By Anote Ajeluorou
JOURNALIST, songwriter and culture producer, James Ngwu Eze has announced his arrival on the poetic turf with a loud bang. His metaphors explode like grenades into the mindscapes of his readers. And he appears somewhat immodest about the arrival of his poetic offering. Although he calls himself a ‘later bloomer’ on the poetic stage, his poetry is nothing like that of a newcomer. In the opening poem of his maiden poetry dcollection dispossessed, ‘petals & buds’, Eze announces to his audience his poetic manifesto – that he has been the missing link in the poetic value chain, and that he has come to occupy his chosen space: ‘for i’m the missing lobe of poetry’s kolanut/the fearless chest that absorbs the anger of razor blades/i surrender my anvil at the crossroads/and unscrew the cork on my silence’.
Eze boldly unscrews the cork on his silence with dispossessed, a collection that won the Association of Nigerian Authors’ (ANA) Poetry Prize 2020, which he calls ‘poetry of innocence, transgression and atonement’ and through it he navigates delicate themes that range from the very personal through to the political and troubling national questions that beset many Nigerians on the ruinous union they have been made to endure.
In the next poem ‘i am’, Eze broadens his poetic manifesto to define who he is and what he intends to do with his poetry. He’s aware of his deeply wounded African background and how the continent’s psyche has been badly bruised both from external and internal ‘bandits’, as it were, fortune seekers who have dispossessed the vast populace, but he is on a mission to help reclaim what is lost, as he asserts, ‘my voice is the rage of a thousand broken men/…i am the oxygenated laughter/of africa’s ruptured civilisation/rebounding with sturdy steps/to reclaim its missing soul.’
However, the poet persona lapses into self-doubt, and is not also sure of the path open before him. Even if he has declared what his self-assured mission is in ‘here i am’, in similar declaration of the ancient prophet in response for God to send him on the proselytising mission and dubbing himself ‘prophet, priest and pilgrim/before the roaring waters/teeth clenched, fist clenched/trailing the footmarks of the gods’, self-doubt also sets in at the midnight hour as exemplified in ‘search for myself’ where his self-assurance is assailed with doubts in his mission to be what he dreams to be, and if indeed inhibiting incubuses will not derail him from his chosen path. And he sings, ‘sometimes i wonder who i am/…and now they are gathering at the crossroads/the tribe of hounds at the crossroads/thirsty for the blood of the innocent.’
Eze’s ‘when i was a boy’ mirrors boyhood reminiscences about his love for rain bath, the steaming broth of his mother’s cooking, his father’s booming voice as he sang and the happy home he grew up in and the small things that made childhood such fun and even his rascally observance of his father’s erotic fancy, ‘…our house has enough laughter to drown a choir of frogs…/i often caught him day-dreaming at the painting on the wall/of half-clad maidens filling water-pots in a solitary stream/oh what a man!/mischief hung in the air on Saturdays.’ This also morphs into ‘enugu’ of the poet’s boyhood days, a dreamy city surrounded by hills wrapped in mist: ‘watch the mist enfold the hills with dewy hands like lovers drunk in time/dawn whispers with a harmattan voice through the crack on my window…’
But Eze keeps reminding his audience of his poetic mandate, as he once again asserts in ‘a rage of words’: ‘bring out the billows, soul brother/it’s time to pipe peppery verses/into the eyes of the gods/my snuffbox is pregnant/with nwanyi-eke’s sorcery/and the mortar is thirsty for fresh herbs…’ He assumes the toga of the dibia/native doctor and makes ritual invocation for the enablement of his poetic mission: ‘five lobes of kolanut/and a finger of chalk…/ritual incisions on my bog toe/eyes ringed with nzu/words catch flame as i sing them/broken verses grow ears and take a queue/(cue?).’
IN the second movement called ‘transgressions’, Eze is the ultimate lover boy/lover man, as his verse here ripples with love language that is also mournful, either because of lack of consummated love or the other party’s sudden departure or even death. Love here is fleeting but sublime while it lasts, and also deeply unsettling at its eclipse. Love here is also a transgression in its fragility and vulnerability like a wisp of wind after the innocence of its arrival that soon departs.
In ‘rainbow’, the poet persona compares his love to that of a rainbow appearing at a low moment in his life to enliven it: ‘like a rainbow after the rain/you appeared on the stormy horizon of my life/with a paintbrush to inflame my days with colour…’ But love is a fleeting phenomenon that soon evaporates, as the poet sings in ‘a memory of love & loss’: ‘what use are words when they failed to bring you back into my starving arms/what voice have dumb alphabets when they failed to sing you back, my love/you are the bell that summons my heart without a sound/you are a hit song; you built a house in my head…’
Interestingly, Eze has transmuted these lyrical love verses into music, with a ring of the unfamiliar but mellifluous. They are pure love songs that resonate with sheer enchantment. In these verses, Eze has shown the infinite possibilities of lyrical verse, and he’s riding the crest of his creative vision in translating cold verses on the page to music and pelting his growing audience with love songs under his ‘Udala Nation’ project.
