By Kolade Olanrewaju Freedom
JOURNEYS are impositions humans are born into. We do not have to listen to the ticking of the roads before our minds take a walk or nudge our feet onto varied paths. Journeys are sticky promptings of our existence; the overhead sun with raging rays over daytime. It is also imperative to note that neither the duality or multiplicity of choices can erode the constancy of journeys. To be resolute about not journeying is to journey; to stand still is to begin a journey wilfully; to severe your head from your body as protest against the road is to journey, albeit ghastly. Summarily, our breaths are irrepressible constructors of paths for choices, feelings, emotions, thoughts and the tangible to take. However, to confine journeys to the mortality of breath is to downplay the provisions of spirituality on the “liveliness” of afterlife. In the course of journeying, experiences become day-to-day markers of our being, often calling for deep, shallow or no reflections, depending on the cognitive and affective abilities of the wayfarer, and in certain instances, the troubadour.
According to Canadian poet and novelist, Leonard Cohen, “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” The veracity of his explanation of poetry as the evidence of life is enmeshed in some classical works chronicling eventful journeys or experiences. The Odyssey, one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer, is a typical example. Similarly, medieval poems such as The Divine Comedy written by Dante Alighieri between 1308 and 1320, and often regarded as one of the greatest works of world literature, describes Dante’s travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise or Heaven. ‘The Divine Comedy, though an imaginative work, accounts for the possible phases of afterlife, nullifying the belief that journeys are only earthly endeavours.
Renowned Nigerian professor and poet, Remi Raji, seems to have taken the baton from the aforementioned poets, as he chronicles his odyssey in his seventh book of poetry, ‘Wanderer Cantos.’ The title of the poetry collection utilises the features in the earlier mentioned works to hint its ancestral ties. Notably, ‘wander’ was one of the themes Homer explored in his poem, ‘Odyssey.’ Likewise, Dante in ‘The Divine Comedy,’ consisting 14,233 lines, divides the narrative into 33 cantos. A canto is a principal form of division in medieval and modern long poetry. Raji, a minstrel himself, obviously finds relatability in these preceding works, hence the associated naming. Besides the title of the poetry collection, the cover art, an Egungun, also conceptually perches on Dante’s afterlife travels, although there is cultural distinctness as Raji’s symbolism is entrenched in the Yoruba culture which considers Egungun “as visible manifestation of the spirits of departed ancestors who periodically revisit the human community for remembrance, celebration, and blessings.” There is nothing whimsical about the cover art; in the dedication of the poetry book, Raji writes:
‘Pius Adesanmi (1972 – 2019)
friend & brother
‘Harry Garuba (1958 – 2020)
teacher & friend
‘fellow wayfarers who left us wondering’.
Pius Adesanmi and Harry Garuba, both prominent writers and literary scholars cum friends of the poet who are now departed but recalled for remembrance in the dedication wherein they are seen as fellow travellers of the author who is yet to overcome the suddenness of their exit.
Wanderer Cantos is thematically divided into six sections. The first section opens up with an epigraph credited to Paul Coelho from Manual of the Warrior of Light, “Then the warrior thanks his travelling companions, takes a deep breath and continues on, laden with memories of an unforgettable journey.” These words set the tone for the collection. First of all, one knows that the troubadour, who perhaps sees himself as a warrior, has had an adventurous journey, will be journeying again, but is at a phase where he wishes to share his experiences characterised by travails and triumphs. The first poem in this section, ‘Song of the vanquished,’ is an assortment of declarative metaphors that paint the gory picture of people beneath the rubbles of carnage in places such as Gaza, Sambisa, Nyanya, Baga, Shafa, etc. It shows the perpetual violence and tragedies that many cities in the world are victims of; the bloodbath that we have become accustomed to on CNN, Al Jazeera and other TV stations. Here are the poet’s words:
‘I am the incense of frozen cries
I am the tired limbs of scattered people
I am the heart of the vanquished land.
