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The writings of Emmanuel Oronsaye – Part 1


The Nigerian literary canon has flourished a great deal to the extent that some of the writers are likely to be lost in the vortex of literary criticism.

In prose, drama and poetry, many writers have produced works, which not only render the Nigerian narrative aptly, but also take on literary merits which locate them in realm of great works. The plurality of the canon makes it nearly impossible for critics to adequately focus on all the writers.

What follows is the abandonment of some of the writers who eventually occupy the margins of critical silence. However, occasional luck seems to bring such writers to critical attention. One of such writers is Emmanuel Orobosa Oronsaye.

Emmanuel Oronsaye is a retired career senior civil servant (he retired as the second Clerk of the Edo State Assembly) who has ventured into the business and enterprise of writing. In fact, he seriously started writing poetry when he was still in the service of, first, Bendel State and later, of Edo State after Bendel State was split into Edo State and Delta State respectively in 1991 (27th August).

Anything like a just focus on his poetry (and other writings – drama and prose) may be slow to arrive at in our country’s literary academe on account of his civil service background even though his academic training/background is in the humanities, he being a cerebral historian and a product of our premier university, the University of Ibadan. But anything like my sincere and frank appreciation of him is not accidental.

Since I was privileged decades ago to inspect the manuscript that eventually culminated in his first published book of poems entitled Rhapsodies of Corruption and Other Poems, I have not had any difficulty in estimating his worth as a poet and as a literary person who must surely find his place in our literary firmament.

Over the years, since the 2003 publication of his above-named book, Oronsaye has written two other volumes of poems – Twilight Twigs: A Collection of Poems (2017) and My Father’s Jug and Other Poems (2017) – which announce him equally as an exciting and penetrating poet of our generation. He has also published a play entitled Free and Fair: A Play (2017) and an autobiography which has the title of Administrative Strides: Autobiographical Notes of a Practitioner (2017).

Oronsaye’s versatility is thus not in doubt. What this means is that he deserves any and every extravagant advertisement that we may accord him. But my present enterprise, my present appreciation of him in the form of a collective reading of his five books, is a honest undertaking to tempt even the partisan critic and sensitive reader to adopt Oronsaye as one of his or her literary idols.

Before us is a writer who is on the march, who is on the path to immortality. His five cited books, especially those of his poetry, advance and underscore this remark. Robert Frost (1874-1963), U.S. poet, universally admirable poet who occupied a commanding critical influence in his native United States and beyond, said as follows: It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts.

The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound – that he will never get over it. That is to say, permanence in poetry, as in love, is perceived instantly. It hasn’t to await the test of time. The proof of a poem is not that we have never forgotten it, but we knew at sight we never could forget it. (9)

Several poems in Oronsaye’s three collections cannot but engender this feeling in the sensitive reader. “Rhapsodies of Corruption,” the poem which gives his first published volume its name easily comes to mind. So also is the poem “My Father’s Jug,” the poem which gives his second book of poems its name.

The experience each poem contains is one that the sensitive reader can always absorb and emotionally feel regardless of its subject because as a poem it expresses an immortal passion. “Rhapsodies of Corruption” expresses the emotion of hatred against corruption of all kinds.

Of course, several poems in the first collection of seventy-two poems, spread into five sections, contain, in varying degrees, the subject of corruption and the attendant pain and suffering it induces in the sufferers who are the Nigerian masses. For this reason one can call Oronsaye a “protest” poet, but this is not really why the sensitive reader will want to continue reading the poet.

Indeed, because he writes poems that excite him passionately and philosophically rather than on account of their “protest” ingredients and characteristics, the reader will always want to read Oronsaye’s poems contained in Rhapsodies of Corruption, My Father’s Jug and Twilight Twigs. But My Father’s Jug, as Oronsaye states in his preface, is a collection written specifically for primary and secondary school pupils and students.

If the reader takes him seriously, the verdict will be that by some strange accident the poet employs the kind of language or artistry that makes the volume quite remote from the intended audience. The mood Oronsaye expresses in My Father’s Jug of forty-four poems is the adult mood of his generation.

The message of hope and reassurance and of sorrow and regret can rightly be said to be below the level of consciousness of pupils and students of our primary and secondary schools. The language and temperament of the title poem, “My Father’s Jug,” for instance, have a good deal of those of a mystic and a poet of illumination.

Even though it is not exactly like it in conception and design, I will not be wrong to liken the poem to John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” on account of its immortal subject which is beyond the comprehension and understanding of our pupils and students in our primary and secondary schools. Of course, Oronsaye’s lyricism, which his poems generally have, will appeal to all and sundry, including our referred-to pupils and students, but its immortal illumination, with an invocation of whom the poem opens (page 9) and ends (page 11), has only a hazy connection with their consciousness.

Even to an experienced adult reader this invocating poem is a strange abstraction, but it is a truly emotionally moving poem to anyone who understands how to love or to think or to recall. In his lamentation of the messianic figure of the jug we see the poet’s hope of immortality and reunion which his remembrance engenders. In this wise, the poem resembles “A Song for my Father” which ends thus:

The signpost firmly planted,
A guide to our feet and heart,
You armed us enough.
Sun and moon nod in affirmation,
Your memory lengthens,
Our moon has fallen.
Our sunlight dimmed,
Rest, rest, well, mourners’ flowers
In the land of dumb immortals! (72)

Oronsaye’s unmistakably unique and unerring feeling for the sounds of words that reflect his subtle moods of anguish in poems in which he honestly intends to suppress his despair is glaring in the above lines. The lines of “A Song for my Father” are the lines of loss or of despair, but of loss or of despair of a religious kind as those of “My Father’s Jug” also are.

