Title: She is Eternal and Other Poems.
ISBN: 978-978-980-926-4 (Nigeria); 978-1-938598-43-2 (USA).
Reviewer: Anaele Ihuoma
Publishers: Goldline and Jacobs Publishing Glassboro; Bluesland Communications, Abuja
A POET AND HIS CONSCIOUSNESS:
Love, Praise, and Human Struggles in Dr. Ugorji’s She is Eternal and other poems.
In a radical rearrangement of the order of things, men bear the womb and women fertilize it. Like the one with which a woman is endowed, this womb of poetic life would be vacant without the unlocking energy of surging redemptive human action, a germinal wake-up seed, the let-there-be-light enchantment of virtuous life. This is the scenario playing out in She is Eternal and other poems by Ugorji O. Ugorji. Here, the womb is the poet; the seed is provided by the poet’s wife, the totality of whose actions – or a string thereof – provided the seed for the poet’s eruption into life.
Set out in three segments of ten poems each, She is Eternal and other poems is a song of love and cultural identity or what the author might refer to as the consciousness of ‘Afrocentricity.’ Jamike poems traverse personal and filial experiences in the journey of being and becoming. Samples includes ‘Laurette of the savannah,’ dedicated to Ibrahim Gambari, and ‘Warrior scholar,’ addressed to Professor Molefi Asante. Anya Poems makes good its titular promise – it dilates on love and affection in its multiplicity of essences, our personal joyous slides and swings in its see-saw ambience and our entanglements in its delicate web. It contains some compellingly poignant pieces, including ‘The Gift of You,’ a birthday present to the very muse that inspired the entire collection – his wife, whose name ‘Ihuaku’ he pronounces – we would presume – like Leopold Senghor his Naett. In the poems addressed to his lover, the persona pours out his love testimony, first through the slow lane ‘A Slow Dance,’ through the mystery arena of ‘New Yam’, until he becomes ‘transformed in (her) regal presence’ (A Gift of You’), writing his love song to her (I’m Gonna Tell my Homeys about You’).
Amadi Poems delve into human struggles. Embedded in this segment are poems that are sure to court controversy (‘Come, Brother, Come’). Dubbed Poems of Consciousness and Struggles, poems in this category are the most contemporary in terms of their thematic preoccupations. From dilations on the circle of life in ‘The Elders,’ through a plea for unity and brotherhood in ‘Come Brother Come,’ the poems speak to contemporary political, socio-cultural and psycho-social issues. It declares in one memorable pair of lines: ‘We’ve seen enough of the marketed women, /Usher in the market women instead.’ The segment also contains the eponymous poem ‘She is Eternal.’
The likes of Wole Soyinka (Idanre and other Poems) and, more so, Niyi Osundare (The Eye of the Earth, among others), accomplished practitioners of this art, are both famed for their emersion in the linguistic cosmology of their native lands. Ugorji’s more sublime lines is a direct gift from his ‘ala’ to whom the poet had paid fulsome homage elsewhere:
I know what the ancestors know
That the heart is a coward
The head, a calculating fool
and the soul, a troubadour philosopher.
But only in the eyes resides love.
A hurum gi na anya ( I see you in my eyes)
This transliteration of the Igbo expression I-love-you directly subverts the notion that love is in the heart, that love is blind. Ugorji instructs us that in the Igbo linguistic cosmology, love is alive and wide awake.
Sample poems from Anya Poems include: ‘Your Love,’ a celebration of belated triumph, a consolation for the persona after he had been upended by an oppressor (perhaps an acquaintance named Frank). ‘The Gift of You’ advances the same love theme. It shows the remaking of the persona into a humbled spirit.
She is Eternal and Other Poems is replete with puzzles and the persona’s allusions to localized, private and parochial subtexts. An instance of this is the reference to ‘free souls,’ ‘Marriott encounters,’ and ‘sweet moans’ in ‘I See You in My Eyes’…..Set out in sextets, the poem laments ‘late night chats,/that end with the penury of goodbyes’(p.19 Section 2).
