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Esiaba Irobi’s “The Battle of Harlem”
(Pre-notes and Footnotes)***
The play on the title of Joseph Brodsky’s essay, “Footnote to a Poem”, is deliberate. The reader, familiar with the compelling maximalism of Brodsky’s essayistic style, immediately suspects that there must be more to the essay than the title reveals. For as critic, Brodsky is incapable of the economy and the concision of the footnote. Once in the essay, the reader’s suspicion is confirmed: “Footnote to a Poem” is one of the most arresting examples of the Western tradition of reading a single poem. This hermeneutic practice, a sort of camera-focused, panopticist unpacking of one poem, with emphasis not only on its aesthetic and artistic qualities but also on its circumambient intertexts, precedents, politics, and overall ideological frame, is what Brodsky brings to bear on fellow Russian Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem, “Novogodnee”. It is through this process of sustained critical ‘discoursing’, which French criticism invented after the era of the Philosophes and called “analyse de texte”, that a poem gains the necessary visibility which ultimately transforms it to what I have referred to elsewhere as an “anthem-poem”. The critic, Harry Garuba, has coined the term “manifesto poem” for the same phenomenon. The fame of some of Europe’s most formidable modernists derives equally from their anthem-poems and their oeuvre. The so-called Les Décadents in France offer viable examples: each of the poems in Charles Baudelaire’s black venus series (Poems 22 to 39) is almost as famous as The Flowers of Evil, the collection in which they appear; Stéphane Mallarmé’s “A Throw of the Dice” and Paul Verlaine’s “Amour” are anthem-poems as famous as any of the respective authors’ collections.
Africa has given the world a respectable number of anthem-poems, most of which were produced by the ferment of Négritude, cultural nationalism, and anticolonialism in the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, some of the first and second generation poets of that period are known more for their anthem-poems than for their collections. More than any collection, “The Meaning of Africa” is Abioseh Nicol’s claim to fame. David Rubadiri has hardly any presence beyond his classic anthem-poem, “Stanley Meets Mutesa”. Wole Soyinka’s “Abiku” and “Telephone Conversation” dwarf Idanre and Other Poems in audience reach and appeal. Niyi Osundare’s “Poetry Is” has become a mantra. The rare Anglophone African literary mind in my generation, who overcomes characteristic Anglophonic provincialism and bothers about what is available in translation from the Francophone side of the literary divide, may readily identify “Naked woman, black woman” and “Africa, my Africa” as lines from Léopold Sédar Senghor’s “Black Woman” and David Diop’s “Africa” respectively but may be completely ignorant of the title of the respective collections in which the poems feature. Lusophone poets like Agostinho Neto are hardly known beyond their anthem-poems in the rest of the continent.
Consequently, what Africa’s anthem-poems lack is the rigorous and sustained analyse de texte atmosphere in which their Western counterparts thrive. The criticism of African poetry in the academy – and informed discussions of it outside of the academy – is seemingly entrapped in a panoramic ontology. A Brodsky may devote entire essays to a single anthem-poem by an author, a Jean-Paul Sartre, an André Breton or a Guillaume Appollinaire may offer penetrating dissertations on a single poem in such prestigious sites as Les Temps Modernes or L’Esprit, it is difficult to imagine an eminent African intellectual who would propose a sustained reading of Odia Ofeimun’s beautiful poem, “Giagbone”, to the editors of Research in African Literatures. At their most generous, blind peer reviewers would advise such an intrepid critic to “add more materials from the poet and resubmit for consideration”. In Africa, we either read an oeuvre or at least a collection, parsing and citing poems randomly and chaotically along the line. If one forgives its needlessly abstruse, unsuccessful, and insipid Lacanian/Freudian theoreticism, Obiwu’s recent reading of Chinua Achebe’s poetry is timely. But even that exercise offers a great deal of panoramic glossing of Achebe’s poems. Domestic newspaper reviewers of poetry in Nigeria – Uduma Kalu, Toni Kan, Layiwola Adeniji, Nduka Otiono, Chux Ohai, Maxim Uzoatu, and Mike Jimoh are especially guilty of this panoramic methodology – I have never encountered a sustained reading of a single poem in their pages: they review only collections. Thus, a pantheon of anthem-poems lies fallow, awaiting a Brodsky-like critical engagement. Third generation anthem-poems like Olu Oguibe’s “I am Bound to this Land by Blood”, Ogaga Ifowodo’s “Homeland”, Amatoristero Ede’s “Not in Love” and “Globetrotter”, Nduka Otiono’s “Rhapsody of a Lunatic”, Lola Shoneyin’s “Song of the River Bird” and Chiedu Ezeanah’s “Endsong” cycle are loud victims of the lack of a viable critical tradition on anthem-poems.
