My Poetic Seductions
Two Nigerian poets presided over my induction into the pleasures of poetry. One is Wole Soyinka, the dramatist, poet, novelist, memoirist and curmudgeonly nemesis of secular and creedal fundamentalists who won the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature. Some thirty years ago, as a curious, intellectually hungry high school student in Nigeria, I fell in love with Soyinka’s “Telephone Conversation”. The poem was required reading in my literature class, but it had none of the drudgery and dullness of some of the other fare on our reading list.
Instead, the poem’s swiftness, sensual astuteness, picturesque details, sarcastic sallies and penetrating psychological insight transported me to its London locale. The poem, composed in 1962, reads:
The price seemed reasonable, location
Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
Off premises. Nothing remained
But self-confession. “Madam,” I warned,
“I hate a wasted journey--I am African.”
Silence. Silenced transmission of
Pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came,
Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled
Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was foully.
“HOW DARK?” . . . I had not misheard . . . “ARE YOU LIGHT
OR VERY DARK?” Button B, Button A. Stench
Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.
Red booth. Red pillar box. Red double-tiered
Omnibus squelching tar. It was real! Shamed
By ill-mannered silence, surrender
Pushed dumbfounded to beg simplification.
Considerate she was, varying the emphasis—
“ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?” Revelation came.
“You mean--like plain or milk chocolate?”
Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light
Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted,
I chose. “West African sepia”—and as afterthought,
“Down in my passport.” Silence for spectroscopic
Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged her accent
Hard on the mouthpiece. “WHAT'S THAT?” conceding
“DON'T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.” “Like brunette.”
“THAT'S DARK, ISN'T IT?” “Not altogether.
Facially, I am brunette, but, madam, you should see
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blond. Friction, caused--
Foolishly, madam--by sitting down, has turned
My bottom raven black--One moment, madam!”—sensing
Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
About my ears—“Madam,” I pleaded, “wouldn't you rather
See for yourself?”
Christopher Okigbo, the other poet, also saw himself as something of a priest. He’d been dead for close to ten years by the time I encountered his poetry. In fact, his voice was stilled forty years ago this past September.
Regarded by many scholars, fellow poets and aesthetes as the most accomplished African poet ever to write in English, Okigbo made a signature exit; he died in a manner that wholly became him. He’d exchanged his civilian mufti for the camouflage uniform of the Biafran Army, then put aside his pen for a moment to take up a gun. Felled in a battlefield, Okigbo died on a day when, it would appear, the idiom of words yielded ground to the fury of bullets.
Soyinka and Okigbo always come to mind when I contemplate poetry and its power to enthrall, possess and transform. On the particular occasion of this reflection, Okigbo hovered over my consciousness as I weighed how best to enter the universe of the poems I was invited to read and write about. A poet-priest transmuted into an angel, he came back to, ah, amuse me, to serve as guardian spirit.
Okigbo is ineluctably bound up with my notion of poetry. He was—one speaks about him in the past tense only with the profoundest disquiet and apology—the quintessential poet of enchantment. His oeuvre is slim—a single collection—but it contains a wealth of insights and embodies worlds of experience. A genius of cadenced expression, his poetry enthralls me to this day. He was—he is—a master of expressive virtuosity, adept at weaving a cornucopia of sacred and secular images, a many-voiced singer whose musical range guides his readers through alcoves and caves, leads them through phosphorescent maze-ways.
Okigbo refused to travel to his destinations on one charted path alone; he sought other paths, the more uncharted the better. A fellow African writer wrote a novel, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, in which the poet is accused of frittering away his life and poetic vision in pursuit of a narrow, jingoistic cause. But Okigbo defied reductionism. A protean being, he refused to be one thing and one thing alone, not even a poet.
