By Obu Udeozo
On the lyric pole, that sublime ingredient, which all immortal songs attain –the verses of Maik Nwosu, Amatoristero and Elias Dunu –do not match the performance of poets in Phosphorescence. The verse of the Penumbra Class, do not quite mount that stratosphere of melody, when moods and sounds become conjoint in verse.
Comparisons would show that Isidore Diala’s placard poems, compared to say Uche Nduka’s diamonds, Maik Nwosu’s silver and Esiaba Irobi’s rainbow, would show marked differences in texture and enduring charm. For instance, Isidore Diala, the leading poet among the Penumbra Circle, has a superb tribute to Christopher Okigbo in The Lure of Ash.
I sing You Okigbo of the Ogene voice
That trod the path of thunder on the night of steel
And like the flaming god himself to blaze the truth,
Burned too intensely and merged with the undying light.
Notice that Isidore Diala’s president is still tinted by an avoidable derivative phrase – “Okigbo of the Ogene voice” – which remains in want of final sublimation. It has not attained the liminal order of perfect verse. There is lyric in Diala with grains of the terrestrial. Excellent verse is always haunting without strictures or cicatrices. Contrast this with Uche Nduka’s Religion; even when like the Biblical Sampson; the Dresden based poet’s prowess was on the wane in if only the night (p.33):
i leap with you
into the –
leap with you
into the instinct
the first tenet
by the religion
of your perfect legs.
Mark the caper, the alliterative play, and choral refrain within so short a space. Like the conjoint shadows in painting of the chromatic tones in Rembrandt’s A Girl with A Broom, you do not observe any sinews of bones, biscuits, muscles and blood in their private forms. There is an apodeitic melding and mood of feeling and form in glorious harmony. Let us savour Hereward Lester Cooke’s trenchant approbation of Rembrandt van Rijn on this painting:
Technically, no artist in history has been able to draw with the brush as well as Rembrandt. He could convey a sense of three – dimensional form, texture, weight, and movement with apparent casual strokes of the brush… The paint is dragged, scumbled, patted, and smeared in a way to delight the most demanding abstract expressionist. n
In this limited but never absolute sense, Uche Nduka’s twighlight seems more sublime than Isidore Diala’s sunrise. And, of course, such a sequence and feat are almost absent in Odinaka Nwamadi and nearly unthinkable in Elias Dunu, who comprise “The Penumbra Group” of The Third Wave Poets. Nevertheless, it is not a perfective assertion; instead, it marks a statistical pattern between the two groups
Another characteristic of the Penumbra Poets is obvious in their diction. Compared to the Bunker Busters, for instance, their angriest expressions do not and never reach the virulence exhaled by Olu Oguibe, ‘Sola Osofisan or the epic fury of Ogaga Ifowodo. Maik Nwosu’s themes are also of the sociological and political slant; so are some of Amatoristero Ede and Odinaka Nwamadi’s critical sorties on the evils of the Nigerian society. Yet the raw punch; the payload of The Penumbra Poets, does not resemble The Bunker Busters. Isidore’s inclination or temperament is not quite vivid as in Olu Oguibe, or Sola Osofisan. That is the beauty of life and its variegations. So are the distinct styles and personalities discerned in this study.
The Penumbra category of poets, therefore, constitutes a unique aesthetic, contextual and stylistic set. These writers have a watershed kind of verse; their poems are more earthly, more concrete; more pachydermatous than say the last group of writers: Sugar Cane, especially, in the area of texture. For instance, the positive graphological strides of Amatoristero Ede (though his lift-off record is akin to The Wright Brother’s aircraft at the dawn of aviation), the works of Remi Raji, Obi Nwakanma, Toyin Adewale Gabriel Chiedu Ezeana Onookome Okome, and Akeem Lasisi, constitute another textural variation and nuance in the poetics of our current terrain.
