Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Poetry of Bose Ayeni-Tsevende

Seldom ever in the Nigerian literary space is there a more momentous event than the publication of verse by a female writer. This momentousness, however, does not fount from surprise - either of Nigerian women being poetic or there existing a feminine voice within Nigerian verse. It is rather wells from the long expectation which heralds’ newborns – Nigerian female writers have been largely barren of the child of poesy. It is into this circumstance that we must place Bose Ayeni-Tsevende’s December 2007 poems “You Are a Poet”, the offering of which informs this critical commentary.

Bose Ayeni-Tsevende is a professional dancer and choreographer with three decades of artistic experience and her talent was developed at the Ori-Olokun Theatre, Nigeria’s most revered theatre company resident in the University of Ife in southwestern Nigeria. She is also an academic at the Dept. of Theatre and Communication Arts at the University of Jos in central Nigeria and has presented scholarly papers locally and internationally promoting the effectiveness of dance as a tool for social and economic transformation. This anthology, her first, comprising forty-four poems of varying lengths all written in free verse is forwarded by Dr. Jeff Godwin Doki of the University of Jos and published by Baytower Publishing Company, Jos, Nigeria.

Ayeni-Tsevende has a very observant, socially sensitive eye, which makes her Poems a verse commentary on myriad themes. The most predominant of these themes are those of Love, Longing and Loss, all expressed by means of careful diction, control of sound {oral meter} and humor that lull and stun alternately through her medium of “oral” poetry, a style very much reminiscent of Niyi Osundare’s poems. Ayeni-Tsevende’s poems are rich in social allusion and the critique of these is carried out through her dual poetic personae - the gay and simple sensitivities of a young girl or the experienced sensibilities of an upper middleclass Nigerian woman.

The very first poem, “Bukuru Park”, introduces the earlier mentioned theme of longing with its first three stanzas beginning with the curious inquisitory “Did you notice. . ?”, seeking to call, from the details of the Park, the chirruping of its birds, ants marching in parade, the whistle of the wind, all these, seeking a way out of a lonely and complete solitude; the poem ends –
Let the hidden stars bear witness
In the presence of the rain that fell before
And the cloud gathering afresh
A witness also it shall be
To a soul looking for a soul to bond
In a lonely park. . .

The sensitivity, as if of tears, expressed in the first poem lingers on in the next two, “Baa Shiga” and “Man”. “Baa Shiga” is a phrase from the Hausa language spoken in Northern Nigeria meaning “No Entry!”. It is more often found in front of dwellings of women married under the traditional Muslim manner yet Bose Ayeni’s poem incorporates the imagery of a decrepit, declining mud hut {perhaps a euphemism for Nigeria} “smiling like an old woman whose scattered/teeth has seen better days”, yet, - hauntingly similar to Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher – before this spectacle of imminent and incipient ruin is borne the legend “Baa Shiga”.

Contemporary Nigeria has had its fair share of civil conflicts, fundamentally economic, but which more often than not take on the acquired, asphyxiating garb of religious or ethnic crisis. “The Second Day” is a commentary on one of such crises that engulfed the resort city of Jos in September 2001. The poem is that of a woman caught up in the conflict, –
A sudden rush of people
Like a run of locust[s]
Suddenly swelled the street
The direction of the running
It was difficult to determine
“I don’t know”
Was the answer I got
From all enquiries as to why the run
Till my colleague said

Let us run while we still can
- carefully highlighting the plight of women as doubly vulnerable groups when men and boys start running about with pistols and machetes. The poem, “The Second Coming”, an allusion to the end of days, ends with a touching love and longing –
. . . .fear gripped me
For my life [,] But love gripped me harder, I must
Find my children who went to school
The day before.

A very interesting part of this first collection of verse is the poets’ use of Pidgin English not merely as a reflection of linguistic color but as a medium of poetry in itself. The poems “London No Be By Force?” and “Help me Tell Tony Say” can be considered Bose Ayeni-Tsevende’s contribution to the “root” question of language in African Literature and Art, a question long dogged by controversy and debate. The two poems consider social mobility, an issue intrinsically implicit in Nigerian middleclass reality. The first poem tackles the indignities Nigerian professionals subject themselves to in order to emigrate {illegally} to the West {London} while the second, quite humorous, captures the pride of a woman who now drives a 4X4 Jeep on sighting the friend of an old lover who jilted her because he did not think much of her prospects. In “London Na by Force?”, she declares, “If I get chance, I go go, but/ London no be by force/E no reach the stage wey e be say/ I go gather my length/ Go lie down berekete for embassy.” On the humiliating jobs economic migrants do in the West, she asks –
The kind insult wey oyinbo man go dey fire
For here you go gree?
Na so all dem dem go dey shine for you
Like say you be leper wey wan
Climb their wife.

