The poetry of Ebi Yeibo – Part 2
The poem entitled “Corruption blues” takes a look at the endemic corruption that has destroyed the nation’s moral fabric and body-politic. While the leaders themselves are enmeshed in it. They still have the gumption to preach against corruption:By day they holler sermons of righteousness/ On mountaintops (p.41)
The poet-persona likens corruption to a ‘debilitating smell’, ‘gaseous smell/ of gutter water’. It is the hypocrisy of the leadership that holds a particular fascination for the persona of this poem, who says that impunity is their bane and lack of self-discipline their waterloo; as a result, they over-reach themselves in their extreme greed, to their own self-destruction:
O there is no restraint;
In the comity of crabs
But the greedy cock
Pecks at live coal. (p. 42)The persona sums up by saying the obvious: that though these leaders think that their vices are hidden from public glare, that this is not so, but that
Even the fart
In the river’s depth
Bubbles to the surface… (p. 43)
“Remembering Kadabramu” is the poet-persona’s reminiscences about his grandmother’s observations about life. Many of her observations which are prophetic, are couched in epigrammatic statements which the poet makes an attempt to remember and reproduce:
When bones begin to bleed
At the crossroads of being
And teeth sweat
In long grey dawns
Know ye, son
We trawl in the talons of a tempest (p. 48)The poem is a foreshadowing of doom, of the strange times in which we live today. It therefore, is a warning to the poet’s generation to beware of their leaders – politicians – (whom the poet calls “wayoticians” in the subtitle of the poem, a derivation from ‘wayo’, a Nigerian pidgin expression for ‘deceit’) and the strange things they are capable of doing when they become drunk with power.
“The forbidden tongue” is a further catalogue of the denigrations visited on the Niger Delta and the draconian manipulations formented against them by the authorities, and attempts to stop the poet from speaking out. In the poem, the poet-persona sees himself as a ‘towncrier’, and ‘the village crooner’, whose duty is to ‘sing swelling songs/ of a race sassed and sapped’. In this poem, the persona believes in the power of the spoken word to recreate the world. He believes that when dictators forbid speech, they make it crawl like a tortoise to drive away their sleep:
This tongue, forbidden
In conquistadors’ contrived heavens
Is the coarse crawl of the tortoise
That drives away sleep
From its captor’s home (p. 62).
The Fourth Masquerade (2014)
This collection showcases the poet’s attainment of majority and his ability to successfully mask his earlier anger and barely concealed protest against the retrogressive leaders and statesmen of the Nigerian State. Thus, he adopts the mask idiom of the communal masquerade, in order to be everything to everybody. Above all, the masquerade signifies celebration, and this is quite in order, in view of the fact that this collection has been unveiled with its celebration of winning the ANA Prize for Poetry. Besides, this masquerade medium not only celebrates sustained literary achievement, it demonstrates among other things, the poet’s deep links with his Izon/African cultural heritage, which is the deep trinity of man, ancestor and god. The masquerade equally represents, spiritual cleansing of the community; it also represents the poet’s licence as his society’s conscience, who speaks out against the ills of his community. These and many more are encapsulated in the imagery of The Fourth Masquerade. The collection contains 48 poems in all. For want of space, three poems shall be examined for comments. These shall be the title poem, “The Fourth Masquerade”, “No festivals here” and “The wide road”. In “The Fourth Masquerade” the poet adopts the lilting oral form of Izon folklore to speak of the outing of a masquerade during a period of communal festivity. While the masquerade here represents communal celebration and cleansing, it also is the poet’s other self, in addition to his also being the mad man and prophet. Through this medium, like in the hooting of the owl, he warns and reminds humanity of its foibles and its moral and other responsibilities to fellow men, ancestors and gods:
These lines are the owl
Hooting ominous messages
In choking pain
In pubescent twilight
Of his burden of being-
To wake his blood and dust (p. 21)In the next poem “No festivals here”, the poet refers to the Niger Delta as a region where there can never be any real celebration or festival because of the looting of the region’s wealth (oil) at the expense of the blood of its indigenes, not only to enrich the federal treasuries, but more so, to enrich political leaders:
Here a full tide of oil
Breeds milky monsters at the top
Who taunt the treasury… (p. 49)
“The wide road” on the other hand, talks about sycophants who must genuflect and bootlick political leaders in order to be given positions of power and privileges while the masses continue to suffer. Sycophancy is therefore a wide road to ill-gotten wealth and political relevance. The sycophants and their leader-gods are people whose hands and consciences are tainted with evil and bloodshed, their white resplendent robes notwithstanding. For this reason they fear anything white because it represents purity and good conscience, as well as the anger of the people masses appeal to in their confrontation with those in authority who seek to forcefully deprive them of their oil-wealth.
