The coldness of death, not death itself, 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 both celebrates the life and mourns the death of Nigerian writer and scholar Pius Adesanmi. Adesanmi tragically passed away on March 10, 2019, in the Ethiopian Airline Flight 302 crash. By honoring Adesanmi, the editors Nduka Otiono and Uchechukwu Umezruike help 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, Lagos, congregates some of the finest established and emerging poets from Africa and beyond. By navigating their own grief, the poets collectively console all those affected by Adesanmi’s passing.
Odia Ofeimum, poet and “personal friend” of Adesanmi, articulates the significance of the subject’s life and the brilliance of Wreaths in the “Foreword.” Testifying that Adesanmi’s “life and death touched fellow human beings across nations and continents,” Ofeimun reads the anthology as “a rite of poetic affirmation.” Ofeimun’s views are validated by commentaries offered by eminent writers and scholars including 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,” Anu’a-Gheyle Solomon Azoh-mbi compares the culture of the “Algonquin people on whose traditional territories” he was at time of Adesanmi’s death to the culture of “African ancestral people” with whom Adesanmi’s body and spirit lay. The author identifies 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 Algonquin worldviews within which Adesanmi functioned. Adesanmi was forty-seven when he died, yet Azoh-mbe asks the reader to celebrate his transition, suggesting that his death is an inevitable passage to the final destination of his roving spirit. Likewise, in the “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 burgeoning spirit, Azoh-mbe’s exaltation of his death as “the ultimate gift of life” is discerning.
Kenyan 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,” Zambian poet Chifwanti Zulu confesses that “Those who know Payo would bear witness/That there was not a life more fabled than his.” The fabled life is one that embodies both the secular and spiritual heritages of traditional African philosophies. Adesanmi’s illustrious legacy 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 quality. The poem transcends the limits of the text and creates a possibility for audience participation by situating the oral tradition firmly in written poetry.
In “Coffins in the Sky,” Niyi Osundare addresses the complicated legacy of technology in Africa. 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 coffin flying across the sky is sad and shocking. The reader may wonder how many more coffins are still in the sky now. As Osundare mourns Adesanmi, his voice becomes unrestrained, announcing of 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.”
Kenyan writer Margaret Warimu Waweru remembers her father who, like Adesanmi to the other contributors, was an important figure in her life, in “Letter to Dad.” The poet uses the epistolary form to express her belief that the dead interact with the living, so she imagines her father receiving and indeed reading the letter. This is how she copes with the trauma occasioned by her loss:
It’s been one year
Since you grew wings
But the memories are so vivid
The wounds a fresh cut
In my heart and soul
We will keep the memories we shared
When we feel sad
Wreaths for a Wayfarer takes the reader through a journey of loss, grief and hope. The contributing poets deny death victory over life by invoking their belief in reincarnation. 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.