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The Birth of a Terrible Beauty: A Review

dispossessed by James Eze; Fasihi (Daraja Press); 2019; 121pp

dispossessedEver since I got a signed copy of James Eze’s debut collection of poetry, dispossessed, I’ve been possessed! Poetry can be overwhelming at the best of times such that it becomes a benumbing challenge getting the aesthetic distance to engage in a proper intercourse with the text, as per a review.

Among the cognoscenti, James Eze had already won pips of high recognition within the comity of poets even without having a title in bound covers to his name. Eze is cast in the mode of the deposition of W. B. Yeats that the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

In appreciating Eze’s poetry, I will hold to Yeats’ depiction of the Irish revolutionaries of Easter 1916: “A terrible beauty is born.”

Eze’s dispossessed bears the subtitle “poetry of innocence, transgression and atonement”, and incidentally, the entire collection is divided into three parts, namely, “innocence” (21 poems), “transgression” (31 poems) and “atonement” (24 poems). The poet’s delineation of the three stages, not unlike Sigmund Freud’s Id, Ego and Super-Ego, runs thus: “In innocence, we encounter the poet in the early stages of his artistic development… transgression presents the poet at a very delicate stage in his emotional and creative development… In atonement, we meet the poet at the end of his journey … a frantic attempt to engage the world, not on anyone’s terms but his own.”

Eze sums up his odyssey this way: “dispossessed is therefore a journey that begins with laughter and blissful innocence but ends with heartache and a blinking back of tears.”

For me, there is a seamless blend of the three sections because the poet at no time encounters the atrophy of vision that undermines the work of stereotypical poets. The passionate flow of Eze’s métier seeps into the pores ceaselessly without any breaks whatsoever.

Like the great American avant-garde poet ee cummings, James Eze renders his poetry in lower case. The only other Nigerian poet of my knowledge who has this style is amu nnadi.

It’s remarkable that on the cover of dispossessed the author’s name is given just as James Eze while inside the book we are given the larger bona-fide of James Ngwu Eze. The poet does the formal introduction of himself in the second poem in the collection “i am”:

i am ngwu
nwa nkpozi eze
striving for self-definition

The poet’s forte in defining himself actually manifested earlier in the very first poem of the collection “petals & buds”:

for i am the missing lobe of poetry’s kolanut
the fearless chest that absorbs the anger of razor blades
i surrender my anvil at the crossroads
and unscrew the cork of my silence

Eze then situates himself as somewhat appearing late within the ambit of world poetry, but the company he keeps is quite intimidating as can be seen from the poem “here i come”:

here i come
to the great feast of words
the late bloomer;
i come when the table is set

dinner is redolent with
the fragrance of great chefs:

okigbo, neruda, eliot, pound, yeats…

A poet bearing the bounties of Christopher Okigbo, Pablo Neruda, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats perforce demands uncommon attention from the very beginning. Eze is in no doubts whatsoever as per the demands of his poetic calling espoused in “here i am”:

here I am
prophet, priest and pilgrim

Amid his plough of the dead poets’ society, Eze is very unafraid to challenge the masters, for instance, frontally disagreeing in his poem “april” with Eliot:

april is not ‘the cruelest month’
i beg to differ, sir

Eliot had depicted April as “the cruelest month” in his masterpiece The Waste Land. April ought to stand out as the beginning of summer and therefore a month of joy but for the “wastelanders” of Eliot’s iconic poem that eternally wallow in torpor the appearance of light only means the cruelty of work.

Eze is different, stressing that “i bless God that I am a child of april”, and concludes floridly thus:

i came, swaddled in april haze
i’m the reason why the sun kissed the rain under the mistletoe
the silent flame under the bushel
waiting for a gust of wind to blaze

A major influence that Eze is beholden to is of course Okigbo, like many other modern day Nigerian poets. Little wonder there is the poem entitled “idoto” in the collection while poems such as “a fistful of kolanuts” and “elegy of the weaverbird” are dedicated to the Ojoto-born poet killed in the Biafra war.

In the same manner that I see Bob Marley at equal range as a political singer and a belter of soulful love songs, I cannot see any separation whatsoever from Eze the love poet and Eze the poet of politics.

Eze is proud of his Igbo heritage, and the Biafra war is a subject very dear to his heart. He would not bend the knee to the modern scheme of, for instance, seeing the late Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa as a saint, for he writes in “re: epitaph for Biafra”:

you let the plume of smoke dull your sense of justice
you shut the door on right and chose wrong
and that is why you are not my hero

True heroism for Eze can be found in the courageous 1803 revolt by 75 Igbo slaves in Dunbar Creek, Georgia which he celebrates in “the igbo landing”:

In what moulds were you forged, brave ancestors
You who threw a finger in the eye of cruelty
And spat in the face of slavery?

The title poem “dispossessed” is crucially the longest in the collection and somehow encapsulates the poet’s love-hate relationship with the existing order:

when injustice is buried in a shallow grave
we await the resurrection of dry bones

The headstrong critic in me, however, queries why in his “introduction” to dispossessed the poet writes that the third section, “atonement”, has as its “opening poem, ‘the poets’ republic’” only for the poem to somehow appear as the second poem in the section, after “a fistful of kolanuts” dedicated to Christopher Okigbo! And why does one poem in the collection, “i ask of You” (pg52), have a capital “Y”?

Well, as I wrote from the very beginning, James Eze’s dispossessed left me possessed, that is, it me dispossessed of my faculties. Eze’s collection had an unhinging effect on me in very profound ways, thus rendering me quite possessed by a benevolent spirit that I initially thought was an evil one! I was mad with poetical-mental beneficence forged on the anvil of Eze’s word-smithy.

In my book, dispossessed by James Eze ranks amongst the best collections of poetry anywhere across the globe.

Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu is the author of God of Poetry, Satan's Story, A Play of Ghosts and The Missing Link. A 2008 Caine Prize for African Writing nominee, he wrote the text for Scottish photographer Owen Logan's caricature of Michael Jackson's visit to Nigeria entitled Masquerade. He lives in Lagos and is married with children.

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