The Horsemen and other poems
73 pp Africa World Press, Inc.
This one is for Mr. V. O. Thomas, my English Literature teacher, “Fat head! Read! Read Abiku!”
“There seems to be a crisis in the poet’s trade these days; his shop is worm-eaten and the wooden beams of its roof rotten and collapsing; the ceiling is caving in and our poet might go to the dog-house if the critic does not rebuild the shop. A notable and signal decline in quality, coupled with an overproduction of poetry, is ceaselessly propelled by a contemporary failure of criticism in nurturing and mid-wifing good or even great poetry. This phenomenon seems to stretch from equator to equator around the globe. And it seems to involve all who are in the business of publishing – from poet or ‘poetaster’, to editor, to critic, prize-awarding institutions, and publishers, especially the vanity press and, online poetry journals! This is not to suggest that there are no great quality works being produced, but that such quality poetry seems to burst forth in spurts these days; that there is much too much chaff out there.”
– Amatoritsero Ede, Editor, Sentinel Poetry (Online) in Sentinel Poetry (Online) #54
Anyone who worries about the fate of poetry in today’s world should read Amatoritsero Ede’s editorial on the subject here. It is an immensely readable and enlightening look at the state of poetry in today’s global world of unthinking consumers. Ede’s editorial begs the question: Is poetry on its last knees? From where I sit, I honestly believe that poetry is enjoying a renaissance. Warning: Poets who rely solely on the book as a medium of expression are yearning for irrelevance. Publishers are in the business of making money and they are not going to publish poems unless they are assured of a profit. Therefore the poet’s volume of rejection slips from traditional publishers is directly proportional to the enormity of the poet’s literary gifts. These days, the book does the poet a huge disservice. I personally have a love-hate relationship with the book as a medium of expression. I don’t like books because they tend to trap the ideas of our best minds in a forgettable vat of obscurity. How many people read books these days? Meanwhile, mediocrity soars free, on the wild wings of the Internet. I believe it is time to escape the limitations of traditional literary media. We must not be like bound books – bound by the suffocating strictures of tradition. Our writers should be judged by the quality of their ideas not the quantity of their books. And I dream of a living, breathing anthology of the best poems I have read in recent times. That anthology would not be a book; it would be on the Internet, on a blog or a website showcasing the best and the brightest of our beautiful people. In my eyes, it would be a rollicking roll call of brilliance with names we have never seen gracing books. I mention no names, but I ask the gentle reader to surf the web and look for hope in our writers. There is hope everywhere one sees. If we don’t see hope in our books, it is because hope doesn’t sell. Publishers have to eat and eat well. It is a crying shame. But we must change that or lose our best thinkers like Obi Nwakanma.
Where is all this leading? Hopefully to Obi Nwakanma’s book, The Horsemen and other poems. The famously finicky Amatoritsero Ede should read Nwakanma’s book and reconsider his stance. I don’t know much about how poems are put together but I love poems. I don’t know much about how music happens but I love music. I don’t remember asking anyone to define for me good poetry and good music. I simply cock my ears like an ancient dog and lean into the wind of the bard’s pain and I am good. If the poet speaks to me, I am good. Alas, these days, much of what passes through my eyes posing as poetry is ceaseless self absorption penned by narcissists afflicted by a messianic complex. Nwakanma avoids this pitfall and the reader enjoys a good collection of poetry that is eclectic and not in a contrived way. The Horsemen and other poems is quite simply an arresting and enchanting production. After reading The Horsemen and other poems I can confidently say that Nwakanma can write what Amatoritsero Ede would call poetry. The brother can sing. If you remember Chris Okigbo you will love this little book of poetry. Christopher Okigbo’s influence is everywhere. Shades of Okigbo blanket the reader’s consciousness. Nwakanma speaks to the reader in the tradition of the poets before him, who were afflicted with the debilitating disease of possessing a clear vision of the coming apocalypse, of the towncriers who wailed nonstop to indifferent ears about the pain of the coming dispensation. When I think of the poets of my childhood, they are speaking in English, they are writing in English, but they speak to me in the guttural language of my ancestors. In speaking to me, they make me smell the earth of my ancestors; I smell the sweaty raffia palm regalia of my ancestors’ masquerades. They speak to me, comforting me, soothing my anxieties. That tradition is dying of course; it is hard to find poets of that genre. A handful still remains and I can say that Obi Nwakanma is one of the very best in that select club that I have had the pleasure of reading.
In The Horsemen and other poems, many layers of perspectives reveal themselves to the reader through the deft use of imagery. Nwakanma is adept at the use of the turn of phrase to ambush and delight the reader. Nice. On virtually every page of the book, many layers of dispensation and being jostle with each other for position. I love how Nwakanma plays with words and forces images, quite a few of them sensual, on the reader’s eyes. Every junction is a gentle riot of colors. The poet in Nwakanma successfully returns to the time tested tradition of writing for the individual reader. As a result, my interpretation of each poem is really up to me and is informed by my personal journeys and experience. Nice, very nice.
There are many things to like in The Horsemen and other poems. I loved the haunting lyricism of Deep Crossings (p 6). Take these lines for instance:
Let my cry come, hang dry
Like the worn sail, a plea to the sultry wind.
Bleach the light, my silence…
Let me sail –let me sail in silence
Swallowed by twilight.
Let the twilight sing the song of this empire.
