SPOUSES AND NECTARS:

Spousal Virtue Fires up Ugorji’s Poetry of New Talking Points  in She is Eternal

BOOK REVIEW

Title:         She is Eternal and Other Poems.

Reviewer: Anaele Ihuoma

Publisher: Goldline and Jacobs Publishing Glassboro (in assoc: BlueslandComm. Abuja)

Year:        2020

In a radical rearrangement of the order of things, men bear the womb and women fertilize it. Like the one with which a woman is endowed, this womb of poetic life would be vacant without the unlocking energy of surging redemptive human action, a germinal wake-up seed,  the let-there-be-light  enchantment  of virtuous life. This is the scenario playing out in She is Eternal, the début poetic offering by Ugorji O. Ugorji, who is better associated with studies in Educational Administration, Human Resource Management, Homeland Security, and Diaspora studies.  Here, the womb is the poet persona, vacuous, inchoate; the human seed is provided by the poet’s wife, the totality of whose actions   – or a string thereof – which has provided the seed for the poet’s eruption into life.

This is not a first. Women throughout the ages, from Helen of Troy and  Cleopatra  to Mother Theresa and Winnie Mandela, have provided the prompt for poetic effervescence.   It is one thing to celebrate womanhood, or a particular  streak of that notion, it is , well, not quite another thing, to fall under the spell of  womanly virtue. The poet then gushes like the pregnant palm tree, with primal wine, revelling in the udder of feminine excess, extracting milk of woman kindness from the delicacies of mother nature.

Beyond the poet’s own confessions, I do not quite know the exact prompt for Ugorji O Ugorji’s  collection, She is Eternal, but it is evident that the poet has been under some spell; the sort that compels the vocal cords to adopt a love song mode.  From my vantage position I can see that the acts that elicit such a Big-bang for a poetic universe were not those done to grandstand,  exhibit or flaunt; in fact,  they were no ‘acts’ at all; they were rather  a mode. A mode of living that, like series of single streams, begins to generate the energy and the massive water budget that ultimately thunders into the mighty ocean of poesy, as the poet is swept away by the Muse’s sudden epiphany. This foregrounding will resonate with the reader as s/he navigates the territory of She is Eternal.

Set out in three segments of ten poems each, She is Eternal is a song of love and cultural identity or what the author might refer to as ‘Afrocentricity.‘  Section One or ‘Jamike poems’ are a hotch-potch, traversing personal and filial experiences in the journey of being and becoming, some exultant in their happy memories, others counter-exemplary.  Section Two: ‘Anya Poems’ or Poems of Love and Affection’ makes good its titular promise. It dilates on love and affection in its multiplicity of essences, our personal joyous slides and swings in its see-saw ambience  and our entanglements in its delicate web.  It contains some compellingly poignant pieces, including ‘The Gift of You’, a birthday present to the very Muse that inspired the entire collection – his wife, whose name ‘Ihuaku’ he pronounces –  we would presume – like Leopold Senghor his Naett. ‘Amadi Poems,’ in the Third section, delve into human struggles at the personal, communal and national levels, showing human character, foibles and frailties in their variegated dimensions. Embedded in this segment are poems that are sure to court controversy, given the angle of their engagement with the polity (‘Come, Brother, Come’), as well as poems of a rather narrow personal nature  that probably fit better elsewhere. In the poems addressed to his lover, the persona pours out his love pleas first through the slow lane  ‘A Slow Dance,’ then through the mystery arena  of ‘New Yam’,   until he becomes ‘transformed in (her) regal presence’ (A Gift of You’), writing his love song to her (I’m Gonna Tell my Homeys about You’).

Dubbed Poems of Consciousness and Struggles, Amadi  Poems, are  the most contemporary in terms of their thematic preoccupations. From dilations on the circle of life in ‘The Elders’  through a plea for unity and brotherhood in  ‘Come Brother Come’  and invitations to  shield the President in ‘Oga’s Shoes,’ the poems speak to contemporary political, socio-cultural and psycho-social issues that touch on the lives of Nigerians.  It declares in one memorable pair of lines: ‘We’ve seen enough of the marketed women, /Usher in the market women instead.’ The segment also contains the eponymous poem ‘She is Eternal’ to which we will return later in this review. In some cases, the real poems are hidden in open view, inside the author’s rather generous introductions, both at the beginning of the collection and in the inside pages while presenting each of the segments. In Anya Poems, for instance, we are told of how, in love between humans, ‘the eyes usually fall captive first,’ a line rich in poetic insight.