Many writers and intellectuals atrophy into a cultural amnesia after residing in other climes. Not so Ugorji. While early African poets of the first and second generation, such as JP Clark, Soyinka, Okigbo, Echeruo and many others made a ‘virtue’ of showing off their intimacy with western cultural idioms and readily drew their motifs and references from Greek and Roman history and mythology, subsequent generations of writers (Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Obari Gomba, Jumoke Verissimo, among others) have tended to adopt a back-to-root cultural reflex, drawing instead from Africa’s dense ancestral pantheon and its vast supporting appendages. More radically-oriented poets (Ogaga Ifowodo, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu) have tended to dispense with the gods and their appendages, whether local or foreign, and draw instead, from contemporary experience. Ugorji is somewhere in the latter mix. In ‘Progeny’ the persona tells his heartthrob
“Daughter of our land/my chi has long said ’Yes’
So when next I dance my Abigbo at Eke-Ukwu
Ask me not about Cupid or Valentine
Rejoice with me instead in the wisdom of Chukwu.
Similarly, in ‘New Yam’ the poet invests the new yam with spiritual and almost human qualities; it assumes a symbolic ritual essence, amid strong sexual undertones, as the festival yam is consumed between the persona /celebrant and the woman who is wearing ‘absolutely nothing but cocoa butter lotion.’
A sample piece from Amadi Poems includes the eponymous poem, in which the poet celebrates women ‘steeped in divinity,’ yielding life like the earth itself. It begins with an exploration of female sensuality: ‘her swaggering hips announce the confluence of the great rivers.’ Then the woman, now a dance partner of thunder, engages in a symbolic symbiotic rendez-vous with the elements:
‘When she smiles, / the sun sends rays to nurture.
When she cries,/ the sky sends rains to nourish
When she frowns,/ the clouds converge to warn
In a third strophe, the woman transforms into a multiplicity of historical and legendary personages. In one breath she is Queen Amina of Zaria on horseback; in another she is a combination of the unnamed Aba Women’s Revolt leaders, and the fiery anti-imperialist emancipationist, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Under the poet’s deft hands, she morphs into a force in league with history and becomes truly eternal – she is Cleopatra-Winnie Mandela-Chris Anyanwu-Chioma Ajunwa-Toni Morison-Maryam Babangida-Dora Akunili-Stella Adadevo-Oprah Winfrey-Foloruso Alakija, etc, etc……This may not be female life as we had seen it depicted, but it is life all the same, one with a legitimate right to the universe of poesy.
In ‘I See You in my Eyes’ we see entreaties to a paramour. The poet, on his pilgrimage to his lover, pushes his case by a mix of craftiness and chivalry.
Rather than being silent on his lover’s past, he catalogues them and relishes in them. Written in five quintet stanzas in ab, ab, c rhyming pattern, ‘I’m Gonna Tell My Homeys About You’ continues the love theme of the other poems, but in a rather breezy form that betrays a certain exile tradition. Yet, the underlying message still affirms Ugorji’s deep connections with the ancestral land.
‘Come, Brother, Come’ comes with a passionate appeal:
…’Eschew your dreams of separatism
Seek with me co-squatting rights in this space.
Nurture the seeds you have skilfully planted in all corners
And jealously guard the mission Zik had bestowed.
Let’s reject the dance of the ethnic warrior.
Granted that some of the entities exerting a centrifugal force against Nigeria might be going about it in a rather reckless, quite unhelpful manner, the question must still be asked: in the Nigerian scenario about which Ugorji writes, is love the underlying factor in the ‘forced’ marriages? But the more sobre minded may flow easily with the poet, and see his call as the imperative of the times. If American soil, once derided by the pacifist ML King as a place of ‘whithering injustice’ can sprout a president from among hewers of wood and drawers of water (Obama), then perhaps all hope is not lost for Nigeria.
Thematically, She is Eternal and other poems’ message remains poignant, insistent in its relentless demand for a harmonious coexistence, a decorous human summit, a cross-cultural detente.
Ugorji does not totemise or even idolize symbolisms of cultural identity. Rather, Ugorji’s poem affirm an immersion in the cultural nous of his people as can be instanced by his description of the new yam festival before and after his acolyte had ‘set down the bowl of palm oil.’
There is an attraction that appears to draw this poet to Nsibidi, the ancient ideographic writing system that was evolving among the Igbo and their neighbours in pre-colonial West Africa until its evolution was cut short by colonial intervention. It would have been more helpful, given the overall cultural context of the collection, if the nsibidi illustrations that suffuse the inner pages and also adorn the covers had somehow provided some insight into its understanding, rather than merely serve as cultural artefacts that fill the admirer with nostalgia and awe.
Ugorji does not wear the garb of authenticity; he breathes and breeds it. His work has shown a cultural resplendence, with a nerve centre deep in the African soil.