Style and Techniques in Ebi Yeibo’s Poetry
Yeibo is an aesthete and a stylistician par excellence. He infuses his poetry with a refreshing freshness that is hard to miss, which has attracted for him accolades from different quarters, both at home and abroad. One particular stylistic device that he has incorporated into his poetry is the use of the epigraph. Each of these epigraphs is a summation of the main issue of the collection or the section of poetry. For example, the epigraph of Maiden Lines attests to the end of the poet’s apprenticeship, and his wish to undertake a voyage on his own. The epigraphs are drawn from three different sources and ages, all saying basically the same thing. The first which comes from the Classical age, is an appeal to the muses, to: “Look with favour upon a … beginning” (Virgil). The second, which is from the early 20th century, is an affirmation of fact: “Home is where one starts from” (T.S. Eliot). The third, which is from the late 20th century, supports the first two: “It is a good policy to begin at the beginning” (Bernth Lindfors). Both Virgil and T. S. Eliot were poet laureates in their own time, while Lindfors has been one of the greatest American scholars/critics of African Literature since its inception. Their statements as epigraph is Yeibo’s acknowledgement of his debt to past writers and critics, in conformity with T.S. Eliot’s essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”.
In A Song for Tomorrow and Other Poems, the epigraph is taken from the writings of two poets, Eliot and Lenrie Peters. Each of the epigraphs talks about a period of uncertainty, conflict, resistance and a “thrown-into-beingness”, which encapsulates the issues in the collection. In The Forbidden Tongue, three related epigraphs are taken from different sources: (a) Izon saying, (b). a contemporary writer and compatriot, Akachi Ezeigbo and (c). from the Bible book of Proverbs. Each of the epigraphs talks about the efficacy of truth at a time of uncertainty, apostasy, chaos, and corruption.
Another related device the poet has employed in his poetry is the use of Dedication. This is apparent in the three collections under review. Maiden Lines is dedicated to the people of Nigeria who have suffered terrible ordeals at the hands of their leaders, but who still hope against hope that as God’s Word formed the world, the poetic word can reform/reshape their shattered/splintered world. A Song For Tomorrow is dedicated to heroes and patriots who became martyrs of the State in order to improve the lot of their fellow men: to “the memory of those/who left in storms/ for the sake of man” (p. 5).
Equally, the dedication for The Forbidden Tongue is to the poet’s grandmother and mother for their love of truth:
For Kadabramu & Saijorce Mother and mother
Who value the kola of truth
In the mouth of mortals.
On the other hand, The Fourth Masquerade is dedicated to Yeibo’s parents.
In terms of aesthetics, it can be said that since ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’, the poet can be judged from the perspective of his commitment to the poetic vocation as proffering redemptive truth to the masses, as well as his ability to incorporate African cultural ethics in his poetry. The highest form of this cultural adherence is in the image of the masquerade in The Fourth Masquerade. The outstanding artistic devices that are apparent in the works of this great poet include alliterations, assonances and other sound devices. Also prominent are the use of metaphors, similes and rhetorical questions, imagery, symbols and the use of traditional sayings/proverbs. A few examples of each of these devices will suffice. The entire corpus of Ebi Yeibo’s poetry is an exercise in alliteration and sound devices. An example of this is found in Maiden Lines, in the poem “I can’t leave her”. Stanza six of this poem goes as follows:
And when, at last
All the variegated sparks
Of this wild, wild world
Seemed squary subsumed … (pp.20/21).