The likes of Wole Soyinka (Idanre and other Poems) and, more so, Niyi Osundare (The Eye of the Earth, among others), accomplished practitioners of this art, are both famed for their immersion in the linguistic cosmology of their native lands . In fact,some  have poetically assailed the latter for ‘over-borrowing’ from his communal Yoruba idiom. I am therefore not too surprised that perhaps one of Ugorji’s more sublime lines is a direct gift from his ‘ala’ to whom the poet had paid fulsome homage elsewhere:

I know what the ancestors know

That the heart is a coward

The head, a calculating fool

and the soul, a troubadour philosopher.

But only in the eyes resides love.

A hurum gi na anya ( I see you in my eyes)

This transliteration of the Igbo expression I-love-you directly subverts the notion that love is in the heart, that love is blind. In the Igbo linguistic cosmology, love is alive and wide awake. 

Sample poems from Anya Poems include: ‘Your Love,’ a celebration of belated triumph, a consolation for the persona after he had been upended by an oppressor, a chronic debtor who refuses to pay, or a rival for the heart of a previous paramour; a sort of Romeo who finds his Juliet and then wonders why he ever pined for Rosalind. Take your Rosalind, Frank, I’ve got  me the real gem, Juliet.  It is a sentiment anyone who has ever truly loved would easily share. ‘The Gift of You’ advances the same love theme. It shows the remaking of the persona into a humbled spirit, self-reduced by his paramour’s huge stature; a prodigal before the enigmatic watery presence of his own Okigboan Idoto goddess.

She is Eternal and Other Poems is replete with puzzles and allusions to localized, private and parochial subtexts now elevated and willy-nilly thrust upon a broader literary connoisseurship that must make a meaning of these private fantasies. An instance of this is the reference to ‘free souls,’ ‘Marriott encounters,’ and ‘sweet moans’ in ‘I See You in My Eyes’. Set out in sextets, the poem laments ‘late night chats,/ that end with the penury of goodbyes’(p.19 Section 2).  We may extenuate, though, that such public promotion of privacies has, over the ages, provided poesy with some of its charm and fascination. 

Many writers and intellectuals atrophy into a cultural amnesia after residing in other  climes. Not so Ugorji.  Exhibit one: ‘Progeny’; exhibit two: ‘New Yam’, exhibit three: The Gift of You.’  There is a warm embrace of Igbo cultural practices and strong affirmations of an African worldview, in the above named poems; indeed the entire collection offers intimations of an African cultural renaissance. While early African poets  of the first and second generation such as JP Clark, Soyinka,  Okigbo, Echeruo and many others made a ‘virtue’ of showing off their intimacy with western cultural idioms, and readily drew their motifs and references from Greek and Roman history and mythology, a practice that drew the sharp ire of the Chinweizu troika in Toward the Decolonization of African Literature, subsequent generations of writers (Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Obari Gomba, JumokeVerissimo, among others) have tended to adopt a back-to-root cultural  reflex,  drawing instead from Africa’s dense ancestral pantheon and its vast supporting appendages. More radically-oriented poets (Ogaga Ifowodo,  Uzor Maxim Uzoatu) have tended to dispense with the gods and their appendages, whether local or foreign, and draw instead, from contemporary experience (Uzoatu, in fact self-apotheosizes  in his eponymous The  God of Poetry). Ugorji is somewhere in the latter mix. In ‘Progeny’ the persona tells his heartthrob

“Daughter of our land/my chi has long said ’Yes’

So when next I dance my Abigbo at Eke-Ukwu

Ask me not about Cupid or Valentine

Rejoice with me instead in the wisdom of Chukwu.

Similarly, in ‘New Yam’ the poet invests the new yam with spiritual and almost human qualities; it assumes a symbolic ritual essence, amid strong sexual undertones, as the festival yam is consumed between the persona /celebrant and the woman who is wearing ‘absolutely nothing but cocoa butter lotion.’

A sample piece from Amadi Poems includes the eponymous poem, in which the poet celebrate women ‘steeped in divinity,’yielding life like the earth itself.  It begins with an exploration of female sensuality a la D.H. Lawrence: ‘her swaggering hips announce the confluence of the great rivers.’This is followed by depictions of the woman, now a dance partner of thunder, in a symbolic symbiotic rendez-vous with the elements:

 ‘When she smiles, /the sun sends rays to nurture.