In ‘atonement’, the last part of dispossessed, Eze turns attention from himself to gaze at the political landscape of his land that has refused to grow into a nation and how it keeps dispossessing him and many others. It’s a country beset by crushing injustice and inequities that continue to stunt its growth. Indeed, there are many areas that need atonement, Eze seems to be telling his audience. He opens this section with ‘a fistful of kolanuts’, which he dedicates to his legendary patron poet, Christopher Okigbo, who died fighting a fratricidal war engendered by a brother hating brother. Thereafter, Eze declares that ‘the poets’ republic’ is ‘the eclectic nation of the imagination/where imageries leap off the tongues of thought/and words don the mascara of hidden meanings…/where fallen egos wink with a mischievous glint/from the tombstone of wrongs/to warn us of the futility of hate…/the city of symbols/nestling on the slope of awakening/where words crawl out of the green foliage of feelings to the mirror of meanings…’ and then he ends it with ‘and here i am/clutching my pouch of words like an access code/to the poets’ republic’.
Eze’s ‘the poets’ republic’ is perhaps the only access to enter this section that cuts close home. Inevitably, the next poem is titled ‘biafra’, a subject that is dear to the poet and in which his nationalistic spirit is awakened, not so much because he craves Biafra, but because his other nation, Nigeria, has refused to translate into nationhood 60 years after to give everyone a sense of belonging. This feeling engendered by Nigeria’s failure to become a nation inevitably morphs into the possibility of desiring another nation to come into being and capable of becoming all that Nigeria has failed to become. In a sense, injustice and the orgy of bloodletting are the choice dishes Nigeria serves many of its citizens including the poet persona, and this unavoidably fuels the feeling of alienation and the longing for another nation capable of fostering what Nigeria is not and has refused to become.
The inevitability of Biafra in the face a failing Nigeria finds ample expression in the ‘biafra’ poem, an idea that has refused to go away for lack of atonement for the crime committed against stillborn Biafra and its people. Eze echoes this inevitability when he writes, ‘biafra is a dream that refused to drown in the ocean of hate/and now the earth trembles with insomnia…’ For the poet, injustice, oppression, denial of liberty are but strangers that Nigeria must do away with for freedom to thrive, and so he sings, ‘biafra/the tree of liberty must sink its roots/in defiance to the acrid soil of repression/biafra/for when bombs and bullets go deaf/words become knife edges in the ear of Pharoah’.
In the title poem ‘dispossessed,’ Eze rattles through the oppression and injustice of 1967 through 1970 Nigeria Civil War that may not have ended yet for so many. Rwanda, after its brutal genocide, gathered everyone together, and in one voice, said ‘no more shall this happen again’ in both ritual and solid physical atonement and a memorialising of the sad episode. But 52 years after Nigeria Civil War and a tepid ‘No Victor, No Vanquished’ followed by ‘Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and Reintegration’, the war still rages on in the minds of most people, not least a personage is Nigeria’s democratically elected president, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, who still sees the region he and his fellow federal forces ‘conquered,’ as ‘a dot in a circle’ on the map! If the victor could still habour this disquieting conquest mindset, what happens to those who suffered the bombs and bullets that rained directly on them for three long years? It is why Biafra has become a malignant headache that refuses to go away because atonement has as yet not been made.
So Eze sings tellingly, ‘dispossessed/we count the/pockmarks of the last bullets/on the walls of our bruised pride/dispossessed/we blink away tears/at the broken promise/to rehabilitate, reconstruct and reintegrate our fractured lives.’ For failing the task of atonement, Eze believes Nigeria won the war but lost the peace. Nnamdi Kanu and his secessionist variants are the elusive peace still troubling Nigeria. Whereas Rwanda’s genocide in 1994 has since been put behind Rwandans, Nigeria’s 1970 war is still fresh as the combatants are still stuck in their imaginary trenches waiting to haul the next grenades at the least opportunity.
Indeed, the ‘atonement’ section enables Eze to question the place of the black man in the world. Where exactly is home to the black man? Outside the continent, the tag of racial inferiority still trails him. Back home on his home soil, mini despots have made him homeless, so to say, with rudderless governance that leaves the black man stranded. This much Eze says is the black man’s blighted condition in ‘war & peace’ when he writes, ‘trading blood for blood/we seek absolution from the accusing eyes/of the innocent dead/and ease the pain of a wanton loss.’ But also, Eze believes the black man needs to be taught anew what he is capable of becoming to the world and why he should express belief in his abilities once again and avoid the pitfall of self-doubt that has reduced him to less than he truly is. So he declares, ‘awake, o brother/you whose voice taught the lark how to sing/whose breath fanned civilisation’s forge/whose hands formed the pyramids and the sphinx…/let my song heal the cracks on the wall/and instil in you/a pride in your roots/deeper than the sheen of constant truth.’
Of course, the poem ‘dispossessed’ goes beyond the Nigerian dilemma to encompass the whole world and humanity’s self-inflicted pains and wilfully shunning the pursuit of love. In spite of man’s civilisations that span eons, man is still locked in infancy in courting strife to himself. Russia and Ukraine are prime examples of civilisations going at each other’s jugular even in the 21st century.
And so Eze writes, ‘we have split the atom and conquered the stars/but not enough tenderness to mend a broken heart…/we have wagged wars for eons and failed/it’s time to give love one more chance…/let’s possess what we dispossessed ourselves/to recompense humanity’s arrested progress.’
Eze’s lyricism in dispossessed is reminiscent of Niyi Osundare’s Waiting Laughter and Esiaba Irobi’s Inflorescence, two seminal collections that bristle with imageries that explode like those of the oil bean trees and scatters abroad. Eze’s poetry is charming, as he weaves imageries upon imageries to arrive at his poetic truth. Eze’s dispossessed is a treasure trove of poetic enchantment.