One anthem-poem that recommends itself as a compulsory point of departure for any modest attempt at overcoming this limitation is Esiaba Irobi’s “The Battle of Harlem”. Any poetic evocation of Harlem deserves more than a passing glance because of the imbrication of that time-space in the motif of early 20th century Black artistic, cultural, political, and ideological internationalism. The praxes of this internationalism included the various Pan-Africanist congresses, the Black Paris of Surrealism, Négritude, and Présence Africaine, and the Congresses of Black Writers and Artists in Paris and Rome. Although Brent Hayes Edwards’s fine book, The Practice of Diaspora, focuses mainly on Black Paris, the attention he pays to Harlem as the inflatus of Black Internationalism further underscores the significance and topicality of Irobi’s poetic intervention. The very nature of Harlem as a lieu de mémoire (site of memory) - to borrow Pierre Nora’s felicitous expression, makes it impossible to read “The Battle of Harlem” as an isolated text. Irobi himself makes this clear by successfully weaving into the poem a self-conscious armada of Black intertexts and cultural-historical figures: Houston Baker, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Ben Okri’s Stars of the New Curfew.
However, it is in two intertexts of the Francophonic Harlemite tradition that one finds the beginnings of the historical tensions and contradictions which reach an unnerving bathos in Irobi’s “The Battle of Harlem”. Négritude’s debt to the Harlem Renaissance is common knowledge. Most Négritude poets made the inescapable trans-Atlantic voyage and Harlem became a veritable Muse for poetry written in the tongue of Molière. Senghor’s “New York” and the Haitian, Jean Brierre’s “I’ve Come Back, Harlem” are easily the best in this tradition. Written in a free flowing verse reminiscent of Aimé Césaire’s style in the Notebook of a Return to the Nativeland, Brierre’s poem is an historical canvass in which an ostensibly Haitian poet-persona addresses an African American brother, taking him down memory lane to the Middle Passage, the arrival in the Americas, the parting of ways and, most painfully, the tragedy of Babel:
We have unlearned our African dialect,
You sing in English of my dream and my pain
My ancient sorrows dance to the rhythm of your blues
And I tell of your anguish in the language of France.
But the Haitian got his freedom before the Harlemite: “centuries, in time, have changed their numbers/San Domingo, breaking the chains, the leather bands”. This new-found freedom transports the Haitian to Harlem: to see his old brother and renew the fraternity that fell apart at the time of separation:
I’ve come back, Harlem. This flag is yours,
For the pact of pride, of glory and of suffering
Was contracted for yesterday and for tomorrow:
Today I ripped apart the shrouds of silence.
Harlem as a site of psychological succour and security is also central to Senghor’s “New York”. More than Brierre, it is in Senghor’s poem that we begin to catch a whiff of what is to come in Irobi’s offering several decades later: the presence of cold, dehumanized, materialist capitalism. In line with the standard Négritude procedure of constructing Manichean binaries between white and black, the roaming poet-persona in “New York” first encounters the white, cruel capitalist streets of Manhattan where he sees only:
Skyscrapers whose steely muscle and bronzed stony skin challenge cyclones…
No blossoming child’s laughter, his hand in my cool one
No maternal breast, nyloned legs…
No tender word in the absence of lips, nothing but artificial hearts paid for at high prices
And then, the poet goes home to Harlem in the familiar retour aux sources (return to source) pattern of Négritude philosophy:
I have seen in Harlem, humming with sounds, ceremonious colors and flamboyant scents…
Harlem! Harlem! This is what I’ve seen – Harlem! Harlem!
