Nigerian poetry does not have, and cannot be allowed, to ossify into one long ancient poem of protest (or lament)
SPM Publications, 2013, 105 pages, £8.95,
For ages, Nigerian poetry has operated within a poetic tradition that demands it be didactic, functional, and socially committed. Of course this tradition predates the colonial experience, to a time when poetry was routinely appropriated for ceremonial purposes, though this tradition became no less evident in many of the poems published during the era of nationalism and independence. Nigerian poets, regardless of where their ideological preoccupation lies, have often employed poetry to engage national development from a people perspective. A poet’s engagement with the polity must therefore be unflinching. It is this tradition of social commitment that informed the vision of luminaries such as Okigbo, Soyinka, Okara, Clark, Ofeimum, Osundare, Ohaeto, Ojaide, to name a few.
In this century, a number of Nigerian poets still write within this poetic tradition which equally positions them as the voice of society – not the self. As expected, much of the poetry being published these days is driven by such ‘unselfish’ commitment reinforced by the poet’s sense of utter disenchantment with the misrule that has become indicative of post-independence Nigeria. A poet’s responsibility to the society implies that his or her poetry has to be mediated by the prevailing ethos or nationalistic sentiments – for it to be taken much more seriously.
Poetry that falls short of this commitment may find itself attracting little or no critical attention or validation from the literary establishment which appears to be deeply entrenched in formalism and tradition, and whose critics are rather invested in sustaining than undermining such time-honoured practices, as it were. One may say that many of the national prizes (such as the Nigerian Prize for Literature and the ANA/Gabriel Okara NDDC Gabriel Okara Prize for Poetry) have been won by poets whose collections were adjudged to have effectively represented the Nigerian zeitgeist or collective experience – aside from their requisite literary merits.
However, Uche Nduka, one of Nigeria’s leading contemporary poets, has published Nine East, a collection that barely holds a mirror to the socio-political realities of his time. In Nigerian literary criticism, Nduka belongs to the third generation, that is, writers born after the independence in 1960; a generation Joe Ushie, a poet and scholar, has referred to as ‘lamentation poets,’ because they protest the relentless plunder of the motherland by a sinister cabal as well as bemoan the nation’s glory lost, in the period shortly after the oil boom of the 1970s. The third generation began its work around the late 1980s and mid 1990s, a time of pervasive military dictatorship in Nigeria. According to another scholar Romanus Aboh, this ‘generation of poets engages their poems as avenues to register their contempt with a system that makes them slaves in their own country.’
Given the country’s legacy of colonialism and nationalism, poetry in Nigeria tends by necessity to be political than personal. Uche Nduka’s poetry is expected to project this continuum. However, he is not writing within prescribed expectations, since he displays no interest in fostering the orthodoxy that makes the aesthetic of protest or lament valuable, an orthodoxy that characterises much of Nigerian poetry, right from the 1960s up to now. Acknowledged as one of the most prolific poets in Nigeria, with nine impressive collections to his credit, it is possible to say that – following the publication of Nine East – Nduka no longer concerns himself with poeticizing the political concerns that many Nigerians can readily perceive and appreciate. And by rejecting the traditional roles of a social responsible poet, he appears to have violated the Nigerian standard of poetry – an act both transgressive and narcissistic.
A critical review of Nduka’s corpus of poetry will indicate that he is a poet known to resist categorisation, baulk at dogma, strictures, and conventions. Since he broke onto the literary landscape in 1988 with his debut poetry collection Flower Child, he has grown particularly ‘restless for delight’ (Nine East, 44). A prominent feature of Nduka’s poetry is the coupling (pun not intended) of the sensual and sacred. In a few of his poems he splashes swear words with the ease of one exchanging pleasantries. I don’t think there is any Nigerian poet that currently displays such patent ‘idiosyncrasy’ and proclivity, aside from the late Esiaba Irobi. And nowhere is this more visible, more palpable, than in Nduka’s latest poetry collection Nine East. Unlike many poets writing today, Nduka treats the subjects of sex and irreverence with utter levity. Really, there is probably no other Nigerian poet who is as constantly fascinated with the female body as Nduka. This fascination was slightly evident in eel on reef, his seventh collection, but became both a signature and a conceit of sorts – a surfeit – in the ninth one.
In a book of one hundred poems, no less than sixty are suffused with sexually explicit words and imagery. The opening poem catalogues a series of snapshots of pleasure such as ‘the roving song,’ ‘last cigarette,’ ‘letter from your lover,’ ‘car speeding,’ ‘brandy roaming in you,’ ‘last fiesta,’ ‘siesta with your lover,’ and ‘see-through panties.’. The word ‘lover’ is mentioned four times in this particular poem, foregrounding the imperative of eros in the poet’s vision. It is this preoccupation with the carnal that recurs in much of his poetry. It is highlighted in poem 7, where the speaker makes amorous advances to a new inamorata, since he has already spoken about ‘the last lover around the corner’ (1):
my shades are drawn. the phantom needs you.
the minute asks for follies…
you mention my armhair. the bed will
never do. becomes more rough…
your cunthair is perfect…
Likewise, poems 10 and 11 affirm the speaker’s engagement with hedonism, but poem 12 aims at slapping any prudish reader across the cheek with its clear-cut, pornographic image: ‘clench of cock and cunt.’ This is not poetry for the censorious palate. In the next poem, the speaker enthuses about ‘a poem good to fuck to,’ while he and his lover are ‘drenched with each other’ (13). In poem 15, he loads his description with raunchy wordplay such as ‘as far as penissing goes,’ and ‘peace born of porn,’ etc. The next poem presents the speaker asking his ‘lover, why/did you shoot your spunk into my headhair’ and declaiming in the same breath, ‘my work address/is your crotch’ (16). In poem 18, he shows us that ‘her nipples are being erected,’ even as she ‘nearly gave a satisfactory account of the trunk of sex,’ so the reader is not at all surprised that ‘too much skin is never enough,’ (20) for one who seems to relish ‘the infinite condom’ and ‘the milkier bosom’ (21). The speaker further demonstrates his need for intimacy in ‘I want to finger your inner potential,’ and ‘touch love’s devilry without a stingy palate’ (22).
