Publisher: Malthouse Press
Year of publication: 2010
Reviewer: Olutayo IRANTIOLA
The book The Beauty I have Seen is the seventeenth published anthology by Tanure Ojaide. The work is published by Malthouse Press, Lagos in 2010. This is one of the recent collections of the poet. It is worthy of note that this book has won the Cadbury Prize for Poetry awarded by the Association of Nigerian Authors. The anthology is in three parts namely The Beauty I Have Seen, Doors of the Forest and Flows & other poems. This book is a rich compendium of the dexterity of the poet because there are also poems written in Pidgin English.
THE POETRY OF TANURE OJAIDE
According to Onookome Okome in the book titled, Writing the Homeland: The Poetry and Politics of Tanure Ojaide, It is only the prolific vastness of this poet that defines him as one of the most ambitious and significant poet to emerge after Soyinka, Okigbo and Clark. The daring political content of his poems add to the success that his poet has known since his firct book of poems made the bookstands. Ojaide’s literary style puts him apart from his literary peers. His poetry is simple, yet each line is loaded with meaning; each carries the weight of serious contemplation, creating a world in which meaning generates more meaning.
Tanure Ojaide is a poet whose seeming simplicity holds the complex balance of the discourse of the poet’s power and place in society as a prophet and a seer. Ojaide’s poetry brings the potency of the living word back to our withered humanity.
Ogaga Okuyade states;
It becomes an undeniable fact that the magnetism of orature on the social existence and life of Africans are evident in contemporary African literature. The pervasiveness of orature manifests to a large extent, the profound impact it has in the social formation, shaping and constitution of the geneology and life of a writer. Ojaide himself observes that “poetry in Africa is generally believed to be currently enjoying an unprecedented creative outburst and popularity” According to him this popularity seems to arise from “some aesthetic strength hitherto unrealized in written African poetry which has successfully adapted oral poetry technique into the written form”. Although the scribal expressive medium is English, the poetry carries the African sensibility, culture, and worldview, as well as the rhythms, structures and techniques of tradition, which give credence to what is designated as “double writing” (Soyinka 319). Yaw Adu-Gyamfi factorizes such features to include “ceremonial chants, tonal lyricism, poetry of primal drum and flute, proverbs, riddles, myths, songs, folktales, the antiphonal call-and-response styles, and the rhythmic, repetitive, digressive, and formulaic modes of language use”.
In Ojaide’s poetry, social existence is constructed through communal landscapes given in myth, folklore and common histories that provide a community with a source of identity. Ojaide develops this form of art by transposing traditional forms and images into the contemporary world in order to address more pressing post-independence concerns. Since the work of art according to Hugh Webb “arises out of the particular alternatives of his time (24), the historical circumstances that inform Ojaide’s art is a real issue of this study.
Bodunde asserts that the poetry of Tanure Ojaide in Delta Blues, casts the tragic experience of a people in the setting of a landscape in ruins. In the collection, the interpretation of the landscape in the context of human mediataition is considered as the main stream of aesthetic and social engagements. We have of the Delta landscape that is trampled, abused and ravaged or a landscape that is posioned, home to the dead who walk “the troubled land”. The poet urges us to condemn the political and economic agenda, which erodes the normal bond between landscape and man. The decimantion of the landscape crushes the people’s collective pysche as it becomes more obvious that the country is under siege of the “hyena and his calvalry of hangmen”.
His writing can be seen in the contexts of time and place and my experiences relate to his Niger Delta background, Urhobo/Pan-Edo folklore, Nigerian, African, global, and human issues. In relating the poet to a historian, Tanure Ojaide said his poems in the third part of this anthology is the periods of the failed nascent democracy in Nigeria, civil unrests, military takeovers, civil wars, and postcolonial misrule have their presence in the human experience that is being express in my poems. In The Beauty I Have Seen, many poems in the “Flow & Other Poems” section, such as “I Sing Out of Silence,” “Contribution to the National Debate,” “Testimony to the Nation’s Wealth,” and “After the Riots, in Jos,” among others, deal with sociopolitical issues that are related to Nigeria’s history. The writer in Africa is political out of historical necessity.