Before making the supreme sacrifice as a soldier, Okigbo had worn other garbs. He was a priest whose address to his goddess—in an opening sequence titled “The Passage”—still leaves me awe-struck: “Before you, mother Idoto,/ naked I stand;/ before your watery presence, a prodigal/ leaning on an oilbean,/ lost in your legend/ Under your power wait I/ on barefoot,/ watchman for the watchword/ at Heavensgate;/ out of the depths my cry: give ear and hearken…”
It is an ardent offertory, a cry of innocence, a fusion of Igbo animist prayer and Christian invocations.
Okigbo was a man of great theatre, an ebullient mythmaker whose greatest creation was himself. And those who knew him often describe him as a mystic. Poetry was for him sacred, and it occupied a sacramental perch.
Last September, at a conference in Boston and Cambridge that marked the fortieth anniversary of Okigbo’s death, many an old friend—among them the novelist Chinua Achebe—spoke about his habit of locking in his guests and hiding the keys. Then he compelled his captive quarry to listen as he read his poems in a high-pitched voice—sometimes for hours!
Okigbo was also a seer and prophet. In “Come Thunder,” part of his sequence of poems prophesying war, Okigbo’s momentum builds up to a fevered and urgent pitch, and his imagery takes on an apocalyptic quality: “…Now that laughter, broken in two, hangs tremulous between the teeth,/ Remember, O dancers, the lightning beyond the earth…/ The smell of blood already floats in the lavender mist of the afternoon./ The death sentence lies in ambush along the corridors of power;/ And a great fearful thing already tugs at the cables of the open air,/ A nebula immense and immeasurable, a night of deep waters—/ An iron dream unnamed and unprintable, a path of stone…”
Like all true prophets, that is to say all prophets whose fidelity to their vision is nothing short of stubborn, Okigbo realized the peril of his vocation. His poem, “Hurrah for Thunder,” concludes with the doleful lines, “If I don’t learn to shut my mouth I’ll soon go to hell,/ I, Okigbo, town-crier, together with my iron bell.”
Among the reasons Okigbo is for me an indispensable poet is the fact that he peopled his poems with myths, echoes, idioms and images taken both from autochthony as well as the heirloom of other cultures. A man with a catholic reading taste, he exemplified an integrative sensibility. In the introduction to his collection, he acknowledged his debt to poets from other climes, among them Hopkins, Debussy, Malcolm Cowley, Raja Ratnam, Stephane Mallarme, Rabindranath Tagore and Garcia Lorca. Okigbo’s poetry reveals a deeply perspicacious talent, an artist with a judicious sense of how to wed the wide menu of external sources to the deeply sustaining resources of his immediate, indigenous poetic heritage. This alchemy enabled him to create poetic vistas of exquisite beauty, limberness, lyric reach and haunting power. His best poetry speaks in many different languages at once and exudes an unfailing organicity.
Okigbo exited life, as I already hinted, in dramatic character. When his kinsfolk from southeastern Nigeria sought secession to protest two major pogroms, Okigbo threw himself with passion into the cause. He made a sacrifice of himself, his death proudly announced by the Nigerian soldiers who supposedly shot him, but his remains were never recovered. In death, as in life, he seemed to insist on leaving us mystified. If a poet dies in battle but his body can’t be seen, is he dead? Indeed, is it right to speak about the stilling of a man’s voice when his poetic bequest continues to move and enchant us?
Achebe has told an anecdote about his then three-year-old son’s reaction on overhearing that Okigbo had died. The child exclaimed, “Dad, don’t let him die!” The child spoke precociously for many of Okigbo’s disciples. For me at any rate, Okigbo remains imperishable; he can’t—won’t ever—die. He is embedded in his poems. Each rereading of them strikes me as a novel act, an endless enactment of first readings.