mustard stone in the of fire
…the one whose death is televised, piecemeal
‘Song of the vanquished’ also shows the complicity of observers, who would rather fold their hands, slouch on their couches to watch how these tragedies unfold without any intention of working towards their quelling. This is reminiscent of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s use of “The world was silent when we died’ in her novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, centred on the plights of the Biafrans in the Nigerian Civil War of 1967 – 1970. In another poem, ‘the thief catcher of daura,’ Raji satirises the state of the nation, with reference to the gust of anti-corruption “threats” that headlined the promised deliverables of the current administration during its campaigns in 2015. Seven years down the line, ‘the thief catcher of daura’ has shown much lop-sidedness in his fight against corruption, with some “rats being more equal than others” while insecurity and poverty are at the crest. The poet, who is obviously frustrated with the situation of things, cannot wait for the unpleasantness to end in the last stanza of the poem:
‘Catcher in the rut, I do not envy you,
thief catcher of daura, when is your prison term due?’
Raji, who is a skilled minstrel, embraces musicality in this section of the collection by utilising rhymes and rhythm. Remarkably, ‘the thief catcher of daura’ has 13 rhyming couplets with a lone verse as the 7th stanza. Additionally, the poet touches on other germane topics such as farmer-herder crisis, Lekki shooting and banditry in poems such as ‘Death and the King’s Herdsmen,’ ‘Generations on the burning stake’ and ‘Kwansaba for bandits.’
Mbih Jerome Tosam in his article ‘The Philosophical Foundation of Kom Proverbs,’ says “Proverbs, are an important component of language use, are the repository of the thought, knowledge and wisdom of a people.” Meaning and language use are the points of intersection for poetry and proverbs. It is not untoward to see poets as philosophers, as they often explore fields such as language and semiotics which are associated with philosophy. A poet sees the decadence in his society, and tapping into the wisdom of his people, coupled with his adroit use of language, creates a consciousness birthing attitudinal change in his society. In the second section of Wanderer Cantos, Raji goes proverbial. He begins the section with the following proverbs about proverbs:
owe, biowe, la n lulu agidigbo
Like proverb, much like proverb is the philosopher drum beaten…’
‘Methali ni kwa wanaoelewa
Proverb is for those who understand.’
In the first poem, Ash-eaters,’ the poet talks about the “ash-eaters” – those whose souls are coloured by envy, strife and bitterness – and celebrates their disappointment, as all their efforts to abort the impending success are null and void. In the closing stanza, he talks about cause and effect (action and reaction) in a bid to dissuade them from forging ahead on such ignoble path:
‘Those who plant legumes will break pods.
Those who plant wild winds will harvest the whirlwind.’
The three other poems in this section ‘Compost,’ ‘You are the ritual of lies’ and ‘Proverb to foolishness’ also wear the tone of admonition and rebuke aimed at provoking a rethink that heralds behavioural change.
Pablo Neruda is often regarded as one of the finest poets of the 20th century. The Chilean poet is reputed for writing many fragrant love poems. Raji foreshadows his next thematic preoccupation with Neruda’s verses from The Song of Despair, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair:
‘This was my destiny and in it was the voyage of my longing
and in it my longing fell, in you everything sank!’
Fire and water are two concepts that the poet explores intricately as he versifies about love. His first poem here, ‘Heart song’ is composed in a heart. The poet, in his adulation of love, utilises antithesis by saying that fire – taking the place of love – heals; while a song – also standing in for love – burns. He makes it clear that only the one who is in love could understand the rhythms of love’s songs. Raji believes two lovers, who are liberated and at the same time imprisoned, cannot be kept apart by distances. He writes:
‘When two are melded in one single heart, Love entraps time, echoes, imprisons and liberates. There is a fire that burns the distances….’
