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BOOK REVIEW: Art, Outrage and Epiphany

That is not to underrate the strident political tenor of the volume. For those who are familiar with Raji’s earlier volumes, his finest poems are…

That is not to underrate the strident political tenor of the volume. For those who are familiar with Raji’s earlier volumes, his finest poems are those that reverberate with resistance and rage, challenging the myth of military oppression, and rendering optimism to a people torn between survival and death.

In the opening poem, “Prologue: I am the million selves…”, Raji’s signatures as a political poet present themselves, and in a range that embraces all strata of the society. At one point, he is the lone speaker in a strange country of “urgent memoirs”, at another point, “the cactus tree” with the names of his country imprinted on its bark; he is also “the sudden breath of hurricane”, with an unconditional love for his country. In each line, the poet is something else, for the sake of his country, finally seeing himself as “the bruise and the blood from this stone of a country”, a metaphorical definition of a stagnated Nigeria with an insistent prophet who sees and understands her unending ailment. The poems that follow, grouped under “Mantis”, are diverse and accurate diagnoses of the poet’s country. Here, you encounter poems such as “Not a Word”, “Animus I”, “Animus II”, “Monotones”, “Familiar Scenes”, “I was forbidden to say my name”, etc. Running through the poems are images of weeping and crying, despair and woes, violence and death. In “Animus I” and “Animus II”, where the intensity of the tone, objectifying elegiac aesthetics, reminds one of the Rajian outrage invested in the poet’s corpus, you see such screaming lines:

I see now we embrace bitterness. /Behind the smokescreen /The silenced dust /Of detonations I sing /I cry /I scream /I prance /I pound about….

The rage is unrelenting all through the collection. In “I confided in the parrot” and “I was forbidden to say my name…”, as in other poems, the poet justifies his rage: the iniquities of his country are overwhelming and he chooses to cry out in declamation because, as we see in “Prologue” and in his earlier volumes, the bond of love between the poet and his nation is at a level of mystery: he tells his lover-nation, “I love you to death” (“Prologue”). The result of this love is that the poet gives a note of optimism: “When the coffins lay waiting /And the slings of hate make the rounds /I think of renewal /This pledge I make”.

In the second section of the collection, entitled “Mantra”, the poet continues to define socio-political events in Nigeria with harsh metaphors, becoming specific, awakening our memories, engaging our sensibilities. Here, we find “Somewhere, she shall be stoned to death…”, about Amina Lawal, condemned to death by stoning when a sharia court found her guilty of adultery. The poet’s position is that of the human rights activists who opposed Lawal’s death. There is “Ode to torch bearers”, a satire on the Nigerian police, noted for incompetence and corruption and, above all, “The unpredictable ember of stray violence”.

In “Song of Toronto” Raji deploys pun, hyperbole and sarcasm to lampoon the criminal act of Nigerian politicians who acquire fake certificates to masquerade as highly educated persons. They grandstand by presenting themselves as:

Fresh from Tokyo /A baccalaureate of Rio /Science major from Chicago /And Ph.D General from Toronto.

In “Mantra” are also poems that are rather about the personal travels and engagements of the poet. Such poems are “White night, in Stockholm” in which the poet relives the memory of reading his poetry in a strange land; “To East St Louis”, reminiscence on the fraternity and risk he encountered when he was in the US; “The spirit of Goree speaks”, on the poet’s visit to Goree Island, Dakar, echoing slavery and the Middle Passage. The section is followed by “Dimple”, selections from A Harvest of Laughters (1997), Raji’s first collection. After it is “Flare”, selections from his Webs of Remembrance (2001).

The next two parts of the collection are “Gather my blood” and “…rivers of song”, which form the title of the book. The poems in “Gather my blood” are on social but apolitical issues, some sounding individualistic, penetrating into the poet’s process of creation. The idiom here is love, but the other side of love that propels the poet towards an inward interrogation, the triumph of the soul, and the numerous interpretations of personal, epiphanic acts. In his epiphanic drama, the poet is often not alone, as in “Dreamtalk”, a highly musical poem, where the poet and who one may see as his alter ego are not just in a dream talk, but also in a dream dance, an envisaged process of re-knowing and renewal.

In “The dreamer’s daughter” the poet finds the courage to live and conquer; in “The solariums are empty” the poet connects to his blood, given the distance that art and scholarship have created between him and his family; and in “Return II”, the poet goes nostalgic, linking the past with the present.

In the section named “…rivers of song”, the poems are also about persons, relationships, travels, disengagements, and the quest for a touching act of personal victory. The reader will wonder why this section is separated from the previous one. The last section of the collection is “Fragments”, with only three poems, so called perhaps because the poet perceives a disconnection between the section and the other sections. The titles here are “A poem for practical dreamers, or dreams at work”, “Before a hero…” and “River Kalamazoo”.

At the end of the collection, one gets the feeling that the sections are superfluous. The poet’s maturity comes through in his purified metaphors, modulated tone, and thematic depth. Each poem is a testament of wisdom, far from being turgid, consciously pruned with a good ear for music. With the overwhelming use of alliteration and assonance, pun and repetition, each poem is indeed a song.    

Poetry, the most abused genre in contemporary Nigerian literature, has enjoyed a boost with Gather My Blood Rivers of Songs. Only few poetry collections today have artistic energies in them as one finds in this impressive volume.