Poems 29 and 30 explore the various intimacies the speaker revel in; one such intimacy ‘gets loud and menstrual’ and the other is
in that shelter is where
i want to be. hide me
in thy cleavage…
Poem 30 elaborates on this ‘urgency of bonding’ and ‘the business of catching eyes,’ and in the same stanza the speaker enthuses about ‘clitoral/trip with ice’. Sex is hinted in poems 34 and 36, respectively. He deploys graphic neologism such as ‘the pianissimo of screwing’ to affirm the sensual thrust of poem 37 and provokes attention in the most epigrammatic poem, ‘Thru pussy to poesy’ (41) in the book. The ‘clitoris’ is again referenced (44), while he ‘craves what’s beneath the zipper’s gaze,’ (46) because he is ‘not too drunk to fuck’ (48). Although he claims to not need anyone to ‘protect [him] from a woman in heat,’ he wonders out loud:
am I in danger from you
because I pant after you (52)
Language is imbued with erotic quality, even feminised, in poem 57, for ‘woman is language’ whom the speaker is keen on ‘sucking’ without minding ‘how drippy’ he finds her. This might explain the speaker’s rapture as expressed in, ‘i quiver and quiver/as though i could only/be saved by quivering with you’ (60).
Poem 61 is curious somewhat, in that the speaker highlights two political issues, which he has for the most part ignored. The attack on Nat King Cole by white supremacists, while he was performing in Birmingham in 1956, and the U.S. presidential election controversy in Florida, in 2000, are treated, albeit ephemerally, before he jaunts back to his amorous foray, as indicated in these two statements, ‘spread your legs’, and ‘I’ll explain later’. Simple as they may sound, these utterances reaffirm the speaker’s passing interest in politics; an interest which will later resurface in poem 86, where he merely glosses over Darfur and Biafra (great tragedies in human history).
Aside from the frequency of sexual imagery in Nine East, the theme of irreverence recurs in Nduka’s poetry. In poem 3, the speaker wields his ‘passport for more liberty’ to not only mesh the sacred with the sensual, as in ‘barbie doll in pope’s robe,’ but to pour scorn on spirituality as in ‘what the fuck is divinity?’ (3). Barbie is an epitome of objectification, beauty commodified, whereas pope embodies piety and spirituality. This theme is amplified in the stanza below:
osculatory debauch and sweetbread and what
the day is made of; when am I going to make
you sticky; atingle to the ankle; how soon
can your loins frame the questions; (34)
In this poem, the sacrosanct is wedded to the sexual, and the sacralised import of osculatory (a religious tablet) is ‘debauched’ by the ardour conveyed therein. The rosary, a sacralised icon, is eroticised as ‘the nipple…/between the thumb and forefinger,’ (43) alluding to an act of caressing, which in itself foreshadows deeper intimacy. To the religious, more blasphemous are the lines below:
in your clitoris
is where the face of God is (44)
The theme of irreverence is further carried over to poem 48, in which he mentions that he is ‘not too drunk to fuck’ and would not ask God to protect him ‘from a woman in heat’. Or, ‘what a crappy/way to receive the Goddess that rained/herself into us,’ (58).
In Nine East, it is apparent that for the speaker ‘vulgarity is timeless’ (90), and he has rightly affirmed it in the various poems highlighted above. The poet, Uche Nduka, has demonstrated that his vision of poetry is not one for the squeamish. But one might wonder if he authorises the subject of sexuality in his poetics as a way of positioning it in mainstream literary discourse in Nigeria. Or is it another way of the poet enacting his individuality and ‘reifying’ his view of sexual liberation? What is noticeable, however, is that as a creative soul Nduka appears to embody the peripatetic poet hankering for artistic freedom in all its excess; the insouciant artist who exhibits no qualms in defying, and even breaching, the boundaries of artistic practice; a poet who appears to be more at home with poetry that explores and engages themes of hedonism than any socio-political concerns that animate the poetics of many Nigerian poets.
In an age where sex has been stripped of much of its ‘taboo’ privacy, all but disrobed, particularly in the western world, will there be more poets of Nduka’s kind – robust and rebellious in aesthetic and vision – daring and willing enough to break with tradition? Will Nigerian poetry be ‘transgressed’ further by poets who are oriented more to the impulses of their individuality than of communal sentiments? Who embrace, say, solipsism as the defining vision in their poetry? Who privilege the “I” over the “We”? These are questions I hope we would find the up-and-coming generation of poets addressing in their works. It would be more enriching at any rate to have a few more poets writing against the exigency of tradition. Because, Nigerian poetry does not have, and cannot be allowed, to ossify into one long ancient poem of protest (or lament).
Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike writes poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and children’s stories. His works have been published online and in print literary magazines. He was one of the winners of the Commonwealth short story Competition in 2006 and 2008 respectively and has twice been nominated for the Nigeria Prize for Literature (2007 and 2011). He lives in Owerri with his wife and their children.