The love poems of Ayeni-Tsevende from this collection provide very interesting reading on the simplicity and passion of love, its sheer and overwhelming multisensority. Among the finest of her love poems are “And If You Leave Me”, “If You leave Me” {dedicated to A.O and Ben Okri}, “It’s Him” and that paean of lyrical finesse, “Never Again”. They are poems of a persona not afraid to love even as she despairs rejection, even as she despairs that the philter of love is but an ephemeral aphrodisiac, even as she is well aware the finicky attention span of a mans’ affections. Her use of the unrhymed “oral” style very fittingly metaphors the idiosyncrasies and vicissitudes of love and her love poems are the finest in “You Are A Poet”. Excepts –
{And If You Leave Me pg 18}
And if you should leave me
I will never sing again
No, not in the bath
I will wash
Only in the sand of dunes
I will not raise my face
And kiss the early morning sun
Ever again
{If You Leave Me pg 28}
If you leave me
I would know
That the stars, the moon and the sun
Connived to ruin my brilliance
And cover me in terrifying darkness
Because you reconnect me
With the colors of the rainbow
The finest of the love poems is “Never Again” –
Never again
Will I look
In the eyes of a man
No matter what promise
Is embedded therein
And lay my heart unclothed
Ever again
Never again
Will I gaze
At the flashing smile
Of a man
Like the headlamps of a car
On a dark solitary road
Light up my entire world
Only to be switched off
And I
Groping in darkness
Of faded smile[s]
Ever again.

The thrall of solitude and core-contained sadness that suffuse most of the poems assume a ghostly heaviness in the “Doyin” poems. “In The Rain” and “Sister Doyin’s Number” are no doubt reflections on the poets’ personal tragedy, the death of her sister Oladoyin Akuro. The first stanza of “In The Rain” is one of the finest beginnings of a dirge ever –
Like the nut
Well hidden in the shell
So I hide
The mountains of pain
In the closet of my heart
For that day in December
When my brother called
That the calabash has broken!
I do my crying
In the rain.
while the second poem pivots around a cellular phone number that would never get picked up by the departed ‘Doyin, embracing in its sad pirouette the anguish of the poet-persona, of Laitan and Alaba, Lara, Dimeji and Tope who are perhaps siblings of the deceased, members bound in familial love now facing the hollow resonance of loss.

The magnum opus of this collection is no doubt the thirty-page long “Dear Lola” which strikes a balance between the poetic “oral” styles of Osundare’s “Waiting Laughter’s” and Miriama Baa’s prose in “So Long a Letter”. Here, in this poem, written to a “Lola” in America, do we find a fusion of the young girl and the class-conscious woman – the two personae of the collection. It is an excursus into the manifestations of sensitivity, as opposed to sensibility, for here the poet lays herself bare, without even the pretensions of Art; she says –
It was a season
Of self discovery
A season of creativity
Orunmila created me
And I
Recreating myself.
She speaks of boys and girls and innocent love, she brings out succinctly the societal despondency that leads unto the “meaning” the Nigerian middleclass finds in flawed, feel-good Pentecostalism. She speaks of God and Faith and America. On the generation of children being lost to theatric but fiery Pentecostalism, she offers tongue in cheek advice –
If they step on your leg
Piercing your feet
With a stiletto shoe
All in praise worship
Do not complain
It could mean
You are not in the spirit.
She goes on, this time concerning how blinkered religion-inebriated men treat women -
They whip you in diverse forms
Don’t wear lipstick
You need to cover up
I mean completely
I am your head
God has placed you under my feet
The two are one
So, your salary is mine.[!]
Perhaps highlighting in black poetic humor the contradiction that underlies the noted resilience of the Nigerian people, Lola is advised that not all about the country is bad or dysfunctional –
You can buy fuel for your car now
The queues are gone
Even though the price. . . .
Never mind the price
The price has tripled
And tripled
But then
If you can buy the car
Then you can buy the fuel.