The Beauty I Have Seen derives from the minstrelsy tradition in Urhobo orature. The minstrel tells not just his own tale but the collective tale of his people. The first part of the book explores this tradition to talk about sociocultural, political, and other issues that affect the minstrel’s community. The poet he represents, the contemporary minstrel, is thus a public figure, a traveler and observer of humanity, and one grounded in the landscape and fate of his native land and people.
In The Beauty I Have Seen he tried to communicate feelings and ideas and so make the content accessible. He has attempted to use a poetic style from the oral tradition, which uses repetition, proverbs, metaphor, irony, and other tropes that convey meaning in a startling manner. He endeavour to experiment with other poetic traditions of Africa and elsewhere that can strengthen his poetic articulation. Tradition and modernity are combined in this collection. It is the practice in Urhobo poetry, especially the Udje tradition, to start by laughing at your own self before venturing to laugh at others. In this collection, the poet assumes the persona of the minstrel. The minstrel persona is used as a figure familiar with the society as a means of knowing, seeing, and questioning truths. Poetry should function as a questioner of habits, actions, and happenings in the society towards a salutary ethos. The sense of community that the minstrel represents is underscored by the title poem, “The beauty I have seen,” which shows him better appreciated and received outside than in his own homeland.
Many poems in the collection, especially in the second and third sections, deal with experiences outside the primary home of the Niger Delta or his other home, the United States of America. He highlight the Akosombo Dam which “decapitated” the Volta River into the Volta Lake in Ghana; he embraced the wonderful diva, an untouchable/low caste beauty and dancer extraordinary whom he called the “pride of Bengal” in India; the ganja peddlers at the beach of Negril in Jamaica; watching fasting Muslims waiting for the call to eat dinner at a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur with mouth-watering dishes in front of them; and seeing where Shaka Zulu was buried in South Africa; among many experiences. These poems arising out of travels are meant to widen and deepen one’s humanity towards a contribution to one’s homeland. Above all, they are parts of “the beauty I have seen.”
The poems are in three sections, the first using the minstrel persona; the second and third about travels, as well as Nigerian and American experiences. He attempted to use unrhymed couplets to establish some formal discipline. The title poem, The Beauty I have seen, relates to the exhilaration the poet goes through in the process of creativity. Here, the “beauty” of experiencing one’s homeland as well as the rest of the world is remarkable for the writer. It is a series of epiphanies, illuminations about life, society, and the world. The beauty I have seen is that experience that is so exhilarating that it cannot be replicated and it is only in memory that one relives it.
THE ANALYSIS OF THE ANTHOLOGY
The anthology is in 3 sections and each section will be discussed. The first section of this anthology has virtually all the poems written in couplet except two poems. The first poem titled, “When the Muse gives the minstrel a nod” is a poem that speaks on the experiences that culminates into what is written by the minstrel. The minstrel picks his materials from his immediate environment as well. The first four lines of the poem go thus:
When the muse gives the minstrel a nod,
No bead ever competes with his diamond.
The minstrel gets his share of pain and joy
That he converts into songs of the season-
The inspiration for materials set the minstrel apart when he is in the world of reception, it goes thus:
Transported into primeval rapture by the zeal for song
He knocks out others for a singular vision of beauty.
The depth of what the minstrel achieves in his craft is dependent on the available matters at his disposal.
“The Minstrel’s livery” is about the comportment put on by the minstrel when discovering what he is expected to write about, when he gets disappointed; he must be brave like Okonkwo.
Rather he must spring in it like Okonkwo
And avert the obscene snipes of keen cynics
The carriage of the minstrel is just like that of the priest, he must be elderly:
But must carry himself high in chiefly steps
And leave pedestrian rush to vagabond feet.
