Saturday, September 19, 2015

Jallo, Abba, and Egwuda: Three New Exciting Voices in Nigerian Drama

By Isaac Attah Ogezi Nigerian literature in the 21st century could be said to be at its golden age if proliferation of texts is the sole criterion to go by. However, the only genre that lags behind in this age of proliferation of literary production is inarguably drama. This lacklustre state of the Nigeria’s world of the stage prompted Osofisan, a seasoned playwright and drama scholar, to lament thus: ‘Plays and playwrights are too obviously in short supply…twwdci phvbkm Whereas prose fiction shows a more or less robust growth, and poems are proliferating like water hyacinths, plays do not seem to inspire an equal devotion or enthusiasm among our writers. Mention Ahmed Yerima, Stella Oyedepo, Oguntokun, Julie Okoh, ChimaUtoh, and Irene Salami, and you exhaust the list.’ One cannot agree less with that assertion. This paucity of plays and playwrights could be attributed to many factors, which do not form the raison d’etre of this discourse. Unfortunately, the few plays available are of indifferent, if not mediocre, quality. It is salutary that despite this vegetable state of modern Nigerian drama, there are a few negligible exciting voices. Zainabu Jallo, Friday John Abba and EmekaEgwuda are obviously the silver linings behind this apparently gloomy cloud. In this work, the present writer shall examine the plays of each of these playwrights which he considers his or her best and the stagecraft deployed therein to warrant their induction into this hall of fame. The three plays are: Jallo’sOnions Make us Cry, Abba’sAlekwu Night Dance andEgwuda’s Esoteric Dialogue. Jallo’sfascinating and original play, Onions Make us Cry, tells the story of a 36-year-old Malinda, a patient of post-traumatic stress disorder who is standing trial for the murder of her husband. Through the adroit use of Ibsenian retrospective technique, the reader gets to know the accumulation of stress which precipitated the homicide. Perhaps what makes Onions Make us Cry captivating is the astonishingly blissful marriage of form and content in a most satisfying manner. The heroine Malinda who is being investigated for a catatonic schizophrenia is invested with the unique language that is in consonance with her traumatic state, a hybrid of the poetic and the absurd like Professor in Soyinka’s The Road. In narrating how she met her husband DJ, Malinda says on page 37: ‘If I am asked, “Who really are you Malinda?” I should like to say, “I am what I want to be.” Can’t be too sure now … see? Fate’s arrows got me wounded badly. Shame. In Club Havana, we met between silly giggles and a few drinks; the stage was set.’ After marriage, Malinda watches ‘DJ’s venom spread faster’ (p. 3) than she could control. Despite this absence of joy in the family, exacerbated, no doubt, by the theatrics of politics and ‘campaign strains’ (p. 37), the world only saw the glistening shell while she felt like ‘the bane of being a puppet on a falling string. I often was stone’. It is in this agitated and schizophrenic mind that she dreaded he was going to kill her: ‘He wasn’t DJ any more. His eyes told me so. He’d been completely possessed. The goblin who got his soul was the worst type. ’ (p. 38) Onions Make us Cry is not only about Jallo’s central character Malinda, but also about Lola Gambari, the clinical psychologist attending to the former who ironically needs help in a pure case of the physician being the patient in a reversal of roles. Concerning psycho talk, Malinda tells Lola: ‘You need one yourself you know’ (p. 30). The undercurrent of violence against women permeates through the work in a rather subtle, albeit devastating manner. Married for the second time to Ali, Lola shows her patient Malinda a handful of hair rooted out by her husband: ‘Rooted them out last day I was here. It gave me a wild migraine. I had to call in sick.’ (p. 39) Touched, the patient Malinda playing the role of a physician now prescribes: ‘How I detest the psycho talk… You need one yourself You know… I know, because I was you… Hmm, my panoramic view tells me the melodrama will swallow you up … like Jonah and the mysterious whale … not like you aren’t aware. You know what to do Lola Gambari… you could be smarter than me.’ (p. 30) Jallo in this work seems to be saying that most women’s psychological trauma is male-induced like Malinda’s, Lola’s and the other female inmate’s in the next room to Malinda’s. As the writer aptly put it in the mouth of her character Malinda: ‘Ellen is the name of the lady who stays in the next room, right? [Lola nods] Well, she keeps yelling into my sleep at someone called Joe, who lured her into believing they both will take on the roles of man and wife. On her finger, he put a diamond ring, in her head, crystal hopes. He is married to another… She talks like Joe is sitting there with her. When she begins to scream, I guess it’s Zipporah – you know, the other lady Joe ran off with – she sees!’ (p. 17) Using the canvas of the stage, Jallo paints a universal world where the border between sanity and insanity is blurred. Malinda’s last statement in Situation Four sums up the pathetic state of humanity squirming in the muck of insanity: ‘Well, everyone is a patient of something!’ (p. 33). She tells her clinical psychologist Lola, ‘You’d need to check yourself in here as well Lola Gambari’ (p. 21). This maze of a world that the entire humanity helplessly finds itself, ‘stuck in a situation’ (p. 17) that is beyond it, that it does not want to be in, ‘jumbled labyrinth. An uncanny invisible ensemble plays’ (p. 44) like the two tramps waiting for a phantom being in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In this slim play, Jallo has shown that feminism can still be aesthetically and subtly championed without recourse to the overt propaganda tracts that spew violence against women on every page. In delving into the minds of her characters, she has been able to go beyond mere story-telling into the realm of psychology that the reader or viewer might think that she is a trained clinical psychologist herself like her character Lola. Arguably,the only Nigerian playwright who has attempted a similar hybrid of the theatre and psychology apart from Jallo is RasheedGbadamosi in his Behold, my Redeemer. The modern Nigerian theatre does not only need new names but also experimental, avant-garde voices like Jallo that will boot awake the apparently comatose stage from the tiny corners of our ivory towers. On the other hand, Abba’s crime play, Alekwu Night Dance, stands out from many new Nigerian plays for its successful blend of a suspenseful plot, set in motion by a murder,and the role of the Alekwu myth in the punishment of such desecrations. Set in the rustic Idoma village of O’lano, Alekwy Night Dance tells the story of a young Iganya, ravished and brutally murdered.Oyilo, blood-splattered, is discovered by three men holding a dagger with the woman’s lifeless body lying in the pool of her blood beneath him. Circumstantially, the villagers are agreed that he is the culprit but Oche, the village head, refuses to be drawn into the general conclusion and advises caution. Like OvonramweninRotimi’sOvonramwenNogbaisi, Oche finds himself in a great dilemma when his people want him to act instead of soliciting for patience: ‘I have not gone through this kind of experience before now. It never even crossed my mind that a situation like the one I face today could come near me. Ochanya, this is hard. I have consulted with Alekwu through Obialekwu and what they have asked for is patience. But how can I remain patient when I am under pressure from my people to act?’ (pp. 40-41) The question is who killed Iganya? Is it Oyilo who is seemingly caught red-handed or who? This gives rise to conspiracy theories culminating in the angry youth who feel Oche and Oyilo are in collusion and pounce on the duo, killing them in a most heinous manner. Unfortunately, they have reckoned without the wrath of Alekwu. The seeming return of peace to Ol’ano after the gruesome murder of Oyilo and Oche by the mob is however short-lived as one mysterious catastrophe follows hot upon the heels of another in the village – flooding, snake-bites, epidemics and many others. To expiate this calamity, fingers are pointed at one another resulting in a pandemonium of uncontrolled rage and reprisals before Obialekwu steps in to reveal rather belatedly and most astoundingly the culprit behind Iganya’s murder. In this breathtakingly suspenseful tragedy, Abba espouses the Idoma world-views, mores and values only equalled by SamshudeenAmali’s bilingual plays. He has done to the Idoma race what older compatriots such as Achebe, Soyinka, Rotimi and Amali have done to their ethnic groups in their works. The pre-colonial Idoma society is steeped in superstitions and revers the place of the spirits of the dead and Alekwu on the course of the events of the living. The much-dreaded Alekwu is reputed to be imbued with the ability to recompense all evil. As the playwright put it in the mouth of the character Ad’Onyilo, thus: ‘Alekwu acts at his time. When the woman who slept with the other man thought that nothing would happen, didn’t all her children die? Didn’t her husband who knew about it without doing anything die of a mysterious ailment? Didn’t she lose her head before eventually joining the others? Abutu, Alekwu acts decisively.’ (p. 105). One could say that the playwright seems to believe in the cause-effect intervention of Alekwu himself as he afflicts Enokela who killedIganya with madness. Enenche and Abah, the two children of Ochai who sends Enokela to dishonor Iganya ‘were both smitten by snakes in their house but at about the same moment’ (p. 112). Even the flood that caused untold destruction to houses and crops is attributed to the wrath of Alekwu over the wanton shedding of blood in Ol’ano. Inalegwu laments: ‘The land is still under a curse; the spirits are still not at peace with us. It is not normal for the rain to uncover graves and let out decomposed and decomposing bodies. In their anger, the spirits left Ol’ano littered with filth and bodies and death.’ (p. 88) In fact, the belief in Alekwu is so pervasive in this play such that the playwright resorts to it via the intervention of the chief priest of Alekwu, Obialekwu, in resolving the conflict in the play in a sort of deus ex machina. What prompts Ochai to let out a loud cry and confess his involvement in the death of Iganya is as a result of the piercing eyes of Obialekwu which appear to strip him naked: ‘Enter Obialekwu. Elders make way for Obialekwu who stops beside Ochai… Obialekwu remains silent not taking his eyes off Ochai’ (pp. 113 – 114). One wonders whether the belated intervention of Alekwu is for reasons of dramaturgy or a sharp criticism of the Alewku itself or a misconception of the Alekwu myth as a whole by the playwright? According to Oche: ‘Alekwu is angry over the reprisals going on. I have spoken with Obialekwu and I know that Alekwu has forbidden him from coming to this Council’ (p. 41). It is easy to surmise that either the playwright, as an anti-god proponent like Euripides in his early works, deliberately intended to portray Alekwu as being too slow and weak and impervious to the plight of his worshippers or in a bid to score a theatrical point, he misinterpreted the Alekwu myth, for it is indeedamazing that it takes Alekwu to intervene only when Ol’ano is at the brink of extermination. Such a god or spirits of the dead deserve to be spurned and not venerated. The foregoing notwithstanding, Abba’s timeless central theme of appearances versus reality is not affected in any way by such cultural anomaly. For a debutant playwright, he has written a good play even though at the expense of his people and in consequence has achieved the opposite of what he sought to do by turning the culture of his people on its head. Egwuda’s verse play, Esoteric Dialogue, is quite different from the two previous plays. This is because of its bold experimentation with dramatic language and form. Esoteric Dialogue is a versified parable for the stage about the courage of one man who stands firm and alone despite the gale of corruption and greed that his country is enmeshed in. Set in a modern-day Nigeria, the play revolves around an iconic character called Prof. S.B. Lanka who is, according to his wife Rebecca, possessed by the demon of poetry that ‘he prefers to achieve his rhyme/At the expense of an important answer’ (p. 23). This enigma of a character can better be summed up by what Lady Ann in the end of the play says about him: ‘An uncommon human being … A man who refused to be corrupted, A man who – in the face of political intrigues And mudslinging – holds firm to his genuine Principle and good conscience for the service Of his country and humanity in entirety …’ (p. 97). Owing to the industrial action embarked by the universities nation-wide, Prof. Lanka becomes a ‘self-employed intellectual’ (p. 16) and militant poet who is often taunted by his wife for his inability to make ends meet. At the opening scene, Rebecca accuses him for failing in his responsibility as a husband: ‘What man is that that calls himself a husband/Who cannot take responsibility for his wife?’ (p. 14). However, when it appears the economic situation of the Lankas will be improved, thanks to the American visa lottery that the wife wins, Prof. refuses to jubilate with her because, ‘To live in another man’s paradise/And be seen as a parasite’ (p.35) is not his idea of living. Perhaps the turning-point in the Lankas’ lives is the appointment into the federal Cabinet of Prof. as Chairman of Oil Revenues Board. At first, he sees it as a Greek gift and refuses stoutly the appointment, ‘No, I cannot serve this government’ (p.50). It takes the astuteness of his wife who convenes an emergency meeting of both families to bear upon him to change his mind, as ‘They can’t afford to miss America and miss a/Government appointment for principle’s sake’ (p.50). For a man ‘known for his extreme radicalism’ (p. 49), the reader is not surprised that Prof. finds himself a misfit among his new colleagues in the government. He refuses to dole out public money to a lady, Julie, sent to him from Senator Amdou, and is adamant about okaying a proposal by his friend Barrister Krombul on the ground that it ‘is highly inflated’ (p.58). The last straw is when he sits upon a presidential order by refusing to approve funds for the President’s re-election. He is arrested on trumped-up charges of misappropriation of public funds worth thirty-four billion naira and taking a bribe from a contractor. The panel of questionable personalities set up to probe him has reckoned without the irate students and area boys who see Prof. as a national hero. In the end, Prof. is mob-vindicated and decorated with several honoursand his statute erected as ‘a martyr of justice’ (p. 93). What at first glance is remarkably original about this dark comedy is the intrepid technical experiment with free verse and rhyming couplets at the same time. While the other characters speak in free verse, Prof. Lanka, the extreme radical and militant poet, speaks in rhymes and couplets as a mark of his intellectual profundity. This has unfortunately in a few instances posed as a great setback thereby distorting the free flow of Prof.’s thoughts. For example, while in his solitary cell, Prof. says rather to himself: ‘O Prof, poor soul, your memory is full. O Muse, what shall I say to you; it’s full To the brim. Suffer me not at all; kiss Not my ears with your whispering lips. Peace Is far from me.Give me today enough sorrow, Abundance of it that sustains tomorrow –’ (p.71) Or consider the forced rhyming in the following couplets: ‘Here they come! Are you with your manacle? Have my hands and bind me. O what a spectacle!’ (p. 69) ‘As you can see, higher in the ladder of his destiny I receive with joy this priceless prize. O mutiny!’ (p. 101) Prof.’s thoughts are rather disjointed and pedantic, because of the insistence on using rhyming couplets. This will also pose as a great challenge to the actor playing the part of the Prof. owing to the unnaturalness of the rhymed poetry, quite unlike Moliere’s free-flowing The Misanthrope. More worrisome, of course, are instances where the end-lines do not rhyme properly such as: ‘Each time you nag and scold me like a tart In spite of your little understanding, I deserve a pat’ (p. 15) ‘To live in another man’s paradise And be seen as a parasite’ (p. 35) ‘The Scripture: “What God has joined together, Let no man, let not America - put asunder’ (p. 37) ‘Children, as you’re at the threshold of menopause To wean a child now, you’ll look like a wet-nurse’ (p. 42) ‘An unfortunate adulterer: “Daddy! Daddy! I av pooh-pooh.” Would I, before my friends, be nobler than a nincompoop?’ (p. 43) Contrastingly, the free verse Prof. adopts in his prison poem on pages 98-99 is more eloquent than his rhyming-couplet speeches in the play. It is in this audacious experiment with dramatic language, thence lie the few lapses in the work. The playwright, carried away by his intention of making the play intellectually appealing as possible,falls victim of using language that verges on the bombastic such as ‘the success of every profession is by its material transmutation’ (p. 22), ‘Should be in the hospital as a patient of intellectual megalomania’ (p. 38), ‘America’s consolidating her world-powerism by this philately of humans…’ (p. 39), and ‘… will absolve it of any dubiety’ (p. 80). The use of quatrains in the song rendered by the chorus in the Epilogue is marred by archaic words like ‘tarry’ and ‘by and by’ and fourth-line end-rhymes such as ‘expos’d’, ‘depos’ed’, ‘repos’d’, , ‘compos’d’,‘oppos’d’ and ‘impos’d’. Like most works with intellectual and messianic missions, Esoteric Dialogue is overtly didactic and Marxist thereby reducing the characters to mere caricatures bereft of verisimilitude. Given the impressive quality of the above plays, there is surely a pinprick of optimism that this Cinderella of Nigerian literature can still have her beauty revamped, her plumage pilfered by other genres rightly restored to her. Jallo, the avant-garde, and arguably the most active, theatre practitioner of the trio, has gone ahead to publish a new play, Holy Night, since the release of her Onions Make us Cry in 2011. The Slave and the Crown and Haunted by Yesterday had preceded Egwuda’s Esoteric Dialogue, first published in 2005, though it is yet to have a successor. In the case of Abba, the new entrant into this fast-depleting pantheon of playwrights, one does hope that his Alekwu Night Dance is not a flash in the pan. These new names in drama, if sustained and encouraged, show that it is too early yet in the morning to strum an elegy for the Nigerian stage.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Triumph of the Girl-Child in Bobi's Bongel

In as much as the proponents of the pure school of art will pontificate art for art’s sake, literature cannot be wholesomely divorced from commitment. Achebe could not have put it more aptly when he stated that ‘The whole pattern of life demanded that one should protest, that you should put in a word for your history, your traditions, your religion, and so on.’ Consequently, it is nearly impossible for a woman writer who has had a firsthand experience of sexual inequalities in her sexist community not to try and ‘put in a word’ for her sex. The emergence of feminism, a protest movement in literature and art, is geared towards redressing apparent anomalies and wrongs against the disadvantaged woman in society. In Nigeria, Flora Nwapa, the first woman novelist, blazed the trail with her 1966 novel, Efuru, followed by Buchi Emecheta’s Second-Class Citizen, Ifeoma Okoye’s Behind the Clouds and Men without Ears, Zaynab Alkali’s The Stillborn, Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus¸ to mention but the most prominent. It is regrettable that after almost six decades since the publication of Nwapa’s Efuru, it is not yet Uhuru for the plight of women in a male-dominated world. The Jahiliyyah-like condition of the woman, despite the appreciable progress made over the years, Nirvana cannot be said to be attained, paving the way for the cries of aluta continua to still rend the air from the feminists’ camp. Maryam Bobi’s recent novella, Bongel, is a timely contribution to this hue and cry. Set in the contemporary, cell-phone era, Bongel revolves around the title central character, Bongel, a Fulani medical student at the El-Khamar School of Medical Science. Through the sly handiwork of her course-mate friend and room-mate, Kauthar, a romantic relationship is engineered with the latter’s elder brother Abdul, studying in the UK. Unfortunately, Bongel has reckoned without her sordid past. Given out in marriage without her consent by her despotic father at the tender age of twelve to the rich Alh. Tanko, a man old enough to be her father, she had a stillbirth which she was blamed for killing the child. This precipitated her divorce and ironically the golden opportunity to resume her truncated education. The plot, rendered in a limpid, pacy and confident language, interspersed with snippets of flashbacks, Bobi can be said to have arrived almost made as a writer, to borrow Achebe’s excited welcome of Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. For a debutant novelist, her prose reads like that of an experienced writer’s at the top of the tree. The reader cannot resist such luscious expressions: ‘… she kept to the shoulder of the tarred road’ (p. ix), ‘Images flew around in her mind. She would love to arrange them orderly, to create a coherent panorama’ (p. 10), ‘… she feared that she was beginning to veer away from virtue’ (p. 14), ‘… the rotten ones who perfume themselves in lies and deceits’ (p. 61) and ‘Bongel felt washed back to land by the waves. The storm had calmed’ (p. 93). Good expressions like the above helped to accentuate the writer’s themes most poignantly and succinctly. It is trite that literature cannot effect revolutionary changes like politics, nor can it shoot a gun, but there is no gainsaying the fact that a well-executed piece of work can pack quite a punch on the face of a nihilistic and sexist world. Through the effective use of apt imageries, the reader is made to empathize, or better still, feel vicariously Bongel’s near-death experience when her ancient husband, Alh. Tanko, the man with ‘kola nut-stained teeth’ (p. 72), rapes her in the name of consummating the marriage with his child-bride: “… he became so furious he took the wrapper off her body and pinned her on the bed. Bongel felt her executioner grunting like a pig, breathing hot tepid air down her face, and burying her in an envelope of arid smells. The tearing pain that hit her brain was worse than any pain she had ever felt in her life … another volley pain [sic] struck her, going off like a giant bell. She wanted to hold her head together for fear it might explode but found she was suddenly too weak to even move her hands. Her pelvis, abdomen and thigh muscles were burning and pulsating. At that moment, rational thoughts became impossible for her. She could not recall anything at all …’ (p. 68). The impact of the above soul-stirring description coupled with other images-laden episodes in the work is worth more than several girl-child legislations which are more often than not obeyed in the breach than in their observance. Undoubtedly, Bobi is not a writer sold on the oft-regurgitated theory of art for art’s sake. She is a writer brimming with a catalogue of messages; a writer of commitment. In the first place, what African writer is not? According to Achebe: ‘I believe that it is impossible to write anything in Africa without some kind of commitment, some kind of message, some kind of protest … So commitment is nothing new… In fact, I should say that all of our writers, whether they’re aware of it or not are committed writers.’ However, commitment is not without its snags especially when not skilfully handled. Any wonder then that most Marxist or feminist works of art are unreadable propaganda tracts? This is perhaps the major lapse in Bobi’s Bongel, thus reducing the work to a compendium of societal ills against women - child marriages, the deprivation of the girl-child education, vesico vaginal fistula (VVF), oppression of women in marriage, favoritism of the male child over his female counterpart, the list is inexhaustive. Because of the desperate bid to cram too many themes into the work, the love story between the heroine Bongel and Abdul is slight, usurped by preachy flashbacks on women’s victimization in a patriarchal society such that even the least Suyayya novel from Kano Hausa Market Literature is more engrossing with plot complications than Bongel. Alas, in literature we estrange our readers with so-called serious themes at the expense of spellbinding plots while romance and thriller writers hold their breaths on the edge with masterful storylines, leaving us with no choice but to embrace our comfort-zone alibi that people are no longer reading. In consequence, the character of Bongel is not developed satisfactorily. In spite of her ugly past, it is expected that she will be wiser and more wary in subsequent relationships, but no, she is not created to learn from her past experiences. Just like Nora’s famous shutting of the door on her marriage in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House resounded positively across the globe, Bongel’s spirited effort to negotiate a truce with Abdul, who is not man enough for her, in the end of the book is a big fatal blow on the feminist posture of the work. Most likely the writer has allowed the benign feminism in Alkali’s The Stillborn to negatively influence her to the point of cheapening her central character. In the older writer’s work, Li’s relationship with Farouk is that of a valid marriage which has birthed an issue but the same cannot be said of Bongel’s starry-eyed romance with Abdul. Again, one of the perennial weaknesses of most feminist works by women writers is the pathological obsession with male stereotyping. Male characters never live in their works. For example, Abdul, Alh. Tanko and Bongel’s father are all cardboard, stock characters not imbued with flesh and blood or any redeeming features by their gender-partial creator. If anything, this robs the work of depth, verisimilitude, subtleties and great suggestive meanings. One of the first lessons a writer learns in writing ‘enter-educative’ works is that subjects like VVF and HIV are better subtly suggested instead of devoting nearly two pages (pp. 76 -77) on them like academic papers. Similarly, for a work well-packaged in terms of high paper quality, font size and cover-designs, the publishers cannot be exculpated for allowing some careless errors of syntax find their way into the work, to wit: ‘a mere two days’ (p. 6), ‘his minted breathe’ (p. 16), ‘ in variance with’ (p. 23), ‘a little ways ahead’ (p. 30), ‘such ugly incidences’ (p. 50), ‘other girls’ marriage’ (p. 60), ‘battered under’ (p. 66), ‘must have ensued from his joints’ (p. 67), ‘resulted to’ (p. 76), ‘… the pain that hiding these three dark passages’ (p. 93). Additionally, on two or three occasions, tenses are used indiscriminately such as: ‘Bongel has been pregnant’ (p. 27), ‘contrary to what Kauthar thinks’ (p. 27) and ‘she wouldn’t be as devastated as she is now …’ (p.8). In a third-person narrative technique in the past tense, the use of present tense can only be used sparingly in streams of consciousness or interior monologues or when making reference to a universally immutable fact. It also seems the writer had the West in mind as her audience when she was writing this work as can be gleaned from expressions like these: ‘… that reminds me that it’s haram, something wrong’ (p. ix) and ‘It was a customary tradition among the Hausa-Fulani people’ (p. 74). This appears to be the norm now, though unfortunate, that when writers are divulging some terrible facts about their cultures, they often obsequiously turn to the West for a mark of acceptance. The foregoing notwithstanding, Bobi is a fledgling albeit promising writer who deserves attention and help. She, along with her older countrywomen Razinat Mohammed and Halima Sekula are fresh exciting female Northern voices trying to carve a niche for themselves on our literary landscape. It is, however, worrisome that since the publication of Alkali’s The Stillborn in 1984, Northern Nigeria is yet to produce another female writer who can hold a candle to that literary matriarch. It is long overdue now.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Threshing Floor (Fiction: Nigerian Writers Series No. 7)

The Threshing Floor is a collection of a dozen short stories that has just a bit of everything. From religious hypocrisy, marital infidelity and human deception and fraud, to spiritual mysteries, the limits of justice (in our land), the many and uncertain shades of love, and the redemptive (?) value of suicide, Isaac Attah Ogezi skilfully and sensitively explores the human condition in its social, pschological and spiritual dimentsions. The stories are both universal and uniquely individual as everyone can identify with one or another of the characters whose experiences are portrayed in The Threshing Floor. The author's mastery of language and power of narration will surely seduce any reader. In 2014, Ogezi was nominated for both the Soyinka Prize for African LIterature and NLNG Prize for Literature for his Under a Darkling Sky.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Angst, Departures and Homecoming in On Broken Wings: An Anthology of Best Contemporary Nigerian Poetry edited by Unoma Azuah

By Isaac Attah Ogezi Inarguably, the single most vital point of convergence between modern Nigerian literature and Nollywood film industry is the alarming output proliferation of indifferent quality. In no genre of literature is this uncontrolled proliferation more worrisome as in poetry. Perhaps owing to the mystical comparison of the poet to a prophet, almost every published Nigerian writer has a collection of poetry or two to his chest, enough to entitle him to the hallowed and surreal toga of the poet. Indeed, the god of poetry in the country has many pen-wielding acolytes! Ironically, in a country that can boast of countless poets, it is almost an impossible task to find a definitive anthology of high merit that encompasses the majority of noted poets of any her generations. Voices from the Fringe (1988) edited by Harry Garuba was the first meaningful attempt to showcase young Nigerian poets learning to cut their poetry teeth. A few of these poets, after attaining some appreciable maturation, appeared in Toyin Adewale-Gabriel-edited 25 Nigerian Poets (2000). Since then, no similar feat of any serious quality had been made until the recent anthology, On Broken Wings: An Anthology of Best Contemporary Nigerian Poetry edited by the poet and academic Unoma Azuah. Comprising ninety-five poems by seventy-three poets, the entire anthology reads like a single long narrative poem reminiscent of Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi.’ The different narrative personae are intricately, albeit unwittingly, merged in a non-symmetrical litany of angst, departures and homecoming on this side of paradise. The all-pervasive theme of alienation runs through this work – alienation both in the personae’s home and abroad. The reader cannot help but empathize with the various personae’s disenchantment with what they call home. Home is where one feels like an outsider, harassed by poverty, lives at the edge of destruction and religious violence. In his ironic ‘Canticle of the Elect’, Gomba through the eyes of a zealot persona, lampoons on page 35 the religious intolerance that has become the order of the day in the country: So we rush in with trophies of skulls, impaled on the tall-poles of faith … One truth fouls the wind: if they are wrong, They are bombed. We serve the God of Smoke. Similarly, Raji on page 19 bemoans the season of anomie that has come to be recognized as the bridge for which all nations must cross on their march to greatness. The powers that be who revel in wanton violence and debaucheries believe that for a real nation to rise, bones must break empires must vanish death must be shared only like the morning grace and life has meaning only in mass coffins and mourner’s grimace… (p. 19) Raji paints a misbegotten generation where dreams of the citizenry are declared ‘in a nightmare of skeletons’ (p. 19), where ‘compatriots write new letter-bombs/To the fatherland in guises of gospel truths’ (p. 19). In such a dog-eat-dog world ‘where even the dead squirm/In crammed graveyards,/Graveyards of premature departees’ (p. 77, Kankara’s ‘Final Rites’), the personae are estranged and lost. It is indeed ‘a mad world’ (p. 30) of ‘green-less dreams’ (p. 30) as expressed by the persona in Nwosu’s ‘Listless’ (p. 30). Here home is likened to hell on earth and as each hell unfolds, we cling to this world of void when death is the very equivalent of paradise (p. 30) Consequently, these afflicted and traumatized personae cannot wait to bid their country farewell, a place that has nothing to offer them rather than to truncate their dreams, a fatherland that has long reneged its responsibilities to be called a childland, to use an apt coinage from the iconic Achebe. Instead of sadness at the point of departure, ‘There are neither tears, nor wails/Only smiles accompany the slave’ (p. 78, Fabiyi’s ‘There is No Sadness Here’). The departees can now afford to churlishly tell their childland, like the persona in Ehikhamenor’s ‘Farewell’ (p. 78), ‘I have said my farewell/And taken my rainbow elsewhere’ (p. 78). Thus marks the raison d’être behind the mass exodus of some of the best brains to the West for better living condition. Unfortunately, the personae who have left en masse the shores of their childland to a new world, have reckoned without the loneliness, racism and alienation inherent in their new home. Upon arrival, it does not take them long to know that ‘heaven does not live here’ (p. 80, Azuah’s ‘Arrivals’). Like Eliot’s Magi, the new arrivals in this new world find ‘… the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly.’ This feeling of not belonging is very poignant in Mahmud’s ‘Undercover’ (pp. 96-97), where the new immigrants bemoan their fugitive-like fate like the persona’s in the following lines: In time eternal, between the webs and my prayers, I lie, beneath, unknown, unwanted, undercover.’ (p. 97) In this wild, wild West, ‘… we are faceless among the city lights.’ (p.99, Nwakanma’s ‘Indigo Street’) This loneliness, coupled with the feeling of not being wanted, is exacerbated by the ‘bone-marrow cold/… that only Europe can radiate’ (p. 88, Ede’s ‘Winter Morning’). Otiono’s ‘Playing new tunes on my heartstrings…” on page 152 further expresses this terrible feeling of nostalgia thus: Lonesome in cold nights I play new tunes on my heartstrings Counting threads of by-gone years In far-flung lands… In an obsequious bid to belong, to be accepted, there is nothing the personae-immigrants cannot do in their new world. In a rather Okot p’Bitekesque tone, Maiwada satirizes this alienation via self-denial in ‘Our Soles, Pouring’ (pp. 85-86) as follows: Here, we swim with the whales, our immigrant irises wary of hate waves, Some have since washed an’ toned their black skins to cheat the widening nets of prejudice; to cheat the ever dropping label lines. Ironically, in the midst of this rejection, the mind is stubbornly obsessed with acute longing for the home which one had fled from despite its shortcomings. While many still cringe at the prospect of returning home, ‘Waiting for a homecoming that may never be’ (p. 137, Kankara’s ‘Homecoming’), the very few who dare to brave the odds are disappointed like Eliot’s Magi who returned to their ‘places, these Kingdoms, /But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.’ In Tubosun’s ‘Home Revisited’, the returnee persona laments on page 154: No, nothing remains here but memory, shed in vile distaste. What stares back are rough remains of such random care. Known days are gone, but remain only in the head. Age recalls, recoils, in bits of a thrill too long fled. One unique quality that makes poetry tower above any other form of written art is its ability to capture minutely the rhythm and soul-beat of a generation, its fears, failures, exile, successes and joys. The images in this work may at times be privatist like Okigbo’s poetry or Sylvia Plath’s confessionals, yet their universalism cannot be gainsaid. It is only in poetry that the intense feeling of loss and despondency can be so well expressed like in Ogunsanya’s awesome elegy, ‘You Came the Night Before’ (pp. 146-148). This is truly an ambitious anthology comprising most of the best contemporary Nigerian poets writing today. However, there are a few poems that should not have found their way into this work such as Awa’s ‘I am out in the rain’ (pp. 37-38), Ogunwale’s ‘The Future’ (pp. 51-54), Nwosu-Igbo’s ‘illegally Blonde’ (pp.123-124) and Goodhead’s ‘Grandma on Lenox Road’ (pp. 143-145). Where these poems are not prosaic and overly preachy, they are bereft of art. What is most annoying in one or two of the above poems is the flawed attempt at end-rhyming especially in Ogunwale’s and Kankara’s poems. On page 53, Ogunwale’s ‘The Future’ reads: Eagles’ wings take my sins Up into heavenly machines Paving my road, my environment Waving the decoded lessons learnt Lessons of primordial decent – Never changing intent – These ill-handled end-rhymes can also be seen in the second and third lines of Kankara’s ‘Final Rites’ on page 77, to wit: ‘I would take a final bow/From my homeland – now’. It is surprising that in an anthology that prides itself of being the best contemporary Nigerian poetry, one does expect the very best of each of the individual poets in the work but that is largely not the case here. No doubt the anthology represents the works of most of the best contemporary Nigerian poets writing today but whether their works anthologized here are their best is a question that poetry scholars will have to engage in an exegesis. Credit must given to the editor, Unoma Azuah, for the success of this impressive anthology, who herself is an important poet, for perhaps it appears it takes only a poet to recognize good poetry like the seminal Soyinka-edited Poems of Black Africa.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Enigmatic Nature of the Short Story: A Review of The Taste of the Tale is in the Telling by Allwell Abalogu Onukaogu et al (eds.)

