By Henry Akubuiro
Questioning Voices, Olalekan Ajayi, Kachifo, Lagos; 2021, 152,
When worries assail a soul, what happens? Questions are bound to erupt. Olalekan Ajayi is a poet who owes his creativity to the muse. Like in his first poetry collection, A Day Shall Come, published in 2015, the poet, in this latest poetry volume, Questioning Voices, invokes the guidance of the muse for the bardic project, delivering messages to the world as an emissary to many voices wishing to be heard.
These poems, which run in five parts — Conversation, Voices, Homeland, Love Themes, and Tributes —also pay witness to the multiple voices in the poet’s head. Ajayi believes that bards before him showed more commitment in the art, pillorying the system and telling the truth —a path he, too, wishes to toe as echoed in “Invocations”, where the voice beseeches the muse to fill his vacant mind “With ancient secrets”. He yearns: “Kindle in my ones noble fure/ To make me burn like bards of old/Take me to the fields where/ My forebears communed with the gods/Let me feel the flame that drove/ The poets of old to weave words/ That unsettled usurpers” (p.3).
Ajayi’s “Conversation with Myself” shows the poet speaker as constrained by worries with numerous questions troubling him: “Try, try and try, I try/ The questions gush like/ A burst public pipe”. And these are questions about living and justice. Sometimes “Difficult Questions” appear simple, especially when the interlocutor already knows the answer.
Ajayi’s poetry volume is dominated by personal lyrics, and this stems from the fact that experiential issues have a link with universal imports, which, by themselves, affect subtle minds. And when they are not experiential, the bardic excursion finds echoes in humanity, like in “Beneath the Bridge” where, as, a traveller, the voice discovers “famished shadows of desolation” —”such a legion of wretched folks/With a thousand tales of woe and dreams”. Hence, life isn’t fair to those beneath the bridge.
Ajayi’s diction is supple, barely cloying, and this is a poet who has audiences at heart. Despite the sense of despondency we encounter in the mood of the verses, the elegant language prompts us into spasms of delight. Fancy his hyperbole here: “ Heavy with thoughts that abort sleep, /My mind goes on a pilgrimage to the sky. /The view from above makes heaven cry….” (p. 40).
For some humour, try and read “When Fear Grips My Soul”, a poem about childhood trepidation. “If Only I looked up” teems with remembrances and nostalgia.
“At the foot of the Unknown Soldier” is a poem pertinent to contemporary happenings in Nigeria. This poem draws attention to the futility of war. The poet is alarmed by the crave for war by the young generation who doesn’t know what war entails: “Unknown to them/Men fall like cattle in battle/Where riffles rattle in senseless rage, /And men long to return home to/Laugh with families and neighbours” (p. 56).
The collection contains some satires like “The Parliament” where lawmakers demonstrate their two sides, using deception to win votes and resorting to violence when overtures fail, but the trampled masses have learnt to say no in the face of oppression. This resolve also echoes in “The March”.
Many African writers have disparaged British colonial adventurism in this part of the world, in their writings, but Ajayi has problems with African leaders themselves who took over from the whites. In “Unprepared”, the poet declares that they were unprepared to take the mantle of leadership. Thus, the joy of liberation was short-lived: “We, the people, were unprepared for/The freedom obtained without sword.” The result today are weary hearts roaming the street “united in hunger”. Social inequality echoes in “From the Depths of the Shanties”.
Questioning Voices shows us the different sides of a tyrannical servant and the servant leader who wear a mean facade once in power, contrary to the humble mien before mounting the exalted position.
Democracy in a fledgling African nation, such as depicted in “Four Years”, is described as a circle of woes. As each tenure ends, the nation prepares for another round of plunderers in power. Hence, the voice laments that the electorate is unaware of the power they possess.
Questioning Voices ends with love poems (as Cupid tales tell of engaged desires) and tributes to revered individuals. Ajayi’s voice in Questioning Voices is righteously interrogative, melancholic yet romantic and sublime.