any effort at pedanticism or the more traditional stance of obscurity by most poets. As such, even the casual reader falls in love instantly with the words of this pen magician whose way with words is phenomenal for even in his seeming simplicity and narration comes a great assortment of themes, literary and poetic devices. These devices are poured forth subtly such that only a careful look reminds one that the words used there are not ordinary but a rich trove. Hmm, with such craft, I sure agree that this man should be made a permanent judge or honorary ‘something’ (we will think of the title). Haba! How would others (like me with my just published 54 Weeks: A love poem) get something if he continues this way? 🙂 Of his poetry, Sam Ogabidu (Chairman of Association of Nigerian Authors, Benue State, well read critic and my good friend :)), writes that “It simply spells out a man who has read and read well.”
On why he published his prose quite late, I was pleasantly surprised when I read a letter he wrote to me and said “Do I write stories/prose? Where’s a true story: once upon a time, I started a novel and it was going very well; but from no where the fear just came upon me that if I finished it I would die…and so I stopped. I know you’re laughing but dis na true talk! Now I’ve overcome that fear…One fine tomorrow, I will start something…and you’ll see it” (April 1, 2010) I’ve Miles to Walk Before I Sleep is ‘junior fiction’ that extols the beauty of family and togetherness. Religion is discussed in neutral light and general education given a new outlook. It is instructive and educative without being a textbook narrative. It is the sort of book that one would want to give every child. It takes into cognisance the ideals and behaviour of the modern ‘internet’ child who is quite different from the child of fore (today’s parents). Not surprisingly, the flow of the novel is somewhat poetic and an Ekwuazi follower would easily notice theft of lines from his published poems!
In Dr. Ekwuazi is a man who is committed to his beliefs. He is steadfast and loyal. This is evident in his love of Christopher Okigbo who he idolises. This finds expression in essays of his like ‘Okigbo – Mythmaker & Towncrier at Heavensgate’ and countless poems dedicated to the late poet extraordinaire. It even continues to a point where one can bribe his feelings and love. I sent a collection of my poems Shrine Tale for his views. Some of the poems had been inspired by Dr. Ekwuazi and I made a point to tell him this. Not one of these got his attention. The ones that got to him were the ones that mentioned Okigbo! Dr. Ekwuazi’s loyalty can also be seen in his continuous romance with his publishers, Kraft books (owned by his friend, Steve Shaba). This has seen him publish all his poetry collections and the new children’s novel with them. The man’s loyalty spills through to friends, most of whom find their way to his poems. There is the Biafran touch that he holds dear and talks on in conversations – I believe, but most definitely stores in his thoughts and his works.
Another aspect to Dr. Ekwuazi is his simplicity and humility that would be attested to by most of his students. He is a content man too who doesn’t drag for too much. This part is most evident in the normal price of his books despite their richness both in content and layout. I was shocked to discover his collection of poetry going for a low amount (below five hundred naira!). This is a man whose poetry, as I mentioned earlier, is an award snatcher. As a friend, Dr. Ekwuazi remains loyal and faithful. Like I mentioned earlier, poems keep pouring for friends, living and dead. I do not have much to say of him as a father and husband but perhaps, I would be asking the younger Dr. Ekwuazi and Madam Nkechi, soon. Yes, this reminds me of the offer of tenancy for as long as I want that this great man has offered me. What am I waiting for? Well, let me finish with this piece first, then… Okay. So, to end I would say quite simply: Don’t skip any work that bears the name ‘Hyginus Ekwuazi.’ You sure might be writing an article longer than this after an intercourse with any. And I still wonder why critical works on him are unavailable or have I been looking in the wrong places? Whatever it is, a lot more needs to be done on him.