Reviews

Eating the Poetry in Okpanachi’s “The Eaters of the Living”

Book : Eaters of the Living
Musa Idris Okpanachi,
Kraft, 2006, (111p) ISBN 978-039-195-9
Reviewer: Senator Ihenyen

Perhaps, I would have ended up being one of the “eaters of the living” if I had not received Dr. Musa Okpanachi’s collection of poems, “The Eaters of the Living” recently.  Winner of the 2008 ANA Cadbury Poetry Prize, and one of the short-listed books in the 2009 Nigeria Prize for Literature, I suppose that only a cannibal could afford to eat up the opportunity of reading such book. However, you will not be totally wrong to describe me as one of the eaters of his poetry after I had “eaten” his lines, word-by-word.

Structured into eight sections, “The Eaters of the Living” attempts to portray a nation, ravaged by anomie, corruption, violence and power – a “carnival of cannibals”. In my attempt to devour the work, I will centre this review around what I consider to be Okpanachi’s poetic techniques, predominantly, employed in his work to create certain meanings and effects, drawing illustrations from the book.

Owing to its thematic pre-occupation, there is the predominant use of paradox and irony in the work. This effectively portrays the contradictions that have claimed a nation in the face of socio-political problems. In the very first poem, “Silence of Time”, the poet says:

“We dived into the ocean
And found it shallow.”

Also, in “Manifesto”, the persona says:

“I bring you a Christmas
Without a messiah”

“…I give you the flower of my love
That will lure you to death”

“Welcome to the state dinner
As guests to be eaten
Lets toast with your tears
Help yourself to the flesh
of your own blood”

In the poem, “The Free Prisoners”, lines 8-11 is ironical just as it is also paradoxical:

“We are the only prisoners
Walking freely on
The street in shackles
And bangles of handcuffs”

In another poem, “Crush Me”, it is ironical that

“I taught you
The art of life
With which you play the game of war”

In stanza four of the same poem:

“Silence me,
Take away my voice
For I gave you the tongue;”

As Dr. Okpanachi rightly describes it in his poem, “In Me” (pg 79), these contradictions are indeed “the world/on its head.” It mirrors the disturbing plight that we have found ourselves, in a nation with raped, ravaged and devoured “common heritage and patrimony”.

Apart from the use of paradox and irony, I discovered a copious use of repetition and parallelism in Dr. Okpanachi’s first volume of poems. These sound techniques do not only effectively create a musical quality in his poetry, but also reinforce meanings intended. It runs through the whole book like blood flowing through the veins in the body of his poetry. Of course, illustrations that would stir auditory appeal in our sense of sound and open your mind like a parachute abound.

In “The Spectators” (pg 38), every first line of each stanza begins with the lines, “We were witnesses”, giving the poem rhythm and unity.  Also, in the poem with which the collection is titled, “Eaters of the Living” (pg 28), enjoy these lines:

“Our nation is a nation of the eaters
They eat everything and everyone
They eat like the termites
They eat like the cancer cells
They eat like acids…”

“I am not tired” is also repetitive in  the poem, “I am not tired” (pg 25).

Parallel expressions and repetitions make “Where to Stand” (pg 19) an appealing poem. Beyond its musical quality, there is a unity of thoughts and emotions, while also placing emphasis on its meaning. Other illustrations can be found in “We give you this country” (pg 11), “After the dawn” (pg 61), “My Song” (pg 58), “Crush Me” (pg 71), Dirtied as this poem (pg 80), and “I am” (pg 82). Others are “In Me” (89), “Dossier of flowers” (pg 92), “She Came” (pg 95) and many others you would discover when you pick up “The Eaters of the Living”.

On imagery, Dr. Okpanachi, predominantly employs fresh similes and metaphors you will find imaginative, vivid and evocative. I will start with my favourites:

“…my face recurs at every door
Like decimal digits (lines 15-16, The Quest, pg 88).

“The acres of your thought
The limitless hectares of your imagination (11-13, We give you this country, pg 11).

“They eat like cancer cells
They eat like acids (lines 5-6, The Eaters of the Living, pg 28 )

“I bring you an iron rule
in the shadow of your
freedom” (lines 5-7, Manifesto, pg 14)

Other uses of imageries imageries include:

“They were cut down
Like banana stems” (lines 21-22, The Spectators, pg 38)

“At midnight,
Dark like the soulless
silhouette” (lines 8-10, Hangmen, pg 43)

“The fruits of freedom
Plucked from the pages of
Our history” (lines 49-51, Crush Me, pg 72)
These imageries make Dr. Okpanachi’s poetry rich and profound.

The use of enjambment, in which a line of poetry runs into the next, creates a free-flowing expression of thoughts, feelings and beauty in the work. “Code of Silence” (pg 13) is a good example:

“The code of silence
Is written across
Our lips
Hanging on our noses
Destinies written
in the mud on
the ruts of tanks…”

“Hunger” (pg 23), “I am not tired” (pg 25) and “Dossiers of Flowers” (pg 92), including many others contain good use of enjambment which makes the widely published lecturer at the University of Maiduguri express himself in a tide of uncluttered verses.

Curiously, I sense a leitmotif in Dr. Okpanachi’s collection of poems. By this, I mean a frequently repeated theme in his poetry. This is the theme of silence. At the risk of betraying the legal side of me,  I am forced to flip back the pages of this collection to the Acknowledgement page for authoritative purposes. On page six, the author whose second collection, “From the Margins of Paradise” is forthcoming from Kraft Books, stated:

“I wish to thank my co-travellers in the march of SILENCE. The wayfarers who endure SILENCE,…who understand the unspoken language of the MUTE, ho believe that the mystery of SILENCE speaks with the magic of courage…”(emphases mine).

In his opening poem, “Silence of Time” (pg 10), silence appears, and reappears in his third poem, “Code of Silence” (pg 13). What is the role of silence in Dr. Okpanachi’s poetry? I will leave that issue for another day, or you can unravel the plot behind this “silence” when you read this volume of over 60 poems.

Finally, I will attempt to briefly identify what I consider to be the eaters of the living poetry of the author. By this, I mean some typographical issues. In “After the dawn” (pg 69), I suspect that “down” as used in line 18 is a typographical error. The word, “dawn” appears to be the author’s intention. On mechanics, in “The god we made” (pg 34), the “L” in “lord of the streets” should be capitalised since a full stop had been introduced prior the “lord”. Lines 9, 14, 17, 30, 32 and 35 falls under this category. I believe these were not deliberate as they do not appear to be appropriate employment of poetic licenses.

On the whole, I have become one of the eaters of Dr. Okpanachi’s poetry – in the positive sense! Definitely, you should be dining with Dr. Okpanachi’s poetry by picking up your copy of “The Eaters of the Living”, to discover a peculiar dinner party where we are being feasted upon by the monster you will find on its illustrative cover page.

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