HOME TO HIS OWN HARLEM
A Review of Humphrey Ogu’s A Neglected Youth & Other Poems
Publisher: Roselight Books, Port Harcourt. 2014
There is so much environmental lamentation in Nigeria’s recent poetry. Naturally, much of this is from the environmentally blighted Niger Delta itself, home to youths roaming in anticline and syncline. A lot also is from outsiders, crying out in sympathy. But in truth, they cannot, as it were, weep more than the bereaved. They lack the soul to articulate in poetic terms the depth of the pain. In Ogu, Nigeria has a fresh voice who invests his anger with succulent idioms, making the reader weep and laugh at the same time. And he manages this marriage adroitly; you do not get a sense of an over-leverage, of someone bracing for a visit from the community spokesman asking for a share of the royalty because the book had over-borrowed from the communal idioms repertory. And, unlike some early works of some of the land’s much acclaimed poets, Ogu’s fusion of idioms and street lingo into his paintalk is masterly, as they are pruned and made to neatly fit his message and worldview.
Given the preponderance of poetic voices crying in the Niger delta wilderness, voices such as Ogaga Ifowodo, Ibiwari Ikiriko, Obari Gomba, among others, you would expect new entrants to tread with trepidation and timidity. Not Ogu. In the poem ‘She Lost Her Period’ for instance, he boldly offers a poetic articulation of the genesis of the violence and militancy that has become the lot the region:
The Judiciary adjourned justice
presidency postponed peace
the creek lost her virginity
and gave birth to militancy.
Ogu does not view the Niger Delta environment with binoculars and telescopes. Because he caresses it, daily, with his feet, because he breathes it, oxygen-depleted and all, because the nerves of his veins are in constant rendez-vous with it, he is able to deliver a fresh but damning indictment of the region’s adversaries who happen to also be her traducers. Ogu is so angst-infested that he confronts the adversary frontally. It’s a call to arms
Dogs don’t just bark
and sleep in chains
while strangers steal meat from their plate
they also chase and bite
A reader from far-flung lands may think that the Delta crisis is ebbing, but from Ogu’s pen, it seems the pain is enduring, the combatants still poised:
By swamping our swamps with lethal liquid
endangering our lives
They’ve pushed us to the wall
leaving us with no choice
than to stay awake like dogs
chained and starved…
– (Endangered Homeland, P.24).
Similar thread runs through another poem, ‘They Shall Pay For It’, for instance, declares:
Those who chain us like dogs
and devour the fleshy meat in our kitchen
and give us discarded dry bones
Those who cage us like birds
and consume our eggs
and give us the shells
They shall pay for all their deeds
‘I know the End’s Near’ is the poet’s reaction to the recent flooding that inundated the Delta and other parts of Nigeria like a Biblical deluge. In one breath, he laments the flooding that suddenly turns a land environment into an aquatic one, making people to ‘walk’ in freestyle and breaststrokes, in another, he laments the corruption-laden relief efforts that end up relieving the relief administrators of the remnants of their seared conscience, as they unconscionably divert succor items to feather their own nests.
Ogu also takes a swipe at the Nigerian polity and its institutions. ‘April Fool’ is a scathing commentary on Nigeria’s charade called general elections where:
April polls parade the people as April fools
Waiting to ballot
while “winners” are already waiting for crowns
Wonders will never end, as they say. This angst-infused poet even finds time for love; in fact, an entire section is dedicated to the love theme. In ‘Oceans of Love’ his persona tells his lover:
Sweeter than honey;
Creamier than its juice
Greener than the meadow;
Fresher than its verdure…
Is my love for you
– (Oceans of Love)
To be fair, the poet had earlier declared that “someday I’m gonna sing a love song”, but not while a listed litany of obstacles including bomb blasts and hostage taking and terrorism and Boko haram make this nigh well impossible for him.
He also has a section of pidgin poems, dubbed SONGS FOR THE PEOPLE featuring poems like ‘Dem Dey Deceive Demsef’ and ‘If You Hear Say I Dey Prison.’ In this section as in elsewhere idioms are well infused into the ‘narrative’. If, as Achebe inform, idioms are the palm oil with which words are eaten, Ogu sure knows how to eat his.
Ogu is an emerging voice, refreshingly so, but don’t rush to drape A Neglected Youth… in superlatives. Some of the captions could do with deeper imaginativeness. An ‘Audacity of Faith’ and similar titles, for instance, seem to belong more in the realm of politics and of course the reader’s mind is easily drawn to Obama’s ‘Audacity of Hope.
Ogu himself seems to be prone to an over-romanticization of the Niger Delta youth. Maybe it’s an automatic, knee-jerk riposte to those who would like to denigrate the youth, but the poet would have the reader believe that there was nothing else to the ND youth than virtue and virility, as he celebrates “Our virile, virtuous youth”. ( ‘And they Reap the Harvest’, P.27). Surely there is need of some sort of balancing out here.
in the section ECHOES OF LOVE, we have perhaps a glimpse of what would have been. In the poem ‘Where There’s Love’, the poet states
Where there’s love
no matter the magnitude of the anger
fishes live with fishes
and swim in the same sea
A Neglected Youth draws inspiration from Black American writer Langston Hughes whose poem ‘Harlem’ raised many questions that Ogu himself tries to answer in his own poetic way. The echoes of the American poem form a strong backdrop to A Neglected Youth and for which Ogu makes no apologies, neither should he have.
You may charge him with inability to err on the side of caution, or of being one-track and blind to the few cases, even if mere tokens, of positive government intervention in the Delta, but one thing you cannot take away from him: in his angst-laden agitprop and passion-infused poesy, Ogu is truly home to his own Harlem.
– ANAELE IHUOMA