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.


Omonse Esangbedo said...

I was looking for the poem "And if you leave me" on google and wound up here! Excellent poetry!

Stephen Denney said...

Thank you for the review. I just catalogued another book by her, Streams: poems, for our library here at the University of California at Berkeley.