Those who are familiar with Nwakanma’s writings know that no book of his would be complete without the mention of his guiding deity Agwu, patron deity of artists, visionaries, seers and those loitering on the lunatic fringe. In that regard, this book does not disappoint. Agwu hooks up with Nwakanma to deliver a throaty ode to Nigeria’s dreamers; Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Christopher Okigbo, Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, and Emmanuel Ifeajuna. Agwu the Impish One shows up in robust laughter and song in A String Lullaby, a piece dedicated to Fela Anikulapo Kuti (p 10). That piece alone is worth the price of this book. Hear Nwakanma and Agwu in delightful song for Abami Eda, the Weird One:
The drums are speaking today… remember
The hands that carved their melodies
The drums are speaking today… remember
Their silence their hollowness.
In Nocturne (p 47) the reader is delightfully overcome by a wealth of imagery like this gem:
Each afternoon leans upon my sad porches
Each afternoon sighs like the distant echo of the magnificent nocturnal –
The loquacity of the poem Abuja ironically has hints of J.P. Clark-Bederemo’s tight-lipped depth of Ibadan (p 18).
This is an important city; no monologue
is minimal, none can be reversed.
The giant trees are silent, hewn,
in their places, steel cenotaphs.
Abuja is eclectic, and deeply deceptive in its seeming simplicity. Its mournfulness also reminds me of the song Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell (also performed by Bob Dylan). The original lyrics of Big Yellow Taxi were written in the 1966-69 time period, an epochal period in Nigeria’s life, a period very much on Nwakanma’s mind. Listen to Yellow Taxi
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
and a swinging hot spot…
… They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see ’em….
The sweet musky odor of sex is never far from the surface of this book, lurking, and wiping one’s feverish brow with towels of stirring symbols (p 47).
Ah, her mysterious voice, darkening,
resonant, hovers across the fields;
It is the moistness
that shapes our moments…
The tenderness continues in The Returnee (p 39)
She is the wraith that dries herself
besides the fireplace. Nude as plain water.
Perhaps it was a word that gripped her lips.
Perhaps it was a startled smile.
Perhaps it was a dirge uttered to the flame.
Nwakanma’s poems are mournful, soulful and deeply spiritual. They are also deeply troubling in parts. He also gives robust voice to his personal struggle with and ambivalence towards what I call the new dispensation of our being. He views globalization with a heavy dose of skepticism and it shows. In The Horsemen and other poems, Nwakanma gallops through many seasons of war, ploughs through many cemeteries of fallen dreams, scales okra covered walls and chases dreams that never left our huts in the first place. And the reader comes upon this land of alien deities, and lands exhausted on the unwelcome mats of these strange people that worship feuding gods. Come to me, Jesus said, the Devil is evil. And we asked, Esu alagbara is evil? There are no wars in this land. But there is no peace in this land. This land is at war. There is no hunger in this land of plenty but the people are hungry because the cornucopia of plenty is filled with plastic cheeseburgers. We have stayed too long in paradise and trapped ourselves in our own private prison. We are at war like no one has seen in this strange place where doors are always opening. And closing.
The book is not without its share of flaws and I have a few quibbles with its production, all of which I lay at the feet of the publisher Africa World Press. The preface went on too long – the last paragraph would have been just fine; everything else was WTMI – way too much information. Let the reader do his or her own research because sometimes the joy is in the hunt. I am not a fan of Africa World Press – their publishing is ho hum. I don’t see how they can compete for world class writers with the rest of the publishing world. Africa World Press could use a good editor. Back to the book, I would have loved to see a partnership between a graphic artist and Nwakanma in this haunting book, say, Nwakanma and Victor Ekpuk and/or Victor Ehikhamenor. Now that would have been something. Some graphic illustrations would have helped the reader immensely in plumbing the dark recesses of Nwakanma’s angst. I have a copy of Christopher Okigbo’s Labyrinths. Like Nwakanma’s book, it is spare and stark but the graphics that accompany the pieces Watermaid, Newcomer and Initiatives arrest the reader’s mind and takes the reader on a journey to the most sacred of grottoes. Effective. The thinker Olu Oguibe also uses the same technique in his book A Gathering Fear to awesome effect.
Nwakanma does fall victim to the universalism that he rails against. In the beginning there were walls. I remember the end of the beginning. In the beginning there were these walls, but they are coming down, slowly on everything that we hold dear in our hearts and minds. Nwakanma knows this and he is not happy about it. In the voices of our children, in the songs of our people, Nwakanma feels the devastation that our collective poor judgment has wrought on the land. There are lawyers that can’t write a sentence, doctors who operate slaughter houses, and writers whose poetry is haunting only in its incoherence. In Nwakanma’s world, the movement of people, resources and ideas in the new global world is relentless. Like a school of hungry fish we swim, swim and swim for dear life. Each movement creates despair and devastation in its wake. The past is hopeless, the present confounds us with its chilling reality of alienation and tomorrow presents us the shimmering hope that our children will never swim this way. It is a sad apocalyptic vision. Nwakanma fears that we may be stuck in a self fulfilling prophecy. Things have fallen apart. Chinua Achebe’s book Things Fall Apart must be living rent-free in Nwakanma’s fecund mind. Let us pray.
All in all, I salute Obi Nwakanma’s spirit. There are these things in the air, crisp and unseen that connect the reader with a seeming nothingness but give birth to a searing awareness. In Horsemen and other poems, Nwakanma speaks to me from the bowels of my ancestors’ coven. He speaks to me howling, bawling, and soaking me in the song of my mother’s grief. In the feverish insistence of his voice, in the feverish insistence of his rhythm, in the pounding of his feet on our mothers’ earth, he speaks to me. His poems hold my conscience captive, and his abiding spirit leashes me strong away from the pain of hovering on the edge of alien playgrounds. And joy rides my senses, going places in the heart where fear clings to life. Hey, look at joy bounding up and down the steps of happy memories. In Nwakanma’s little book that roars, Joy takes me by the hand and says; where there is life, there is hope! I salute you, Obi Nwakanma!