It is the coldness of death—not death itself—that breaks the heart. This is the confession of the contributors to Wreaths for a Wayfarer, an anthology of over one hundred and sixty poems that celebrates the life and mourns the death of a Nigerian writer and scholar, Pius Adesanmi, who died on March 10, 2019, in the Ethiopian Airline Flight 302 crash. By honouring Adesanmi, the editors Nduka Otiono and Uchechukwu Umezurike help to preserve his memory and consolidate his legacy, while also initiating conversations that confront the system which enabled his death. Divided into four parts, namely “Wayfarer,” “Requiems,” “Homecoming,” and “A Selection from Pius Adesanmi’s The Wayfarer and Other Poems,” the anthology, published in 2020 by Narrative Landscape Press, congregates some of the finest established and emerging poets from Africa and beyond, who through their own grief console all those affected by Adesanmi’s passing.
The poet Odia Ofeimun, Adesanmi’s “personal friend,” articulates the significance of the subject’s life and the splendour of Wreaths for a Wayfarer in his eloquent “Foreword.” Noting that Adesanmi’s “life and death touched fellow human beings across nations and continents,” he concludes that the anthology is “a rite of poetic affirmation.” Ofeimun’s views are validated by the commentaries of such eminent writers and scholars like Harry Garuba, Obioma Nnaemeka, Olu Obafemi and Toyin Falola, who extol the excellence of Adesanmi’s life and the literary merit of the anthology.
In “A Prose-poem, a Tribute, and a Wreath for Pius Adesanmi,” poet and diplomat ComAnu’a-Gheyle Solomon Azoh-mbi compares the culture of the “Algonquin people on whose traditional territories” he was at the time of Adesanmi’s death to the culture of “African ancestral people” with whom Adesanmi’s body and spirit lie, identifying the shared patrimony of both cultures in their use of dance to herald the coming and going of birth: “At the birth of a new life, we dance;/At the passing of an old person, we dance.” This ritual dance reenacts both the communality and the spirituality of life and death which shape the African and Canadian worldviews within which Adesanmi functioned. Adesanmi was forty-seven when he died, yet Azoh-mbe asks readers to celebrate his transition, suggesting that his death is an inevitable passage to the final destination of his roving spirit. Likewise, in his “Introduction,” Otiono remarks on Adesanmi’s penchant for the otherworldly, citing Adesanmi’s poem “Entries” to highlight the writer’s vision of life: “Earthling, among you I’m a prisoner of war/Escape. Escape is always on my mind.” Since Adesanmi considered the world an obstacle to his bourgeoning spirit, Azoh-mbe’s exaltation of his death as “the ultimate gift of life” is discerning.
The writer, translator and academic, Justus K.S. Makokha, illustrates the compulsion of death in “Muse of Homecoming.” For Makokha, the “heart often wants to flee home/in search of that beyond the horizons.” By insisting that Adesanmi “[refused] to die with plastic litter of Ethiopia,” Makokha considers Adesanmi’s death a rite of passage. In “For the Wayfarer,” a Zambian poet, Chifwanti Zulu, writes: “Those who know Payo would bear witness/That there was not a life more fabled than his.” The fabled life, in Zulu’s opinion, is one that embodies the secular and the spiritual heritages of the traditional African philosophy. Adesanmi leaves behind him an illustrious legacy, and it is this that consoles Zulu, who proceeds to invite the reader to participate in the inevitable ritual of parting: “Now let us lay the wreaths and tell the wayfarer’s tale.” The originality of Zulu’s poem lies in its performative character. In essence, he transcends the limits of the text and creates a possibility for audience participation by situating the oral tradition firmly in written poetry, enabling the ascendancy of such literary syncretism at the core of modern African poetry.
In “Coffins in the Sky,” Niyi Osundare addresses the complicated legacy of technology on a continent like Africa unprepared for responsible and visionary leadership and yet unwilling to be held accountable for its failures. The poem depicts the confusion caused by the plane crash: “Whose hasty Science launched this coffin/In the sky of our joy” as well as its damage: “To whose capital advantage do we owe/This saga of endless anguish.” The image of the plane as a flying coffin is sad and shocking. The reader may wonder how many coffins are still in the sky now. As Osundare mourns Adesanmi, his voice becomes an unrestrained gong announcing the enormity of the communal loss engendered by Adesanmi’s death: “Another star in our lifedance/Done, mid-step to a startled earth.” And from the recess of his grief, which also carries the sorrow of his community, the poet laments: “We are too tired/Of burying our best.”
A Kenyan writer, Margaret Warimu Waweru, remembers her own father who, like Adesanmi to the other contributors, was an important figure in her life, in “Letter to Dad.” The poet uses the epistolary technique to express her belief that the dead still relate with the living. Waweru imagines that her father will receive and read her letter. This imagination, this hope, is her way of coping with the trauma of loss.
Wreaths for a Wayfarer takes readers through a journey of loss, grief and hope. Its most sterling quality is that the contributing poets deny death victory over Adesanmi’s life by accepting his departure with the surprising equanimity that comes from their assurance that he will reincarnate. Ultimately, the anthology demonstrates just how readily and unreservedly poetry lends itself to the grieving artist speaking from a place of private pain about a transnational tragedy.