A green breeze of wheat springing from pavements plowed by barefoot
dancers waving silken rumps and spearhead breast, ballets of
waterlilies and fabulous masks.
In line with Négritude essentialism of the Black African Ur-text, Senghor almost begins to see the millet fields and the masks of his native Joal in Harlem! Suffice it to say that the victory which transforms Harlem to a site of respite, Black pride, and communion for Senghor and Brierre is pyrrhic: the cold capitalism of primitive accumulation, which Senghor naively separates from Harlem and confines to Manhattan in order to operate his formulaic binary, reappears with a vengeance by the time Irobi enters the scene…
If one was tempted to consider the idea of battle as a metaphorical rendering in “The Battle of Harlem”, Irobi punctures that illusion with an opening stanza that immediately deploys history at the service of art:
I am standing here on top of Mount Morris Park
Like the captain of a defeated army, watching
My people, black people, people of African descent,
Losing the battle of Harlem, watching them
Evacuated one by one, like wounded, bleeding
Soldiers, bleeding in limb and mouth and memory,
Like that stubborn couple in that great eviction scene
In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the great masterpiece
Of our history, the history of the invisibles of the USA
Some familiarity with the history of Harlem is necessary to grasp the dynamics at work here. The place now referred to as Mount Morris Park was indeed a real battleground, first between Dutch colonists who established the town of “Nieuw Haarlem”, and the Native Americans they swept away. Then, during the American War of Independence, the place’s strategic location close to the Harlem River occasioned skirmishes between the Patriots and the British. In essence the poet-persona’s location at the opening of the poem was already a real battle ground of European greed during the conquest and “pacification” of the Americas. This historical battle provides the background to the contemporary battle which Irobi records: the unleashing of the primitive accumulation instincts of global monopolist capitalism whose arrowhead is Senghor’s Manhattan!
Irobi’s theme, therefore, is sufficiently familiar. For the battle of Harlem is also the battle of Maroko in Irobi’s homeland; it was the battle of Sophiatown in South Africa and still is the battle of Johannesburg; it is the battle of Mumbai; it is the battle of history, culture, and memory against profit. Anytime a rundown, disinherited neighbourhood demonstrates the potential to become “chic”, like the Che Guevara of Ogaga Ifowodo’s poem, “You are Chic Now, Che”, primitive accumulation must set in, clear what French Interior Minister, Nicholas Sarkozy has called “la racaille” (scum), in order to make the place investor-friendly. But that is as far as Irobi’s romance with the familiar goes. In his preface to the 1947 edition of Césaire’s Notebook, André Breton holds that the hallmark of truly great poetry lies in its ability to take the familiar and divest it of every trace of its familiarity: the much-vaunted defamiliarization of postmodernist critique. Irobi achieves this not necessarily with his stimulating grasp of the historical material he treats but with the power of his imagery, the seductive concatenation of effects on the senses – visual and aural – as well as the lyricism that powers his imagination. These qualities come out in the second stanza where the violence of eviction builds up and meshes with the image of the huge metal ball used for demolition. The violence itself is attenuated by the half-serious, half-bitter, a little self-mocking tone of the narrating voice. Nevertheless, the poem does not lose sight or the possible consequences of the victory of capitalism in Harlem:
Every living trace of us, our black faces and asses,
Our smell and color will be erased and painted over
With white emulsion paint and efficient roller brushes.