Soyinka and (especially) Okigbo proselytized me for poetry. Okigbo weaned me on the magic of voice and opened my eyes to the dramatic potential in poetry. He taught me that poetry can be anything it desires, weighty one moment, light the next; earnest or glib as the spirit moves it; grave or flippant in turn. Whatever role he channeled—priest, mystic, seer or enchanter with symbols or music—he left me astonished. Only Okigbo, it seems, could have given us the vision of a watermaid bright “with the armpit-dazzle of a lioness.” Only he, in “Distances,” could conjure up the music of these lines: “the only way to go/ through the marble archway/ to the catatonic pingpong/ of the evanescent halo…”
What does Okigbo have to do with the cache of twelve poems? Simply this: that the ones I most deeply enjoyed have intimations both of Okigbo’s verbal dexterity and speak in multiple poetic accents.
“Orchis” stands out in that regard. It is a sensual smorgasbord that instigates a plethora of responses. The poem demands that we acquire new lens, that we permit ourselves for an uncertain, even unsettling odyssey. It draws us in from the opening lines: “Imagine having one good leg and keeping/ your ovary in it. You grow tired. You grow/ fickle. You grow on corpses.” What reader would encounter that line about growing on corpses and fail to be jolted? It’s stark, matter-of-fact; it’s a plain statement on gorging, and it’s the unsettling because it dares us to raise ethical objections.
A good deal of the poem’s evocative power lies in its surprising sleights of hand, its convincing conceit of floral sentience, and the ease with which its ecological subjects tip the scale in their favor. We are in the presence of nature, but it is not the same mute, quiescent nature to which we are accustomed. There is both ordinariness and extraordinariness here. There are considerations of exilic experience, of difference, dispersal and dislocation: “Your mother lives in New Guinea and weighs a ton./ In the cloud forests of Costa Rica your smallest sisters/ mutter Bite me through purple lips seen only/ with a magnifying glass. In the 1800s,/ scientists claimed you could not be grown in a lab;/ so you did, just to spite them. Now/ every year brings some humiliating study/ on the aunt who reeks of carrion, or the uncle/ in the Yunnan who won’t stop fertilizing himself.”
A good poet recognizes the suppleness of language, its promiscuousness, its facility for doubling in on itself, shifting shape, for morphing in polyvalent ways, its ability to slip away or sally to silliness just when you think you’ve got it fixed. “Orchis” demonstrates this protean impulse: “You dream sometimes of Greece, two legs,/ the festival where you drank too much wine./ When the priestess said Come here you came./ When she said Stop you kept coming.” Starting on a note of nostalgia that evokes a mythic template, the language wends its way to a place of the most profound ambiguity. The priestess’ summons is at first met with docile compliance, but the language lends a charged eroticism to obedience. We are put in mind of the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh where the priestess’ office is to act as an ever-willing conferrer of sexual bliss, a delirious participant in coital banquets.
Except that bliss doesn’t carry the day here; this is no philanderer’s paradise much less a temple where corporeal desires are acknowledged and sated. It is a monument, instead, to violence: “The guests…grabbed your hair,/ your arm, chanting, your other arm, pulling,/ clawing the skin until it surrendered from muscle,/ the unbearable tearing, and you wake—/ unable to scream with your lush, exploded tongue.” I was reminded of that dreaded moment when Okigbo declaims the hazard of a town crier who doesn’t learn when to shut his mouth.
In “Spiritus Mundi,” the poet uses a series of emotional and natural markers to contrast two different worlds and to map a physical as well as spiritual journey. Born in a country beset by religious zealotry and marked by violence, its cities plagued by architectural blight or the monsoon, the poem opens with its young speaker seeking solace in “my rhyme.” But poetry offers scant refuge in a clime walloped by nature and human-made violence (“…nothing survived the sun/or a pickaxe, not even a stone dome/that withstood 400 years of voices/raised in prayer and argument.”). In the face of such forsaken, desolate and dreary landscape, exile becomes attractive.
