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Dreams, despairs of nationhood in Barth Akpah’s Land Of Tales

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Published by the Ibadan-based Kraft Books Limited, in 2019, Akpah’s Land of Tales is a 100-paged book of 56 poems. This collection of poems, Akpah’s debut, is woven into four anthems, which define the manifold tales that run through the stream of the poet’s thoughts — of dreams, fame, state and heart.

This thematic structuring of the poems enables the reader to conveniently locate different topical issues that constitute the centre stage of the collection. If the poems are situated within the domain of ‘our’ sensibilities, in this landscape of myriads of dreams and despairs, it is compelling to state that ‘Nigeria is a land of tales’. This, obviously, is the primary source of the poet’s imagination— of horrors and hopes, of selfhood and nationhood. However, the poems, given their philosophical depths, in content and form, transcend landscapes and cultures, yielding meanings to people of different tongues and visions.

In the first section of the collection — Anthems of Dreams, the reader is exposed to the poet’s inner quest for fulfillment in his art and career, and his social vision of using his artistry as a redemptive instrument to his nation. In ‘Thirst’, for instance, the poet labels himself as an ‘emissary’ of the ‘muse’ and ‘mute’ in his society, interrogating the paradox of intelligence and docility, creativity and demotion. While ‘muse’ is emblematic of the poet’s inner restlessness to create, ‘mute’ is a convincing metaphor for passivity, which creative writing, as a career, occupies in his society — the former, pushes the poet on, but the latter, seems to discourage him. ‘Thirst’, therefore, suggests the poet’s resentment over the poor socioeconomic value placed on literary or poetic expression in his troubled nation, the land of tales, of tragic episodes.

In Like a Bird, the poet, whose vision is to regenerate a wounded humanity, in his homeland and the globe, likens himself to the chickadee bird, which transcends different nations and cultural boundaries.

The ‘chickadee’ is a significant metaphor, deployed by the poet, to convey his inward motivations in the business of weaving words that may light up the hazy mood of the hapless, who are the majority in the global space.

He declares: “Like a raven, the word flies and perches,/transcending boundaries and colours,/flying on the wings of songs/ruffling the world’s feather” (P. 22). The poet’s dream is to earn fame from his art by consistently using it to reprimand institutions and people that manifest different forms of depravities.

One cannot ignore how aptly, the poet philosophises revolution in some of the poems in the first part of the collection. In Matter, he believes that his poetic engagement is utilitarian, and must serve as an instrument for social reclamation: “For the world’s eyes/must see how the lion wept/In the venter of a lizard and street /urchin chase palace heirs” (23).

This revolutionary tenor constitutes the poet’s larger dream for his nation that is persistently held down by poaching politicians.

Again, in Caprice, the poet, who quests to heal his society with the ‘living word’ of poetry, laments the prevailing prejudices, insecurity, ethno-religious violence and political depreciation that pervade his nation.

He unfolds his dream for his nation when he proclaims: “I want to stipple the equality of all men/but songs of freeborns and slaves land off key/I want to write epos on unity/but the two divides trade with divorce” (24).

The first section of Akpah’s Land of Tales prepares the mood for what will be encountered in the other components of the texts.

In the second part of the collection, Anthems of Fame, the poet gives a deep reflection on the concept of fame, and concludes that fame can only be privileged if it adds some significant values to the human’s society. Hence, in Man and Fame, the poet notes that for fame to be celebrated, the famous person must have that precious ‘wand’ that “speaks the ocean’s heart/and calm the waxing of its lyrics” (28).

Here, Akpah implies that one’s fame can only be celebrated if it is utilised to solve obvious social problems. The poet, therefore, contextualizes fame in his own mental domain in some convincing metaphors. This is why he confesses in Reflections 1 that his own quest, to be famous, is to redeem the vulnerable people from oppression through the business of poetic expression: “I will go the way of tornadoes;/in the air raid,/I will strike home/the hopes/of hopeless saints” (29). The deep philosophical statement in Reflection 1 and Reflection 11 conveys the poet’s revolutionary tenor.

In The Land of Locusts, the poet ridicules the rapacious politicians, whose narrow conception of fame, is to amass stolen wealth, meant for the generality of the society.

