The Poetry of Emman Usman Shehu
Continued from previous page
Enter the Vampire is a pompous denunciation of the trial and death by firing squad of the soldier-poet Mamman Vatsa for attempting to unseat the regime of General Ibrahim Badamosi Babagida in a coup d'etat.
in our country
no one reads between the lines
no one asks questions
to unravel contradictions.
No one, it would seem, but Shehu alone who assails the vampire or "leader-lord" in six passages of venomous, nearly suicidal criticism, given the touchy egos of military regimes.
This angry, condescending manner is a dominant attitude even as he crafts incisive positions on the national question in Flipsides: "some get epaulets / some get bullets / all in one month / all in one nation."
In all, there are mood swings when theme gives way to form. Yet at times, his whim surrenders to the theme and we must ask which comes first, the rhyme, the rhythm or the reason, bearing in mind his avowed desire to try the unusual.
Shehu does demonstrate, as it were, that poetry can be the show horse of elegant communication. But too often in Questions … the message gallops far ahead of the fancy dressage proving it does seem that art for facts sake can be a really hard sell.
It takes the last two entries in the collection to get a hint of the meaning of it all:
who we were
who we are
who we want to be (True History)
This is the pounding insistence for a new manifesto of the muse. Here, is poetry on the frontlines, never behind or between the ink! Seize The Sun, a podium suited call to arms, says it all;
even if they cut our tongues
even if they cut our throats
even if they cut our hearts…
the poor must seize the sun
the peasant must seize the sun
the unemployed must seize the sun
After the love duet and tangles of Open Sesame, there follows a sweet interlude of indifferent themes. They are varied takes on the drama of life. Among these, Fool In A Pool is a parable on rash judgment. Bleeding Scroll celebrates the humiliation of the strong by the weak in the jungles of Vietnam. In Bayswater, there is no bay or water but a neighborhood of cold stares for a tourist. The only welcoming smile is from a destitute -Sally at the edge of the alley - who reminds the poet of "our own forgotten / tribe of the broken."
Five Haikus make general statements about a global village of poignant imageries - with a thematic stream that runs from seasonal lessons to timeless conflicts between sadness and joy, trust and betrayal, history and tragedy.
The political stew begins to boil with The Ploy of Lugard. Whatever this arch colonialist has done, Shehu does not explain. He employs a trick of his own to make us think we know, by listing six dismal effects of that colonial ruse
The ploy of Lugard
has divided us
ridges of suspicion
… sown seeds of distrust
deep down in ethnic hearts
…. left us haggard
like Biafran babies
Shehu does not say this, but there is a sense in which the man whose mistress coined the name, Nigeria, could be blamed for much of the woes he catalogues in Welcome to the Nightmare:
From colonial yoke
to brother's choke
Welcome to where
even if you care
you can not dare
to speak the truth
With uncanny insight, he continues to editorialize on the Nigerian situation in The Other Circus, "The fanfare captures the air / pauperized people stop and stare."
His agenda is not so explicit, but there is no hope in his sermons and much less faith. Sadly, these poems aggregate all the glaring questions in the land, but provide not even one daring answer.
After The Siege - a commentary on the travails of the pro-democracy movement captures the general outlook that welcomed the return to civil democracy in 1999.
Sad Season, written for the poet, Uche Nduka reflects this continuing dejection. It echoes the pessimism of the earlier encounters in Questions… especially the utterly damming Enter the Vampire. "This is a sad season / in a land bereft of reason." Such dark conclusions may have the unintended effect of reinforcing the grounds of frustration which led the likes by Uche Nduka to embrace self-exile from their native land.
Through his social and political discourses, Shehu reads like a willful carver hammering away at chosen blocks of ideological wood. The trouble it seems is that he is just as determined to make significant poetic strokes of this dry medium. Doubtless, he has compelling messages to deliver, but the work is overdone usually, his theses weakened by a laborious intent to milk the last tense point and damning blow out of the argument.
This is a sad reason
neglecting the people's desires
forgetting the people's longings
avoiding the people's yearnings
This is a sad reason
in a land bereft of reason.
Similar concerns regarding a widening discontent find the same tenor of exaggeration in Scenario, Reality Check and Paid Piper, whose "same old song / same old melody / same old rhythm / same old chorus / same old meaning" aptly describe the ultra dark poetic vision of "liberation poetry" in Nigeria. Other words like 'boring' and 'pretentious' may also be applied to this carefully cultivated partisan stance.
By contrasts, The Grass Suffers packs a pungent parable in incisive stanzas that exploit the rippling power of imagery to present a simple truth.
They cheered the sun rising
on podium of pledges
They set fire to the hedges
of familiar reservations
and brambles of despair
Then, as chronicler of the times, he reports….
Now, they huddle in bewilderment
perplexed by the uncertain moment
of unfulfilled dividends
You don't know what the grass suffers
all through the dry and wet seasons
till you run out of reasons
for being at the receiving end
of life's unpleasant attention
In summary, Shehu is less a poet when he mounts the soapbox than when he goes into earnest musings with the inner man. On these poetic hustling he projects a rabid impatience and seeks social change through the heavy artillery of critical verses. The intention is clear: to stir the soul of society to a boil. Yet, he is realistic enough to accept the limited range of these kinds of engagement. "Well, some words are not songs, some songs have no words", he assets in the preface to his earlier collection. "Words and songs can rock and roll from subversion to revelation" he added. I have read this to mean that you need a perfect marriage of the two - words and songs-for good effect. Shehu, for all the reasons stated above, rarely achieves that perfect harmony.
His general attitude borrows from traditional orature but something is lost in transition from voice to verse, which rap music on the outer reaches of the genre helps to retrieve. The repetitive chimes are more effective on stage and poetry, for all the heightened effects of public readings can never be the same as music, can it?
The political poems of Open Sesame are no less poetic for being so overtly political. Rather, even at his lyrical best, Shehu denies himself the subtle strength of distance. Instead, he throws himself fully into the fray. Too often therefore, he conjures very powerful images that seem too dry for his purposes because they lack the double-layered protection of irony. To put it blandly, his most political verses are anything but entertaining. They seem designed to give such pleasure only to masochists. Yet, such is the spell he casts, they dare the reader to plead apathy and stop reading. It is hard not to be caught in the horrific grip of these disturbing pictures.
The title comes from the rallying cry in The Caged Bird's Screech, which seems the delayed angry response to questions asked in Birdsong from Questions... This is the "cry for freedom! / Open sesame! / Open sesame!! / Open sesame!!! / decibels multiplying / decibels mutating / decibels fissioning."
The central ploy is the same: to instruct by repeated emphasis. This fact will bear reiteration too: the prophetic tones of Shehu's strident sermons, the surrealist sketches employed are much weakened by this doctrinal posture. But in Hooks, he argues, as if in anticipation of this indictment: "My word seize / the pages / of your mind / in a reading instant / with no guns / no grenades."
If he could, we might possibly conjecture, Shehu would "Seize the Sun" by seizing his readers first, with "just steel bare / hooks of truth / sinking home…"