Title: Land of Tales
Author: BARTH AKPAH
Publisher: Kraft Books, Ibadan
Reviewer: Henry Akubuiro
Every land has its tales, but what tales and tenor of rendition? Talk about the tales of the wily Tortoise or the orphan boy with a happy ending, and everybody is tickled. Then, talk about the grumpy Lion or the swashbuckling Hyena coveting everything meant for all, and our faces go dour. But whether they are ohs or ahs that a story brings, it is ought to be told.
Enters the shrill voice of Barth Akpah in Land of Tales, a debut poetry volume. Here is a poet wailing with pain –pain arising from national malaise and social dysfunction. There is also a feeling of ennui. With solemn words, he attempts to redress the pervading cataclysm created by the oppressors.
Where songs seem not enough to ferry the messages to the Olympus where the oppressors are barricaded, the poet unleashes chastisements. Akpah does not only see himself as a raconteur telling anecdotes to the brokenhearted; he sees himself as a poet-reformer, a literary factotum, with a responsibility to his anguished society. The poignancy of his pillories leaves no one in doubt about his ideological bent. Needless to say, his poetry is wreathed with a modicum of nature and love poems, for, no matter the sorry state of affairs, these two will ever colour the darkening sky.
It is interesting to note that Akpah is a poet operating, in parts, within the nouns of a griot tradition laced with folkloric tapestry. In some areas, they come off as operatic. Having been educated at the University of Ibadan, it is not surprising that there are some Yoruba traditional echoes in the poems, a reverence to its afflatus. The structure of his poetry are also embellished with concrete poems, which manifest either in form of cupid, echoes, smithereens, weeping or slithering shapes, etcetera.
Some of the poems are also juxtaposing on the same page (two in one) to serve as counterpoise emotive flakes. Again, some read like monologues, like “On the street of dream”, and deliberately prosaic to create a variety of nuances. He, too, prefers ee-cummings letters.
Land of Tales contains over 50 poems divided into four unequal parts: Anthems of Dreams, Anthems of Fame, Anthems of State, and Anthems of the Heart. A poet, who is indebted to tutelage, Akpah pays obeisance to his teachers in “Poet’s exordium” –from Professor Niyi Osundare to Professors Remi Raji and Ademola Da Sylva, whose poetry volumes influenced Akpah’s bardic voyage. A child must crawl before it learns to walk and a child must talk before it learns to sing. It is verity that applies to the scribal universe.
From the word go, Akpah declares himself an emissary of the muse, who, like a bird, is flying to distant places with words. Though they might ruffle some feathers, there are many out there with a buy-in. In “Matters”, he defines his mission is an attempt to mould words into worlds, weaving matter into matters to unfurl the burden of matters. The essence of it all is “For the world’s eyes/must see how the lion wept/in the venter of a lizard and street/urchins chase palace heirs/ and the jig, the comeuppance, the tale that ensues…” (p. 23).
When the poet reflects in “Reflections 1” and “Reflections 2”, the poet creates natural symbols to paint a morbid reality. The length and breadth of Akpah’s Land of Tales is a contraption of imagery. Ours is a land of locust, he echoes on page 31, for “The land is heavy with termites/ and seething mass of hawks festering/on the land’s soul”, yet “A country is born/at the death of honour/now hatred reigns, and the obloquy that/swims…”
But it is in the third part of the collection, Anthems of State, that the bard shows a far-reaching societal commitment, bewailing the trajectory of the nation-state, where its citizens have become “modern victims of pains” amid “rumble in the spirit of the land”. The most tragic of this lament is that ours is a kingdom that dwells on a river yet wails in search of water, and governed by deadwoods as lion kings. And in “Andante”, we are horrified that the stars have refused to twinkle in protest of a wailing land. Worse still, the seat of power has become a place where sad tales reverberate, “Giving birth to herding songs”. Furthermore, politicians are presented as people who speak from both sides of the mouth. See “Words and opposites”:
Rainbows of hope crafted to curry our votes
Like good shepherds, they came
Like good sheep, we followed
At last, victory whet their appetite
And a new song echoed (p.46)
The Boko Haram menace is not left out by the poet in his moments of anguish. Akpah cries on top of his voice: “You plant your druthers/And breed our sorrows/In the dark corners/ Of wailing trumpets/Your book is a ram …book-a-ram?” (p.61). Tufia! A book can’t be a ram, for a ram will always be killed for food, but a book lives for hundreds of years, imparting knowledge across generations. We also read with dismay, of Dapchi girls’ captivity –Alas, Dapchi has become a place where “tears wander in the forest of death”!
Amid the gloom, Akpah has some seductive lines, love poems, painted in hues of hearts, leading us to the door of romantic bliss. Land of Tales appears like a poetry volume that has undergone gestation. It is a debut with a profound, lustrous enamel, indeed.