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Poetics of Remonstration: An Inter-textual Analysis of E.E. Sule’s Poetry

But before the other animals launch into their oratory of spiteful diatribes on the inhuman, barbaric and cannibalistic nature of man, Lion takes his time to chastise all domestic animals for allowing themselves to be abused, misused and derided by man, thereby bringing shame and dishonor to the animal kingdom. Lion, in addressing the “falcon”, chastises the bird for its treachery and compares this act of treachery to man. The Lion posits:

man homes you

for your titillating tongue

because man himself

owns a spear as his tongue

and harms his fellow man

now that you come here

hope you know

your tongue

should be sheathed [?] (20)

 

naked sun
Naked Sun

Let us for a moment, pause to lean onto the wisdom of an authority, so as to fully appreciate the significance of the stanza quoted above. Hans Bertens in his critical work, Literary Theory: The Basics (2014), posits that, “Literature offers the most profound insights into human nature and the human condition that are available to us. Because of its profundity and its authenticity, it offers a vantage point from which to criticize the superficial, rationalized, and commercialized world in which we live.”(26). Bertens’ words are instructive in the sense that they provided a metallic foundation for this endeavour, and even go a step further in concretizing the supposition of this engagement that Sule, more than just making use of animals as instruments of instructing man on his missteps, is fulfilling the responsibility of literature so brilliantly proposed by Bertens, by offering a retrospective criticism of the Nigerian, nay African, social reality.

Perhaps Pope was mistaken in proposing that the “proper study of mankind is man” considering Sule’s representation of animals that seem to be more informed and acquainted with the cunning and avaricious nature of man. Dog, one of the closest and reliable of man’s animal friends, in his narrative monologue about man, makes sterling and realistic remarks on man. According to Dog,

redolent of

heavenly ecstasies

greed is the consuming emirate

in the orbit of man’s conscience (28)

And the Donkey paints a clear picture of man. According to Donkey’s account;

 

man’s strength is there

in his stomach

where he worships greed

in the sacrament of potbelly

man’s strength is there

in his bankcounted greed

where money rapes his inte[r]grity

in the craft

of charming mints (40)

As stated above, Sule’s poetry is chiefly hinged on the idea of man as a composite of all the other components of the environment, including the living and non-living things. In each of the collections there exists a symbiotic connection between man and the environment. In Naked Sun, the persona reenacts the misadventure of military dictatorship in the 90s and the collapse of social consciousness occasioned by the injustice and anti-people and anti-progressive ideals perpetuated by the coup masters of that era, which did not only plunder the nation’s fortunes but launched her on the inglorious journey of retrogression and dystopia. For Sule, it was a period where the sun became naked, and human beings were stripped of their humanity as terror held sway over the affairs of the land. Man is incapable of redeeming himself as he seems to be trapped in the delirium of the mundane, too engrossed for an introspective pause.

naked sun

is

the man-monster

always ever lucky to get asorocked

and pisses on the ashes of the masses

burnt for him by national policies (17)

In the stanza above, the poet summarizes the slave-and-master relationship that exists between the privileged folks who occupy the presidential villa and the poor masses. It is intriguing and instructional to note that, although these poems were influenced by the military era, their social imports are as fresh today as they were decades ago. The gap between the elite and the masses has perhaps become worse today. The quality of life has drastically reduced and democratically elected leaders have failed to improve the living conditions of the citizenry and purge the nation of her economic menopause. The rich are getting richer in the face of abject poverty, and lootocracy remains a booming trade across tiers of government. It goes without saying that the political values of leadership in the land, whether under military or civilian dispensation, has not changed. This equally affirms the transcendental nature of literature to live beyond the period of its creation. Sule’s Naked Sun peaks to the Nigerian society of today as it did about yesterday, but man being a delusional animal controlled largely by his material urges continues to fail to reclaim himself and his society. Sule instructs that the citizenry must stand up and take responsibility for their liberation from the inanities brought upon them by their leaders, accordingly in the following stanzas;

we must sing our song

let us loosen

these roped tongues

let us!

I recall

under the naked sun

welter of screaming rays

stampeded our nerves

expanding in geometric strength

feelings on sizzling minds

caked on our lingering wound

let us loosen

these roped tongues (9)

Chidi Tom Maduka (1994) posits that “literature enhances man’s awareness of the interlocking relation between human freedom, self-determination of people and progress in society and the necessity of erecting systems that sustain (the life of social) institutions.” Maduka’s lofty proposition is that literature enhances man’s awareness of the interlocking relation between human beings and the society; it is, however, doubtable to say that literature has performed that very instrumental role assigned to it by that erudite scholar. Instead, the Nigerian society seems akin to a jungle of philistines where cultural appropriation is considered a fool’s endeavour. Nonetheless, writers and poets like Sule continue to write, hoping that a miracle might happen. They continue to try to reconstruct the already bastardized physic of a society that does not encourage intellection. This is the plight of a country that is insistent on self-destructing without redemption. In What the Sea told Me, the “sea” possesses the mystical powers to heal and to redeem and thus the hope of man’s redemption from anarchism is to embrace the wisdom of the sea. Just as in the previous collections discussed above, the sea assumes an anthropomorphic position again in this collection. The idea of symbolism is instrumental in aggregating the craft and aesthetic undertones of Sule’s poetry.