Another example from The Forbidden Tongue is from the poem “Silent sorrow”. Stanza three goes as follows:
Dawn bristles with drizzling dews
Disfiguring forests of fun
Foiling foliages of fanfare
And even fanciful flowers … (p. 31)
These alliterations and assonances create a delectable rhythm and beat, pleasing to the ears when read aloud.
Talking about symbolism, the eagle in the poem “The eagle” (p 22) in A Song for Tomorrow symbolises the Nigerian nation; its fall occasioned by a mysterious bullet is the fall of a nation occasioned by its own indiscretions. Most times, the river in Ebi Yeibo’s poems usually symbolise the passage of time, the cyclical nature and the inscrutability of life, in general. For example, in Maiden Lines, the poem “River forcados” confirms the foregoing in the first stanza as follows:
Pregnancy of parallels!
She echoes the tune of life;
Timed splashes punctuate
In the sweet rhythm of her solemn flow (p. 46)
In the last stanza, the poet goes on to talk about the uncertainty and inscrutability of life in the following rhetorical statement:
O my murky-thicket river
Of inscrutable contrasts!
Can water run out of thee
As the hen runs out of water? (p. 47).
The same symbolism applies to the poem “River ethiope” in the same collection, which the poet observes with ambivalence bordering on caution of mystery and danger:
And thenceforth, I know
The sleeping danger
That illumines outward grandeur
And we must romance
With a long spoon (p. 63).
There is also a prevalent use of the rhetorical question device by this poet, to interrogate issues, phenomena and situations in the nation. At times, this device is used by the poet to express his dilemma as in the case of the poem “River forcados” cited earlier. Unlike a few contemporary poets who may be tempted to use stale metaphors and similes, Yeibo’s sparkle with primal freshness. A typical example of simile is from “River forcados”:
Or bones that tan the teeth
Like Hausa kola,
Making for the picking-stick
Or wanton biles
That drive away the juice,
Like strong wind
The river’s tranquil course.
An analysis of Yeibo’s artistry is a subject that goes beyond the confines of this essay, because there is so much to be gotten from such an endeavour. However, most scholars and critics who have come in contact with his poetry have come away with a strong impression of his budding greatness in the poetic vocation. For example, Professor Kay Williamson of blessed memory who came in contact with his first collection has this to say of the poet in her foreword:
Reading these poems I have had some of the feeling of a canoe song. Ebi Yeibo evokes the Izon riverscape and invests it with his own feelings and reflections on life. He has the true poet’s feeling for words and wordplay (p. 6)
Another scholar, Professor Luke Eyoh, in the blurb of his third collection The Forbidden Tongue has this to say:
This is remarkable poetry … the copious alliterative and consonance devices, the contrast and irony, the rhythm and music, the imagistic and dynamic diction and the courageous tenor and tone of protest all unite in the beauty of this volume.
James Tar Tsaaior on his part has this to say about the artistry of this poet, in the blurb of Yeibo’s A Song for Tomorrow and Other Poems, as follows:
A Song for Tomorrow negotiates and interrogates history and the contemporary realities surrounding Nigerian nationhood. It invades the past, dredges and unmasks it as a strategy for distilling invaluable morals that can yield relevance for today and tomorrow … The work strikes deep roots and penetrates to the very sub-soil of the poet’s Niger Delta cultural milieu… generously investing it with a histo-contextual halo and cultural continuum.
Finally, Ogaga Okuyade in his “Foreword” to the The Fourth Masquerade, among other things, looks at the universal human values that Yeibo has photographically captured in time for posterity through “the artful deployment of metaphors and the use of folk tradition in order to defend exalted human values” (p. 16). This comment summarises Yeibo’s gift to the world.
From the foregoing, it can be said that Ebi Yeibo has largely succeeded in his craft going by the comments of critics above, as well as the fact that he has garnered several awards and recognition at home for his poetry in recent times, the latest being the well-deserved 2014 ANA Prize for Poetry, for his latest published collection, The Fourth Masquerade.
Every great poet should be recognized during his lifetime. This being the case Ebi Yeibo has attained maturity in his art and his recognition has just begun; this recognition is expected to blossom some more in the years to come, both from within and beyond the shores of Nigeria.
• Dr. Okon, a literary scholar, teaches literature at the University of Uyo