I Return to Okigbo
It was one of those tropical noons – the sun up there and all that passed for normal in the world on parade below. But this world, my world, was about to change. Father, a publisher, had returned from a promotional trip. Nothing unusual there. He was often away and just as often returned – a coming and going that was much felt because when he was there he was powerfully there. This time he had returned with a present for me. A book. It was a gift but also a sign I had been waiting to see. For some days before he travelled there had been no communication between us. We were officially in disagreement. In our peculiar domestic arrangement – unspoken but understood – a book gift was welcome evidence that this latest of our father-son conflicts was finally over. That fine noon when he made his book offering, it should have been just another gesture in the long history of signs and symbols by which we frequently renewed our much tested relationship. But the book he offered that day would affect my life and choices in a way he could never have totally planned or approved. The book in his hand that memorable noon was Labyrinths, that singular achievement of the Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo.
I was at the time reading and writing a lot of poetry but not exactly ready for the encounter with Christopher Okigbo and Labyrinths, his posthumous 1971 collection from the Heinemann African Writers Series. It was, perhaps, this fact of my poor preparation that ensured I would be so totally taken by him. I think I died to the life around me when I began to read that book. Many pages later, when I looked up, I was a changed person. I had become acutely aware of the poverty all around me. So I buried myself again in the majesty of those words. Father had primed me for a first literary tryst and I had fallen heavily for the lyricism of Okigbo. I still don’t think there is a poet, living or dead, with a keener sensitivity to tone and rhythm or the lineal representation of experience in its multiple associations and significations. And I have read a few hundred poets from different times and traditions since that first encounter with Okigbo – read them, heard them, seen them, appreciated them all, differently.
I have deliberately described my first encounter with the poetry of Okigbo in religious and romantic terms. This is because I am also interested here in noting some similarities in the redemptive roles of art, faith and romance. Okigbo, or poetry, was a stabilising influence at a highly combustible period of my youth. Poetry was however, the reason I also walked out of a university law programme after three study years determined to win for myself a life in writing. But more on that first encounter with Okigbo. For the first time I was reading poetry without labour, with a pleasure uniquely its own. I had discovered poetry! I was like a blind man with eyes suddenly open, like a child offered the freedom of the land of sweets. I was greedy for light. I was greedy for life. I was bathed in this sudden sweetness of light and life. Now I knew: Poetry was not only to be consumed in solitude and then regurgitated with much rumination … Poetry was the very song of life. And in Okigbo, poetry was markedly African like me. It jigged to its very own unchained melodies. Poetry, I had now discovered, could have feelings, sometimes fart, and rage, and also pray. And it could be a dirge so uplifting it felt like a ballad. Or a hymn. No, poetry was not lawless. But it could also fly. You couldn’t clip its wings with rules. This engaging poetry I was being introduced to was an energetic art. In Okigbo it leapt out of the limitations of its pages - at you.
I had discovered freedom, and what an elating time that first week with the master
was. I was laughing in the bath just thinking of Okigbo’s lines. I took the book everywhere. In those early days I could fire Okigbo at every problem and come through victorious. I must have read or loved Labyrinths fifteen times, cover to cover, in that first week, not counting the stolen glances or kisses. I read every full stop, every semi-colon. I learned to treasure punctuations by reading Okigbo. My encounter with Labyrinths was like the Nigerian way with the cow. Nothing of that precious animal is wasted or considered useless. Not the hide or the horns. Not even the dark, malodorous shit. A cow slaughtered for festive Nigerian cooking will be fully consumed from head to hooves, its innards and rubbery skin not excluded. Yes, the hooves too. They are apparently medicinal, curing everything from the common cold to cancer – according to the authority of those traditional healers who trade in them.
SENTINEL POETRY (ONLINE) #42
The International Journal of Poetry & Graphics...since 2002
MAY 2006 ISSN 1479-425X Editor: Amatoritsero Ede