When waves take control in George’s Saints & Scoundrels
If indeed there is some truth to the dictum that the tortured soul makes the best art, it would not be hard to see why Nigeria’s Niger Delta region keeps spawning poetic voices that capture the world’s imagination. Literary prizes, of course, need not be the measure of poetic attainment, but even if taken merely as a statement of intent, the podium of prizes has had a strong Niger Delta presence lately. Obari Gomba, for instance, has virtually pocketed (pun intended) the Association of Nigerian Authors’ poetry prizes in the last few years, and has been a near-constant feature on The Nigeria Prize for Literature, sponsored by Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG) shortlist, often shared with the likes of G. ‘Ebinyo Ogbowei and Humphrey Ogu. But this is the elite side of the poetry, no matter protestations to the contrary. For the real poetry is found in the creeks, at the motor parks and on the streets, from rhythms-at-work of farmers, fishermen, paddlers, etc, accounting for the flowering of spoken word ‘slams’ and people poetry phenomena in places like Port Harcourt and Warri.
It is largely within the matrix of the creeks, the parks and the streets that Ekaete George’s poetry is located, Saints & Scoundrels (T & D Press, Port Harcourt; 2018), her debut collection being a worthy exemplar, as she articulates the heartbeat, even if not necessarily the linguistic preoccupations, of the people. The first section ‘HOMELAND’ does more than wail and lament for Niger Delta’s despoiled environment, a lamentation made more poignant not just because it rises from deep within the soul of a woman, but also because in depicting the ‘paradise wasted’ (Triangular Sea’’) it first had to depict the pre-invasion ‘paradise’ in the idyllic portrayal of Ediye obio Canaan, whose people watch in pride as ‘others worship at your temple’. It is a land with air ‘clean and crisp’. The daughters are so beautiful ‘delicately framed like hens’ eggs, that some can walk through fire to keep them…/in sanctuaries, altars and temples/(Ediye Obio Canaan).
Women who have left the strongest marks in politics, in literature and art, have been those with strong personal stories some of which could not be shared in full, for the health of the reader. Maya Angelou generously let her reader into her social innards, as she offers a graphic tale of her sexual abuse as a teen in ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.’ She goes on to shed that encumbrance, and roar on like a spaceship into the innermost parts of the literary orbit. That has been the experience of many a writer across the globe, more so in the Niger Delta.
Like the other homeland poets, George does not view the Niger Delta environment with binoculars and telescopes. Because she caresses it, daily, flows with its tide, breathes its soot-infested and oxygen-depleted air, and because her feet are in constant rendezvous with its much polluted soil, she is able to deliver both a worshipful panegyric of the region, and a damning indictment of her taskmasters, those who inflict pain and then legislate, with the gavel of their gunboats, against the victims crying out. It’s all made more damning when touts-lunatics-politicians are factored in within a false nationhood.
For the poet, the delta is seen in geometrical terms as a ‘triangular sea’ of water, oil and blood. In ‘She Rides on Ashes’ and a host of other poems, the poet brings further to the fore man-made environmental putrefaction bedevilling the region, a phenomenon that has since acquired more dire dimensions: from acid rain to sooty air.
The second segment ‘GIRL RISING’ straddles the joys and pains of love. For all: daughter, mother, sister, homeland, the world, and yes, for lover, a term that could, in her context, mean anything from fart to paradise. It crosses Maslow’s biological needs line, into the realm of dreams, of hopes, aspirations, and their inversions; of queries in the subjunctive mood. More pointedly, it is a battleground – of the sexes. The predator, as in the Niger Delta warfare, has gone with the diadem, but the victim-narrator has the final laugh. If we were on a more concrete personal rather than poetic wavelength, one could have subjected the issues to a jury review. But within the immateriality and emotionality of poetic experience, the poet has the final say, and the benefit of the doubt.
The UN rapporteur on gender issues and human rights might do well to take note of some heart-rending poems here. In ‘See What You Want,’ the persona flees from a batterer where the world only sees a saint. In ‘Strange Voices’, a lover’s soothing voice transforms into a total stranger’s, and in ‘Chibok Girls’, young girls’ innocent dreams are blown off by extremist ‘devotees made of scum’. Gender attrition continues and in ‘You Think She’s Stupid’ a woman endures pummeling and other unsavoury experiences to save a relationship only to receive a short shrift from those who ought to know better. Similar messages are distillable from other poems in and around this section including ‘When Love Hits, Hit the Road’, and the delightfully punned ‘Safe is Not a Room at Home’. There is also the pain-filled ‘I Did Not Break With My Heart’, where the poet narrates a tortuous relationship experience for which she had to evolve a new body to be able to wear her heart.
Within the two segments can also be found some oblique verses that are best left as personal experiences, fallouts of the poet’s social transitions, many of which would place her within a rather fluid social demographic as a developmental and gender rights activist and more.
I had initially encircled the poem ‘Daughter’ for Gabriel, as the prized pick of the pack. Here, the poet-persona summons every vessel of utterance possible to lavish the subject of her adoration with enchantments of the most endearing love: ‘Today/Like every day since the ship/the ship that sailed the storms/hurricanes and tsunamis/berthed you/ I am entranced by you/Mmedot-mfon…’
She glows on: ‘If I possessed the craft of clairvoyance/I would cast my stones/Twirl my crystal ball/Chant incantations in every language/Tomorrow would be magical/We would live in storybooks’
But she confesses: ‘I cannot tell tomorrow/But I can tell you:/Tomorrow will come and go/My heart will break when you cry/Because you will/Still the scent of your presence/Strong like the smell of kindergarten class/Will intoxicate me/Always/No matter the tide.’
