Arts

Obi Nwakanma's The Horsemen and other poems reviewed

Those who are familiar with Nwakanma’s writings know that no book of his would be complete without the mention of his guiding deity Agwu, patron deity of artists, visionaries, seers and those loitering on the lunatic fringe. In that regard, this book does not disappoint. Agwu hooks up with Nwakanma to deliver a throaty ode to Nigeria’s dreamers; Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Christopher Okigbo, Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, and Emmanuel Ifeajuna. Agwu the Impish One shows up in robust laughter and song in A String Lullaby, a piece dedicated to Fela Anikulapo Kuti (p 10). That piece alone is worth the price of this book. Hear Nwakanma and Agwu in delightful song for Abami Eda, the Weird One:

The drums are speaking today… remember

The hands that carved their melodies

The drums are speaking today… remember

Their silence their hollowness.

In Nocturne (p 47) the reader is delightfully overcome by a wealth of imagery like this gem:

Each afternoon leans upon my sad porches

Each afternoon sighs like the distant echo of the magnificent nocturnal –

The loquacity of the poem Abuja ironically has hints of J.P. Clark-Bederemo’s tight-lipped depth of Ibadan (p 18).

This is an important city; no monologue

is minimal, none can be reversed.

The giant trees are silent, hewn,

in their places, steel cenotaphs.

Abuja is eclectic, and deeply deceptive in its seeming simplicity. Its mournfulness also reminds me of the song Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell (also performed by Bob Dylan). The original lyrics of Big Yellow Taxi were written in the 1966-69 time period, an epochal period in Nigeria’s life, a period very much on Nwakanma’s mind. Listen to Yellow Taxi

They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot

With a pink hotel, a boutique

and a swinging hot spot…

… They took all the trees

And put them in a tree museum

And they charged all the people

A dollar and a half to see ’em….

The sweet musky odor of sex is never far from the surface of this book, lurking, and wiping one’s feverish brow with towels of stirring symbols (p 47).

Ah, her mysterious voice, darkening,

resonant, hovers across the fields;

It is the moistness

that shapes our moments…

The tenderness continues in The Returnee (p 39)

She is the wraith that dries herself

besides the fireplace. Nude as plain water.

Perhaps it was a word that gripped her lips.

Perhaps it was a startled smile.

Perhaps it was a dirge uttered to the flame.

Nwakanma’s poems are mournful, soulful and deeply spiritual. They are also deeply troubling in parts. He also gives robust voice to his personal struggle with and ambivalence towards what I call the new dispensation of our being. He views globalization with a heavy dose of skepticism and it shows. In The Horsemen and other poems, Nwakanma gallops through many seasons of war, ploughs through many cemeteries of fallen dreams, scales okra covered walls and chases dreams that never left our huts in the first place. And the reader comes upon this land of alien deities, and lands exhausted on the unwelcome mats of these strange people that worship feuding gods. Come to me, Jesus said, the Devil is evil. And we asked, Esu alagbara is evil? There are no wars in this land. But there is no peace in this land. This land is at war. There is no hunger in this land of plenty but the people are hungry because the cornucopia of plenty is filled with plastic cheeseburgers. We have stayed too long in paradise and trapped ourselves in our own private prison. We are at war like no one has seen in this strange place where doors are always opening. And closing.

The book is not without its share of flaws and I have a few quibbles with its production, all of which I lay at the feet of the publisher Africa World Press. The preface went on too long – the last paragraph would have been just fine; everything else was WTMI – way too much information. Let the reader do his or her own research because sometimes the joy is in the hunt. I am not a fan of Africa World Press – their publishing is ho hum. I don’t see how they can compete for world class writers with the rest of the publishing world. Africa World Press could use a good editor. Back to the book, I would have loved to see a partnership between a graphic artist and Nwakanma in this haunting book, say, Nwakanma and Victor Ekpuk and/or Victor Ehikhamenor. Now that would have been something. Some graphic illustrations would have helped the reader immensely in plumbing the dark recesses of Nwakanma’s angst. I have a copy of Christopher Okigbo’s Labyrinths. Like Nwakanma’s book, it is spare and stark but the graphics that accompany the pieces Watermaid, Newcomer and Initiatives arrest the reader’s mind and takes the reader on a journey to the most sacred of grottoes. Effective. The thinker Olu Oguibe also uses the same technique in his book A Gathering Fear to awesome effect.

Nwakanma does fall victim to the universalism that he rails against. In the beginning there were walls. I remember the end of the beginning. In the beginning there were these walls, but they are coming down, slowly on everything that we hold dear in our hearts and minds. Nwakanma knows this and he is not happy about it. In the voices of our children, in the songs of our people, Nwakanma feels the devastation that our collective poor judgment has wrought on the land. There are lawyers that can’t write a sentence, doctors who operate slaughter houses, and writers whose poetry is haunting only in its incoherence. In Nwakanma’s world, the movement of people, resources and ideas in the new global world is relentless. Like a school of hungry fish we swim, swim and swim for dear life. Each movement creates despair and devastation in its wake. The past is hopeless, the present confounds us with its chilling reality of alienation and tomorrow presents us the shimmering hope that our children will never swim this way. It is a sad apocalyptic vision. Nwakanma fears that we may be stuck in a self fulfilling prophecy. Things have fallen apart. Chinua Achebe’s book Things Fall Apart must be living rent-free in Nwakanma’s fecund mind. Let us pray.

All in all, I salute Obi Nwakanma’s spirit. There are these things in the air, crisp and unseen that connect the reader with a seeming nothingness but give birth to a searing awareness. In Horsemen and other poems, Nwakanma speaks to me from the bowels of my ancestors’ coven. He speaks to me howling, bawling, and soaking me in the song of my mother’s grief. In the feverish insistence of his voice, in the feverish insistence of his rhythm, in the pounding of his feet on our mothers’ earth, he speaks to me. His poems hold my conscience captive, and his abiding spirit leashes me strong away from the pain of hovering on the edge of alien playgrounds. And joy rides my senses, going places in the heart where fear clings to life. Hey, look at joy bounding up and down the steps of happy memories. In Nwakanma’s little book that roars, Joy takes me by the hand and says; where there is life, there is hope! I salute you, Obi Nwakanma!

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