Title of Book: No Home in this Land
Author: Rasak Malik
Publishers: Akashic Books
Reviewer: Ndubuisi Martins (Aniemeka)
The death of a country is more colossal than the death of a people in it. The paradox here contains two ideas. One, it supposes that a country’s spatial life is dislocated from lives of people in it. This is in spite of the virtual victimhood constituted by the people who give the land that feel of place. Thus, there is a functional assumption that a country’s death weighs in more than the death of the people who inhabit it. This notion, also, slips into another meaning tending to bring onto our critical notion, parallel terms: deaths of land and people but land, to put in structuralist term, is the langue and people, the parole. This implies that where the langue is non-existent, no parole is at all mentioned. Two, that wherein a country and people die, the more significant is that of a country, because the psychological, physical and social conditionings of such a land can raise dead bones, hence, a sort of regeneration is a possibility, even if death banishes people and the land as a consequence, is deserted. That is the weird stir that informed the topic of the review essay, where land takes on more tragic terrain, not because there is a severance of its essence from the people that occupy it, but because people with no sense of place are defeated, largely non-existent!
Lamentations are indexical to poetry and most poems are replete with grief from classical African unconscious to English poetry and other literary traditions, come through as dirges. Poetry is some emotional edifice erected by a careful choice of language. If we recall WH Auden’s statement: ‘a poet is before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language’ (209), we would appreciate the poetic quality of Rasak Malik’s work. The emotion called upon by Rasak’s manipulation of language is urgently raw and somewhat scathing. Where people die, dirge in its traditional or modern tenor rides the solemn space, people’s hearts normally shrink in its sodden context. Rasak, one of the most important emerging voices of contemporary Nigerian poetry, has masterfully reinvented dirge, taking on the emotion of its empathic soul into crafting a resonating grief poetics, of people and most significantly, of a land, where life seems stifled and stifling, hence, deathful absence of a land ferries on free verse. The death here is not in direct binary relations with the literal absence of breath. It is that death we relate here; not exactly of breathlessness, but Rasak decidedly rues insecurity, pathetically of Nigeria and the absence of her ‘greenful’ ambience.
There is a sense in which in the title of the chapbook, No Home in this Land, Rasak calls back Achebe from the grave for a grief rebound of a dead country, Nigeria! This is so much so that Achebe’s There Was a Country is re-routed in the poetics of Rasak. Let me quickly add that the death of a country is not Biafra but Nigeria and, neither is this about the physical extinction, but the psychic dismembering of some parts of the country, where hitherto, everyone felt secure in any region and lived till ethnic bile catalysed the preceding pogrom and the subsequent Nigerian Civil War between 1969 and 1970. If we critically engage Achebe’s ambivalent memoir with regard to this metaphorical death he decries, we connect with his patriotic angst over leadership ineptitude that has probably made the land irretrievably dead. As this death subsists till death with little hope of resurrection, Rasak, like Achebe before him, demonstrates this metaphorical responsibility of what could possibly be a death knell that can be timely regenerative for the country to yet live. A critical exemplification of Rasak’s poetic outburst will suffice to show how he engages the death of place that Nigeria has become.
We approach, first in the collection, the poem, ‘Dedication’, not for acknowledgements for a project rigorously and now delightfully completed but for despicable ruins, deaths in mass volumes like tragic harvests. Grief is well spread on the persona’s mind where pictorially intoned is the tragic inventory:
For missing bodies, unrecovered bodies, drowned bodies, mangled bodies, dismembered bodies, bodies buried in a mass grave after an air attack in Borno
For the undocumented casualties, for the anonymous corpses sprouting in the streets of Kaduna, for the unheard voices of people nursing the wounds of war.
For Syria, for the woman envisaging the epileptic future of a country for the forgotten names of dead soldiers. (8)
Like a survivor of ruins in a land almost ceaselessly raped by violence, Rasak takes on the burden of reliving the landscape of ruinous effects. One finds the persistent images of dystopia in his lines, and this is even more catalytic when we find that people still seek ways ‘to survive without drowning.’ Here, the land like a monster swallows its own and the psychological affinity to a land full of dreams and opportunities for its dwellers is daily cast in hopelessness, routinely replaced by death and epitaphs.