We can perform ad libitum this appraisal: the between groups or intracellular contrasts and comparisons to show the fine gradations between the best of Esiaba Irobi (Phosphorescence) against Maik Nwosu (Penumbra); the jewel of Ogaga Ifowodo (Bunker Busters) against the best of Maxim Uzoatu (Penumbra); while also countenancing the characteristics of their shortcomings. But this would stretch this work beyond the Divine limits of my present clock.
The Lure of Ash
I choose to disclose herein what Professor Obumselu once whispered to me, “that Isidore Diala is the most brilliant Nigeria scholar, he has taught in the post-civil war season”. One favours, such lines of approbation, when the recipients are still alive here on earth. I do not endorse the Nigerian ethic of ferrying post-humours awards to the homes of, say, Amos Tutuola as “Africa’s father of post – modern magical realism”, to Jauga; as “The Avatar and genius of Television Drama in Nigeria,” and to Cyprian Ekwensi, “as the most prolific but maligned Nigerian writer”: which is the establishment mindset. And I deplore it.
Isidore Diala’s first published play, The Pyre, was the joint-winner of the 1992 ANA Drama Prize, a work inspired by a touching challenge to refute the presumption “that easterners do not write drama”. He has several academic articles to his credit, has enjoyed fellowships in European and American universities. Among his major recent edited works is: The Responsible Critic: Essays on African Literature, In Honour of Professor Ben Obumselu..
Isidore Diala’s The Lure of Ash is, perhaps, the Igbo nation’s second offering in poetry that is entirely mediated by the Catholic mindset. The first is Christopher Okigbo’s. Labyrinths. The Lure of Ash is woven like its more legendary forebear, upon an ontological motif. There is a fascination, to extract and sustain truth, from the various episodes of human life. So, in a grid of 3 movements: Phase One being: The Hues of Ash; Phase Two: The Swill of Ash; Phase Three: The Trial of Ash –Isidore Diala labours, as befitting a Benoit Mandelbrot in using the iterative factor to confer meanings on such diverse issues as: “Ululation”, “Invocations”, “Okigbo’s Quarter Century Sleep”, “The River”, “A Voice from Zangon Kataf”, “Nigeria at Thirty Eight”,
“Rites of the Flame”, “The Mad Man”, “For Mandela’s Mother”, “Ojaadili”, “All Ash”, “Vultures”, “The Priest and The Pilgrim”, “Election”, “The Lust of Wood”, “Ahiajoku”, “Artist’s Trial” and “Afterglow”… in a random sample.
There are forty eight poems in that sixty-five page forest-greenish grey anthology of poems. One has endeavoured to fathom the logic underlying the classifications. Could there be reasons of morbidity that warrant the sub themes: familiar history or prophetic prowess that informs the spread?
This question is resolved in Invocations (p4 – 6), where the poet states:
…Save us Lord
From the plumage of hollow laughters
Forged in the seething ore of hate
And we see an invoice of characters –incidents and tribulations –which constitute that universe of Ash. They include from “Nero’s Rome, burnt markets, Ash-Wednesday, through messiah-generals, the diamond muzzle of the tyrant’s gun … to “the test – a [rma] ment of the traitor’s slips’. And the encore justifies the scatter, because we learn from Isidore Diala that:
My chant is the snail’s legendary tongue
Dancing across a forest of thorns.
We may also choose to see a prophetic quotient in the lines within this poem. The poet-personae also asserts that his song is:
The Lesson of the despot’s statue
Gathered in a little heap of ash
Recall the people in the Middle East, especially, after the Post SHOCK AND AWE AMERICA 2nd Invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s statues across that country became the first symbol of anger, to crumble under the public’s hammers. We may also countenance the impending implosions, in various parts of the world, especially Nigeria’s Niger Delta Region with Isidore Diala’s:
The patience of oil
Eating through a century’s rust.
