Reviews

Seventy Three Shades of Truth: A Perlustration of Anyokwu’s Poetic Fusillade

There is a voice journeying through the wilderness. It crouches here and stands there seeking to break free from entangling labyrinths. It is water here and rock there till it gathers enough wealth of thoughts that eventually solidify into Naked Truth. This Truth, like the rivers of Eden, breaks into three paths; Truth about here and there (47 poems), Sentimental Truth (15 poems), and Home Truth (11 poems). The bearer of this Truth hides behind Horatian Satire as he coats blitzkrieg in Irony, parody, pun, wit and hyperbole in order to mildly jab at human dull sensibility. Although some of the poems appear funny, they are not at all. If we peel off the garment of figurative language, there, at the heart of each of the poems, is a burning truth that should shame us all into reflections and alter our treatment of all that surrounds us, that is if we still have a scintilla of dignity left in us.

Truth. What is Truth? This is the same question the renowned post-modernist, Frederick Nietzsche asks and explains thus:

What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms … truths are illusions… coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

Nietzsche’s position aptly reflects the spirit of postmodernism which never believes in anything. Thomas Aquinas charges poets/thinkers with the responsibility of finding truth when he says “it is the task of the philosopher to make distinctions.” A.J. Ayer and David Hume posit that absolute truth can only be found in science and not in religion. This is fanatical but confirms the reality of truth. Regarding the concept of truth in art, Pablo Picasso says:

We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth at least the truth that is given us to understand.

This also affirms Picasso’s belief in the kind of truth which comes from art. Akin to this is Joseph Joubert’s confession “You arrive at truth through poetry; I arrive at poetry through truth.” M.C. Richards says it in a short line “Truth is reality.” What kind of reality? Personal? Universal? Physical? Spiritual? We cannot rely on just one aspect of reality to determine what is true. Truth should be a combination of realities properly interpreted. William Blake though confirms the reality of truth, he respects the intention behind its being told when he writes: “A truth that’s told with bad intention/Beats all the lies you can invent.” Some truths could be more destructive than lies. What then makes revealing the truth worth exposing is what that revealer intends to achieve with it.

nakedtruthPlato regards the artist as a mere ” imitator of images and is very far removed from the truth” (Republic X, 27). Truth therefore is not found in physical representation of phenomena but in the spiritual forms of things. Aristotle’s claim counters Plato’s view when he writes “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things but their inward significance.” This suggests that everything has its inherent truth conceived in the artist’s psyche. Getting to this innate truth does not require that we go through the world of forms. John Keats sees it from a different angle as he puts it in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all/ Ye need know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

We cannot totally agree with Keats because knowing the truth is not enough; one must live according to the truth. For Anyokwu, the poet, truth is seventy-three shades of the reality of our existence; our sociopolitical, economic and spiritual existences. Anyokwu’s Truth is naked; a personification that undermines the falsity of our mundane existence and the darkness that deprives us of the humbling sight of truth. Truth in this regard is ugly, the more reason those who have the power to clothe it up would do anything to keep it out of sight. Nakedness is a state of shame, the very realisation that made Adam and Eve cover themselves with fig leaves in order to hide their shame. In the same vein, people all over the world go any length to robe the Truth. The ugliness and shamefulness of truth makes Anyokwu garb his poetic renditions in satire — a mild way of attacking the human ego in order to make human beings come to terms with their laughable realities and alter their brutish ways.

The first section of the collection titled “Truth about here and there” captures many shades of truth expressed in satirical ways. These truths are about the state of the world today as the voice echoes from Africa to Asia, the Middle East, America and the rest of the world. The currency of the issues raised here gives this section a universal dimension. The title poem “Naked Truth” also doubles as the first poem and it captures a range of truths from the very early times when Europe came to Africa for the purpose of trading in human beings. It goes on to betrayal as Africans sold their own people “Their forebears, it was, who sold their subjects/ For rum and mirror/ For gunpowder and tinsel toys” (13). This is something many don’t want to remember. The poem goes ahead to trace Nigeria’s political weather from 1960 till date. Rulers still continue to betray their subjects just as the citizens embrace ethnicity to the detriment of national unity hence “Divided we stand, for unity is a poisoned chalice” (12). The height of this poem is found in its final lines where the poet further stresses:

Brother sell brother

For friendship died with Biafra and patrotism with heroes past

But today it exchanges hands like a dud cheque

Seeking to purchase a future

That flees from you like a shadow (13).