Sule is one of the few Nigerian symbolists who uses it in a way that its import tends to escape the grasp of the philistine uncultured in the ethics of poetic arts. What the Sea told Me bears the elements of traditional African poetry through its use of incantation and allusion to “ancestors.” The “sea” is sometimes a goddess, a woman and sometimes it is simply water in its natural state. The persona addresses it as though he is addressing a deity. The collection shares metaphysical qualities with Christopher Okigbo’s poetry. A first, second and even a third reading might still not be enough to unravel the mystery behind the mystical poems that seem to be addressed to a mythical goddess.

Sule’s poetic commitment to the consciousness of man is iridescent in the collection, just as it is in the others. For example in “The News Comes” we see an invocation of the sea to redemption of man in the seventh stanza;

Oh Sea

Invoke a death

From your eerie bowel

To strike these repeated ghosts

Throwing dusts in the eyes of my folks. (15)

There is no mincing words in saying that What the Sea told Me is replete with invocation and allusion to Africa’s glorious past and her heroes. The struggle to rediscover man and reconnect the African to his root is evident in the collection. In more than one instance, Africa features as a theme and we see the poet calling on African sons in foreign lands to return home to their roots. In this context the sea is projected as a god to which all must be subservient as can be seen in the poem “It’s Come to This” in which estranged sons of Africa are invoked to return to Africa to the service of the Sea, and in performance of this rite of repentance, they are required to bring along “a cock” “a goat” and “pot” in order to appease the god. We also hear the persona declaring a return to “ancestral heroism” which indefinitely implies a return to the practice of African traditional religion. The persona insinuates that in spite of the dehumanization brought about by slavery and colonialism, Africans are still recommitting themselves to that inglorious epoch of Africa’s dark past. In what is obviously a regrettable resolution he declares “I shall not be the hare beaten by rain twice.” Implicitly, in suggesting that several Africans have not learnt from their past misfortunes, the persona declares;

Bid Okri and Nduka come home

with a cock, a goat, a pot

to pour libation under the baobab

I will not be the hare beaten by rain twice.

Son of the wind, begotten of Eaglewoman

I will seek my ancestral heroism

left in the corridors of prehistory.(23)

The persona’s position in the poem is controversial and readily calls to mind the Negritude movement propounded by the pioneers of African literature. Sule’s is a reechoing of age-long proposition by some Pan-Africanists that Africans must return to their ancestral home in order to find their true bearing in the world. Sule’s call on the sons and daughters of Africa to return home is reminiscent of the parable of the prodigal son returning to his father after wasted years wandering and suffering. This idea of return to the source has been exemplified by Christopher Okigbo in his poem “ThePassage” in which the persona is said to be Okigbo himself who returns to the worship of his ancestral deity, “Mother Idoto” the river goddess. The renowned critic, Charles Nnolim (1988) provides a more perceptive perspective on this when he posits that: “The Negritude movement was African Utopian literature per excellence with its consistent retour aux sources or return-to-the-sources theme.” However, Nnolim alleges an inconsistency in the negritude philosophy, when he opines further that “African concept of utopia is, in the main, backward-looking, reflecting a backward-looking world view.”

One can in a way align with Nnolim’s supposition considering that in spite of the cultural revolutionary impacts of the Negritude Movement Africa remains a backward entity in the 21st century.  A more futuristic utopia as proposed by Nnolim would serve Africa better in projecting possibilities for a new hope and aspiration and not the clamour for a return to ebbed glories that only linger in our memories as once being part of our history. In the poem “Neurotic Phase II” Sule manifests a consciousness towards the redemption of man as the leitmotif of his poetry. He declares thus;

I dusted my conscience to make meaning to man (49)

Sule in this singular line impresses on us a defining philosophical profundity that takes us back to the earliest premise upon which this exercise is hinged. It corroborates Pope’s counsel that “the proper study of mankind is man.” Thus, Sule’s poetry operationalises Pope’s assertion, that man may truly know and redeem himself.

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Works Cited

Pope, Alexander. (1734) An Essay on Man online @ https//.en.m.wikipedia.org

Orwell, George. (1945) Animal Farm, online @ https//.en.m.wikipedia.org

Goffman, Erving. Dramaturgy, (definition) online @ https//.en.m.wikipedia.com

Maduka, Chidi. T. (1994) Across Frontiers: Comparative Literature and National Integration, Inaugural Lecture Series No. 14, University of Port Harcourt, online @ www.wikipedia.com

Nnolim, Charles E. (1988) RidentemDicereVerum; Literature and the Common Welfare, an Inaugural Lecture delivered at the University of Port Harcourt, In Literature, Literary Criticism, and National Development, University of Port Harcourt Press, Port Harcourt, 2012.

Bertens, Hans. (2014) Literary Theory; The Basics (Third Edition). Routledge, New York.

Sule. Emmanuel E. (2005) Knifing Tongues, Makurdi: Aboki Publishers, Benue state,

Naked Sun, (2006) Makurdi: Aboki Publishers, Benue State.

Sule, Emmanuel Egya (2009), What the Sea told Me, Abuja: Hybun Publications International, Nigeria.

About the author

Paul Liam

Paul Liam is a poet, author, book reviewer, critical literary essayist, editor, literary columnist, polemist, creative writing mentor. He is the co-editor of Ebedi Review (Journal of the Ebedi International Writers’ Residency, Iseyin, Oyo State, Nigeria). A former Assistant Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors, (ANA), Niger Chapter, his published works include, Indefinite Cravings (2012), Saint Sha’ade and Other Poems (2014), and his numerous critical essays and interviews have been published in highly reputable Nigerian Newspapers including: The Nation, The Sun, Nigerian Tribune, Daily Independence, Daily Trust, Blue Print, Nigerian Pilot, etc., and online @ africanwriter.com, dugwe.com among others.

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