In Worksong on the adjoining page, the Militant Leader, Alhaji Assari Dokubo, would salute, the sentiments raised in The Lure of Ash.
… The snake rears and strikes the fabulous tortoise.
cracks its fangs on the carapace.
The man in us answers the call of the fallow forest,
clears the path to the ancestral barn;
Our heads wear the morning dew like a crown,
soles, wearing untrodden paths to passages;
Our bodies drink the trembling drops on grass blades,
exorcizing outstretched palms by offering sweat.
Two distinctions of Isidore Diala’s work shall be mentioned and commented on before transiting to the categorical axioms of our critical evaluation. By sheer inclination, and efforts towards Afrocentric aesthetics and concern, Isidore Diala’s anthology has the largest pool of poems that are culture frank and friendly among The Third Wave of Nigeria Poets. For instance, his “Invocations” (p.5); “The River” (p.12), “The Lendings” (p.29), “Ojaadili” (p.35), “The Sacrifice”(p.40), “The Priest and the Pilgrim” (p.47), “Warrior’s Chant” (p.54), and “Ahiajoku” (p.59); They all convey the ambience and wealth of the African society’s folk imagination and the oral tradition.
But, as we shall see, in the windows ahead; Isidore Diala’s disposition to tap from orature; has also become major pot – holes of affliction to his poetics. Perhaps, because of his interest and engagement in Theatre, Isidore Diala also owns several, dramatic poems within the constituency. He shares this attribute with ‘Sola Osofisan and Promise Okekwe. Isidore Diala’s “The River” (p.13) is pristine. It evokes Ossie Enekwe’s voice and style in Broken Pots, and shows in its folksie atmosphere what successful poems can do to the imagination and mood. Unfortunately, any comparison of Isidore Diala, with Christopher Okigbo ends at the normative plank alone. Diala’s The Lure of Ash suffers a lack of wholesome splendour as we have witnessed across the verses appraised from Uche Nduka, Afam Akeh, ‘Sola Osofisan to Promise Okekwe.
Owing to the tons of evidence before us, in the cited poets and various paysages of poetry, I shall henceforth, until the end of this 16-year survey, become more frugal over my familiar “proof of evidence” and submissions concerning culpable art, most of the observed weaknesses, are almost generic in nature. Often, debutant poetry will display such characteristic faults, except those like – cite Quintiluis Varus – (p. 94).
Isidore Diala, therefore, joins ‘Sola Osofisan who posted faltering notes in their first steps! ‘Sola’s “Song” was sanctioned, and Diala’s “Ululation” [For Professor Alex Animalu] does not dignify the personage of that dedication. Diala’s third stanza wobbles like a tipsy toddler, and the next two lines, like an athlete that has “run out of gas”. We may see, these in the sixth stanza:
The swell of womb and breasts is half human cycle;
On the crest of the grave’s rise reclines the other;
The grave-like the yam – mound is Earth’s pregnancy:
Life like a dance swings in circles…
As always, we deplore plainness in any manner of poetry, by any mortal whoever he may be. And this offence to good taste graduates into even plain-clothes policemen in “Invocations” (p.5 – 6):
The wisdom of the proverb
That is a mystery to the despot
The rhythm of the song
That seeks out the beat of the heart…
Isidore’s poem would have become a more splendid lyric, given the promising opening of the piece. In selecting poems for flaming flowers, I have rejected entire poems because of a single word – in the wrong context. “The Warrior’s Chant” has some pedestrian chorus:
Where we wrestle
Grass does not grow there,
Where we wrestle,
Grass does not grow there…
The pear has been roasted
Let the great come and eat pear;
The pear has been roasted
Let the small come and eat pear.
If it looks inevitable, because of maturation and competence, then recall: “Do Not Ask Me Not to Flee” (p.3), whose intimations of art merely arise from the foreground of Igbo folklore. Admirable, as native resources may be, one must be cautious over the transliteration of local fables. If lyricism is ignored, folklores do not automatically translate into poetry, and may even constitute dangerous pavilions to lucidity and beauty.
