The burden of truth in Sodiq Alabi’s The Texture of Air | Dailytrust

The burden of truth in Sodiq Alabi’s The Texture of Air

Book: The Texture of Air
Book: The Texture of Air

Book: The Texture of Air

Reviewer:  Paul Liam 

Pages: 81

Mathew Arnold (1822-1888), the English poet and culture critic, reflecting on social issues in the 19th century, conceived poetry as possessing a profound obligation with the altruistic function of sustaining mankind. 

Sodiq Alabi’s debut collection of poems, The Texture of Air struts Arnold’s vision of the grand responsibility of the poet as a saviour, a prophet who should speak truth to the society to remind the people of their errors, that they might redeem themselves. 

It also bears allegiance to Soyinka’s charge of the language of poets being “an elucidation of the experience of reality.” The Texture of Air, therefore, problematises the sociopolitical realities of a nation wrought by woes and hopelessness, occasioned by a failure of leadership at all levels of the society. 

Alabi presupposes that a functional society is the product of the collective actions or inactions of the citizenry, who are all stakeholders in the quest for nationhood. Alabi employs deep creativity in his exploration of the various issues represented in the 81-page collection divided into four sections, in such a clever way that the poems do not yield easily to interpretation without a deeper reflection. 

The use of anthropomorphism, rhetorical questions, imagery, hyperbole, paradox, allusion, metaphor, among other literary devices, looms large in the collection and accentuates its artistry. The language is both fresh and engaging, with many idioms. Orality is one of the striking features of the collection. Some of the poems are performatory in nature and even bear a note which instructs that they are to be performed with the accompaniment of drums and other musical instruments. The use of the Yoruba traditional oral performance form known as oriki can be felt through many of the poems. 

Alabi writes with conscience and a mind conscious of the African traditional poetic aesthetics reminiscent of the poets in Poems of Black Africa.

The complexity of the challenges in society is portrayed through the consciousness of a critical poetic persona. The title of the collection, for example, one might be tempted to ask: Does air have texture? What is then the texture of air? The title poses a paradoxical question that creates ambiguity in the mind of a reader who tries to discern its import, but it is instructive to note the implication of the title with regard to appreciating the enigmatic collection. A readily deducible inference is that the title is a representation of the uncertainties of the society in which the persona struggles for clarity. Thus, the texture of air becomes the physical state of a thing, place or society that can be seen, felt or touched. For this exercise, the texture of air in Alabi’s work is to be perceived within the context of the general state of hopelessness and dystopia x-rayed in the collection. 

In the poem, “A Bribe Refused,” the poetic persona employs the use of witticism and idioms to highlight a dilemma that clearly suggests a state of perversion of peace in the land which has defiled solution, hence he invokes “Sango”, the god of thunder and lightning in Yoruba mythology, who is known to dispense swift justice to intervene in bringing an end to injustice. The persona emphasises the direness of the situation by positing that if it is not addressed, the society would be ruined. 

The mark of a refined literary craftsman or woman, especially a poet, is the ability to thrill the reader with fresh language, otherwise regarded as poeticity or artistry. 

In “Who has the Eagle Square?” the persona derides the monarchy for failing the people, the society and the throne of their ancestors, upon which they sit in self-deceit as kings without dignity. The persona is visibly appalled by the lack of usefulness of the kings whom he describes as “coward kings” and whom he sees as unable to validate their crowns as a result of their inability to confront the issues bedevilling their societies head-on. The persona submits: 

What do we tell the ancestors? of coward kings who swear of their virility 

By Sango, with his thunder

But when stray dogs bark, they duck under the tomatoes 

Shift events to a venue under the skirts of their mistresses

What do we tell the ancestors of this?

(p.41)

The persona sees their inadequacies as a disservice to the ancestors. We also see a subtle call for a return to tradition as the saviour, since modernity and western philosophies have eluded our mastery. Just like in the first poem analysed, the persona presupposes that a return to the old ways would bring an end to all the suffering and chaos being experienced. 

We again see a clear allusion to Sango as the powerful spiritual figure to whom reverence is due. Sango’s invocation in the collection is symbolic. It is akin to Christopher Okigbo’s spiritual rebirth and invocation of the river goddess, Mother Idoto, to whom he returns as a prodigal in supplication, in his classic poem, “The Passage”. 

“May 29” is a symbolic and more explicit poem that bemoans the dysfunctional state of democracy in Nigeria and the catastrophes brought upon the society and helpless citizens by decades of leadership failure rooted in corruption and greed. 

The poem draws attention to the dystopia that has overwhelmed the society, and it begins on a defeatist note by likening democracy to an invalid human being broken and limping as a result of years of debasement. This anthropomorphic representation of democracy runs through the poem with a symbolic import, which is that if the pillar of a house is broken, the house will crumble. In other words, Nigeria is crumbling because its democracy has failed. ‘May 29” used to be Nigeria’s Democracy Day until June 6, 2018 when President Muhammadu Buhari changed it to June 12 in honour of the late Chief MKO Abiola, who is said to be the winner of the 1993 presidential election that was annulled by General Ibrahim Babangida. 

The poetic persona, in the first stanza of the poem opines:     

Democracy came home 

limping, breathless

exhaustion in industrial decibel.

We loathe the shrill of its frustration 

must our drums be shattered today?

(p.38),

The adverse effect of the decay of democracy in Nigeria is the attendant poverty, unemployment, underdevelopment, terrorism, ethno-religious crisis, banditry, kidnapping and ethnic agitations for secession.  When democracy is dead, good governance becomes a scarce commodity and the masses of the working populace become impoverished while the elites become obnoxiously wealthy.  Insecurity, especially in the North, has become the order of the day in spite of the billions of naira allocated to fight against it in the country. 

Another important feature of Alabi’s poems is the shared sense of responsibility constantly expressed by the persona. This style indicates that the persona is also a part of the society and not exonerated from the mess that the country is in. The persona is not portrayed as a saint sitting on the fence and judging the actions of his fellow countrymen; he is as much as involved as anyone else in the crisis, thus there is the constant use of “we” instead of “they, them or him or her,” which are often employed when a person doesn’t want to share the responsibility of a bad situation. Invariably, the persona infers that everyone is involved, either directly or indirectly.

In spite of the bleak reality, hope is not completely lost as the persona encourages us to believe in the poem, “A Branch of Hope.” The persona expresses optimism in a brighter future where all the pains and bitterness would be overrun with bliss. By this depiction, the persona propagates a utopian vision of a world in which normalcy would return to the people. “A Branch of Hope” is, therefore, a powerful and prophetic poem of hope. 

Sodiq Alabi has demonstrated through this first impressive poetic offering that he is indeed a poet of great talent. With this beautiful collection, one only hopes that his subsequent works would even be grander. Alabi is a delight to read.

Paul Liam is an Abuja-based poet and literary critic.

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