Poetry is hard to read and to write. I know this because I have read (don’t ask if, and how much I understood) and attempted writing a collection. It must be easy for two-headed folks like Olumide Olaniyan who has published two poetry collections, and if I know Olumide, he must be working on the third. With his Lucidity of Absurdity (Kraftgriots, 2017), Olumide cautiously tested the waters, and seeing no lynch mob, he quickly unleashed his Akimbo in Limbo (Kraftgriots, 2021). Now it is too late to remove him from the roll of the credentialed poets of this republic.
I never studied literature in any school, so I am not the guy to tell you about Olumide’s rhythms, meters or haikus, or the tell-tale signatures of Soyinka, Osundare or e.e. cummings. Yet I think my amateur review is important, particularly for readers like me who approach poetry with untrained eyes. Olumide himself is no poet by training; he studied politics and peace. Whoever taught him poetry must be very proud. It could as well be that it was love (won, or lost) that taught him; after all, “at the touch of love everyone becomes a poet”.
The poems in Akimbo in Limbo are grouped in five sections: Homilies; Brain, Brawn and Brawl; Beneath the Skies; Yearnings; and Vicissitudes. Olumide argues that these groupings are essential to our understanding of the collection. I agree, there are several clear themes in the work, but it is possible to cluster the poems differently.
The influence of politics and political science are present throughout the Akimbo in Limbo, beginning from the cover page where the world is caught mid-rotation and upside down, and time has somersaulted, while a tall lanky gentleman watches the limbo, arms akimbo. Sounds familiar?
The theme of politics continues with a Hobbesian journey in “Of Lord, Word and Sword” where:
Word and sword
Are in the hands of lords
Whose bestiality has erupted
And regressed to the eons
Of clannish killings for survival.
This piece in particular pays tribute to how words shape wars and those who seek control of the means of war must also wrest control of the narrative. This echoes George Orwell’s Animal Farm and of course 1984 – the bible of dissent. In this war of words (reminiscent of H. G. Wells), Olumide is a general, which is why Kraftgriots lists him with the other actual and award winning poets they have published.
Olumide mourns the death of the mother tongue (The Deleteds) then (in Customs) whines about how culture (of which language is a part) ties us down, preventing the revolutionizing of night into day. He may have faced a blackout the night this poem was born. Then in Nightfall he vows
No, we will no longer wait…
We will conquer you with our acumen
And merry on your sepulchre.
Olumide is not a straightforward poet. He frames the tension between culture and modernity (past and present) very nicely, yet takes no definite stand. I suspect though, he leans more towards the past. It is no wonder then, that his poetry found a second voice with the translation into Yoruba begun by Omósaléwá Omiadé Àjoké-Ògún Asínlèkè. But is this effort a fresh translation or perhaps the re-turn of the pieces into the language they were first conceived?
Is a poetry collection complete without death? No way! Olumide dances with death in Corpses Revolt where he warns us to minimize the deaths in the land, because the dead could rise in a grisly revolt. This reflection on death is very important – Nigeria was after all the third most terrorized country on earth, according to the Global Terrorism Index of 2020. Apart from the acknowledged tributes to those already departed, the pungent smell of death, decay and interment are a recurring theme, there is even a poem called the Odour of Death. From My Voice; to One Sojourn of the Moon; to The Deleteds; Gravedigger; Dead Trees; Cemetery; Forest (reminiscent of Macbeth) and many others – something is always dead, dying or being interred.
The journey of mortality is an important theme in Olumide’s poetry. In Dead Leaf he describes this journey as a dead leaf leaving mother tree and journeying with the wind towards its tombstone. We are all somewhere on this trajectory, having left our Mother Tree and are journeying with the wind and the sign above us says “Tombstone ahead”.
I have a few complaints. Olumide is obsessed with titling; you find this fastidiousness not just in the titles of his collections (Lucidity of Absurdity; Akimbo in Limbo) but on individual poems too. Furthermore, naming the collection after one of its poems suggests the title poem is somewhat key. Whereas Akimbo in Limbo is a fitting title for this collection, given the times we are in and the stories the collection tells; the poem Akimbo in Limbo is not a fitting “title tack”.
As if “absurd” titles are not enough, he goes on to draw them out on the cover. If he is not warned, he may take to illustrating future collections and returning us to kindergarten. I take to heart the dictum that “if a word could be deleted, delete it”; I found a few deletable words in the Akimbo. By the time you are on the third page of The Mole (pp62-64), you have probably forgotten what the poem was about. Olumide speaks of “colonies bordering Maiduguri” in his The Earth Wails in Maiduguri. He should not shame us political scientists with the flippant use of “colony”.
Readability is one thing that will continue to endear Olumide to the public, although he throws in a few words like “nous” and “grift” to drive us to the dictionary. It is no surprise though his poetry has found expression in a number of academic theses already. What would the word master do next?
Nengak Daniel Gondyi wrote in from Maiduguri, Nigeria.