By Anote Ajeluorou
AMONG the Isoko, the impulse of forgiving and forgetting, especially ‘forgetting’ a wrong done anyone, is rendered as ‘a matter thrown away’, and so the question is usually asked: ‘where’s the bin into which the wrong done is thrown into?’ And the answer is: memory! That sacred place where forgiven wrongs still find resting place for recollection, not so that revenge is undertaken, but so that such wrong is not repeated or simply a place where the memory of that ancient wrong is fondly conjured and reminisced over for lessons to be learnt and as warning to coming generations. Memory, especially bitter memory, therefore is the cemetery of wrongs over which man still pours tears of recriminations and regrets whether certain actions that gave birth to such memory exhumation should or should not have been taken.
Su’eddie Vershima Agema’s Memory and the Call of Waters (Sevhage Kikya, Nasarawa; 2021) is poetry that exhumes such vast memory, especially of pain over what could have been avoided. Human nature is filled with memory of what should or should not have been if only man knew better, hindsight being the mirror of memory. But the occasion for bitter memory recollection that fuels Agema’s poems is ripe and spills over from the very beginning of things, as shown in the first three poems: ‘Before Learning a New Normal,’ ‘I am a spirit,’ and ‘Learning New Normal.’ The first lines resonate with pain and from a source that should ordinarily be trusted but which has gone rogue, as he writes:
‘The annals of history are replicated in deep pains
painting permanent pictures that cling to my heart’s canvas…
Outside, the people see a white collar around my neck.
How many know the tale of my soul,…’
Beware of appearances, the poet is saying, as they may be deceptive and lure many to their certain doom. In his next prose-poem ‘I am a spirit,’ Agema laments how much the world has changed from what he used to know of it and people who he says ‘The heart of man has made the heavens hide its diamonds for fear of contamination that will rid them of their lustre.’ And in ‘Learning a New Normal’, obviously the new normal of evil away from the good the poet used to know and to which man has helplessly succumbed, the poet further laments, ‘While nature slept, the devil fried the skies/ Placed a pint of water to man’s mouth…/ Dropped one word/ And a new normal was born.’
Having established the new normal of evil that has overtaken the world, Agema goes on to dredge up the inevitable bitter-sweet memories that have become his and man’s lot that eventually arose. In ‘Building Memories,’ he narrates what life has become in the aftermath of the new normal of evil unleashed upon the world:
‘I build memory
one block tenderly placed on another
of love and disaster, right steps and wrong steps
time cementing each sorrows savoured, lessons learnt
Slowly, materials disintegrate
shattering what was once me.
The years wither to dust
and I am left to start building afresh
lost in the sands that have become my now.’
Mothers as against fathers are also the stuffs of which fond memories are made, of the immeasurable bond that exists between mother and child, as Agema relives it in ‘Memory’s Hold on Mother’s Day,’ where he remembers his mother, his nine months’ stay in ‘The fires of life are lit from wombs/ …to bring wonders/ whose brightness deny smokes.’ He recalls when he took ill as a child and the tenderness of his mother tending him, how she denied herself so much just to provide bread for her young ones, and how he, now a man himself, also experiences the trouble of providing bread for his own mouth, and he prays God to see to his mother’s wellbeing wherever she may be now:
‘Aodo, if you live above the clouds as you do in our hearts
…please, rid her of every torment
send memory to help give her more pleasurable moments…’
Life is a narrative, and you, Mother, remains the heart of this tale
a fire that burns bright in all our heart.’
Indeed, apart from mothers, girlfriends and wife are the next beings upon whom man bestows fond memories, as Agema also fondly recalls memories of one Ify Omalicha and a few others in ‘Finding the road to your ends,’ where he writes: ‘They speak of you now in ‘was’ tenses:/ She WAS delivered by the roads to the summons/ of everyman.’ This was a woman whose ‘… nimble hands scribble notes/ and played a verse that called my heart/ to a dance my feet tapped to’ who is now being referred to in past tense, a loss that cuts deep. This is followed by ‘Transition,’ where ‘The earth’s hunger is eternal/ its stomach swells with our loved ones,’ which would signal the beginning of a harvest of deaths in the collection, some mostly needless on account of the evil unleashed on man’s heart that makes the heavens hide its diamonds as earlier alluded to.