By Isaac Attah Ogezi The modern short story is perhaps the most abused genre in literature today after poetry. It is not the miniature novel that many intending novelists violate on their journey to novel-writing. Though it evolved from the oral tradition of didactic moonlight tales, folklores and anecdotes in pre-television days, the modern short story is far more complex and has successfully untangled itself from such reductionist mooring save for its timeless brevity. Just like a symbolic snapshot that tells more than meets the eye, the short story has assumed such cryptic idiosyncrasy that bears a closer affinity to poetry than the novel. Little wonder that sometimes in an entire collection or anthology of stories, one can hardly find a single well-crafted story that has passed the test of the modern short story. It is not uncommon to hear a great work of a first-time novelist or poet or playwright being labelled as a ‘flash in the pan’ because of their innocence of how the virginal knot is broken, but not so for the short story when innocence wears the toga of a crime, for in any good story the writer must display his knowledge of the form beyond mere narrative. It is in this enigmatic nature of the story that The Taste of the Tale … edited by Onukaogu et al can be said to be an appreciable departure, a fresh breath in this asphyxiating corner of our literature. The Taste of the Tale … is a montage of a country on the precipice of self-destruction. It comprises forty-one stories of uneven lengths and subject matters that traverse the entire spectrum of the Nigerian society such as insecurity, greed, environmental degradation, drought, religious bigotry, poverty, women’s oppression, social relationships, and so other many existential issues that beset our polity. In Onukaogu’s ‘Smiles Were Not Enough’, the reader is impressed by the stoicism of the major character despite the fatal injury she sustains in the auto-accident. The writer achieved his desired aim of invoking pathos from the reader for the plight of the lady in question and lampoons the beastly disregard for human lives in the country. A surgeon ‘who specialized in repairing veins was needed urgently so that the rate of blood loss could be controlled’ (p. 6), what with the lower part of her anatomy a ‘chaos of mangled flesh’ (p. 6). Out of the three or four specialists, one of them ‘answered from a background of organized noise’ (p.6) that he is in church, being a Seventh-day Adventist, and cannot leave the presence of his God to attend to the emergency case at hand. This provokes the ire of the narrator who could not understand that: ‘…someone who called himself a doctor, who had a duty to humanity, would sit in church, while someone he could have saved was dying. Was saving this soul not part of serving God? Would God not understand if he quietly stepped out to defend and propagate the course [sic] of humanity, and demonstrate love, which was the central crux of the gospel of Jesus Christ?’ (p. 7) To help save this soul, desperate arrangements are made to move the lady to Port Harcourt to the only surgeon willing to help. But they had bargained without ‘the miserable road to Port Harcourt, the eminent, ever-present Port Harcourt hold-ups, even more notorious on weekends’ (p. 8). This story is reminiscent of an apocalyptic line from Saro-Wiwa’s prophetic story ‘Africa Kills her Sun’, to wit: ‘Africa kills her sun and that’s why she’s called the Dark Continent.’ Onyerionwu’s masterful ‘Guilty as Charged’ appears to thaw the gloomy mood of Onukaogu’s heart-rending story. Here a kidnapper, not more than nineteen years old, meets his waterloo when he runs into his victim in a banking hall. At first the reader sympathizes with this deceptively innocuous young man with a ‘round and smooth face’ for being pummelled by a middle-aged woman old enough to be his mother. She accuses him of raping her after his gang had kidnapped her much to the amazement of her audience who feels she is suffering from an ‘unwarranted case of transferred aggression by a disgruntled woman who was probably suffering from the psychological tremors of a shaky home’ (p. 13). To disabuse their minds, she has to show the bite mark she inflicted on his thigh in her struggle not to be raped by him. The subject of kidnapping may appear topical and trite, but the writer’s effective use of humour and suspense more than mitigates this. In an anthology dominated by dark stories of angst and pessimism, it is with a sigh of relief to find the occasional lightheartedness in Kennedy-Oti’s hilarious ‘The Campus “Aje”’ which brilliantly satirizes poor female undergraduates who try to keep up with the Joneses. Vivy, a campus ‘ajebo’ who pretends not to have ever seen cockroaches before in her life, is brought to her level when her room-mate visits her unannounced at her shanty residence in Ajegunle, a popular Lagos slum. The dexterity by which the writer handles her characters, spicing their language with the requisite campus ladies’ Pidgin English, lends verisimilitude to this story. On the other hand, Ogezi’s ‘The First Stone’ is a chilling tale of a woman condemned to death under the Sharia legal system. Set in a fictional Kasanga State in Nigeria, Ogezi examines the plight of an independent woman, Hafsat, caught in the web of a retroactive law for the offence of adultery. But who will cast the first stone? ‘Was it the men who always drank themselves to stupor at the mammy markets of Army barracks where the long arms of Sharia could not reach them? Or their sanctimonious women who always veiled themselves in the daytime like angels, but before the night spread her black muslin upon the sullen earth, would be seen going about visiting men in the unholy name of “going to Angwan?”’ (p. 233). For Hafsat, taking leave of such a puritanical world is without regret even if it means her impending death by stoning. In this blissful marriage of prose and drama, Ogezi adroitly exposes the hypocritical nature of world sexist religions. A master of the short story, Umez’s two vignettes are centred on adultery. In ‘Restaurant Conversation’, a young man’s regret of wearing his wedding band in a date with an unmarried lady is subtly and unmistakably registered in the reader’s mind. By way of contrast, a woman wins her promiscuous husband back in ‘Meltdown’ without raising hell but by simply stooping to conquer. These sketches affirm the postulation that the short story shares a closer proximity to poetry than the novel. Umez’s rather Chekhovian vignettes conform to what the editors observed about the short story genre in their introductory note, that ‘the beauty of a short story lies in the fact that, very much like an expertly constructed poem, it says so much in a little space.’ (p. v). Bala’s ‘The Blank Book’ and Bula’s ‘Three Suitors and the Lily Flower’ are equally well-crafted. However, one wonders what stories like Egbuta’s ‘Shoshoro’, Ifi’s ‘Ikenba’ and Imam’s ‘The Amigo Sisters’ would be doing in such an anthology. Worse still, it is ironic that the editors who bemoaned the inability to include other stories on the ground of ‘space constraints’ (p. vii), could allow room for Urum’s nine stories of indifferent quality. Lastly, the work could have benefited from better editing if the editors had taken their time to remove glaring errors such as ‘a quick bathe’ (p. 26), ‘I held my breathe’ (p. 32), ‘they decide our faith’ (p. 46), ‘the lightening was threatening’ (p. 104), ‘he had no qualms taking what belongs to others’ (p. 302), ‘four day’s later’ (p. 305), ‘rented the air’ (p. 319), ‘about to breath his last’ (p. 320) and ‘touchlights flashing on him’ (p. 323). Though The Taste of the Tale … is a pointer to the fact that the average Nigerian writer still flounders at the seemingly slippery terrain of the short story, there are a few strong voices who are the future Alice Munros especially those that their stories were briefly examined above. This anthology is recommended for those who want to learn the craft of the short story and, in a few instances, how not to write short stories. The taste of the tale is in the reading.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Danger of the Single Story in Yerima's Heart of Stone

