Odia Ofeimun: 70tributes to the bearded one, two dozen poems enroute sanity
This appears to be the season of tributes to salute the lives and times of illustrious sons of the land, especially in the field of artistic creativity. Here the literatures of the arts is in focus as harbingers of truth, peace and justice. The writer of truth usually points towards sanity of spirit, soul and body within the polity and once there is disconnect between these, angst sets in as common in the global community today.
This tribute is to Mr! Odianopo Ofeimun, (Odia) who turned 70 on Monday. It is imperative to hail a poet like Ofeimun, who has showed his indebtedness to the common good in rendering lines to political commitment and social justice. The reader of his poetry is drawn to this uncommon contribution to a society he craves is improved by good governance and the people honoured by accountable leadership that befits and lifts them from a point of nothingness to esteem. If an individual or community is propitious to beget a principal or leader worthy of the name, the present and the future are guarantees of perfection in all senses of the words. Unfortunately, the opposite is the state of affairs in many of the poems by Ofeimun, who in a jeremiad titled “Aftermath”, bewails “… I could not choose where to be born/ in a world of compost heaps…/Doomed to herald a new dawn/I strive daily to rise above heinous lies/and the albatross around my neck/ tied by the patriarchs of the hunt (Salute to the Master Builder, p. 59).
The 24 poems in Go tell the Generals (2010) are testimonies to the ingenuity of a master-artist who has used his arts as a weapon to battle for global justice in sundry spheres. Ofeimun is not a dormant poet, but a writer of conscience and a raiser of consciousness towards socio-political accountability. In what appears to be martial summons, Odia dares the military in lines that prove the period of military governance was one of regress from, rather than a forward march towards development.
The opening poem illustrates that blighted period of our common history, when triggers only harvested “buds before they opened to the sun” (p. 2) in extra judicial killings. The list of ‘victims’ to whom the collection is dedicated is proof of an artistic predisposition to seek justice for the downtrodden and prey of injustice. Go tell the Generals is poetic activism pure and simple in a manner that asserts the might of the pen over the ‘triggers’ and bayonets that sent many of those to whom the poems were dedicated either to locations of deprivation, the military ‘gulag’, or their early graves. In this place where he is fated to be born, it is a …journey towards maps/bled by Generals in tanks/… green and white flags hoisted with gunsmoke… (After the Coup”, p. 3). The eponymous poem “Go Tell the Generals” resonates with past history and contemporary realities in 16 unyielding stanzas.
These existing veracities are lucid in the refrain “We told the General, we shall not retreat” and appear five chants short of one score refrains as active non-cooperation testament with the uniformed agents of infamy in governance.
A lesson in mass bravery and action, the poem castigates undemocratic authority and control, by the avowal in the 14th canto: “Go tell the Generals, we retreat not in fear/Though batons change hands from badger to ogre/And everything good passes to tears and blood/We heft stones and curses in demos and undergrounds/We scatter paid prophets who put brave face to arson/ O Go tell the Generals, we shall not retreat” (Pp. 52-3). A poem like “Ken” (Pp 31-4) in honour of late Ken Saro Wiwa the environmental rights activist scathingly asserts ‘They will know neither sleep nor cover’ just as Ofeimun declares “You’ve proved it!/that poetry works!/above the ruse of power, (p. 33). Indeed, poetry works and the effectiveness of poetry makes it a terror to tyrants ancient and modern.
The elegiac verses to Pa Alfred Rewane, Chief Bola Ige, capture the resilience in Ofeimun’s art in attestation to his long-service to pen-pushing and word-craft. Indeed, one’s choice of this collection of poems is also to celebrate Odia Ofeimun’s activism and sheer devotion to always write truth to power. Poems like “Martial Music”, “Sozaboy” are pointers to this inglorious past that cannot be forgotten or “buried under the ground/making manure for the General” (“Haba I”, p. 7).
