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 na├»ve 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.