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The writings of Emmanuel Oronsaye – Part 2


The points that I sincerely and particularly wish to establish about Oronsaye’s concern with the morbidity of our age in his poetry are two. The first, which I mentioned earlier on in this essay, relates to his disenchantment with the ways we are being governed, a disenchantment that has enabled me to call him a protest poet. He informs us in “House of Babel” of Rhapsodies of Corruption thus:

Like opium politics intoxicates,
It creates and drives its band of addicts into
Constricting mass suicide [….]
Salvation lies in the agony of birth and death of democracy.
I wish the luckless years a happy repose. (23)

Earlier, in the same poem, he had alarmed us as follows:
Our generation has been stoned deaf?
Our youths are barefooted in a march,
And their destination lies beyond Sahara
The arms of Europe are outstretched
For labour is cheap and plentiful.
We feign ignorance of this corrosive peril
A silver lining waits for another age?

[….] The tree of our years of youth
Stands stranded in the cold (in solitude)
Our eyes have been raped dry of tears.
And the ailing foliage speaks volumes.
Alas! Its barbecued soul ticks slowly
Ticking down a will of the coming generation.
Still cancer gnaws away its umpire branch
With an image dripped in hospital
Its fibrous roots have been restrained
Who can now save its soul? (22-23)

Each stanza above significantly captures the pathogenic state of Nigeria, which a morbid anatomist should study with professional zest to save the poet’s generation, which is our generation, from its diseased organs, which include our legislative assembly, our “House of Babel,” and its “lawbakers” (21), “lawbakers,” who bake laws that help to turn our youths into perpetual slaves in foreign lands, “lawbakers,” who bake laws that even ironically constrict their lives,” “lawbakers,” who bake and make laws that grow and produce the cancer that gnaws at the land. As Clerk of the Edo State House of Assembly, Benin City from 1996 to 2000 Oronsaye understood (and still understands) perfectly well the damning vocation of the politicians of his age. This poem, which critically questions and attacks the ethical, moral and political attitudes of our politicians, is a triumph for the creative and liberating mind – such as the poet’s.

The other point, which follows obviously and naturally after what I have just said in regard to the extolment of the poet as a vehement critic of our institutions and politicians that he damnifies, is that Oronsaye is a remarkably intense and inspirational rhapsodist of the human condition, the human condition of his fellow people (of the Niger Delta region) that have been dehumanized since the colonial times. In this connection two poems, “To Oloibiri” (page 24 of Rhapsodies of Corruption) and “Dateline: Eighteen Ninety Seven” (page 6 of Twilight Twigs) are apposite to cite. Let us begin with “Dateline,” a brief poem of six lines:

Fate, like blossoms, must yield at maturity.
When they came, it was white against black
And the West against the weak.
And the hills, valleys and forest inmates
Interceded, in unison to no avail
And the West had its way!

This is an everlasting poem about the British massacre of the Benins in 1897. The poet suppresses his historical sight, insight and imagination, and refrains from dwelling on the details of the invasion which resulted in the conquest and dehumanization of his people. His aim is to recreate a true impression of events rather than accurately to reproduce the facts. It is a dense poem about the strenuous political and symbolic stresses that the weak, oppressed and exploited will always be subjected to in the oppressive hands of the strong. Curiously, nature in the forms of hills, valleys, forest inmates and denizens that “interceded,” that is, fought in the contest on behalf of the oppressed were equally vanquished. But the lesson the poem teaches to all oppressed and exploited people is contained in its first line: “Fate, like blossoms, must yield at maturity.” At the appointed time all dehumanized, oppressed and exploited people shall gain and regain their freedom and humanity. If my reading of this poem is correct, and if especially my interpretation of its lesson is correct, we obviously must see it as a positive one that ought to imbue the masses of our de-humanised people with liberation dreams and ideals.

In “To Oloibiri” is particularly such a poem that is imbued with these dreams and ideals:
The dream of Oloibiri will not die.
Our saints are still on a long vacation,
And simpletons have taken charge!
No questions asked and no answers given,
Plenty of promises are in the kitty.
Can the dumb bridge take the people
To a new beginning?
Or the dream of conjectures?
The dream of Oloibiri will not die! (25)

Oloibiri, in the present Bayelsa State, was where crude oil was first discovered in Nigeria in 1966. Its refined petroleum was expected to change the economic and human fortunes of the people as well as those of other Nigerian citizens. But many, many years after up to now, as the poet tells us, “The gift of black gold [that] flows/Underneath shanties” (24) is yet to bring succour to the Oloibiri people (and Nigerians generally). Indeed, crude oil has “siphon[ed] away their hope and joy” (24). In the above-quoted last stanza of the poem the poet rejects the hopeless state and joyless mood of the people. He condemns the exploiters of the people over the years. He calls them “simpletons” – “simpletons” who “have taken charge” of the rich land of Oloibiri, which ironically they have turned into a “zone of those with lean looks” (24). But patriots will come, patriots whom the poet calls “saints” will come; they will come, “saints,” who “are still on long vacation,” to bring to fruition” [t]he dream of Oloibiri [that] will not die!” Clearly, Oronsaye imbues the poem, through the above passage, with the spirit of patriotic hope and dream that will not come to naught at the appointed time. The poet’s clever approach in the quoted stanza (and in the poem as a whole) can make us lose appetite for his subject, which we also relish.