These are also sober times, but to celebrate this poet, one wish to dwell on the female presence in some poems that captivated this present writer in Go tell the Generals. How possible is it for a woman to tell a General a message of feat, courage and exploits? What proof of challenge is in the fists of rage and dare raised by a woman? “The Heart has no Bone” is an elegy of five parts and 20 stanzas for Kudirat Abiola, who ‘swam against the tides/down the throat of dragons’ (p. 36). Memory avails us of how Alhaja Kudirat Abiola went on the inconceivable crusade against a sitting military ruler for justice and “dared the cross-roads full of spikes/to make dreams whole again” (p. 36).
The poet Ofeimun found kindred spirits in these women like the universal paddler woman’, who ferried urchins to school for a better future. The setting of ‘Memory I’ is reminiscent of life at the creeks of the Niger Delta, or Maroko, Isale Eko or any ghetto where many true labourers ‘angels of our creeks’ female teachers, care givers or impoverished mothers are dehumanized and raped, before impressionable minds just for economic gain. The head-on antipathy against the jackboot, gunfire and the violence against women is commended for the revulsion against brigandage it generates in the reader.
The gain in the anguish is the output generated by the universal paddler who as the muscle against injustice, “… taught us to question with sticks/so if they come again as they will,/-since they will come again for the loot./she gritted her teeth: don’t let it happen”. Another chant of confrontation is “Sink their Ship” (p. 26) saturated with militancy and reprisal: “if they hang your dog/kill their cow/If they bring down your plane/sink their ship… and don’t call it vendetta, she said./ It’s the way to teach the strong/to climb from beast to personhood”. Ofeimun aptly shows that the struggle for liberty is not gender-specific, that where men proceed actively against terror and fear, women also lack no capacity to perform against socio-political ignominy.
The romantic “Lady Rose of the Udje” a poem written in 2007 is culture-specific to the Urhobo people and is a dance-song. Though it lacks the blatant political intervention in the women-referent poems considered above, the poem is in memory of the famous Udje singer Rose Okiriguo who sang “a No to the fear that de-greened minds… unafraid to be human, glad to be woman/she willed the child she once was to hold her hand into the dark that unveils/ a woman’s power/ and, she took to the road with her sisters…
When we encounter the ‘woman of the grazed brow’, in the poem “To Cast a Stone” (Pp. 48-9), the display of public morality as against private licentiousness pervades this ode to Safiya Hussaini Tungar Tudu who was condemned to death for adultery in Sokoto in the year 2002. She is made by her society to bear the encumbrance of a ‘sin’ by two consenting adults, while letting her male ‘accomplice’ in adultery go free. Safiya the casualty is condemned to death and the peoples poet that he is, Ofeimun demands: “Let only they who can give or return life, take it/-the mullah in his wisdom, the evangel/in blithe spirit, the cult shaman/in sacred levitation … let them cast the first stone … (p. 49).
Most of the scenario in the poems connote certified doom and gloom. The poet in this collection is akin to a prisoner of conscience, who once is set free, lugs along crooked paths a baggage of the only debt he owes community: which is to generate strength where weakness assails, craft a vision of resilience in dire straits. The poems are for that needed communal strength, so that power is no longer misused, so the powerful can liberate the weak and the unlawful captive in incarceration quickened to generate hope, even if but a while. This is Odia, who in over five decades has maintained a consistency akin to that of the rising and setting of the sun in his visionary expedition to recollect emotions in tranquillity and turbulence and cast them for a global readership that propels to action.
Odia Ofeimun saw politics done right and could raise songs in praise of such times as we see in Salute to the Master Builder. When he saw politics in disarray, his duty was to craft lines to reorder what went askew, either in military or civil rule as in A boiling Caracas. The hope for a great future for Nigeria is celebrated in Nigeria the Beautiful. To celebrate a poet of the calibre illustrated in this expose is therefore customary. Odia, may your voice remain un-cracked and un-tired as you continue to chant and rant against the different shades of tyranny.
Happy 70th Birthday to Odia Ofeimun, the peoples poet.
• Professor Evwierhoma teaches at the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Abuja