Lola Shoneyin, Song of a Riverbird. Lagos, Nigeria: Ovalonion House, 2002. 72pp
In 1998, Lola Shoneyin published her first poetry collection, So All the Time I was Sitting on an Egg. With this collection, she made a bold statement in Nigerian literary scene. It is an image-rich title that aptly announces quite a number of poems that are not only solidly grounded in Nigerian realities, but are also eminently well handled. The most rcent collection, “Song of a Riverbird,” follows the footsteps of the above. The poems are divided into four sections matching the breeding cycle of birds: Mating, Brooding, With Flustered Feathers, and Clucking. Exploiting these vivid images of the stages in the procreation process of birds, Shoneyin once again hints at her poetic signature tune: being rooted in normal quotidian realities. But one thing is being rooted in reality another thing is to make poetry out of it. Thus when we begin to read the poems, moving from one section to the next, we suddenly become birds, ready to feel what our collective alter ego, the Riverbird, feels singing.
Shoneyin weaves a strong fence of resistance. It is resistance that results from a deeply felt sense of justice. This is directed at the human person we see in the mirror and not at an anonymous and ubiquitous colonial master. In “She Was Only Five” (30) for example, we are challenged to feel the pain of a girl whose body was an “abbey” at the age of five and who knew Psalm 23. In this stanza, we are fed with ample images of innocence, vulnerability and dependence. Then something happens to the girl. She is now seven.
It’s Christmas and Daddy bubbles with carols.
Four dainty smiling dolls.
and a bleeding sparrow on a thorn bush.
Then the last stanza completes the circle, telling us in an unmistakable sharp language what really took place:
her body is a brothel
She shall not want.
This particular poem, we must remark, is in the section “Brooding.” So, just as a hen sits on her eggs to nurture them to chicks, the hen of this poem broods over her unspeakable assault; she is “a bleeding sparrow.” True poetry, it is said, begins from the very moment we are done with the reading; the moment we close our physical eyes and the inner eyes begin to battle with the images presented to us.
Shoneyin is strongest when she narrates. She instantly captures our imagination and challenges us to rethink the structure of our world. The above discussed poem and others such as “A Quiver of Questions” (26), “Coup D’Etat” (43) etc, which follow the narrative examples of her first collection redeem the present collection.
Lyricism is not Shoneyin’s strength. Perhaps those of us who enjoy her poetry might sing alleluia, for she will soon abandon this Achilles hill of Nigerian poetry, as Obasanke Lasanke has pointed out.When she dabbles into lyricism, her poetry sounds esoteric and uninspired. The title poem, “Song of a Riverbird (46), for example, demonstrates a waste of her exceptional talent because she spends time exploring the wisdom and technique of African oral poetry and in so doing recycles what we already have heard and what provokes no particular emotion. All the talk about “eagle and mighty wind,” pales in the face of simple, small issues of everyday life facing the Nigerian woman whose destiny Shoneyin has made herself a spokesperson. In other poems, one spends one’s precious time trying to imagine the “unimaginable”; there is a mix of metaphors and hardly justifiable images.
Like breath I folded you into each passing moment
but you slithered away through the river of my lifeline,
I held the smell of your hair upon my tongue
but the taste of ashes lingered at my throat” (Eight Times, 29).
It would have been enough to take somebody inside you like you do to breath. In that case one can say that I inhale you like breath. But to fold breath? The same applies to the images in the third line above, “the smell of your hair upon my tongue.”
Comparing the two collections, therefore, I would prefer that Shoneyin returns to her strength, which is the use of narrative voice without recourse to largely incongruous metaphors.