Oronsaye’s honest feelings about his society and generation are equally glaring in his play, Free and Fair, and in his autobiography, “Administrative Strides: Autobiographical Notes of a Practitioner. In these two works, especially in the play, I venture to say, we are likely to grasp what appears to me the true sense and significance of Oronsaye’s religious and ideological mind (he is a Catholic Christian who is fiercely committed to the well-being of the masses and progress of humanity). Free and Fair is a prose play in which he bares his Christian mind and a form of life that members of his generation should fashion their respective lives after. The play combines the elements of farce and satire to underscore the moral value, spiritual essence and revolutionary fervour that Oronsaye espouses. In his preface to the play, he tells us that our country is a place where nothing works, and tries to affirm this by way of quoting a pertinent remark from a lecture, “Mending a Socioporous Nation before the Third Republic,” which Professor B.I.C. Ijomah, formerly of Bendel State University, Ekpoma, delivered on 4th April, 1986, to wit:

There is no morality. People swear by and lie by the Bible and Koran. The family system is dying fast, marriage is no longer civil, the sacred has been profaned, the profane has been sanctified and immorality and corruption have been tagged the order of the day.

Oronsaye hinges the subject and direction of his play on Ijomah’s theme. In its five movements, Oronsaye contemplates, through depraved “characters” now burning and lamenting in hell, the future of Nigeria, as the play progresses, with increasing gloom. The ghosts which constitute the “characters” in the play, are of actual persons, dead persons, who were once wrongly held in high esteem in our society as politicians, judges, lawyers, medical doctors, university lecturers, university students, religious men, pastors, bishops, archbishops, prosperous persons and happily married family members. At the moment of truth and of reckoning in a place of everlasting torment far from purgatory, they are laid bare, their iniquities, heinous and unforgivable crimes and sins are revealed for what they truly are. We may condemn the play for its lack of plot, development, characterization, suspense and pointed dialogue, but its bewildered reflections of dreams, hallucinations and nightmares which the playwright utilizes to expose the progressive evil in our country, cannot but compel us to extol it as we do Oronsaye’s poetry. The play pursues an end (or ends) quite different from those of the conventional play. The playwright is disenchanted with the incongruous behaviour of his country’s political, religious, moral, spiritual, judicial and educational rulers and leaders. But he is more anguished at the illogical attitude of the followership who seem to lack the wherewithal to diagnose their human, or, better put, inhuman condition.

Oronsaye’s pre-occupation, anxiety, emotions and thinking do not reflect his civil service background, but those of a moralist, a Christian rebellious priest and disillusioned playwright of the absurd mode. The Nigerian condition he merely presents through symbolic ghosts and saintly voices (of God’s angels) without due regard for discernible characters/heroes and enervating dramatic tensions must be seen as a plus, as an achievement for the playwright who intends all and sundry, that is to say, the sophisticated and unsophisticated reader or audience to follow the import of his play without the slightest inhibition. On stage the play will be grasped by audiences and extolled as that of a playwright who is propounding theological virtues which liberation theologians will make much of both in artistic and philosophic terms.

Oronsaye’s autobiography is the least literary of his works. In fact, it is unliterary despite his flavouring it with poetry, his and other established poets’ outside our shores. What redeems Oronsaye’s autobiographical notes, however, is its theme of intrigues, charlatanism and corruption that characterize our civil service, legislative assemblies and political landscape which Edo State’s typify. Oronsaye’s lens which focuses on what I will call the primitive natures and primitive sensibilities of our civil servants, legislative despots and executive demigods is typical of what he does in his poetry. But his un-haranguing note is untypical. Generally, Oronsaye’s tone in the narrative is sardonically flat, pliable, and at times casual; and it causes him to modulate into effects and results that do not animate the dramatis personae that, however, enable us to have insight into his protean nature. This nature allows him to provide the central categories of biographical/life-history analysis which are birth (his and uterine sisters’ and other relatives’), growth (his and others’), death (his mother’s, father’s, step-mother’s and others’), and reproduction (his and others’). His experiences and those of others who molded him as a human-being, and helped to shape his civil service career are defined in the true spirit of autobiographical and life-history narrative, which, however, his creative eye-sight or prose does not compellingly track or arrestingly assert or justify.

Oronsaye’s prose, as it presently stands, does not possess the merit that may give him literary immortality. His poetry and drama represent him better than his prose. But my estimate is that he should confine himself to poetry, yes, poetry and more poetry. Oronsaye’s poetry passionately speaks well of him. It strikes the right reader “who takes a mortal wound – that he will never get over it,” to re-quote Robert Frost.

•Tony Afejuku, a Fellow of the Literary Society of Nigeria (FLSN), is a distinguished poet and scholar, an eminent Professor of English and Literature and Creative Writing, University of Benin.­­­

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