He must not misuse power:
If an Elephant, he must tread lightly
And not throw his weight over ants;
The minstrel is greatly admonished to know that the life he lives must be different from that of others; he must be cautious and careful of how he does his things.
“The Minstrel tells Tales” is a poem that reinforces the African belief in the mermaid (Mami Wata) that lives in the deep. This poem is musing on the existence of the mermaid and what happens in their world. The poem might not making meaning to other cultures out of Africa. The poem could also be interpreted as the thought of a drowned man about what happens in the deep:
I asked Mami Wata to teach me how to swim.
I ended up not knowing how to swim to safety
A drowned man; a prisoner in her palace of coral
and weeds. She blows big bubbles into the air,
A romance relationship starts in the water and eventually, he does not want to leave the deep for the land again
I immerse my body in her splendor;
I do not seek freedom from love.
“The Loan” is remembering the father of the poet who went to get a loan for a festival that comes up once in two decades. He got the loan to purchase gunpowder and this made him become the favourite of many for doing spectacularly well during the four days festival
But you are a hero. The spectacle of four loud days
Of cannon has changed your life into a blazing star.
The father was compared to these animals; an Elephant, Leopard and chameleon. The time didactically shows that proactiveness is fundamental to valiance.
“Waiting” is a poem about the circumstance of young Nigerians who had been taught that they are the leaders of tomorrow however they are the leaders of today. The youths had been told to wait endless and in fact as the poem “wait out an entire lifetime”.
“The Muse won’t let me quit” is a poem that shows the determination of the poet not to stop writing. As described he is one of the most prolific after Wole Soyinka and JP Clark. The muse won’t dry. He alluded the endless flow of inspiration to Aridon, the god of memory of Nigeria’s Urhobo people, the god was mentioned twice to show his reverence to the god.
The second section of the book titled, “Doors of the Forest & Other Poems” is based on various traveling experiences. The poems in this section are longer than the poems in the first group. “Sukur” is a poem that celebrates a world heritage place in Adamawa, Nigeria. The place is even obscure to Nigerians and this is a way of showcasing the heritage site, the poet had lived in Maiduguri for years but he might not have discovered this place till recently. The place is made in stones with “a few openings to enter and marvel at the closure”.
“Yola’s fish” is of the family with “Sukur” the poem is just keeping the memory of a mealtime enjoyed in Yola. The fish is such delicious that it was described by Ola as something that can make one settle in Yola. This particular poem is in prosaic in nature. The poem opens with an inverted coma showing that Ola is being quoted,
“Eat the fish caught from the Benue at Yola
and you’ll return to the city to settle or visit,”
says Ola at the fish treat of the July evening.
“For the sake of love” is about the mystery behind love. Love is described to do the following, “judge” lines 1-2, “mystery”, lines 5-6, “foolish” lines 7-8, “riddle” lines 11-12, “changing thing” lines 15-16, “diverse experience” lines 21-22, “secret” lines 25-26. Love is dynamic in nature and this is captured by the last few lines:
When it hurt you want to flee,
When it heals you seek it with life.
What a fool I have been!
What a philosopher I can be!
“For Mahatma Gandhi” is a poem to Mahatma Gandhi. It is a praise poem of the heroic deeds of Gandhi. It describes the way in which he died:
The assassin’s bullet could not wipe out line 1
The value Gandhi stood for is still ringing after his death:
Of transforming the scoundrel world without spilling blood line 6
Gandhi was further described as:
But you were not just Indian or even South African
But a prophet of the human spirit, the entire world lines 10-11.
He has been recognized as the voice of the truth by many cultures:
Countless languages of the world speak your truth line 15
Many people visit the where he lived hoping that they would be free to live in an egalitarian society.
The last section of the anthology is titled Flow & Other Poems. This poem is peculiar because some of the poems are written in Pidgin English which is an acceptable means of conversation in Niger Delta region of Nigeria.