Tragedy finds its theatre in Rasak’s poetry; this is as a great deal of the titles in this chapbook, are deeply etched in sorrowful recouping of violence wrought on land and the people in it. Apparent in this regard is the tragic decimal of the poems: ‘Leaving Home’, We Don’t Know Where We Belong’, ‘Counting her Losses’, In this Village Where Every dawn Begins With a Funeral’, ‘Grief’ ‘Elegy for Abu’, ‘How We Survive’, ‘Someday I Will Be No More’, ‘After my Grandma’s Burial’, and ‘How to Mourn.’ Most poems in the chapbook attest to one grieving situation or the other. In ‘Leaving Home’, for instance, the poet persona experiences sad memories tucked into his father’s briefcase as he considers that what lives is ‘the only picture of my dead brother, his clothes smeared by dust,/ his letter from Kano months before they sent his corpse/ to us like mail, like the remains of those who found/ no peace in their homelands; people who fell like trees/ trapped by a gale, people who died in their sleep,/ their hearts laden with fear, their mouths full of strange languages(10).’ From the promptings of his father’s suitcase as an image in the persona’s repertoire of grief, the reader is led through the grotesque reels of his mother’s bag. Here he spots the last letter sent to the mother by his Uncle Abdullah, the after-effect of the uncle’s demise is psychologically rattling to the widow of Abdullah and the son, whose face is daily traversed by the puzzle of his father’s absence. Clearly, grief sits in the very brow of time, shuttling by the day through the mind of the boy, whose questions of his father’s absence, are unanswered, and future attempts at conjecturing a response is yet mournful reminiscing so much so that grief is bound to recur. The tenor of grief for a village, aptly representing the Nigerian space, is reenacted in the poem, ‘In this Village Where Every Dawn Begins with a Funeral.’ Land cannot get more sodden, where even a child is complicit in the atmosphere of death:
In this village, where a child draws the image
of his dead mother on a cardboard,
where a man covers the pieces of his wife’s body
with leaves, where flowers replace bodies
buried in exile, where the muezzin’s voice receds…
The earth widens beneath feet,
As people trace the footprints of lost beloved
With lanterns and return to their huts to meet the mangled…
In this village there are unmarked graves, tombstones bearing
The names of ambushed soldiers, blood-draped walls of old houses,
Remnants of burnt homesteads, ruins of bombed stores, fallen branches
And dry twigs. The hills house refugees, camps built in the desert,
lands converted to cemeteries (17).
Implicit in the excerpt are arrays of images, first of a child, whose innocuous art of drawing evinces grave loss of the mother. If that is not enough, the despondency that makes a man stoop with half-throttled funeral of her deceased wife with leaves, or flowers as substitutes or wreaths for bodies claimed by senseless killings of people. The scenery of war from Rasak’s grief craft like Wilfred Owen’s poetry is mind-blowing as well as physically littering of violence and gnarling after-effect. If poetry is speaking picture, that of Rasak, intones intense grief and subjects the reader through a vicarious mindless refractions of carnage that his land has succumbed to. Rasak’s artistically nuanced engagement of Nigeria’s security problem in a poetic form that is novel and poignant, and for which he has earned a right to be considered one of the most important emergent voices, critically locates him in a patriotic coterie of Nigerian artists, whose works ventilate in fearless intensity, the human condition.
Much has been seen that grim realities are the catalogues of Rasak’s poetic offering. Chinua Achebe’s memoir of war, There was a Country, some critics would say, has an extant bearing on the subject of Rasak’s poetry in No Home in this Land, but I assert that they converge in grief poetics of space, and of people, whose sense of love and abject feeling of loss, psychic and physical, is approximated in both titles. Both accept the national psyche as they disown, they tear as they gather and unite ultimately in the tapestry of sordid realities of a land, where vultures and lambs co-exist in parasitic relationship oiled by ethno-religious infanticide. Nigeria, deep in security threats—Boko Haram and herdsmen rampage, seem only to inspire dirge; the poet cannot afford art for panegyric sake, if Nigeria by Rasak’s poetic outcry, is now in tatters and the people have new homes in Internally Displaced Persons Camps (IDPs). One senses that a home that endures quick or sustained raids of daredevils, where the night and days are insecure wait for the kind of pathetic internment that Rasak offers. Dirge, by Rasak’s poetry which is careered in free verse, is extensively penetrating; it probes deeper than usual bereavements not only of a person or a singular event but also of sustained grips on people’s lives. The Nigeria of the North East is the space, frequently in the news for gunmen and suicide bombers’ acts. Life in that part of Nigeria, is suffocating with ethno-religious terrorism and the rest of the country breathes the ruins, bespatter of bombers and bodies from the routine mindless attacks!
Rasak’s picturesque documentation of Nigeria’s recent history and prevailing vulnerable Nigerian space is so replete with carnage, recalls Mutiso (1974) citing Soyinka’s statement that ‘‘an artist has always functioned in the African society as a record of mores and experiences and as a voice of vision in his own time.’’ As an artist, Rasak has thrust to our view, calamitous and grievous loss of land and people, catalysed by the raging violence Nigeria has witnessed, and daily reliving in most parts of the North East and other parts of the country, where terrorist gory scenes give a sense of a country on a fast heel of total disintegration. In taking up this artistic burden, he has invested his linguistic and visionary powers to not only foreground the status quo, but also stir urgent reactions that may cause a revamp. To this end, Rasak’s poetic intervention is timely as there could yet be a home in this land.
Achebe, C. There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. London: Allen, 2012
Auden, W.H., “Poetry as a Game of Knowledge”, Richard Ellman and Richard Ellman and Charles Feidelson Jr, eds., The Modern Tradition: Backgrounds of Modern Literature, New York: Oxford University Press, 1965, 209-214.
Malik, R. No Home in this Land, New York: Akashic Books, 2018
Mutiso, G.C.M. Social Political in African Literature London: Macmillan Press Ltd 1974.
The height of exegesis