It is bluntly suggested here that feeling of brotherhood will continue to delude Africans/ Nigerians because of ethnicity and the grab-it-all attitude of their rulers.

The second poem in the section “Celebrating a thief” is a taunting metaphor attacking the drama of corruption that unfolded in the administration of General Olusegun Obasanjo. Though his name is not mentioned throughout the poem, it is evidenced in the poet’s use of Yoruba songs which are a mockery of the General’s style of looting. Those songs also symbolise people’s eagerness of elevating a thief to the position of a hero. In fact the songs are worship songs meant to make Baba have an inflated sense of his own importance so that he can bless his worshippers with a little portion of his loot. Worshipping here is a pointer to ignorance and collective oblivion of people. The people forget how “Baba nla ole rode roughshod over the people’s wish/ To State House the other day” (14). This reminds us of Obasanjo’s tyrannical entrance into power as a military man in the 1970s. “Baba nla ole” is a Yoruba expression which translates to “grandfather of thieves.” The poet’s use of antonomasia depicts Obasanjo as Nigeria’s Nebuchadnezzar who lets power get into his head and pays the price by spending seasons in prison. There is a hyperbolic tint to how he gets out of the prison to become a civilian president:

Yesterday’s man of power

Spoke in a voice of thunder

Behind bars and the earth shook

The prison doors opened, his chains fell off (15).

There is little or nothing a prisoner can do behind bars but the prisoner described here breaks his chains and the prison gates with his mere voice. This is not possible in a physical reality. No matter how a prisoner shouts he can never break his chains and the prison gates by thundering. Did Ebora of Owu have this kind of influence while in prison? Not likely but something was certain: he was a consolation to the Yoruba nation over the annulment of June 12th 1993 presidential election which eventually led to the death of Mushood Kasimaawo Olawale Abiola, the man who was denied his mandate. The poem ends on a mocking tone using the Yoruba song that describes the General as a father indeed.

Anyokwu decribes a sense of loss in “When ‘swallow’ is religion” and “The beggar.” He wrote “When ‘swallow’ is religion” when he went to Italy and realized that he could not find African cuisines in the streets of Macherata. Swallow is metaphor for African/ Nigerian cuisines such as eba, amala, pounded yam. African culture is not found in this strange land. You have to abandon “language of swallow” for “entente” and “tasteless bread” and your stomach strikes back as it rumbles in protest to the strange food. Food here is metaphor for home and servitude. You are home when you can eat homemade “swallow” but you are enslaved when you are forced to eat strange foods in a strange land because you will die if you don’t as there are no familiar cuisines around. The poet cannot wait but “count the seconds on leaden feet/ Before departure”(16). “The beggar” is the story of every African running away from home in search of greener pastures.

Here you are

In icy heaven

Tricked out in habits of strangers

Bowl in hand, running

After cavalier donors

Lisping an oppressor tongue

That puts your own to sleep (17).

Europe and America are the “icy heaven” freezing the bones of African children who struggle in winter to make ends meet. They run after arrogant Europeans and Americans and speak western languages that rob them of their own linguistic heritage. Sleep is used to depict how these strangers in foreign lands have gone into an inactive state of cultural loss as they wish to be more catholic than the Romans. Africans seek every means of getting into Europe and America hence:

A hitch-hiker paddling all night across the Mediterranean

Whose floor clatters with your kinsmen’s hapless bones

And the other day on satellite TV

Your brother was smoked out

From a plane-burrow, a stowaway

Fleeing dubious dignity for slavery

After all, it’s better to reign in hell

Than to slave in heaven (17).

The poet harasses our sense of smell with the metaphoric exaggeration where the position of being the first son in a family “Is a loud fart that puts out the wick of truth” (17). The people at home often expect much from these beggars across Europe and America not knowing that the Londoner or Americanah is also a beggar in a foreign land. The poet examines other shades of truth in many other poems in this section. Shades such as man’s treatment of nature in “Climate Change 1 & 11,” disease in “Ebola,” the search for meaning in “Meaning,” the pettiness of lecturers in “Pettiness,” religious fanaticism and bravery in “Gospel according to Malala,” etc.