By Isaac Attah Ogezi In a 2009 seminal TED Talk on “The Danger of a Single Story”, Adichie berated the Western literary establishment for reducing the African story to one definitive story, a stereotype of mindless violence and debauchery which has come to cling to Africans. In the eyes of the West, Africa is only viewed as a heart of darkness, replete with war, famine and all other indices of a Third world continent, where life is short and brutish like the Stone Age. Where this is not the intent of this review, it shall examine the danger of a writer being fixated on a single story to the point of cloning his own stories. Yerima’s recent play, Heart of Stone, is a stage dramatization of the contemporary social reality that is Nigeria today, the nebula of fear that dogs our lives, total disregard to life, terrorism and religious uprisings. It tells the sad story of an orphan, Musa, who endured the vicissitudes of life as an Almajiri, teacher in a Koranic school, political thug to being a borehole digger before joining an extremist religious sect as a terrorist to unleash violence on innocent victims. The irony of these acts of terrorism is that nobody is spared both kith and kin. They “are not trained to think” (p. 47) but to wreak havoc on a docile world in the name of defending “themselves against the infidels. The non-believers.” (p. 48) Musa’s last operation brings him to a church where a wedding is in progress between his cousin Gladys and Miri with a disastrous effect. The church is bombed to smithereens. Amina , his heartthrob, paints this gory scene with chilling images when she laments: “Everyone in the church was blown to their deaths. Kaka Vero, Gladys and her husband are all gone. Their blood splashed, their bodies strewn in tiny bits and pieces were packed in different bags and brought to our hospital… Headless bodies, Kaka, torn from limbs to limbs. We cannot even tell them apart.” (pp. 50 – 55) Vero, who is later involved in the above inferno that terminates her life, had earlier warned Musa, who upon becoming a teacher in a Koranic school, suddenly saw his non-Muslim relations as dirty pigs, unbelievers fit to be slaughtered. In a plaintive voice, she says: “Let me speak, Son. From the day I saw you as a little boy join a group of Almajiri to force a car driver to stop and with your mouths you drew fuel from his car after beating him up for refusing to recite the Fathia… In a frenzy of madness, you all ran towards our church, poured the petrol under the doors, while the other wild boys broke the church windows and threw in burning rags into it… As the church burnt, and the police and the Fire Brigade siren vehicles screamed and screeched, our eyes met ….” (p. 42) A later victim of these wild boys on rampage, Vero goes further to narrate how her cousin’s house was burnt on page 42: “When my maternal cousin’s house, Bitrus’ house, was burnt in Koghum village in Wang District of Jos, with all five members of his family burnt alive, again it was another trip of madness? Millions have died after.” The alibi of most religious terrorists of Islamic sect especially Boko Haram and Al-Shabab is that they are fighting for Allah. As the author put it into the mouth of Musa, “It was what we were told to do. The Ustaz had said Allah decreed it. We were used.” (p. 42). Fortunately, the playwright shows a ray of hope at the end of the tunnel in the fight against terrorism when Musa is eventually arrested during his last operation and brought to book. In this timely play, like his previous plays such as Hard Ground and Little Drops…, based on the Niger Delta crisis, Yerima displays his talent as a journalist-playwright chronicling every facet of our chequered lives. A social crusader, he refuses to keep mute in the face of the Boko Harm insurgency in our polity even though no mention is explicitly made about them. On the contrary, it is in this obsession with the single story in a rather recycling manner that therein lies his albatross in this play. Musa is a slavish replica of Mimi and Kuru in Yerima’s Hard Ground and Little Drops… respectively and ape their speeches with no serious effort made by the playwright to recreate a different character. For example, all these three characters in these plays have almost the same reason for taking to violence against an unfair world. Nimi posits that the politicians are behind their creation: “They created us. They gave us the reason to find our place… First, we were errand boys, and so we got guns and money. We started asking questions, they had no answers. We all knew what they looked like before they got into power. We dumped them. They gave us no respect, because of the crumbs they give us while they keep the chunk… We fight only for ourselves. Our lives in our pockets.” (p. 39, Hard Ground) Similarly, as if parroting Nimi, Kuru also says: “The amnesty could not sell. There was no consultation with us who were to be granted the amnesty. Just a few men sat in the capital and worked out a one-sided agreement… They think they are smart … But they will see. We shall destroy everything … everything… everything. Total break-up! (pp. 60 and 63, Little Drops…) Also full of angst like these two characters in the earlier plays, Musa, filled with bile and discontentment, makes the trioka when he says: “And politics came. And the new politicians like Danladi your son came. They promised to take us away from our failures, but instead they reminded us that we were failures… Jokers! That was when we proclaimed death to all … They cannot achieve anything by talking with the wrong people.” (pp. 58 and 60, Heart of Stone) This single story of youth restiveness and criminality engendered by circumstances prevalent in their societies, permeates all these three plays and cannot be excused on the ground of the playwright’s use of different locales and cultures. Though a multi-cultural dramatist, Yerima makes no spirited attempt to be a connoisseur of any like the bat in the adage, stranger to the sky and earth. In consequence, he distorts, like most of our Nollywood films, the cultures of many ethnic groups in his plays in the name of multi-culturalism. This is more glaring in the latest of the three plays, Heart of Stone. The old man character, Achief, is a pagan and drinks the locally-brewed beer called burukutu, worships in the traditional way, yet exclaims “By Allah” (p. 10) like other non-Muslim characters in the play and, as if this is not enough, he makes claim to Islamic four-wife polygamy when he says: “I take a new wife to complete the number Allah approved for me as a good Muslim soon.” (p. 15). It is not for the love of being portrayed as a schizophrenic that the author made Achief talk about the gods in the next page: “That we need a megaphone to speak with the gods?” (p. 16). Perhaps, the greatest distortion of cultures and religions in this play is the misuse of Hausa words especially where Yoruba Arabic words are used instead of Hausa’s such as “Aljenah” (p. 34) for “Aljannah”, “Shetani” (p. 38) for “Shaitan”, “Kaffirs” (p. 41) for “Kafiris”, etc. It is obvious that the playwright’s knowledge of Hausa words and their concomitant Arabic expressions is weak. Kaka Patu, a pagan who believes in wetting the throat of her dead daughter “with the burukutu offerings” (p. 13), could not restrain herself when told that Musa is involved in the killing of Vero and exclaims: “Subahanallahi!” (p.53) before fainting! Yerima will not receive any thanks from any Christian for the pastor’s prayer on page 36 as it does not reflect the Christian culture of praying whether Pentecostal or orthodox Christianity. Be that as it may, Yerima is inarguably Africa’s most prolific playwright writing today after his elder countryman, Osofisan. However, the only snag for writers of this ilk is that memorability, the enduring quality of any great work of art, could as well go hand itself, flanked on either side by sublime literary language and originality. Shakespeare is still celebrated today for close to four centuries since he passed on to glory not because of the volumes of his works but for the relentless artistry and self-denial that went into every of his works which are now timeless benchmarks for world dramatic writing. A writer who continues to churn out works without paying attention to the nitty-gritty of what makes great works tick, coupled with a narcissistic disregard to his readers, may suffer the fate of not having his name whispered in the hallowed chambers of the Swedish Academy even if he attains the record feat of a hundred works.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

