By Kolade Olanrewaju Freedom
LOVE, in its relentless search for conduits, often encounters language as a wilful ally. The relationship between love and language is multidimensional, but to narrow it down, one could talk about the tangibility of love and how language embodies it by assigning words to emotions, feelings and thoughts. When love asks language for its most beautiful form, it pushes poetry forward. This, perhaps, explains why Plato said, “At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet.” At one point or the other, “the love-induced everyone” attempts to serenade his lover with poetry as the building block. When love shimmers, romance unfurls effortlessly. And poetry fans the embers of romance with unabated vigour. Poetry digs deep into the heart to unearth irrepressible feelings in a very raw yet refined manner. The definition of poetry by Robert Frost provides a reasonable basis: “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” Love lives in the body of language, must make an appearance via the mouth of poetry, else it is labelled phony or undeserving.
African poetry hasn’t often found itself in the spotlight of discourses about love as the continent seems to find more relatability with poems addressing “very important” social issues. There is that urgency that denies our eyes and nose from seeing blooming gardens and perceiving the fragrance emanating therefrom. But in spite of the ‘crucialness’ of our social issues, Nigerian poet and skilled lyricist, amu nnadi, has in about two decades, wrote vastly about love. His latest poetic offering, the love canticles, comprising 100 poems, continues in this blossoming tradition. It is not surprising that nnadi has assigned lyric poetry to his thematic engagement (of love). Modern lyric poetry, which is frequently spoken in the first person, is a formal type of poetry which expresses personal emotions or feelings. nnadi is a deliberate minstrel, and his choice of poetry type – rooted in Greek literature – is justified within the first set of poems the reader lays his eyes on. Right from the title, one already has an idea that the bard has a classical approach to this book of poetry. “Canticles” is from the Latin ‘canticulum,’ a diminutive of ‘canticum,’ meaning ‘song.’
In the love canticles, nnadi shows lyrical grandeur in the handling of love as a theme, and inextricably creates a thread that runs through him to reach some of the finest poets to ever explore love in their works. nnadi drinks from the same gourd as the Latin-American poet, Pablo Neruda, whose work, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, bears some semblance with nnadi’s in terms of theme, language, mood and tone. As it is the norm with lyric poetry, nnadi versifies about love in measured meters that produce the effortless rhythm and appealing structures that amplify the aesthetic value of the poems. the love canticles is divided into five parts – earth quake, unfurling, heart’s whisper, heart quake and miscellany – and explores love both as love and a place while showing the volatility and complexity that could come off the heels of love.
The first section of the love canticles tagged “earth ache” opens with a six-stanza poem titled “my earth”. Here, the poet addresses the earth as his love, and links his continued existence to his continued loving of “her”; his demise to his leaving of her. Hear him:
to love you
is to live
to live is
to love you
to leave you
is to wither
s low ly die
From the above, it becomes obvious that the poet sees love as an indivisible entity. So, even when it becomes very vivid that the poet is talking about his love for a place, it is poeticised as human, and stirs the poet’s imagination as a “woman” would. nnadi, in his expressions of love, takes the animate and the inanimate as equals.
The poet’s encounters with places bearing much historical significance are documented in poems such as “encountering athens”, “athens”, “greece”, “santorini”, etc. His explorations of these classical cities make it easy for one to conclude that the poet’s refined handling of modern lyric poetry cannot be dissociated from his travels to these history-laden places. Poetry comes alive in spaces and places.
Ibadan by JP Clark is one the most popular poems about a place in Nigeria, and although it is not overtly love-addressed as nnadi’s place poems are, both poets converge at the point of mental acuity. In writing about classical places like Athens and Greece, it becomes impossible for the griot to stay off Greek mythology. Hence, the poet uses words (mention names) like “olympian”, “acropolis”, “zephyr”, “hector”, “zeus”, etc., and resultantly make associated myths as underpinnings for the accurate understanding of the poems. In the first stanza of “greece”, he writes thus:
Acropolis stands nude, a broken sceptre
of a dust-laden epoch you strain to own
on the hill, where in fables ancient gods
ruled on throne of bald, bardic boulders
and trojan corridors lit to mirror a name
rubbed in earth, stamped by soiled soles
of all who themselves as I are wholly lost
There is a reference to the Greek myth of the Trojan war in the above stanza, and having a good grasp of the imageries might demand a knowledge of the underlying myth.
Unfurling. nnadi, in the second section of the poetry collection, takes off all bars and completely bares his soul till he becomes naked in one poem, gets clothed in another, before becoming naked all over. Here, the poet is a cluster of cold clouds letting off torrential downpour of emotions and feelings. His longings will not be quenched until his lover heeds his call:
come now to me, beloved
let me write you, like this
into the loveliest sonnets
tender lines of warm eyes
let my words gently hold
all your delicate contours
let their stanzas flow over
as ink of an indelible quill
In describing how he feels, the poet presents both love and poetry in their most alluring form, and makes one, who is averse to the idea of love, have a rethink. nnadi, whose mastery of metaphors is astounding, embeds love-related and sensual ideas in things such as “milkshake”, “black coffee”, honey, etc., to create mentally sticky images.
The third section “heart’s whisper” further plunges the poet into the ocean of love. In heralding the authenticity of his expressions in this section, nnadi shares the following epigraph:
The heart speaks a better
testimony, and a more profound
truth, than words.
Here, nnadi isn’t scared of being vulnerable. Everything he does is at the behest of his heart which has succumbed to the dominance of love. He simply loves:
for in everything written you exist
and, now, I, pulse, in dits and dahs
calling to you in my poems, saying,
line, after line, after all… I love you
In “Obsession”, the poet expresses the intensity of his obsession in organised, disjointed lines which completely deviate from the measuredness of his other poems.
The same love which makes happy, makes forlorn. Happiness and despair are on either side of love; and life (not necessarily acting without our consent) is always eager to toss the coin, to tell us if we have the head or tail. In the penultimate section, the poet’s heart quakes across verses where heartbreak and forlornness are licensed to run the show. In one of the poems, “uncertainty”, nnadi is in agonising contemplations:
and if I die awaiting you
will I wing into heaven
or will I wallow in dust
Love will end with life. Love and life will end. Maybe we will have “afterlove” in “afterlife”. But as it stands, the poet has closed with an epitaph, signalling the journey’s end. In his words:
(This is not part of the one hundred poems. It is but a sigh, a cup of water at journey’s end.)
In the love canticles, the beauty of language manifests thoroughly. There are no frills nor gimmicks to absorb the complexities of love and wade off boringness; the poet is simply at home having honed his craft to perfection and naturalised his heart within the ambit of love. The elegance of his language is broadened by his adept use of metaphors, parallelism, classical and biblical allusions as well as the infusion of pop culture with words like chats, iPhone, snapchat, password, emojis, etc., appearing in some of the poems. The blend of vocabularies across times is in line with the timelessness of love which breathes immortality into the collection.
Ages and ages hence, perhaps, poets like Neruda and nnadi will be canonised for daring to play the heart’s harp in an utterly refined manner.
* the love canticles by Nnadi is in the race for The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2022