“Nigeria at Thirty Eight” is Isidore Diala’s watermark riposte to the Nigerian nation. It ranks among the immortal songs of social criticism by Gardeners of Dreams. Without a single word of anger, like polite peace keeping soldiers who uphold armistice, Diala’s poem benignly mocks and condemns the country’s status, after thirty eight-years of existence. He deploys flutes to wail thirty eight salutes to wilted hopes of beauty, lamenting laments smothered dreams of grandeur. It reminds one of Onyeka Onwenu’s trenchant BBC Television series: A Squandering of Riches in the 1980s. Where Bunker Bursters would use strong language, Isidore’s gentle words, like his soft necktie, achieves even a more devastating and lasting rebuke, without busting an artery:
…To Africa’s master craftsman
In whose benighted smithy god – given gold is forged
to a marvellous bowl for alms;
That shunned the ceremony of splendour
for macabre rites of ash.
If anybody has any evidence of any nine-line poem anywhere, that so epitomises the Nigerian condition, in lilting lyrical terms, we shall be glad to receive the report. Isidore Diala’s poem again ranks with J.P. Bekederemo Clark’s “One Country” as successful harpoons against communal regression as we know it in Nigeria. It is also a fitting epithet to a society at the fringe of becoming a failed state. “Being a marvellous bowl for alms” is the crisis we endure. The Federal Government has just escaped from negotiations with the Paris Club, and other International Monetary Fund Creditors over Nigeria’s debt relief, debt forgiveness and bankruptcy pleas. “Beings a marvellous bowl for alms” inspired Gbolagbo Ogunsawo, the veteran journalist and genius, to script his column: “Pardon Me Sir: on how social dysfunctions transform healthy and honourable citizens into beggars across the country. The former N.T.A. Director General, Ben Bruce commented on the scandalous and epidemic begging that transpires across Nigeria. So the Alamajiris we know so well also have mentors and comrades all over a nation that is the world’s sixth largest exporter of crude oil. And whose Gross Domestic Earnings is in the realms of Billions Dollars.” As the poet aptly captures: Nigeria, has ignored the example of Saudi Arabia; forsaken the light of Singapore; dismissed the common sense and comfort of civilization for the macabre rites of ash …
The title dovetails splendidly with every other facet of social engagement raised by the poet. It is a fulcrum, around which all ceremonies and obsequies in the rites of ash revolve. Isidore, has other fine poems like “Earth’s Lament” in which, amongst other throes, we are reminded of The primordial mire that formed the chameleon’s proud thighs. Nzeogwu’s Epitaph is another crisp offering. A memorial to that national icon, “who sought to extract ash in the fl-ash of lightning /’’ and sow it with thunder/ – ends up like most martyrs, in self immolation.
We have the stylistics dimension to Diala’s verse. In numerous instances, he tries to tease out puns [and even parables] from the rites of ash. But the poem “The Dentist” perfected this mild inventiveness and play. We shall cite it whole, because it is again, an apologue and mockery of what Nigeria has become in the comity of nations. Remark again, that, unlike Bunker Bursters, this barb and condemnation, does not in dwell in vitriolic language. Instead, like a typical Penumbra Poet, Diala employs euphemisms and parodies, to deliver a scathing missile of Nigeria’s image overseas: “The Dentist” – type (p.42). This editor’s choice of Isidore Diala’s personal best in the anthology is a poem dedicated to his “Every Mourner’s Cry” (p.12).
When grief is genuine; in the hands of competence and craft, if is easily immortalized. It meets every requirement of greatness in art, Rembrandts and all; it is a poem, one would re-visit – if you have the nerves to withstand the reawakening of wounds, and tears and bewilderment – which all personal deaths etch on the human mind.
Obu Udeozo teaches in the University of Jos, Plateau State.