WORDS, SONGS AND SPELLS: THE POETRY OF
EMMAN USMAN SHEHU
By Pita Okute
The late eighties in Nigeria witnessed an upsurge of new poetic voices that thrilled away in the fearful night of military despotism, and hacked away at the leash of growing social and economic contradictions with songs of anger, dejection, sorrow, and alienation. It was a bleak period of tentative, perishable hope, and the poetry of the era was as dark as the times.
Questions For Big Brother "Questions…" (Update,1988) - a crop of that heady season, introduced Emman Usman Shehu to a wider audience beyond the Nsukka literary community and patrons of The Anthill; avant-garde artiste's rendezvous in that somnolent university town. He was then a doctoral student of African Literature at the same university. Nearly twenty years afterwards, Open Sesame, his second poetic outing, raises vital questions about poetry in these parts of the world.
Shehu may not be solely representative of the unfolding poetic standard, yet, it is possible to discern from the prism of these two volumes how far and what direction the 'artistic' swing has been.
"Forget that crap that no poem ever stopped a .38…Words and songs can become .38s too with the right spell…"
These audacious words come from Shehu's preface to Questions... It is an assembly of 34 disparate items, many of which are not so unrelated. His boastful assertion is a fitting counterpoise to the political weight of the day, the crackling bark of power through the barrel of the gun. More striking perhaps is the range of insights that may be found in the 84-page slim volumes of poems.
Size is not an issue with Shehu. Lines are measured by meanings; stanzas stretch or shrink not according to content but by a strange whim that is all the more puzzling for its erratic rule. It is hard to quarrel with such license, especially when the effect is so pleasing.
All I have is my heart
beating for you,
again and again and again
day in day out
In these poems he achieves a compact phrasing that drips with a lyrical elegance that is so beautiful for being so simple.
"Writing is also for me an adventure. I am not afraid to try the unusual as long as it works", Shehu also declared in that already cited preface. Clearly it works for him to capture recurring scenes of unrequited love and frustrated yearnings in short sharp strokes of wit and expressive wordplay.
Dramatic statements on the conflict of high ideas and base emotions, dashed expectations, alienation and identification hold us in creative grips. The tension builds up from "A Last Ray to Déjà vu", "Another Brother" and "For Root Jackson" till the mounting anger of the exile suffering racist hostility explodes into the reverse racism of "Black Star Liner":
I ride British rail
trying to mime wail
of silent blue eyes
piercing me like spikes
coaches crowded in coldness
silent blue spike-eyes
After this sweeping call, the emotive embrace of jazz, reggae and afro-beat harmonies welding diaspora to the MOTHERSHIP connection can only sound hollow and forced. The last line is rendered in a vertical form that cannot be repeated here for constraints of space. Begging interpretation, it floats on the page like the weird tail of a whimsical kite.
This is the big entree, in brief, of Shehu's first collection. By comparison, Open Sesame takes off on the wings of romance; a scintillating love story in twenty-six varying poems. It is an epic affair between Goldilocks and Dreadlocks, the poet and his readers. From the first tentative moment when, "Goldilocks straight from uptown / took her chance downtown / and broke the standing rule / in the strange arms of Dreadlocks…" we are locked in a tango with a poetic twist and a new variation to an old dance form. Its creative depths unfold in seductive bits, a strip-tease of the elemental kind from seduction and courtship through marriage
and the tide of bitterness that has crept into their harbour.
Yet, there are no large hints of a racial or ethnic divide; just two hearts beating again and again and again first in harmony then in discord. Somehow, the story is able to run through several turns from that wintry moment when love on the halt gets off the blocks to a springing gallop:
The new guy caught her eye
at another junction
of her turbulent life
Then the red light
Stretching the imagination, Shehu deploys his images in a peculiar parade - a slow march in reverse formation that casts rippling hypnotic shadows across the entire field:
From the pack closest to his heart,
He flicked the ace of purpose. She smiled
a sweet surrender her eyes
dazzling flags of capitulation (Gameplan)
With no hint of duress
Every Delilah brings down
Her Samson to his knees
of awkward distress
and earns a crown (Seductress)
One day she shuts her brimming ears
takes a plunge from the springboard
He makes sacrificial adjustments
…and both hearts make disbursements
one for all, all for one (Concordance)
At first glance, this bright sequence with its game show of interlocking imageries seems like a fluke, a chance event on the darts board of artistic experiments. But the limpid lines of Therapy mirror its theme to some ironic degree; the frustration of a weak erection. It suggests thereby a measure of deliberate effort on the part of the poet. One may argue differently of course …
Nevertheless, Shehu makes a delightful poetic pass on the eternal subject of troubled marriages, infidelity of body and spirit and the inevitable hold of tragedy on life.
At this stage any comparisons of Open Sesame and Questions…must rest on form and less on theme. Even so, the general direction from personal to public concerns is similar in both collections.
The earlier work sets out on its populist journey from Maradun, ode to a settlement and farmlands submerged in the construction marvel of the Bakalori Dam Project.
you have given so much
of your lush soul
in return for so little,
as long as the dam flows
so too our woes
For all his tears though, Shehu offers scant insight to the acute sufferings of peasants disposed of their land and according to one report, "massacred …for daring to complain of compensation for the land and properties lost". His impressionist paint brush takes in the huge cost of the project but ignores the minute travails of the peasant families for whom he appeared to be raising so much hue and cry.
It takes The Needle Digs the Well to explore in some depth, the psycho-social landscape of his native soul and sew up the contradictions with a lyrical nib.
a land where Islam came
hot on heels of centuries old trade
across scorching Sahara desert
and stalk-stuck its sickle
into Bori's savanna broad heart
in a land where Xtianity came
wild on wings of triangular trade
thro' malarial creeks and forest paths
and ploy plunged its cross
into Bori's savanna-broad heart
Moving on, the poet unmasks his private spirit and inner person in Folkland, terse recount of his days at Nsukka: "I carry my rags / in assorted bags / the stitching will come after." We sense the refugee escaping even before he declares, I survived .38s and the cheery banter degenerates to obscure literary references. Strong whiffs of Okigbo pervade this Nsukka story. They are reinforced in "Notes For A Burial and Fennel Out Of A Deluge. In the former, he advocates a peculiar suicide of the inner person. The latter is a memorial to the bard of Ojoto, with all the social and artistic implications.
Slowly, the gears shift and the tempo of his challenge rise through Handsworth Revolution to Jack Out of a Box and Song of My People. In them, we are confronted by poetry-of-the-streets; compositions that demand performance and chanted passages that take their bearing from such black musical traditions as reggae (Third World), soul (James Brown) and afro-beat (Fela).
"Country I see through you", the poet affirms in What the Prisoner Said; yet another indictment of the system, "you bear a fictitious seal… / the mark of Revelation's beast."