However, there are flaws in this collection of poems which cannot be overlooked especially the ones bordering on editorial laziness or incompetence. In the second stanza of the first poem, “Bukuru Park”, “march past” is rendered as “match past”; in the third poem, “Man”, “murky” is rendered as “murcky” and while all might have been forgivable as “mucky”, there is no reprieve as it is rendered. Another example is in “In The Rain”, in S2L2, where “stomach” is rendered “stomarch”, equally unforgivable. In “Dear Lola”, S4L7, “use” is used {no pun} for “used.”

Another sticking point, though poetry is meant to be rendered and not read, is the less than optimal use of speech marks. Some poems, like “Bukuru Park”, clearly in need of question marks at the end of stanzas’ one through three, are left without. Same with the last line of “Man”. Related to this is the poets fondness for washers like “the”, “a” and “so”. For example, in “Bukuru Park”, S2 reads –
Did you notice the [sic] march past
As the ants did a parade. . .
This reviewer is of the opinion that it would be better read and make better poetry as –
Did you see notice the march past,
Ants parading . . .?
Superfluity can also be noted in the second Pidgin English poem “Help Me tell Tony say”, specifically in S1L8 where “one another” is used instead of simply “ourself [sic]”. Also in S2L13 - “enter inside” overstresses because if you are “entering”, you can hardly go anywhere else but “inside”, you can’t “enter outside”; simply “enter {the love}” would be preferred. It is this reviewer’s belief that superfluity of any sort must be avoided in poetry and the only time when this avoidance may be sacrificed is for the sake of sound - auditory or stylistic “aesthetics”.

In spite of these flaws, the poems of “You Are A Poet” are well realized and there is optimism just over the nuance, that resilient, undying hope, that is the Nigerian zeitgeist and Ayeni-Tsevende’s realization of this zeitgeist and its thousand ingredients indicate her relevance to contemporary Nigerian literature. It is expected that her voice, the voice of a woman, looking through the twin happy-sad countenance of theatrical masks, will become increasingly relevant as her poetic pen matures.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Black History Month, Barrack Obama and Sundry Thoughts

I have just read an article in Sunday’s Weekly Trust newspaper about Black History Month and have been turning it in my mind all through yesterday.

Two quotes stand out, one by Morgan Freeman and the other by Mel Watkins and what I find strange is that the two quotes are presented as being antipodes in the philosophy and utility of a Black History Month.

Morgan Freeman is quoted from 2005 saying the concept was ridiculous and that "I don’t want a Black History Month. Black History is American history," Mel Watkins is quoted, "Black History {Month} is necessary because African American History isn’t fully integrated into American History. The irony of it is that we still have a Black History Month to remind people that we have a history."

If these "opposing" quotes represent the general currents of black American thought then the fate of the blacks in America is even more vague than I thought and this especially so in all the noise about Kenyan-American {American-Kenyan? Black American?} Senator Barack Obama.

These guys are talking history within the context of the future. But history cannot be projected into the future. History is the syncretization and exegesis of the past and the present day sociopolitical realities of a superstructure. These guys {who can be said to represent Black Culture and Academia respectively} both want to be American! How in God’s name can they be American without getting a clear sounding of Africa? Every other immigrant stratum of American society, right down to the Hispanics {and even the soon-to-leave Vietnamese} have a sense of where they are coming from, of South America and Asia, they have clear memories of what they are up against and where they are coming from and why they are synthesizing into America. My reading of Black American thought is that Africa is only marginal in contemporary Black American thought and I have heard a lot of reasons to justify this indifference to historical foundation. These reasons range from African having "allowed" their kin to be sold as slaves, to Africa being a land of corrupt Dictators and poverty to simply Africa being an uncivilized place full of monkeys swinging from tree to tree. All these opinions, and many more absurd variations, have been communicated to me by Black Americans in debates over the last half-decade. Gone from Black American thought is the inclusive pan-Africanism of Langston Hughes and Azikiwe and Nkrumah, it doesn’t even remain as a metaphor. There is not even an interest in African history past or contemporary.

Pray, how can a people stumble along the misty paths of an American identity without a firm grounding of the identity they currently posses? How valuable can Black America’s being "fully integrated" into America be if they have disconnected themselves from Africa? Even my writer-in-exile predecessors in the Nigerian literary space have a clear sense of Nigeria and all its flaws. Yet, to the mind of the Black American, who more than anyone else needs Africa, Africa is merely a genetic heritage of a rainbow prism of hues from black to brown to orange and a native ear for rhythm and percussion.

And now they want a Black American president of the United States for myriad reasons as outlined by writers as varied and differentiated, spanning Toni Morrison to Ikhide Ikheloa, and for as many reasons.

