By Samuel Osaze
AS the 2023 elections draw near, there is a certain foreboding it won’t be business as usual for the money-bag politicians. This fear is heightened by the emergence of the Sorosoke generation, mainly consisting of youths believed to constitute about 70 per cent of the country’s population. Defiant, they are resolved to speak out, resist the status quo and reclaim their fatherland through the ballot box, as Iquo DianaAbasi aptly captures it in her new poetry collection, Coming Undone As Stitches Tighten.
This collection of poems tells of how much Iquo DianaAbasi has evolved as a poet since her debut collection Symphony of Becoming in 2014. Known then as Iquo Diana Eke, going by the title of Symphony of Becoming, one would conclude the poet is primarily preoccupied with symphony— a long harmonious blend of several musical instruments. Eight years down the line, in Coming Undone As Stitches Tighten DianaAbasi is largely concerned about staccato— a short, dissonance of sounds. It’s a sharp contrast.
Perhaps, no one needs a better index to understand how steep Nigeria has snowballed into a Hobbesian state in less than a decade. Today, most of those who once sang eulogies— the preachers of soul-lifting sermons, for instance, have assumed the role of expert ‘wailing wailers’. It’s no sign of hate to criticize the government. Patriotism necessitates it. This is also true of DianaAbasi in her sophomore offering.
A 131-page book published by Sevhage Kikya in 2021 and segmented in four parts, the title Coming Undone as Stitches Tighten seems to bear the trademark of a crotcheter. Interestingly, a crotcheter discerns when to tighten or loosen stitches in order to achieve expected outcome. This is tantamount to taking responsibilities for actions and inactions. But how much so have Nigerians been lucky to have visionary leadership?
The captains of our affairs, are they percipient enough to know when the sail is going awry like the crotcheter does? Do they understand when to change course when the ship is sailing towards a giant iceberg skulking in the glazed sea? There is an answer to every question above and it’s in the negative. These and many more are reasons Nigerian youths, though butchered, bruised and battered, are unyielding in the quest to achieve a turnaround in the forthcoming elections.
Writing about social ills may be trite and considered old-fashioned in some quarters. Nevertheless, a patriotic writer cannot simply shirk such responsibility on the altar of ‘wokeness’. Thus in lending her voice to those of many unrelenting Nigerian writers, DianaAbasi assumes boldly the role of a towncrier by using her art to sensitize as much as canvass and forecast social reforms. Who in the right frame of mind would be mum in a place where the life of a cow is equal to one hundred human lives or even an entire village?
The poet deploys relatable images to capture this theme in many of the poems in the ‘Staccato Verses’ segment. The unimaginable degree of onslaught visited on villages such as Guma, Dooshima, Agatu, Logo, Nkanu, and so on as reprisal attacks for a dead cow cannot be forgotten in a hurry. This is not overlooking Chibok, Baga, Dapchi, Mubi, Buni-Yadi, and Odi where an entire village was annihilated in 1999, as part of retaliatory attack by the Nigerian military.
I find it agreeable that the situation in Nigeria has never been rosy. What we are witnessing under the present dispensation is, however, a nightmare. Insecurity has risen to a delirious height of hyperpyrexia. Abuse of all sorts, kidnapping, rape, etc have all become recurrent decimals with media awash with endless tales of woes. Could there be a way out of these melancholies? The youths have the answer, as DianaAbasi seems to suggest.
A poem entitled ‘Answers that will not be Swallowed’ punctuates these facts. It reads:
We are Agatu, Logo, Guman, Nkanu;
despised children who
would have be worthy of concern,
if we were cattle
We are Chibok, Baga, Dapchi, Mubi,
Buni-Yadi; abused, gone too soon.
We are the unloved, vagabond
Children of an uncaring father…
The message in the above stanzas is mind-curdling yet it’s not farfetched from the reality on ground.
More gut-wrenching is the ordeal of a teenage girl whose life is hijacked and ruined after being kidnapped by the murderous Boko Haram terrorist group. The poem ‘A Daughter Coming Undone’ gives the reader a firsthand account of the much-suppressed and politicized kidnappings of secondary school girls in the north eastern region.
Mind-fucked, her only escape route is addiction to cough syrup and other ethanol-laden, cheap drugs. The teenager narrates how she ended up with a child in lieu of SSCE certificate; of how she was once a student of syntax learning to speak English for a better future. In a letter-like format addressed to her late father– another victim of the terrorists, she also talks about stigmatization upon return from the kidnapper’s den:
Death refused my many supplications,
I birthed Shehu, the colour of midnight,
like his father, with curly hair
and quiet eyes like you, father,
This is my certificate in lieu of SSCE,
How do I hate what I love so fiercely?