AS much as I love the poem, as I do the daughter it celebrates, and much as I love the equally enchanting ‘Mother’ with which she eulogises her mum, I had to withhold the crown when I came to the one called ‘Prayer of a Strong Woman.’ This ironically titled poem is actually an outpouring of one’s soul to one’s deity, a total admission of powerlessness and a cry for help. Like Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Color Purple, this poem begins with a direct address: ‘Dear God’. The God resort, so strong, so total, so fierce and so free, is a riposte, a counterpoise to hitherto peer-induced I-own-my-life posturing. Just as adversity atrophied Celie to the point where she had to take her matter personally to God, so did it do to George and her countrymen, far beyond the Niger Delta. But here, it is not so much personal adversity as a communally imposed one. It is much like someone swimming across the water to deliver a prize to her community only to find herself struggling for personal survival in perfidious, politically-polluted waters.
She tells God: ‘Father you know I love those moments/ (when):/Like a carefree child/I jump on your shoulders/…giggle and prance/ with my tiny little feet (inhaling with my eyes closed)/the fragrances I walk across…/every day/like an adventurous child I jump on your shoulders/braving storms when they gather…’
Yes, even in those moments atop God’s shoulders, she does ‘gripe and groan’ at the storms”
But/Today, I jump off those shoulders/and like daddy’s girl/I lay my head on them instead.’
This is a life defined by a response to a toss-to- the-wind. To many it provides a cocoon of succour, to others, a lament; to others yet, it is a moment of self-reversal, of rebuttal of the existentialist prop-up, a relapse into dogma. Call it what you will, that shoulder presents a safer anchors than all our presumed certainties which would sooner mock than propel us on a infallible path.
Current poetry worldwide has witnessed a pitiable relapse into plain prose, infusion of pith and wit (where this is done) being its only saving grace. In this sense, all you need to do to turn Achebe’s Things Fall Apart into a magnificent epic poem, given its richness in proverbs, is to cut it down to size, literally, and put them in stanzas. You could do the same thing with the writings of, say, Prof Sofie Oluwole, aka mamalawo, replete as it is, with local wisdom and, genie! Out comes your poem. Same would apply to the wit-laden drama of Anglo-Irish dramatist Oscar Wilde.
Each of these alchemies would yield a richer output in terms of rhythm and word craft than what purports self to be poetry today. Therefore when a new voice emerges who shows painstaking effort and rigour in her craft, such a voice deserves some accolade. Ekaete George’s work is not a new poetry, but she does bring a freshness to her art that should guarantee her place among Africa’s contemporary female poets. The adroit manner in which she grafts delightful puns into her message is so insightful, as it brings out the pain of not being understood even by those for whom she is in the fray:
‘The humans of my world/Look aghast when I say ‘I am not safe’/They say ‘you are a woman not a safe/A woman builds a home not a safe.’
A knee jerk reflex would facilely place George among Nigeria’s, nay Africa’s, emerging contemporary female poets, those acrobats who juggle career and family, fact and fad, professionalism and dilettantism, and for whom love is pain and pain is a fatal attraction. Yes, with the evidence of Saints & Scoundrels, this long awaited debut, she belongs there, along with the likes of Nigeria’s Ngozi Chuma-Udeh, Jumoke Verissimo, Betty Abah, etc, and with Warsan Shire (Somali), Liyou Libsekal (Ethiopia), Safia Elhillo (Sudan), Lebo Mashile (South Africa), etc. But more than these (many of whom ply their artistic trade in the West) George is homebred and acculturated.
Therefore when she speaks of homeland, it is her life experience that she inks down on paper. Indeed, George pours out her soul into her craft – hardly a surprise, given the genre. But what would indelibly etch her in the readers’ consciousness is the nature of this outpouring: you thought that Niger Delta enviro-lamentation ended with the likes of Ogaga Ifowodo, Tanure Ojaide, Gomba etc? Wait until a woman’s voice, pained, like Rachael’s in Ramah, joins the outcry. No inhibitions, no platitudes, no striving for political correctness, no allegiance to a school of poetry, no pandering to the whims of particular goddess of poesy, no pretence to a mastery of the craft either. She simply pours out herself, her soul, un-artificed, un-manicured. The raw taste of beauty.
In a way, the poet and the Niger Delta are all one and the same entity, undergoing the same life-altering experiences. Both have also adopted the same social reflex, the same political poise; rather than wait for eternal benefactors, the Niger Delta has decided to MEND its own ways by embarking on a portentous self-remediation programme. So has our poet. She has adopted a poise that says: hey, I’ve had my own share of your sweet nothings; I’m not to be messed with. In ‘Sorry, not Sorry’ she proclaims: ‘She is a woman/Owned by none/Glowing to admiring eyes/Delicious in every adoring palate/An offense to be owned/A nightmare to patriarchy.’
George’s outspoken presence on social media, her fight for the girl-child, her dogged defence of female victims’ right to be heard everywhere, even her silent endorsement of the #Me too movement all point to someone reinventing herself in the age of reason. Eka, as she is often fondly called, finds time to celebrate her personal bard, her poet-priest of the Delta – Gabriel Okara – in whose brief company she feels the enduring presence of a spirit.
George’s debut is not necessarily the offering of a goddess; it has its fair share of inelegancies: there’s one preposition too many, for instance, in a pair of lines like: Every chapter enthralling/Every page of tales to tell. The choice of American orthographic style is also suspect (‘defense’). But Saints & Scoundrels does offer at least a glimpse into a mind and a spirit that can so easily distil beauty out of a daunting environment, and who can sift the colliding sentiments of saints and scoundrels.
• Ihuoma is a poet and novelist based in Port Harcourt