For such weary sensibilities, the West often holds out a beguiling promise. In this case, the poet’s westward relocation—coming at the turn of the century—yields a promise as well as exacts a price. Now older, the poet’s youthful ambitions are tempered by wisdom. But the poet must also give up the sullied grandeur of the past to become “a poet of small buildings”. But there are many ways, salient as well as oblique, to be sequestered. Freed from the stultifying shibboleths of religious fundamentalism, the poet is ensconced in a secular cell: “I recognize each cornice and sill,/the sky’s familiar cast, the window/I spend my days walking to and from,/as if I were a baffled Morghul in his cell”.
Has the poet escaped the ubiquity of rabid religious violence to languish in a claustrophobic and indifferent space, a lone soul untouched by other humans, comforted only by nature’s familiar sights and sounds, “The Atlantic’s stately breakers” moving “in measured iambs, tidy/as the towns that rise from sign to neon sign”?
If the poem flirts with a desultory tone, it finally steps back from that saddening denouement. Like many spiritual exiles forced to flee their homelands, cast afloat sometimes in alien worlds, the poet finds sustenance in small acts that define a syncretic vision. : “I call the days by their Hindu/names and myself by my Christian one.” The poem is nudged towards enlargement, not constriction. It embraces multiplicity, variousness, an integrative worldview: “All things combine and recombine,/the sky streams in ribbons of color./I’m my father and my son grown old./Everything that lives, lives on.”
Poetry sometimes reminds us of the big deal we make of small things, or of the small things we make of big deals. It often cheekily calls us on our anxieties, our hang-ups, our puny evasions and obsessions. “Mortal Combat” is that gem of a poem, as clever, unassuming and irresistible as the English muffin! This ode reads:
You can’t tell yourself not to think/of the English muffin because that’s what/you just did, and now the idea/of the English muffin has moved/to your salivary glands and caused/a ruckus. But I am more powerful/than you, salivary glands, stronger/than you, idea, and able to leap/over you, thoughts that keep coming/like an invading army trying to pull/me away from who I am. I am/a squinty old fool stooped over/his keyboard having an anxiety attack/over an English muffin! And/that’s the way I like it.
“Mortal Combat” is at once challenging and entertaining in a gutsy (pun intended!) kind of way. It ought to be elevated to an anthem, an accompaniment to contemporary Western culture’s disquiets over food. Much of Western discourse has turned on the question of not eating.
I have more than a passing knowledge of the subject of hunger. I was hardly seven when the Biafran War began in 1967. Starvation was not just an effect of the war; it was a tool. A top Nigerian official unabashedly stated that the government intended to use starvation as a weapon to defeat secessionist Biafra. I was one of the first-hand victims of that cruel and unusual policy. Even today, close to forty years since the end of the war, I still remember how it felt to go for days with little beyond air in the stomach. When I see horrid images—from Darfur or some other war-torn zone—of children with big, bare heads, emaciated necks, bloated bellies and spindly legs, it takes little or no imaginative effort to place myself there. No, my case was never that desperate, but it came close.
In the West, the crisis is not of foodless hordes but of overfed, food-saturated crowds. Obesity, not emaciation, is the name of the American and European specter. Western culinary tension is far less about the absence of food than the presence of too much food. “Mortal Combat” resonated with me. It reminded me of the ways in which our food regimens, our prandial prescriptions and prohibitions, our obsession with what to eat, what not eat, have elevated food—the English muffin serving here as some sort of synecdoche—to a place of sacral ubiquity. The poem is about the nature of desire and resistance, a parable about the way in which what we desire to extirpate ends up concentrating our minds. The poet deserves a muffin! Read it—and then treat yourself to an English muffin!
Orthodoxy and art, authority and poetry, issuers of decrees and spinners of symbols have always existed in some measure of mutual suspicion. From antiquity, we exhume the tragedy of Socrates, a man whose relentless inquiry antagonized different formidable factions of Greek society. The presumptive intellectuals loathed the ease with which he rocked their pretence to expertise. He riled the ecclesiastical sages when he challenged their confident pronouncements on the nature and place of gods in human affairs. Then the elite despised him for playing muckraker, for instigating otherwise compliant youth to question—even explode—hitherto unexamined precepts. By charging Socrates with polluting the morals of the young and the encouragement of apostasy, the coalition of his foes sent him to an untimely death. Problem solved!