Section two of the collection comes under the title “Sentimental Truth.” It has fifteen poems which focus on other shades of truth coated in muted satire. The truth here is sentimental because it chronicles the adventures of love. The poet is in search of the kind of love that is true and pure such that it excludes all the banalities of universal beliefs about love. In “Mother” the poet-persona goes on a journey, not to find his mother, but to find love. The persona travels in a canoe and encounters several obstacles – “sharks and crocodiles” which are metaphors for all the hindrances that threaten us on the way to true love. If you must be a true lover you must learn the art of bravery and travel on the river like this seeker. River here reminds us of the birth-death-rebirth myth; hence the seeker must travel on it to find the life that is in love. What the seeker seeks is transformation and change all of which is found in the symbolism of the river. He has come to make a sacrifice. He has with him “Salt” (symbol of tasteful life), “oil” (symbol of peaceful living), “water” (symbol of life as against death), “kaoline” (symbolising healing) and “white cloth” (symbol of peace and purity). His bringing all of these items points to the fact that his life is not in order and he knows why.

I have come, Mother

And here are the items:

Salt, oil, water, Kaoline,

White cloth — now

Bless your child: give me, LOVE (69).

Love is the missing ingredient; the result is the chaos in seeker’s life. To pour oil on troubled waters, he must make the sacrifice that is expected to bring him love. LOVE’s significance is stressed in capitalising it and making it the final demand, the final word of the poem. The persona has gone to Mother hoping to get some love as mother is a giver of life and love. The love of the mother is the first thing a child knows, how come this persona returns home asking mother to give him love again? Could it be that due to carelessness he lost the first love given to him? Anyokwu periscopes another shade of truth and love in “Can’t we love without making love?” This touches on the question of sensual love. There is a tussle between romantic and the strange kind of love which the poet espouses. This strange love is one without sex yet not devoid of emotions. This is where the problem really is. If a man and a woman fall in love the natural thing that follows is consummation of that love. If the love is not consummated it is believed that the love is incomplete. This is the very notion the poet is trying to correct. The theory of loving without making love projects two sides of love ; to make love is to be involved in sexual intercourse with the object of one’s love but to love does not necessarily need the involvement of sex. What then is it about love that makes it feel incomplete without sex? This is obviously a dialogue between two secret lovers who know that their love is illegitimate by the societal standards.

Remember we both belong

To someone else

And you say that’s the thrill

Sugar girl, can’t we love

Without making love (71)

This type of love without sex sounds too sublime and unrealistic for human eccentricities and expectations. Some theorists opine that only agape love is cut out for such purity and sanity and of course that is left for the Divine. Then there is a lover begging to be killed in “Kill me.” He does not want to be killed with “bombs and bullets,” not with “Boulders and bludgeons” but with “showers of honey/ dizzying Nirvana of ” the lady’s “succulence.” The poet would rather be killed with

the steamy wrestle, the painful pleasures/ of orgiastics, the uuhs and aahs/

Of mutual passion (81).

The oxymorons of “painful pleasures” and many other euphemisms for sexual callisthenics are those things which are capable of “killing” a man such that a dead man is he who is in love and carried away into the land of sexual bliss. Love or sex is therefore a pleasurable way of dying. Other poems in this section; “lead us not into temptation,” “marriage, love and sex,” “song of the mating flies,” “Morountodun,” etc. also explore the boundaries of a sexual love and the ideal love. Where does the former stop? Where does the latter begin? In fact the whole of this section is a curious long standing question about love: what is love?

The third and final section of the collection has everything pointing downwards to death. Death is a universal Truth. The position given to these last eleven poems is emblematic of the final truth of man’s earthly existence. It does not matter the age at which anyone dies; death always comes last. In the poem “For Chinelo” the poet says

Indeed, all earth’s treasures are but dross:

The fabled Golden Fleece, the itch of desire,

The noisy pride of achievement and the

Sundry ceremonies of fools.

‘Tis all dust to dust. Silence…

Rest Chinelo, for all’s quiet now. (86).

