Afam Akeh “I Returm To Okigbo” continued from previous page

 

 

I think that when some Nigerians see the cow they think of pepper-soup rather than milk. I confess that I had that pepper-soup mentality towards Labyrinths in my first week. I consumed the poems greedily, no thoughts for the future. No word was left unchewed. Even a cover quote “The versions here … are final” became pure poetry for me. That simple excuse by which Okigbo had sought to placate critics who playfully scolded him for serially revising even his published poems became for me a mantra of inimitable excellence. I kept repeating it to myself. The versions here are final! The versions here are final! How exquisite, I thought. How so like Okigbo to come up with the precise and desired words.

 

       Even now it is easy to see why Labyrinths had such a hold on me and is still much fancied by many aspiring Nigerian poets who encounter it in their youth. It is a book of poems with unusually gripping lines. In the biographical notes to their Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry [1998], the editors Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier observe: “Okigbo’s fastidiousness as a poet and the urgency of his lyrical voice have exercised a great – perhaps too great an – influence on some younger Nigerian poets, who find it difficult to escape from his shadow.” Well, it isn’t progress to spend a lifetime imitating Okigbo but who can blame a young African poet for falling for such physically engaging, almost tangible lines like these I have randomly selected from the pithy poems of Labyrinths:

 

       And the horn may now paw the air howling goodbye …

      The smell of blood already floats in the lavender-mist of the afternoon …

      Silences are melodies / Heard in retrospect …

 

 Or these lines in which Okigbo the consummate artist playfully winks at his reader:

 

       If I don’t learn to shut up my mouth I’ll soon go to hell,

       I, Okigbo, town-crier, together with my iron bell.

 

 Or, finally, these, with the poet prophetic and painfully concluded:

 

       An old star departs, leaves us here on the shore

       Gazing heavenward for a new star approaching;

       The new star appears, foreshadows its going

       Before a going and coming that goes on forever

 

Like Wilfred Owen, the poster poet of the British sense of loss at the First World War, Christopher Okigbo would also die young, at the flowering of his creative abilities and career possibilities – killed in combat early in the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-1970. The nature of his sacrificial death may account for some of the nostalgic and emotive responses to his poetry and person. But, even more than the negritude movement’s Leopold Senghor, Okigbo has been the most influential African poet, providing inspiration for generations of African poets and other writers, including his peers.

   

     As noted by Moore and Beier, he continues to have a cult following in his native Nigeria. There have been prizes named after him. Literary events, groups and publications have been established in his memory. But Okigbo’s influence goes beyond Nigeria. His voice echoes as a presiding spirit in Tides of Time (1996), the selected poems of Kenyan poet, Jared Angira. From his UK base, the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson would offer respectful reference to Okigbo in ‘If I Woz A Tap Natch Poet’, a poetic manifesto included in his collection My Revalueshanary Fren: Selected Poems (Penguin, 2002). There are also memorable lines for Okigbo in the Collected Poems of Chinua Achebe (Anchor Books, 2004), in the poem ‘A Wake for Okigbo’.  The scholar Ali Mazrui’s imaginative work, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, was an early instigator of a dialogue, which has continued, about what to make of Okigbo’s decision to fight in the Nigerian Civil War. Is the writer who takes up arms lost to art? Is it a case of betrayal? Which is the greater cause – art or one’s people? Is that level of political commitment not a waste of the writer’s creative talent or genius? And does that kind of intervention really make a difference, resulting in lasting change?

 

 

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SENTINEL POETRY (ONLINE) #42

The International Journal of Poetry & Graphics...since 2002

MAY 2006  ISSN 1479-425X    Editor: Amatoritsero Ede

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