Laurels for a fine poet
Ikeogu Oke is not new to Nigeria’s literati. Africa’s foremost novelist, Chinua Achebe, whom he had a personal relationship with, once described him as “a very fine poet.” Farther afield, the Nobel laureate, Nadine Gordimer, wrote concerning him, “[There is] no end to the wide illumination in the protean gifts of this man.”
At age 33 at the turn of the century, Oke had retired from a stint with the Nigerian civil service and made for himself a niche that is rare among writers in these parts. He took to full-time writing and has remained so ever since. Poetry is his first love although he writes newspaper columns that his lambent poetic prose and candid views compel readers to take his articles seriously.
Devotion to poetry has given him several published, book-length collections of enthralling readers, which peaked with his bringing in a genre that has never before been tried here. He names it “operatic poetry,” modelling it on the European tradition of this musical drama.
The theme is anti-intellectualism where the bigoted censor brings all the macabre intimidations to bear in order to subjugate reason to sectarianism. The intellectual and the artist are represented in the chief character of the 112-page narrative, a writer by the name, Zumba.
Apart from Zumba, all other characters in this allegory that swings between the moral and the cerebral are supernatural although invested with anthropomorphic features.
Oke’s work is taken so seriously that it won the first prize in Nigeria’s highest literary award – The Nigerian Prize for Literature, sponsored by Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG), the country’s gas producing giant. Put differently, Nigerians have named him their number-one poet for the year 2018.
The judges said they based their decision on “the book’s apt topicality, relevance, artistic heft and pursuit of artistic provenance.” It beat 187 other works that were submitted for poetry genre. The recognition will now expose the work to the sort of critical assessment that it should get in the media and in the academia. In this article I limit myself more or less to reporting the emergence of the work.
As a typical allegory the story is straightforward. What complexities there may be come with the style of narrative and perhaps the latent message.
A preternatural king rules that a book that is written by Zumba, an earthling, is heretical (hence Heresiad, the name of this epic [heresy + -siad], after such classics as Iliad [Ilion; the Latin for Troy, + -iad] and so on. Heresiad is published in 2017 by the pace-making Kraft Books of Ibadan). Zumba is to be put to death.
To escape this grim consequence the author goes into hiding and from his safe house he sends pleas to his finicky king, and to another otherworldly personage named Reason to intercede in his favour. Saving the rather pusillanimous hero, all the other characters bear names that suggest actions, qualities, or states.
On the antagonists’ side we have Doom, Avenger, Sword, Machete, Axe, and the king’s page. These are collectively called The Faithful. They are all subterranean beings. The protagonists are Reason whom the rest work for. Those ones are Stone, Panther, Care, Bluff, Smithy, and Reason’s page. These are all known as The Stalwarts and are extra-terrestrial beings. In the cosmogony of the Igbo, the poet’s ethnic group, The Earth where Zumba belongs, the subterranean world and the celestial sphere complete the idea of the Universe. All three are represented in the play.
After the initial face-off, Reason and his Stalwarts appear set for victory. The Faithful’s camp is split. The disagreement helps resolve the tension in favour of the author. Zumba gets his reprieve.
I am one of those who see the merit of the work in two things: its style and its novelty in the context of Black African literature. Its narration is exquisite. Great pains go into expert choice of words and arrangement of these in a manner that imbues them with a life of their own. I once commented on Oke’s re-invention of rhyme in contemporary poetry (Sunday Vanguard, 25 July 2004). In Heresiad he is at his best in this antique art. In a poem of 548 lines, he made every last syllables of the two contiguous lines rhyme. Oke is a gifted poet and Heresiad is the best evidence of this.
In the world of literature, his is not so much a new sub-genre as it is a new stance. He seems to say that Africans too should write epics in the tradition of Europeans whatever else they have to show artistically from their part of the world. They should also write in the true tradition of the Western-style opera, something no previous writer in his country had considered; some will say out of ideological aloofness.
It seems, for these writers, more apposite to create works that reflect the African indigenous ways through. But Oke seems to say that there is also a comfortable room for those who want to think in universalistic terms, or those who want to use exogenous art forms to tell stories that reflect the African ways.
I won’t be surprised, though, if some critics censure him on the role of the hero of the narrative. It seems apt for his purpose, in a play where intellectualism is presented as the engine that drives modern social life, that Zumba should be self-asserting. But he is not. We find no forceful role that he has played. His reaction to the challenge of his writing is merely to run away and in the hiding, resort to pleas and placation.
When the two parties clash, it would have been more like it for Zumba to stand his ground and ally with Reason who, in any case, has a fighting force that is just as formidable as that of the theocentric anti-intellectual king. Zumba’s role casts the intelligentsia as nothing more than a grovelling lot condemned to live at the mercy of powerful, self-serving sectarian bigots.
All in all, Oke has founded a dukedom in the post-contact creative writing in Nigeria. On February 7, (today in Lagos), he will receive his well-merited honour when he is crowned its first prince.
* Professor Ezeh teaches anthropological linguistics at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.