The poem ‘Murderers in our Midst’, nevertheless, gives account of how herders who hitherto lived in peace with their host communities for decades suddenly became slaughterers. The poem recalls that the same herders were once known to wield “long sticks” but are now equipped with AK-47 to carry out macabre acts. Bewildered by the situation, a rhetorical question arises: “…while we/ hug foreboding, our comfortless pillow/ Must we wait with hands tied as/ visitors cleanse the land of her original dwellers?”
It is not all blood and gore. An interesting trope in the collection is that of resilience, defiance, rebirth and inevitable revolution by those who have simply “refused to be silent or swallowed” by the prevailing mysteries the country is fraught with. This is the Sorosoke generation that sees a glimmer of hope on the horizon of a pitch-dark clouds. But as the elections loom large and political campaigns about to start in earnest, only time will tell how long the youths are able to stand their grounds. The Lekki Tollgate Massacre (#EndSARS) of October 20, 2020 is a subject of reference in the collection as well.
Obviously, the brutal killing of their members is not enough deterrent. The poem “We Refuse to be Silent” lays it bare when it says:
We are citizens, not slaves
to honor those slain at the
dawn of our awakening
we will undo this
socialisation of silence
we say ENOUGH!
Referencing the poem ‘Answers that will not be Swallowed’ one more time, this theme equally resounds:
We are the answers that will grind your teeth,
we are the meal that will choke you to surrender,
we are answers that will not be swallowed
in your divide-and-rule games,
we are the puppies of a scoundrel country,
determined to ride through myriad upheavals.
We are midwives of this unstoppable rebirth
and we, will no longer be silenced
It is worthy of note a streak of metaphor is pronounced in this poem and particularly striking is the comparison between the N36 million purportedly swallowed by snake, and the ludicrous report that a monkey disappeared with “double the snake’s loot”. They are all alluded to by the defiant youths who regard themselves as “meal that will choke you to surrender” unlike the fate of the looted funds.
Gender equity shines through in many poems like ‘Calabash,’ ‘If She Dares,’ ‘Girl Conditioning,’ all in ‘A Necessary Word’ segment of the collection. Nonetheless, a poem in the same subdivision dwells expressively on homosexuality and the 14 years prison term designated for offenders. The poet embraces the rights of an adult to a harmless sexual orientation and wonders how such a trifle affects the spiralling prices of items in the market.
There is also a room for tributes to departed loved ones and mentors like Pius Adesanmi – a scholar and writer who passed when a Boeing 737-800MAX Ethiopian airplane crashed on Sunday, March 10, 2019. ‘Metaphor Woman’ (for Nike Adesuyi-Ojeikere), ‘Our Conversation has been Silenced’ (for Austyn Njoku) are other elegies honouring moments of friendship and admiration that have continued even in absentia.
The poet is bold enough to discuss the theme of love in the part captioned ‘Love Amidst the Staccato.’ Maybe this is intended to accentuate the maxim that love is the conqueror of all. Humanity over the years has witnessed instances when the phenomenon of attraction defiled logic. A more recent case in point being the one happening in an IDP camp set up to cater for emergency needs, where human emotions continue to soar. Similarly, in the midst of deafening gun sounds and the resultant scamper for safety, love has kept its head afloat as exemplified in poems such as ‘Run,’ ‘Like a Stream that Never Runs Dry,’ ‘Ephemeral Star,’ so on and so forth.
One could hear the voice of Maya Angelou echoing in the background in the course of reading Coming Undone As Stitches Tighten. Whether consciously or subliminally, the late American poet exerts inexorable influence on DianaAbasi’s work. In particular is the treatment of the themes of defiance, resistance and reawakening. It’s more pronounced in poems like: ‘Calabash’ and ‘We Refuse to Remain Silent’. Each of these poems is reminiscent of Angelou’s ‘And Still I Rise’.
Mariama Ba— the Senegalese female writer and feminist, has a fair share of impact on DianaAbasi as well, whose posture towards feminism resonates with Ba’s as evidenced by her magnum opus ‘So Long a Letter (1981). Like Ba, DianaAbasi upholds the complementarity of man and woman in marriage rather than the other side of feminism that has inspired the ‘men are scum’ distasteful slogan. One cannot undermine the saying that a writer’s life is the first influence to her writings. DianaAbasi advocates equity and freedom for female folk to aspire to positions of any kind they fancy.
Considering the pedigree of the poet as a great performer, where she infuses folklore, proverbs and the flora and fauna of her native Ibibio heritage, I longed for, hankered after and puffed in vain for a sizeable chunk of this local flavour while poring through the collection. With regard to form, I think poems like ‘Banga Expedition’ shouldn’t have made the ‘Staccato Verses’ segment. Same goes for ‘Nigeria my Pride’. Suffused with unmitigated patriotism, nonetheless, the poem sounds cacophonous where it’s placed.
* DianAbasi’s Coming Undone As Stitches Tighten is in the race for The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2022
* Osaze is the author of two poetry volumes, The Strange Moon of Yenagoa (2021) and Aroma of a Burning Bush (2014). He writes from Lagos