What is noteworthy about a troubadour who does not wander or bask in the deluge of journeys? In this section of Wanderer Cantos, the poet has had enough of thematic wanderings, he poeticises his concrete adventures emanating from his travels to different places such as Kigali, Meru, Nairobi, Nyahururu, Kampala, etc. It is important to note that poetry is a cosmopolitan embroidery. Like matter, poetry has weight and occupies spaces. It is therefore not inappropriate to say that poetry comes alive in spaces and places. In the first stanza of the title poem, ‘Wanderer’s Canto,’ the poet attempts to unravel the beginning of his odysseys. Like a child trying to walk but who would begin with crawls, Raji explains what it means to wander within journeys. He writes thus:
‘I cannot say when the journey began but I saw
My feet plodding the road finding stable earth.
Navigation was primitive, I plunged into the pools
of uncharted streets and corners.’
Raji’s physical cum intellectual adventures began with a search for cultural histories “in guarded museums”. He talks about the demonisation of cultural elements such as ‘bronze heads,’ ‘carved doors,’ ‘brass work,’ ‘quilts’ by ‘step-children of the colonists’ who are perhaps acting under religious influence aversive to idolatry. The poet refuses to succumb to the travails of his journeys as he derives inspiration from his ancestors who had journeyed before him. He takes pride in the fact that in the course of his odysseys, he has garnered much wisdom that makes him immune to the woes of foes disguised as friends. “I have survived some friendly fires by catching the enemy cold,” he declares. In spite of the “treasures” the poet has amassed during his adventures, his appetite for surrealism remains unquenched.
An epigraph from “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes opens the fifth section of this book of poetry wherein the seafarer, Raji, mentions following the courses of great rivers like Danube, the Drava, the Mississippi, the Nile, Niger, Niagara, Benue, etc. in the poem ‘I am tied to the fate of waters.’ Journeys and rivers are intertwined, and the poet makes it clear that he craves and goes to where the rivers flow. The poet talks about his root in the third stanza by referencing the Kudeti river and extolling it thus:
‘Kudeti, river of fathomless legends…
Do not sneer at the shallow river,
else it becomes a flood and swallow your pride.’
Remarkably, Raji became Mogaji Adegboro Family of Kudeti area in Ibadan in 2020. It becomes clear that the poet is not foreign to rivers. His father set his feet upon the umbilical waters of Kudeti as an infant. So, as he travels the world and encounters more rivers, the appetite of his root becomes satiated in the common ancestry of rivers.
Covid-19 happened upon the world in the most drastic fashion. As of 9:08 PM (WAT), August 2, 2022, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Covid-19 dashboard announced that there have been 575,887,049 confirmed cases, including 6,398,412 deaths. The troubadour had his own fair share of the rage of the virus. He documents his experiences in the last section of the collection tagged ‘Corona Cantos and Monologues: My Life in the Bush of the Impossible Virus.’ One could light-heartedly declare that the poet couldn’t have evaded the “Dante-moments” if he really wanted to be favoured by the muse for wanderer’s cantos. The first poem in this closing section, ‘A quiet and lonely place,’ captures the severity of the onset of the disease. In the wanderer’s words:
‘Everything stood still: motion, breath and the clock,
except voices which became bodies asking,
“Astronauts” swung into action to free the poet from the stranglehold of mortality. This near-death experience finds its way into the closing verses:
‘My mother watched from a distance,
she sat, fairer than the oil of gods,
her face had not changed in a decade.
The aftermath of the poet’s survival is captured in the last two poems, ‘The day after the virus’ and ‘Promise.’ Like Dante in The Divine Comedy, Raji himself traversed Hell and Purgatory, before encountering Relief – Paradise or Heaven.
In Wanderer Cantos, Raji brings mastery of his poetic craft to the fore to revalidate his feat as an accomplished poet who has followed in the tradition of Homer and Dante to create a classic. The wanderer, though aware of the billows of odysseys, will wander again; inextricably, the poet will return lightly.
* Raji’s Wanderer Cantos is in the race for The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2022.