I think what they need is historians.

In the same way I ask what Barrack Obama, if he is elected president, would do for Black Americans from the White House when Washington is simply the theatre of a thousand powerful lobbies, I shudder to ask what benefit supporting Obama {as I have} would have to the fortunes of my unhyphenated and never-to-be hyphenated Africa? In the same way that while in the White House, Obama will serve the synthesized interests of a thousand powerful lobbies and special interest groups up and above whatever the vague "Black American interest" is, he will pursue American interests far and above African interests from the White House. Just like Condi Rica and Colin Powel.

And I would simply prefer a Bill Clinton or George Bush not sending troops to Rwanda and Sudan than to have a "Black American" in the White House, without a sense of either adjective, do same.

Consequently, I announce that I wish Senator Obama the very best in the campaign but I am no longer with him. Stuck with my African necessity to affix myself someplace, even in a campaign that in no way affects me, I pitch my camp for the first time in my life with the Republican -John McCain- who has not played any sentimental {color marginalization or feminist} card, who has not even bothered to say anything about Africa. I think he can be lobbied to do the best he can for Africa.

Black America should go and do their history homework so that the next time a Barrack Obama comes along, he will have the force of history behind him.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Ravages of Dust

The first time he ever really looked at her was four years after they had first met. In that destined glance, he felt a buzz begin to course from the back of his head, zipping down the length of his spine. By then, she was already engaged to the Syrian. As if that was the matter. But no, it was about her eyes, little pools of black that seemed to draw in something unknowable from the deep vaults of his soul. Then, down to her lips, perfect, speaking. She was saying something to him but it did not seem to matter either, for all he saw was the luster of her eyes and the curve of her lips, their delicate ravage. For the first time, he had looked at her eyes and seen in them that thing that makes a man mad for a woman.
Zouraine! But it had to be!
Yet for all those years, he had seen her around since their jambite days at the Saad Zungur University. They had shared all their courses and even wound up in the same electives. Always she had been there, together with the other Hausawa bourgeoisie girls. Was it because he disdained them? For he did detest their lack of depth. If only they weren’t a pack of degenerate peacocks -female peacocks hah!. Vain and shorn of brains, he believed they typified the Fodio’s caliphates decay. His disdain had crystallized after a spectacular run in with Zulaila, the surliest in that pack of shrews. But, had she been one with them?

In the weeks that followed that fatal glance, Aminu’s mind swirled in turmoil. Everyday when he went to class for his lectures he saw her. Sometimes he said "hello" but most times, he said not a word. She. She was always there at the edge of his eyes, at the corner of his mind sitting amidst other married cushions, oblivious of the torment she caused him each time she spoke, each time she laughed, each time she did nothing.

And he wondered about Gogo, his mother; what would she say to see him so helpless, enamored by an indifferent girl who lived in the hut of another? Would she laugh at him, tease him with that knowing look in her eyes, and tell him tales of the poet Abu Nuwas? He himself remembered something he had read from Wilde, written in the prison at Reading Gaol.
He does not win who plays with sin
In the secret house of shame
In dreams, in waking, in thoughts.

He sat in his room in the hostel and wondered why he had sent that accursed email. It was all he could think of for it somehow suggested he was much sillier than he allowed himself reasonable leash. In those weeks of hurting emptiness, he wondered if there was anything wrong with his sending the email. Was the problem not that he detected a poorly concealed hostility in Zouraine? If only she had smiled or cursed - said something. It had been Hadiza he told finally of the feeling he refused to acknowledge that plagued him. But he did not tell her it was Zouraine that was on his mind for he was sure even Hadiza would certify him stark raving mad. What, a soon-to-be-married girl? Worse, she might have told someone. In addition, she never would have given him Zouraine’s email address. He looked over and over at the poem he had written, trying to see if he had been too forward or. . . what? No, he thought, I have not been. Tossing it on the bed he turned to sleep for even in dreams escape is found . . . but not always.

Who can ask
Where the dust settles
Or why?

The pool of her eyes, the pools of Damascus
Dark with luster, like sloes, I never did see
What it is in their depth that mired my soul

Light as the breeze, so sounds her voice
Summer butterflies are fair, but not as she
She who out shines Suleiman’s Sheban Queen

Serpentine grace, priestess of al- Qahirah
By the gateway to the Nile, naiad of Egypt
Plunder my heart; it is for you that I sing

Ah! kura, dust! She rides the chariot winds
Charming princes, poet hang your flute and violin
The dust is not for thee, your arms are but of bronze!