When she cries,/the sky sends rains to nourish

When she frowns,/the clouds converge to warn

In what could have been a third strophe, the woman transforms into a multiplicity of historical and legendary personages. In one breath she is Queen Amina of Zaria gallivanting across the savannah on horseback; in another she is the Oloko Trio of the 1929 Aba Women’s Riot up against unwarranted taxation of women and Warrant chief system itself. She then becomes the fiery anti-imperialist emancipationist, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti,  the scourge of both cultists and colonialists as recorded in Soyinka’s Ake: The Years of Childhood.  Under the poet’s deft hands, in the next sequence she is  Margaret Ekpo, iconic political activist in Nigeria’s First Republic before she morphs into a force in league with  history: she for whose kisses the persona travels back in time to brave the death-emitting spectacle of Hannibal marching on Rome! If you excuse the irreverence, then she is truly eternal, guilty as charged; she is Cleopatra-Winnie Mandela-Chris Anyanwu- Chioma Ajunwa, Mbaise-born long jump ace-Toni Morison-Maryam Babangida-Dora Akunili-Stella Adadevo…..Well then: she is fossilized history, ossified, un-nuanced, one dimensional angel, constantly indicating ‘blue’ to the two-way litmus test. This may not be female life as we know it: singularly endowed with the gift of birth, so beautiful a heart and spirit she is the very epitome of humanity, yet one endued with protoplasm and the distraction of defecation and puking; one, like all humans, prone to envy, hot jealousy, truth-twisting, and similar humours. But it is life all the same, one with a legitimate right to the universe of poesy.

In ‘I See You in my Eyes’ we see entreaties to a paramour, or one who had once been, or the one to whose deaf ears overtures to be one fall flat; the igwe-and-lolo  of unrequited love.  The lovelorn persona, on his pilgrimage to his lover, pushes his case by a mix of craftiness and chivalry. Rather than being silent on his lover’s past, he catalogues them, then writes them off, thus presenting himself as a man high on beau geste.

Written in five quintet stanzas in  ab, ab, c  rhyming pattern, ‘I’m Gonna Tell My Homeys About You’ continues the love theme of the other poems, but in a rather breezy form that betrays a certain  exile tradition, one  that is not afraid to trade profundity for style.  Nevertheless, despite dressing the poem in linguistic tuxedo rather than ishiagu, the underlying message still affirms Ugorji  deep connections with the  ancestral land. The invitation of ‘the Abigbo troubadours’ who, for once, ‘can dance without being right/Cause this love poem is mine to write’ shows a deep knowledge borne out of  a cultural affinity with that musical tradition of Mbaise people .

‘Come, Brother, Come’ comes with a passionate  appeal:

…’Eschew your dreams of separatism

 Seek with me co-squatting rights in this space.

Nurture the seeds you have skilfully planted in all corners

And jealously guard the mission Zik had bestowed.

Let’s reject the dance of the ethnic warrior.

Many are wont to see this appeal to co-squat as one that should be prefixed with many provisos. Is this co-squatting going to be on equal terms? Do the other parties share this  mindset?  In her Bulletproof Vest: The Ballad of an Outlaw and  Her Daughter, Maria Venegas depicts lovelorn lovers abducting girls into forced marriage in Mexico. Here the husband-to-be is willing to take this extreme measure, with its consequences, rather than live without the one he loves. Granted: some of the entities exerting a centrifugal force against Nigeria might be going about it in a rather reckless, quite unhelpful manner, the question must still be asked: in the Nigerian scenario about which Ugorji writes, is love the underlying factor in the ‘forced’ marriages? But the more sobre minded  may flow easily with the poet, and see his call as the imperative of the times.If American soil, once derided by the pacifist Martin Luther King Jr as a place of ‘withering injustice’ can sprout a president from among hewers of wood and drawers of water, then perhaps all hope is not lost. Another way to view this is to see those already squatting inside the inner circle as  the class which Ayi Kwei Armah calls ‘ostentatious cripples’ – looters of the national commonweal who band together from all geographic locations, make it hard for common folks to eke out an honest living and who, in league with corruption inc, generally subject the  poor of all tribes to intolerable economic hardship. As Achebe admonishes, the leopard must be chased away first, then the children must be warned not to wander into the forest! Indeed ‘The wailing is for the Great River: Her pot-bellied watchers/Despoil her’ (Okigbo: Lament of the Drums.)