From ‘When traffic lights went out’ in honour of Pius Adesanmi who died in a plane crash to ‘Transition II’ where ‘Our compound is a testament to the earth’s theft/ littered with concrete mounds, pillowed with/ fading names. Forgotten stories,’ Agema mourns the beginning of nightmares in his people’s encounter with herders who are the genesis of ‘earth’s theft’ of his compound. While in ‘Transition,’ ‘these graves are an encyclopaedia/ pages of our mostly forgotten past’, of deaths that occurred naturally, ‘Transition II’ assumes the macabre dance of herders murdering whole villages just to make way for cows to graze:
‘This river, this river…running behind the houses,/ rushes with urgency and waves as I leave/ warning of a time when herdsmen might lead us to Golgotha./ Our ityo, elders stand helpless while my daughter sighs from afar./ I raise a dirge of too many memories filled with holes,/ waiting to be patched when I become the earth.’
But Agema’s poetic sensibility is not served all grim and gore. There are moments of respite from the duelling with death though, moments where he recalls places he’d been and the memories they still stir in his heart. The section on ‘Notes, Eko and Nostalgia’ captures cityscapes like those found in Ibadan, Lagos, Brighton, although in Brighton it’s still morbid, and of suicide note of a would-be scholar.
But Agema’s lightness of mood is only brief, as he resumes the heavy lifting of his poetry on the burden of not-so pleasant memory recall. ‘To the Dark Night’ is repeated, perhaps by way of emphasis on account of the sheer sense of grief? So too are a few of the poems in this section. The tragic tale of the abducted Chibok girls and all young women whose education is disrupted by the senseless insurgency-enabled abduction resonates in this grim section. ‘The stars are orphans tonight’ where ‘Rods are poked deeper again into torn midpoints/ Blood gushing as hands go limp, never aspiring to stretch/ Beyond raped ambitions,’ smothers the aspirations of girls sent to school to learn but who instead become ‘this young flower thinned into a soft thorn,/ her body stolen’ and in ‘Losing a flower’, of young girls made into women too soon and unprepared.
In ‘Muted moos in their moans,’ Agema resumes the tragic encounter of herders and his people; this is a poem he dedicates to his embattled Tiv, Benue, Plateau and Taraba people whose ancestral homelands have been turned into bloody plains by mad, AK-47- wielding herders:
‘Cows trample fields, mooing to the cackle of gunfire herders spray/ like pesticides on villagers harvesting heads as they milk skulls for blood’.
The helplessness of these people being mowed down with gunfire is palpable, as those who should protect them have since turned ‘Accursed, the people turn to arsehole rock,/ smelling its putrid fart,…’, as the seat of government buries itself in cynical silence and connivance with the herder murderers. And in ‘Mbalom, Benue and lambs,’ the poet laments the desecration of the house of worship by the herder murderers:
‘On a quiet dawn in Mbalom,
two priest and a congregation
become lambs slain on St. Ignatius altar
as camouflaged herders march through town.
Elsewhere, memory raises the pain of the transgressions
…of suspicious herders turning River Benue’s water into crimson.’
The ‘Dreamscapes, Nightmares and Darkness’ section is a mix of grimness and light verses. This section tends to be more introspecting as the poet looks inwards, as it were, to exorcise some inner demons. But the unrelenting pain the famed Middle Belt bears on account of herders’ onslaught almost tends to be overwhelming; so, the poet returns to that grim subject every now and again, as can be seen in ‘The dream shall find you,’ where he projects perpetual torment for those who unleash torment on his loved ones who are felled too early and in their prime: ‘they are there tonight/ the ones pressed against their will/ and those whose song you drowned in the benue/ …who sentenced/ our loves to a night that came when their sun was rising.’
Agema’s Memory and the Call of Waters is finely wrought poetic odyssey that threshes out the intimate contours of memory, deep and enervating. For the poet, memory is the handle he finds for the pain he dredges. Agema’s mastery of the poetic idiom is assured, and he takes his reader on a journey into the heart of memory.