The first poem, “Wetin Man Go Do?” is a poem on attribution of the traits of the question being asked and getting responses from the animal world, the Yoruba mythology and the military. Others are the lover, the pastor, the coffin-seller and the singer. Animals and the traits used in the poems are: Goat and the Tortoise. Reference was made to Ogun-the god of Iron. The military officers who kills his rival during a coup, the politician who rigs his way into power, the lover who jilts to start with a new lover, the coffin-seller hoping to sell his wares. This poem is about attribution as events unfold, it also reflects the dynamism of time.
“I No Go Sidon Look” is about how passive man can be to happenings in his environment but the poet objects to fold his hands to the plight of his people who keeps observing. This is a call to incite others to stand up to action. The poem looks into the effect of war, where soldiers are drafted from various regions of the world as United Nations Peace-Keeping Force
I no go sidon look
Like African Union soja for Darfur.
There is a show of ecological effect of oil exploration on the Niger-Delta people:
I no go sidon look
Make Shell dey piss and shit for our water
This is the call for an outcry thereby getting freedom from the different oppressions being suffered, the poet concludes:
I no fit sidon look lailai
I go do something-o.
“I sing out of Sickness” is a poem that shows the communalist in Tanure Ojaide. According to Isaiah, Ojaide’s activist artistic enterprise, finds ample expression in using poetry for resistance dialectics, which culminates in environmentalism and cultural reaffirmation. He is sick of the many ills bedeviling the nation. Ebi prompted the poet to speak on this matter by asking the question, “What makes you write?”
I am sick from chasing robbers that take me for granted
With whips that don’t flog and shouts they shut ears from hearing
Issues raised in the poem include: armed robbery, suffering in silence, the exploration of the resident mineral resources whereas the owners and residents of that community are still impoverished, the extra-judicial killings of people who are complaining of their misery. Other issues include water pollution, deforestation, extortion by the police force, mistaken identity of culprits, electoral malpractice. All these and many more were categorized as:
I sing out of sickness from multiple afflictions,
Sing from the pain of knowledge without memory.
“On Environmental Day” is a poem that advises on the various days that should exist in the human calendar; all of this is a call to make the world a better place. The trait of Environmental Day opens the poem:
Everyone is asked by the state to stay at home
And clean the surroundings; no movement
On the street and highway to keep the ban.
Violators not in high places expect thrashing.
The poet wishes days such as “Truth Day” to eliminate lies, “Honesty Day” to curb armed robberies, “Secular Day” to address religiousity, “Human Day” to transform man from their “animalistic” features, “Patience Day” to shrink the crazy drive for wealth, “Law and Order Day” which will give way to emergency traffic, “Modesty Day” to make people humble, “Corruptiion-Free Day” and the nation is free of sharp practices. He recommended other days like, “Personal Hygiene Day”, “Forgiveness Day”, and above all “Peace Day”. Sanitation Day should be daily and every day in the calendar of life must be “Humanity Day”.
“You don’t Have to Be” is a poem on the experiences of different regions of the world. Regardless of what is being discussed about occurrences in other regions of the world, the place of empathy might not be there because one is not in those shoes. However, the human mind can give a “mental interpretation to the matter under discourse:
You just have to be human
To know the plight of others.
Tanure Ojaide is a poet with the passion of speaking for his “dumb” or “speechless” people in the nation through poetry. He has given us the “opportunity to experience other countries through this poem. He extolled the virtues of people, made known the true essence of communalism and the gratification of life. It is fundamental to point out that the poem were written in simple language that can be understood by any person but no simplistic. The anthology is distinct in its use of punctuation which makes most of the lines; enjambment. The strength in his poetry over the decades is contemporary and it has not lost touch with the reality of what Nigerians face and citizens of other parts of the world.
(c)Olutayo IRAN-TIOLA, Lagos, Nigeria