This quietness happens to us all in death. “Fate” features other indices of death such as the terrorists’ groups (Boko haram & ISIS), religion, acid rain, floods, hurricanes, and ebola. This adds to the currency of these poems. How ebola kills is dramatised in “Love in the time of Ebola.” “Death” is dedicated to the poet’s uncle just as other poems such as “Chinelo,” “Death is a fallacy,” “Love in the time of Ebola,” are dedicated to the poet’s colleagues and students who embraced death. “Be prepared” comes as a warning after all the deaths which the poet has experienced. The repetition of the song line: “There’s a whole lot of people going home…” is a reminder of the sad universal truth of the end of every human being here on earth. And if we really look around we’d see that death is taking a lot of people away. “Home,” as used in this line suggests that this world is not our home; there is a place beyond where human soul can find comfort and rest. Death itself is not home, only a passage. The poet captures instances of death:

You look at last year’s photo

The smile freezes on your face

As you recognize the steady depletion:

Love, standing by your side

All picture of beauty and rude health

Is gone, without a goodbye;

To your near left, Bob

The ladies’ man, the Black Adonis

Himself, left in mangled metal

On the road, the doctors pronounced him BID* and

If you listen closely

You will hear dying snivellings of mourners (95).

These are scary lines reminding us of our mortal end. Anyokwu thus defines truth in “Remembering to forget”

Truth is a village lunatic hawking public shame

And private indiscretions in the market place

Buyers flee from his shocking wares like the plague

And yet truth follows them wherever they go (88).

The poem insinuates that the way forward is to let the coming generations forget the harsh realities of history. Truth being “a village lunatic” is metaphor for the ugliness of truth and we may really never be able to get away from such ugliness for Truth haunts us eternally. But we cannot edit our history because we don’t want subsequent generations to perpetuate the prejudices of our ancestors. We too must be bold enough to hand them the truth of our history the way it is. That way, they make informed decisions about their own future.

The cover page does not have as much connection it is expected to have with the poems therein. There are faint figures of some persons bowing before an unseen god in an act of worship. The title, Naked Truth, comes in white against uncertain dull background colours. One would have expected that the background and the text come in complementary symbolic colours such as black and white so that the dramatisation of Truth begins here. Capitalisation of the ‘N’ of Naked and the ‘T’ of Truth helps to magnify the extent of the poet’s irritation for our false lives. If there is no freedom Truth can never be found hence the bird. There were times in Nigeria’s history when no one could criticize the rulers so brazenly. The bird at the upper part of the cover page adroitly captures the freedom which comes with knowing the truth as that famous Bible passage puts it “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). The truth which the poet found not only set him free but also made him mad and his anger is fed into the satirical lines. Aldous Huxley is then right when he says: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad.”

The Title poem, “Naked Truth” does not really come close to being the master piece expected of it in this kind of collection. There are many other poems in this collection which beat “Naked Truth” in style and theme. “Betrayal,” “Ghost Road, “Traffic” and etc. are far more beautifully crafted and contain bitter Truths which the poet hopes to communicate. “Naked Truth” is at best an elevated speech not a poem worthy of its position in this collection. Though this poem marshalls topical truths in Nigerian history, it would not have taken anything away from this collection if not included. Line fifty of this poem has a typographical error where the inflection “s” is omitted from “Brother sell brother.” Naked Truth as the overall title of this collection is all encompassing enough to house all the poetic salvos of the poet. It is not necessary to tag this title to a particular poem.

The poems “Chimamanda,” “Ucheka,” and “Arsenal” have no business in this collection and if at all they must be included they should come in the last few pages.

It is also worrisome how many of the poems in this collection end on a very bleak note. “Homo Haram” enjoins us to “blot out the sun/ And poison the rain.” “When Africans die” is soaked in hopelessness as the final line shows that there is no help in sight yet “Because they are in hell.” “Climate change I” concludes “And soon, we shall be homeless.” “Climate change II” also finishes thus “And then all shall return home.” Even love is painted as the road to impotence in “Marriage, love and sex” and death in “kill me.” The poems in the last division keep reminding us of the sureness of death. This is poetry of human Apocalypse, that is if something is not done to rescue humanity. How much can poetry do in this battle? While these poems portray Anyokwu as a prophet of doom because they are long on flogging the problems and short on providing solutions, Olahoro perceives the poet as “a prophet of truth” (62). We cannot deny the truths presented but we also demand the realistic ways forward. This is when art/ poetry performs one of its very vital functions of saving humanity from the brinks of utter collapse.

This is Anyokwu’s first poetry collection. It is not a bad try for a first collection. The Truths expressed have taken the poet years to discover and craft into poetry. With this collection, Anyokwu formally joins the league of the fourth generation Nigerian/ African poets.

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