Alas! There is a lord who sprinkles the dust

Those eyes, that voice! To Damascus they go and remain
Though she be fair, she is not for thee my boy
For the prince of Syria claims her hand

Who can ask?
Why the dust unsettles
The poet and his verse?

Aminu Baba Ahmed

She reminded him of the Yemeni girl, Nabila, for whom he had had feelings for just as passionately and ultimately just as hopelessly. Nabila Farouk who had trampled the sapling that could not yet be called a heart, who had run off and married the younger brother of the Emir of Bolewa, laughing at him over her shoulders, her long jet black hair flailing gracefully in the wind. He had thought then that that torn thing had not grown. But what now? Its buds were bursting in bloom for the wrong sun and in the wrong season. He recalled one night when he had been with Nabila at their then yet special grove, long long before the Magaji came. He could not recall what it was that preceded their dialogue, or what was said after it, merely a full snippet of some large, vague episode of his recurring past.
"My arms are made of bronze?" he said, stretching them out in front of him; had it a question, a statement, what?
"They could be made of gold." the Arab girl had replied
"Could they?" he asked, his voice almost a whisper, now impassioned "But what the price?"
"Alchemy" Nabila replied, plucking up a red rose up to her nostrils, filling her lungs with its fragrance before tossing the rose on the grass. She had not looked up at him.

Alchemy, he wondered. What had she meant? Had he asked her? Or was it one of those taunting riddles that Nabila had always flung at him after moments of feeling and tender words and caresses. Was it chemistry? Surely, she knew there was chemistry, the body sort of chemistry. They had had very expressive feelings; she had merely been faithless. He had been na├»ve. "Arms made of bronze?" Had his words meant what he now thought they meant? But alchemy was also the quest of transmuting base metals such as bronze, into gold. Of transforming the decadent social morass that is man into the harmonious divine soul of the Creator’s creation. Love? Ah, could it be? Alchemy required the possession of the so-called "elixir of life", The Philosophers Stone. Zouraine!! He possessed no Philosophers Stone, so how could his arms of common bronze posses her waist of gold? But, had he really had that dialog with the Yemeni girl or had it been Gogo? Had Gogo been trying to tell him something to console him? It must have been Gogo all along! Zouraine. Even if she had not married the Syrian, she would not have desired him or noticed him just as Nabila had noticed him but could not desire him enough.
Ah, dear old Gogo. Was it not the fatalism of rejection?

The handsome young scholar arrived at Nguru, by the drying banks of the Chad, at about 10 a.m. Nothing had changed; the dry earth retained its light brown color and the Sahara still threatened, blowing with each gust of wind even more sand from dunes in Agades and Fez and Morocco. The garage touts, Gegere and Moli-Moli, were still there hailing and haranguing passengers with shouts of "Kano,Kano!" and "’Duguri,’Duguri!" With his satchel across the chest of his caftan and his suit-case firmly gripped in his right hand, he thread his way through the familiar narrow streets full of men in robes and women in veils, stopping to greet relatives and friends, towards the house where he had been born and had lived most of his life.
The old woman sat in the shaded balcony of the aged single story house looking far out to the fields menaced by the desert that lay not 100 km away. As soon as she heard the door behind her open and without a backward glance, she said to Surayya her teenage companion.
"Baba Ahmed is here"
Aminu walked up before his mother and bent himself half ways as was customary, taking care to see that she was okay and noting the wan smile on her lips while Surayya fussed over him. Surayya had changed much, not Gogo. Her lips, her bosom, her hips. . .she‘d turned into a fine young woman.

Aminu had his bath and changed into his jallabiya, and then he came up to sit with Gogo and tell her of school and what had been happening. She had seen many seasons. She just nodded and smiled, sometimes speaking a few words to the youngest and only surviving of her seven sons and he knew that she knew most of what he was telling her.

So he sat there on the balcony of his old home with the woman who had always loved him and the girl who was to love him, eating dates and sultanas and watching the sand-laden gusts of wind blowing across the denuded fields. The winds, he thought, have always been and perhaps the day might be when even this house would succumb to the winds and become ruins in the greater Sahara. Gogo, Nabila, Zouraine. Would anyone know then that such a one as his Gogo had lived here and watched the wisdom of the seasons go by? And witnessed the sands of time?
Then, so it would have to be with Zouraine; the ravage of dust.