We will watch entire neighbourhoods crushed
To dust, and with the crash of each building, come
Crumbling into dust, every scrap of the memory
Of our grandparents, parents, our childhoods, schools,
Parks, benches, corners, cornershops, nightclubs,
How we grew up, the lives that we lived here in Harlem
The music we made, the paintings, the poetry, the dances.
Irobi’s acknowledgement of the role of race in the story of Harlem invites the inevitable backcloth of the Ellison intertext. But Irobi is too cosmopolitan a poet, too comfortably ensconced in the overlapping strands of postmodern identity narratives to be satisfied with the loss of race and memory as the only consequence of the defeat of the Black soul in the battle of Harlem. Other layers of exclusion are grafted onto the persona of the poem’s addressee and dedicatee: John-Martin Green:
So, John-Martin Green,
you may have to move again,
Irobi displays his sophisticated grasp of the double entendre technique with the narrativization of John-Martin Green. The name and the personality signify at multiple levels. The tragedy of John–Martin Green does not devolve singularly from the clearing operations of the army of Donald Trump. It does not devolve solely from the erasure of such symbologies of black history and socialization as “the ring shout”, “cotton balls”, and the “barber’s shop”. The “white sharks” moving in on this potential “Black sushi” are, in the officially sanctioned narratives of their identity, crusading, evangelical, Christian fundamentalists whose capitalism is powered by soporific invocations of heterosexual family values, “our way of life” in US-speak. Trouble is that the real life John-Martin Green is one of the leaders of the New York Black Men’s Xchange, an Afrocentric, activist, Black gay men’s group, who reject the label “queer” as an imposition of white, hegemonic gay discourse and prefer the designation SGL – Same Gender Loving. In essence, when the capitalists invade Harlem with their heterosexual Christianity, John-Martin Green’s marginalised sexuality – disguised by the poem’s double entendre - will also have to move along with his history, race, and culture.
“The Battle of Harlem” is, in my opinion, a major event in the context of Black countermodernist textualities. An event whose status as “dissident epistemology” (Benita Parry) derives from its deconstruction of the dominant American narrative of History cannot escape the bogey of American identity mythmaking: patriotism. Irobi puts irony and sarcasm to judicious use in his exploration of the instrumentalization of American minorities by the master narrative of patriotism:
This is your lot, John
Martin Green, you who loved
A successful combination of climax and dénouement in the same stanza is not a frequent occurrence and this is further testimony to Irobi’s craft. In this powerful moment of the resolution of poetic tension, John-Martin Green, Houston Baker, and the poet-persona are interpellated into the ironic space of patriotism from where they contemplate their defeat and the tragedy of their history. The image of “bald eagles” and “talons” is especially apposite in delivering the potential coup de grace and is reminiscent of David Diop’s deployment of similar imagery of “vultures” and “talons” in his poem, “The Vultures”. However, unlike the situation in Diop’s poem where the captured Africans were so completely routed by “foreigners who did not seem human”, Irobi enters a crucial caveat which denies the invaders of Harlem the last word: total defeat will happen only “if we are willing”.
Apart from the occasional lapse into prosaic literalness in stanzas two and four, which takes nothing away from the overall accomplishment of the poem, some comments on how this complex poem further rejects familiarity by problematizing questions of identity and nation-ness are in order. The speaking “I” in the poem resists any simplistic classification as it constantly defies a stable frame of reference. Its constant oscillation between adjectives and pronouns of self-inclusion and distantiation in relation to the “souls of black folk” imposes a weighty double consciousness on the poem. But this is not W.E.B Du Bois’s double consciousness. Irobi’s problem – if the dilemma of the poet-persona is anything to go by – is not how to be negro and American at the same time but how to be a Nigerian/Biafran speaking as “us”, “we”, and “our” within the signifying range of the African American narrative. For instance, the “I” who places itself symbolically and proprietorally “on top of Mount Morris Park”, appropriates Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and talks about OUR (my emphasis) history in the first stanza runs into trouble in stanza six with the plunge into the history of the American south. At this point, the history of John-Martin Green becomes difficult for a non-African American to articulate; hence the “I” distances itself and begins to speak of “your ancestors”. The problem is easily identifiable: an African may appropriate Invisible Man and its textual ideology; it is much more difficult to appropriate the experience of the “cotton balls” of South Carolina and the barber’s shop as a site of socialization. The monkey and the gorilla may claim oneness, goes the African proverb, but monkey is monkey and gorilla, gorilla. But Irobi already anticipates this problem; hence the poet-persona’s self-fashioning as a “migrant heart” trained by Houston Baker. In essence, Irobi resolves the problem of double consciousness here through what one may call the phatic communion of ideology – an expressed subscription to the ideology of a shared history, shared experiences, shared emotions. The phatic communion of ideology is what enabled Frantz Fanon to speak as “nous, Algériens” (We, Algerians) even before renouncing his French citizenship. It is the same ideology that resolves the tensions of bifurcated subjectivity in Esiaba Irobi’s masterpiece.