The attire of religious designs we admire,
Of mixed colours of flowers,
Of large bowel that bore
The water of life that nourished!
Goodbye good soldier,
Goodbye honest companion,
You came into our lives
To serve, like a messiah!
And you served with merit
Like an old war hero.
I miss you as my fathers do
In their dust! (11)

These (and the earlier quoted ones) are interesting lines that show the poet’s gloom that his religious attitude tends to overshadow. The demise or loss of the jug of diverse bearings and attitudes puts him in a sorrowful state which his doctrine and faith of honesty, arising out of his Christian religious doctrine, compels him to endure with equanimity.

Melancholia that tends to announce or reveal the transcience of life or existence is a quality the right, sensitive reader is accustomed to associate with Oronsaye’s poetry as reflected glaringly, for example, in Twilight Twigs, his third book of thirty-three poems. “Diamonds are for a Moment? (To Albert Igbinewedo Igbinedion” (pages 73-74) is a poem of loss and not of loss at the same. For illustration, let me quote the poem’s last three stanzas:

The ice is melting,
Flowing to places certain.
Blossoms are disengaging,
Falling upon the dumb flowing rivers
To places unknown,
To midwife another clime.
Only a happy and just life will suffice, as
Diamonds are for a moment.

The ones I hold dear are departing
And feelings are freezing!
Tensions are building up. Oh!
Diamonds are for a moment!
From cradle to the dust
Life’s toil, strive, the glitters will cease,
To mother earth’s delight?
Diamonds are for a moment.

Where are those first glances of lovers?
Where are the first smiles of mothers to their new babies?
Where is that hen’s warmth that hatches eggs?
Where is that “Mount Everest” that stood on the way of a rampaging highway?
Diamonds are for a moment!

Oronsaye demonstrates above (as he equally does in other poems) that he is a man and a poet of very keen senses. His seriousness has not in any way been withered by age or by numbing experience. This poem and others that constitute Twilight Twigs, a misnaming of the book because the poems, symbolically “twigs,” were not written in the sunset, the twilight, of his civil service and poetic careers, but in his youthful and middle years.

At this time his visual imagination was still very conspicuous. So also were his natural aural gifts which the quoted lines above typify. The image of “Diamonds are for a Moment!” illustrates the theme of transience; the theme of “Everything passes,” the theme of nothing lasts forever.

A “happy and just life,” freezing feelings, “Life’s toil, strive, the glitters” (that is, our labours, strivings and joys), “first glances of lovers,” “first smiles of mothers to their new babies,” “hen’s warmth/that hatches eggs” and one’s every “Mount Everest” (that is, one’s every bulwark against every handicap or obstacle or even pain or suffering), will cease to be at the appointed time.

The melancholia induced in the man and poet on account of his departed dear one (Albert Igbinewedo Igbinedion), also produces the nostalgia that helps to endear the poem to the reader. Generally, the poet’s honest language honestly has a sensuous effect on the right reader’s ear, sight and sense of feeling. I see this poem as a perfect example of the poet’s “twilight twigs.”

Indeed, this poem, this “twig” of his youthful and middle years’ “twilight,” resonates with well-assorted sensations which are the hallmarks of Twilight Twigs, a collection in which we truly see the poems of an experienced man and poet with a profound interest in human emotions, and a deeply penetrating knowledge of them.

Oronsaye might only be read as an immortal by-product of Nigeria’s literary history if he did not concern himself with contemporary issues, that is, with issues of his age. And, as a trained historian itching to make a mark in poetry, it would be a tragedy for him if this were to be the pronounced verdict on him. But he, apparently, dwells on issues that express the disgust of our generation. In Twilight Twigs the poem “The Lure of Red Lights,” for example, dwells on a subject that exasperates our mood:
Contrition surrounds us all,

Like octopus, in embrace.
The years of faltering governments,
And Europe’s red lights
Contrive and beckon
To fleshy passions.

Bevies in their teens
Dream easy life,
Of international language,
Of secret trade by barter:
And they get hooked in the web.
Tricked by day;
Trafficked by night;
To Europe they trooped. And under the red lights they grouped.
There stand performed
Half bare, heavily plastered skins
Dazzling, glittering,
To await the hawks of flesh,
To flutter, turn and flatter.
And then whispers. Soak in harmony of agreement. (23-24)

Our estimate of Oronsaye in this poem as well as in others elsewhere in Twilight Twigs and Rhapsodies of Corruption is that he represents his age in his examination of its problems on the moral plane. The subject of the poem is the fate of our teenaged girls who are “tricked” and “trafficked” to Europe (and elsewhere) to offer themselves in sexual intercourses for money, and to engage in other unworthy purposes.

Their woes are blamed on our respective “faltering governments,” that is, corrupt governments, that are insensitive to the plight, in “its saddest form” (24), of the teenaged girls. But it is not only our ugly governments that are responsible for our young girls’ woes in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.

Their “conscienceless homesteads” (24), that is, their conscienceless families, communities, villages and towns “They left with steel determination/To hammer-in the mission object” (24) are equally blamed for the teenaged girls’ “red light woes” (24), that is to say, their new states of morbid maladies.

The mode of the poem suggests, it must be pointed out, that our “faltering governments” and the teenaged girls’ “conscienceless homesteads” are symbols of our country’s and age’s imperfect health and morbidity. I must assert further that these symbols help to illustrate the poet as an important realist of our time, who depicts our age as that of morbifically progressive degradation.

• 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.

In this article:
Emmanuel Oronsaye
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