According to Akpah, “The land is heavy with termites/and seething mass of hawks festering/on the land’s soul” (31). ‘Termites’ and ‘hawks’ are credible images that depict the plundering politicians. The poet, here, may be talking about Nigeria, his primary land of tales, which according to him, is a country “…born/at the death of honour” (31).

The vain garnering of wealth, at the expense of human and societal development, is further parodied in the poem, To what end?

Another very philosophically deep poem is On the Street of Dream, where the poet ridicules those who wish to be famous but are not ready to take realistically proactive steps towards achieving their plan. This attitude of wishful thinking breeds unhealthy anxiety in Nigeria, which manifests in the form of Internet fraud, kidnapping, armed robbery and ritual killings. In Bachelor’s Tale, one connects the fears and anxieties of the poetic persona, elicited by his ambition to build a famous marital space.

Though sociopolitical issues have been raised in the previous sections of the collection, the third part, Anthems of State, is more deeply dedicated to reprimand power abuse and other forms of social insanities in his country and beyond.

In Dolour, the poet unfolds the traumatic memories and devastations daily encountered in Nigeria, with a tone, obviously, of despondency and rage. He laments that “we are modern victims/of pains”, whose “eyes saw blood in colours/of deaths” (40).

Again, in I want to sing, he intones: “I want to sing a song/of mourning the mornings and the more news” (42). The image, ‘morning’ is suggestive of the despairing experience of young Nigerians, dying to massacres and suicides. In poems like Adante, Fix, Words and Opposites, The Mongers, The Bawling for Biafra, Words that Muffled the Land, Your Cast, Parrymentarians, Book a ram, kill a ram, Brothers at War, Letter to Mr President and others, the poet carries out a thorough surgical operation on the Nigerian political landscape, which is constantly inundated by notorious kleptomaniacs, that bear chameleonic dispositions. The politicization of insecurity and ethno-religious violence in Nigeria, are some of the issues foregrounded in the canvases of the poems listed above.

The poet, however, does not merely lament; he also proffers solutions, which are at times subtle but at other times, radical. Whichever way, the reader, who experiences such horrid memories as encapsulated in the poems, will, in significant doses, receive philosophical optimism.

The tenor of hope is apparent in poems like Allegro, Death Kiss, Weep Not…, I Need a Word. The tone of supplication that runs through Allegro, underscores the poet’s search for meaning, beauty and peace in his landscape of manifold atrocities. The opening lines of the poem are highly representative: “I plead for the glory of the sun/I seek the beauty of the moon” (44). Also, in “I Need a Word”, the poet projects some optimistic rhetoric for Africa: “I need a word/ for the ailing land and her weasels,/Healing nations and give Africa a new marquee”(50).

The last part of the collection, labeled, Anthems of the Heart, borders more on private themes of love, melancholy and betrayal, which are of universal significance. The tenderness of the resources of language, deployed in the poems that make up this section, attests, largely, to the poet’s mastery of language skills, in relation to contexts. Poems like Heart beats, Silent Night, Ify and others convey the poet’s mood of love and his longing for emotional satisfaction.

A very significant quality of the poems is the impressive style adopted by the poet. The stylistic operation of an individual poem, to give birth to another poem, is a way through which the poet conveys his artistic sophistication, mental broadness and deep mastery of the resources of language, which are significant instruments in poetic expression.

Such manipulations of structures do not merely appeal to the reader, beautifully and graphologically, they help to recreate the subject matter and sharpen the themes that the poet is portraying. For instance, Pang is derived from The Land of Locusts; Vain, from To What End? Opus, from Allegro; Muddle, from Fix; Dashed from Weep Not… and so on.

Also, the weaving of the poem, “Bawling for Biafra”, to form a shape of the human heart, suggests the emotional attachment of the poetic personal to the wishes and quandaries of his people in Southeast, Nigeria.

It is lucid to conclude that Akpah’s Land of Tales is an embodiment of stories, of self and nationhood. The tales that pervade the poems are wishes and wails, hope and horror! Above all, the images appropriated in the poems are realistically convincing, as they reasonably, adhere to objective reality. This collection of poems is a great contribution to contemporary African poetry.

• Dr. Kekeghe is a poet, playwright and literary critic. He could be reached on kekeghestephen@gmail.com


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Barth AkpahLand Of Tales
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