 See Pius Adesanmi, “Nigeria’s Third Generation Poetry, Canonization, and the North American Academy: Random Reflections.” Sentinel Poetry Quarterly 3 (January 2005): 43-50.
 See his robust essay, “Explorations in Animist Materialism: Notes on Reading/Writing African Literature, Culture, and Society.” Public Culture 15.2 (2003): 261-285.
 See Obiwu, “Achebe’s Poetic Drive”. Sentinel Poetry Quarterly 5 (September 2005): 23-48. I have argued in the past with Obiwu over the usefulness or otherwise of Lacan (and also Freud and Jung) in the context of African(ist) hermeneutic practices. I remain persuaded that his Lacanian hallucination on Achebe – sometimes we hear of Lacanian readings of Igbo facial marks! - is an expensive, Euromodernist distraction. Before Obiwu, Sunday Anozie charted two divergent critical trajectories in African literatures. One part of his career was spent on meretricious structuralist readings of the African text; the other part, unfortunately inaccessible to Anglophone readers, was the sociological critical dimension he adopted in his Sociologie du roman africain. While his sociological paradigm worked, his structuralism is, at best, an ossified museum piece. Obiwu’s misguided Lacanianism is, fortunately, traveling in the direction of this museum.
 In the context of the recent riots in France.
Brodsky, Joseph. Less Than One: Selected Essays. New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1986.
Césaire, Aimé. Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Middletown, Conn.:
Wesleyan University Press, 2001.
Edwards, Brent Hayes. The Practice of Diaspora. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York : Random House, 2002
Ifowodo, Ogaga. Homeland and Other Poems. Ibadan: Kraft Books, 1998.
-------------------. Madiba. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2003.
Irobi, Esiaba. “The Battle of Harlem”. http://www.nnoromazuonye.com/irobi_files/page0004.htm**
Kankara, Victoria Sylvia. Hymns and Hymens. Yenagoa: Treasure Books, 2005.
Okri, Ben. Stars of the New Curfew. London: Secker & Warburg, 1988.
Oguibe, Olu: A Gathering Fear. Bayreuth: Boomerang Press, 1992.
Otiono, Nduka. Voices from the Rainbow. Lagos: Oracle Books, 1997.
Shoneyin, Lola. Song of a Riverbird. Ibadan: Ovalonion House, 2002.
Soyinka, Wole. Idanre and Other Poems. New York: Hill & Wang, 1968.
* The listed anthem-poems by Wole Soyinka, David Rubadiri, Abioseh Nicol, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and David Diop can be found in various anthologies especially Donatus Nwoga’s West African Verse (London: Longmans, 1967), Wole Soyinka’s Poems of Black Africa (London: Secker and Warburg, 1975), and Clive Wake’s and John Reed’s New Book of African Verse (London: Heinemann, 1984).
**The webpage is now defunct. A new link to The Battle of Harlem will be placed here before the 10th of April 2007
***This essay was first published in Sentinel Poetry Quarterly #6, December 2005