In both Antigone the dissident and Teiresias the seer, Sophocles offered visions of power’s viciousness when crossed. For Antigone, whose defiance is compounded by a fanatical, even fundamentalist streak, the end is death. Teiresias, who will not suborn himself for the pleasure of the king, the punishment is to be discredited and cast in the role of traitor. In some light, the discredited artist/seer suffers a worse fate than the executed dissident.
In seeking to dominate the artist, power sometimes resorts to beguiling tools. There’s the poet’s elevation to laureateship. There’s the bestowal of royal commissions. There’s the adoption of the artist as the official bard. Then there are grants, fellowships, sundry awards sanctioned by the state.
How does the flattered, favored artist mediate between the sponsor’s expectations and the frequently acute awareness of the demands of artistic integrity? This subject is brilliantly contemplated in “Johann Sebastian Summoned to the Royal Court”. Bach’s ambivalent relationship with his sponsors at court enriches this poetic meditation.
“A dream while sitting here, obedient,” begins the poem. Whenever an artist and the word obedient are brought together in one line, the occasion calls for rueful stocktaking. An artist obedient to anything other than her or his creative vision is a plagued being. No surprise, then, that Bach’s dream is for escape from the “white palace” whose grandeur belies its stultifying power to the less regal, but in creative terms more expansive location of “our long white houses”. The artist’s quest is for a return to that time and place “in which it would be fine to loll, to/ pause for longer times than the time/ granted, to play what we desired to/ play for once, instead of duty calling/ evermore to play the work of friends,/ always more friends.” He seeks a return to the time of multiplicity when “every universal garden flourished/ in all its blooms together, all birdlings/ sang amalgams of single melodies to/ infinitely variable musics.” He pines for that time “before the ruling classes lost their minds,/ their properties; before we served only/ bureaucracies as spare-time artists, mere/ intellectuals, performing elephants and fleas.”
The angst-ridden tone is unmistakable, and it is wholly understandable. Art—and poetry has always been, and remains, at the center of this imaginative enterprise—thrives in the soil of freedom. Orthodoxy, inflexibility and certain conventions that are contemptuous of innovation, other paths and roads, represent encumbrances on the artistic sensibility. The homogenizing and consumerist impulses birthed by globalization constitute the contemporary face of Bach’s malaise. “Johann Sebastian” offers us a cry issuing from the heart of an artist stifled into conformity and rote regurgitations. The portrait of the artist as a kept man, a man denuded of creative agency and stripped of imaginative latitude and volition—indeed, an artist pressed into the service of bureaucratic cynicism or royal aggrandizement—is dire and frightening. The poem, thank God, does not give the last word to this dark prospect. It reads like a paean to the infinitely attractive potential of diversity, a championing of inventive genius.
Poetry—like other artistic idioms—is today at a crossroads. A growing rank of poets must compete for grants, fellowships and prizes that are either not growing, or are certainly not growing at a pace commensurate with the expanding field of poets. In such desperate situations, the temptation exists for some writers to tailor their art to the prefabricated preferences of powerful—that is to say, wealthy—foundations. But each serious poet, each artist, must beware of the pitfalls and traps. They ought to be chastened by the vision in this poem. They should strive for an artistic freedom unencumbered by the strictures—the limiting, emasculating crucible—of those who would legislate on artistic fashions.
A poet—any artist, for that matter—who subordinates her or his art to the consensus of the marketplace cooperates in being rendered a monkey marionette, a mindless tool, a ventriloquist. Such a poet would be cast in Bach’s bind, an insouciant tenant in hell.