The poem ‘Misplaced Reverence’ might well be captioned ‘Seeing the Light.’ The poet bemoans a situation where people allow themselves to be taken in by what might here be called grammatical showmanship, an inexplicable awe for anyone with a mastery of the white man’s language, erroneously equating this with wisdom and sagacity. Many have thus fallen victim to political impostors who bring nothing but empty political and grammatical flamboyance.

She is Eternal and Other Poems is amorphous in terms of form,   with only ‘I’m Gonna Tell My Homeys About You,’ showing a distinct pattern of stanza, rhyme and rhythm. The rest, basically, have a simple and, in some cases, prosaic language of the poets of the Beat Generation epitomized, in America, by Walt Whitman  and, lately in Nigeria, by western validation-seeking young poets disturbing the peace of the social media with an avalanche of lifeless sentences chopped down to fit  a physical paper length. I’m sure even Modernist  Marianne Moore  who called for poetry  in “Plain American (English) which cats and  dogs could read” would disavow some of these achikata-ekwe-onu* sub-optimalities.

Thematically, She is Eternal ’s message remains poignant, insistent in its demand for a harmonious coexistence, a decorous human summit, a cross-cultural detente. However, mostly in the ‘Jamike’ poems, it attempts to lionise antelopes and deer in such poems –  ‘Prince of Alayi’, ‘Gwuris’, etc. Maybe then, poetic justice is well served in that the poems meant to idolize or celebrate these merest of mortals, some of whom purport to ride on godly chariots.constitute the weakest links in this otherwise note-worthy first effort by this ancestor-venerating poet.  *achikata-ekwe-onu can generally be translated as ‘cheap articles’.

Ugorji does not totemise or even idolize symbolisms of cultural identity in the manner of early colonial visitors – or even contemporary tourists – who view such items as anthropological exotica, objects fit for selfies and photo-ops in their own Gulliver’s travels. Rather, Ugorji’s poems affirm an immersion in the cultural nous of his people as can be instanced  by his description of the new yam festival before and after his acolyte had ‘set down the bowl of palm oil.’

There is an attraction that borders on enchantment which all too often draws the poet to Nsibidi, the ancient ideographic writing system that was evolving among the Igbo and their neighbours in pre-colonial  West Africa until its evolution was cut short by colonial intervention. Since this writing system was brought to limelight by scholars, it has constituted a point of cultural pride for African cultural scholars. It has equally tasked African writers and culture workers who have strived to re-enact the actual application of the writing system. Indeed, discovering the ideographs and writing patterns is the easier part; harder is connecting the scripts to its meaning to replicate a complete linguistic experience. This daunting challenge has led many to try the next best thing: make it a talking point rather than talk in it!  It would have been more helpful, given the overall cultural context of the collection, if the nsibidi illustrations that suffuse the inner pages and also adorn the covers had somehow provided some insight into its understanding, rather than merely serve  as cultural artefacts that fill the admirer with nostalgia and awe.

With the evidence of this collection, we can say that Ugorji does not wear the garb of authenticity; he breathes and breeds it. When he writes about the marriage institution and showers glowing adulations on in-laws, he is only exhibiting his deep immersion in the customs of the Igbo who hardly distinguish between ọgọ (in-law) and nwanne (sibling). Similarly, when he writes about the new yam festival, you could see him regaliaed in the  ishiagu of the festival dance, in practical affirmation of the Igbo aphorism that ‘o ku uhie ji agba mgba’ (the festival drummer is not himself averse to  the wrestling combat.)

Dr Ugorji Okechukwu  Ugorji should do well not to see She is eternal and other poems as his magnum opus for, good as it is, the collection is one that can be bettered, from its own evidence, and most of all, by its own author. It has shown a cultural resplendence, with a nerve centre deep in the African soil. It has shown that while its author may breathe the air of the northern hemisphere, he does not necessarily carry on with those airs. It has opened up or added to the space for further discourse on diverse national issues and, by the time its siblings arrive, Ugorji will have taken up his place among the eagle-feathered sitters on the lion-skin mat of Africa’s expanding literature.

  • Anaele Ihuoma.

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