When a Poet Writes the Way He Preaches

Book: Eye Rhymes Author: Ahmed Maiwada Reviewer: Isaac Attah Ogezi Publisher: Mazariyya Books (2013) Pages: 56 The American writer and Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, was asked once why she wrote her seminal novel, Beloved, and her reply was that she liked writing the books that she would love to read. A writer’s works are a reflection of what he likes reading and his statement of what writing should be, the new course he aspires to chart, and to use the words of yet another American writer, poet laureate Robert Frost, the road ‘less travelled by.’ Perhaps the tragedy in the lives of many countless writers is the unfulfilment of this dream, the ever-nagging inability to write like their ideal masters of the art, much less to take the road not taken. Only a negligible few writers like Ahmed Maiwada have not seen this dream die stillborn, thus the joy of being spared the agony of trudging through life rather sulkily. In 2009, Maiwada’s second collection, Fossils, was greeted by the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) Literature judges as ‘pure poetry’, and I hasten to add, undiluted by overt preachments, shorn of tentative strokes on canvass by a suckling poet. If Fossils, a slightly above-par achievement could be greeted with such accolade, Maiwada in his latest collection, Eye Rhymes, came stronger and stiffer, most likely his undeniable tour de force. Divided into fifteen parts of unequal number of poems, Eye Rhymes is a slim, fifty-six-page collection on diverse themes. From the first six parts, the poet, nauseated by what is being paraded as poetry these days, expresses his views of what poetry is and what it is not. He uses the word ‘rhymes’ as the synecdoche for poetry, and at times uses them interchangeably. In ‘Their holes in walls caused culture shock’ on page 13, the poet derides the kind of jejune poetry that philistines at the corridors of power garland with awards: I hear of slam and sister scam – The hall of poetasters brook [sic] no trope! The classics waste; the trash is raised, O, musing now is by power and might. The plates on my table make maggots. Till a pinch of soul is added. Sham is that banquet! The poet goes further in this poem to take a swipe on literarily naïve authorities and would rather prefer if poetry, or arts generally, is left in the hands of experts. He counsels that instead of writing watery and prolix verses, it is better one does not attempt at all: The roll call of bards Is roll call of word-wasting Taliban. Crab is the line I’m trudging on, Marshland the pathway! I wouldn’t irk if you left The child, asleep in the manger; But Herod, you raised your hand And Herodias my anger! I can still remember with nostalgia the handful of poetic rejoinders provoked by this poem when posted by the poet on different listservs, albeit eclipsed by the original. Interestingly, in ‘Rhymes is to come, Rhymes is, and was’ on pages 21 – 23, the poet mocks those middle-of-the-road poets who swim with the current, abdicating their sacred role of writing good poetry in the name of pandering to the whims and caprices of ‘power and might’: Swimming fool has followed the rivers Since our parting with the Common Crown. Yes, I’ve lost the loft, with distance, But the floods I ride are concrete ground! Happily enough, the poet makes no secret of the kind of poetry that is high art; a hybrid of the public domain and the private, the divine and the mundane in a conjugal bliss. In ‘Public, private, divine, mundane’ on page 24, he eulogizes: Your message that has dropped in; The words – chosen, have seeped, The cracks they have filled, Walked on letters; Walked on their water, This water you have turned wine! My eyes can’t stop sipping Your message that has dropped in. The question that begs for an answer at this stage is why does arts appear at its most sublime when used as a weapon of vengeance? If not, why is it that revenge literature and music are so rich and almost mystical? Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare’s Hamlet readily come to mind in literature. Did Tupac Amaru Shakur not take Hip Hop rap music to another level in his Hit Them Up targeted at his arch-rival, the Notorious BIG? What about Akon’s Blame it on Me? It is obvious that Maiwada is not an exception in this collection when he bares his poetic fangs at his detractors. In ‘Limestone around his neck still roam’ on pages 45 – 46, he scoops sadistically his pound of flesh in the following lines: The gallery drowns in blood wine, In the Nazi Party’s banquet hall. Chemical Ali flows, From Goebbels’ swastika teeth, As the German shepherd yelps – The banquet’s baptismal name (Oh the Fuehrer needs Nine bards for the Gas Chamber!) In tune, bad-bass banjo bandies Hard-shell refrains; And when the hands cue him on, Doctor Death gasses the chosen nine! When the drones in his skies still form. Not yet done with these adversaries who cannot appreciate high art, this tiny clique of poetry-legislators, the poet vents further his anger in ‘Should Rhymes walk down gas chamber’s lane’ on pages 48 – 49 thus: There is gas in every tune Oozing from the grand gashole. Listen to the novel tune, O Milton, prince of tunes – Poetry is High Seriousness! The mighty banjo strummed it, And made your chosen people mournful. Banjo is a stringed tool O father – used when power is abusing – Your maid almost to the altar; The stringed one abused her, drunk on gas! Maiwada seems not to be alone in this vituperation against the usurpation of poetry by philistines in power, when he ‘cursed, cried and laughed, then the seizure’ (page 29), Shakespeare even wished for death in his Sonnet 66 when confronted with a similar fate: Tired with all these for restful death I cry, And purest faith unhappily forsworn, And gilded honour shamefully misplaced, And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted, And right perfection wrongfully disgraced, And strength by limping sway disabled, And art made tongue-tied by authority … On the aesthetic level, apart from American fiction ably led by John Steinbeck and William Faulkner which Maiwada adores, he holds American poetry with apparent peevish disdain. Ironically, his poetry bears closest affinity with post-modern American poetry, noted for its avant-garde inaccessibility, derogatorily called ‘poetry of stone’ by some middle-of-the-road Nigerian poets, pathologically fixated with lacklustre market-place poetry. Admittedly, reading Maiwada’s poetry is not a roller-coaster ride to nirvana, but an adventure of which the poet obviously invites his readers to spend as much time as he spent in the labour-room to be able to decipher it. Despite the initial difficulty the readers encounter, they cannot fail to be struck by beautiful expressions such as ‘Rhymes spent their nights in gales/Of prose that sat in vases’ (page 9), the cipher messages in ‘Nine bards for the Gas Chambers!’ (page 45) and ‘Banjo is a tool/O father – used when power is abusing –’ (page 48) and the medical metaphor in ‘Not the cadaver of an unfinished verse’ (page 54). Even the most tone-deaf readers cannot pretend not to hear the crunching, alliterative sound in ‘In tune, bad-bass banjo bandies’ (page 46). In recent times, I have not seen a poetry book that comes near to Maiwada’s Eye Rhymes in terms of high artistic cover design and production in Nigeria. Compared to his second collection, Fossils, in this latest poetic offering, we see a more reclusive Maiwada, strumming his privatist-and-yet-public violin, as original and experimental as Okigbo. Eye Rhymes, to paraphrase Achebe a little , is a poetry collection that I am most likely to be caught sitting down to read again owing to the poet’s original voice, so different from the babel of voices that assail our air-waves, straining for sunlight.