When a poem is beautifully crafted, images bop up and resonate, lines dance on the page, metaphors grip the reader and one is taken on a voyage of discovery. That was my experience while reading Ogaga Ifowodo’s latest collection of poems, entitled A Good Mourning. A reader’s delight, the 26 poems in the 78 page collection, divided into four parts, could be aptly described as jewels in a box of jewelries. The book has a magical feel; it grips you from start to finish, that you find it difficult to drop. And it is this entrancing quality, this familiar strangeness, the authenticity of the voice and the resonance that dot every line, are the stuff great and enduring poetry is made of.
First, the title of the book itself, A Good Mourning, a play on words that is both ironic and captivating, gives you a hint of, as Roland Barthes would say, the pleasures of the text. Of course, irony has become a part of our daily lives, and it is Ifowodo’s ability to remind us of its subtle presence, and how we are affected by it unconsciously, his ability to sing about the collective experience of the people, that endears the book to the reader. The poems in the collection are at once, personal, political, historical, traditional and experimental, and the poet’s experimentation with multiplicity of voices in poems such as “A Good Mourning” (the title poem), “Where Is The Earth’s Most Infamous Plot”, “Liberation Camp”, and “A Rwandan Testimony” gives the book a postcolonial and postmodernist feel.
Though poems such as “History Lesson”, “Perfect Vision”, “Ten Hours”, “One Plus One”, “Rather Than Burn” etc could be described as personal in the sense that they deal with the poet’s individual experiences and his views on certain issues, they also have a tinge of the communal and social. In “History Lesson”, which is the first poem in the collection, the poet, for instance, tries to link history with the personal. Here you see the poet’s sense of wonderment on first sighting River Ethiope in Sapele, “whose waters were the darkest” he had seen, and his sense of history as he links the river, because of its name, with Ethiopia’s rich past, its victory over Italy. The subtle way the poet linked the two is ingenuous enough. The reader can also see the play of words here, between Ethiope and Ethiopia. “… And obvious/to what local lore had to say,/traced my river’s source to Ethiopia’s high ground”, the poet affirms.
In political poems such as “Sixty Lines By The Lagoon” (for Odia Ofeimun at 60), “The Frightened Tree” (for Bola Ige), “To Name A Hero” (for Festus Iyayi), “A Good Mourning” (for M.K.O Abiola), “Where Is The Earth’s Most Famous Plot?” (Upon visiting Auschwitz Birkenau), “Freetown” (for David Ayaele), “Liberation Camp, From Goma To Gwoza”, “A Rwandan Testimony” and “Robert Mugabe”, etc., one sees the poet putting his activism and his commitment to the struggle for a better life for the people to the fore as he evokes the lives of activists who have either made so much sacrifice for the people or met tragic ends in their bids to do so. We are all too familiar with M.K.O Abiola, to whom “A Good Mourning”, the title poem is dedicated, his election victory in Nigeria as well as his mysterious and tragic death in the hands of the military. In this poem, the poet goes down memory lane to evoke that good morning on 12 June, 1993, when Nigerians, full of hope, trooped out en masse to vote for Abiola. To their consternation, not only was the election annulled by the then Ibrahim Babaginda military regime, Abiola, the acclaimed winner of the presidential election, later paid the supreme sacrifice for the struggle to reclaim his mandate, while incarcerated. The good morning later regrettably turned to ‘A Good Mourning’. What an irony! The shock, trauma that the experiences, as well as the memory, evoke is the theme of this lyrical and incantatory poem. “Had he kept to gathering/firewood, scouring the forests for dead branches/… he might be alive today”, the poet laments. In another instance, he says, A good morning it was: “homes/emptied into the streets/to break a spell, cut/the soldiers’ strings that played/for eight years the maddening/music of their nightmares. But has much changed since then? No, the poet laments:
Their dreams are still as dark
as the night of their haunted sleep
Their dreams are still as bright
as the dazzle of a melting sun.
In the “Frightened Tree”, the poem Ifowodo dedicates to Bola Ige, he recounts, “Death strolled into your bedroom like a bosom friend/for whose coming and going you had the doors ajar,/Death borne by the the steady hands of paid hoodlums/felt well enough at home to need just one bullet”.
A Good Mourning could be summed up as the poet’s labyrinthine journey through life as an activist, from childhood to adulthood, as he tries to come to terms with his personal and socio-political experiences, as well as the collective memory and trauma of the people.
Reading those political poems, one is tempted to invoke Thomas Carlyle’s popular view that history is in real sense the story of great men. But Ifowodo goes beyond that to say that history, whatever it is, is the story of men and women, whether great or small, and that people matter. This is seen in the lyrical way he vividly sings about and laments the collective memory and trauma of the people: the Rwandan genocide, the concentration camp in Auschwitz, the Child Soldier in the Congo, the bestiality of the war in Sierra Leone. Lines such as, “He slapped me, put a gun/in my hand and loaded/it with words hotter than bullets;/“Hungry enough to kill your father?”/“He’s dead,” I said,/Good. Mad enough/to make the world hear you?”. And, “I murdered my childhood/friend and her two children …I/led the mob to her her house three/doors from mine”, tell the story of a traumatised people blighted by war.
The book is not only about politics and big stories, it is also about little but equally important things such as nature, the poet’s vision, a surgery he undergoes for appendicitis, a wedding ceremony, marriage, joys of parenthood, and the experience of playing the role of a child’s godfather; a drowning man, forest fires, the poet’s fascination with the way Man and nature are connected. In A Good Mourning, one sees a work that is not contrived but one done by a poet genuinely committed to his craft. One sees the poet’s deep yearning to effect change in society and his pain and angst at philistinism, bad governance, cant and hypocrisy. Ifowodo is a wordsmith, who knows the value of words, lines and metaphors. To him, every word and line matters; what he says, how he says it and what it achieves in society; and not just a jumble that makes no meaning.
What strikes the reader is the lyricism of the lines; lines that sing and dance on the pages and the poet’s strong use of metaphors that dot every poem in the collection, rendered strikingly, as in “Death strolled into your bedroom”; “For the first time history did not hurt”; “the oceans dance in applause”; “The Mazda scorned my prayer”; “the trees trill with a song, a brook murmurs down the hill”, etc.
A Good Mourning could be summed up as the poet’s labyrinthine journey through life as an activist, from childhood to adulthood, as he tries to come to terms with his personal and socio-political experiences, as well as the collective memory and trauma of the people. As an activist and writer, Ifowodo feels at home in the company of literary icons such as Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and Christopher Okigbo, writers who did not just write but showed strong commitments to literature and politics.
The book in no small measure succeeds in falling in line with C. Wright’s Mills concept of the sociological imagination. According to Mills, thisis “the awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society”. In this collection, the poet is telling us that his life is a result of historical processes and occurs within a larger social context. The collection is, indeed, unputdownable in all its lyrical and artistic grace. I highly recommend it to the reader.
Nehru Odeh, a journalist, is a writer in residence at Ebedi International Writers Residency, Iseyin, Oyo State.