Notable Poetry Collections of 2019: An Omnibus Review By Ismail Bala

Ebi Yeibo, White Masks (Lagos: Malthouse Press, 2019, pp.125)                         

Yusuf M. Adamu, Places: A Poetic Geography (Kano: Adamu Joji, 2018, pp. 142)                                            

Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, Mixed Legacies (Ibadan: University Press, 2019, pp.83)

Patrick Oguejiofor, Don’t Call it Genocide Yet! (Abuja: Mazariyya Books, 2019, pp. 106)     

Joe Ushie, Yawns and Belches (Ibadan: Kraft Books, 2018, pp.89).                                                         

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Ebi Yeibo, White Masks

       Ebi Yeibo’s White Masks widens his poetic horizon and deepens his thematic concern a bit further, beyond, as it were, mere political outburst, rage occasioned by bad governance in Nigeria and his unmistakable repine for a moral and political order upon which our humanity is placed. 

       This proposition is quite evident throughout his oeuvre, but White Masks is, nonetheless, marked by an exegetical anger underlined by a strident tone one relates to poetic maturity and artistic savviness. The political tone—protest, lamentation about what the critic Ogaga Okuyade calls “the crisis of nationhood and the burden of citizenship” — is not altogether lacking from this book. But it is epitomized in an expansive metaphorization first used in Of Waters and the Wild (2017)

      Like Ebi Yeibo’s fifth collection, The Fourth Masquerade (2014), White Masks is written in an idiom that infers its poetic coda from the rhythm and mythology of the Izon people of the Niger Delta. The poet’s resort to folklore and his discursive dependence on orality in the imageries of the poems give consonance and conformation to the collection.

       But White Masks stands out from the rest of Yeibo’s burgeoning corpus in the sense that the acute awareness of form via which the poet shows sentient sensitivity to the Nigerian condition. Yet again, like in the previous books, in the present collection too it is all too evident that Ebi Yeibo’s poetry is bent almost solely on the brutish, nasty life in Nigeria within the ambit of the unfolding socio-political happenings and how topography, economic and political realities continuously impact on the identity of the Niger Delta; that in effect showcase the worsening condition in which the people of the region navigate their existence in their disappearing environment.    

       In the end, White Masks stands out not just in the oeuvre of Ebi Yeibo’s but also in the body of recent Nigerian poetry. For one, the book not just poeticises social realities in Nigeria, deploying, imaginatively and discursively, the resources of memory; it is also a powerful historical and poetic deconstruction of these realities. And as a matter of fact, it punctuates the need—urgent, strident—for a communion between the personal and the political, the past and the present, representation and reality. Secondly, the discerning reader easily sees the range and immutability of Yeibo’s poetic mission in the book in the way he portrays human frailty through metaphorical density, depth of voice, skillful use of orality in order to uphold the canonized human values.  

Yusuf M. Adamu, Places: Poetic Geography

       Since his debut as a poet over a decade ago, Yusuf Adamu a Professor of Geography, has steadily publishing poems on places in each of his four previous collections. His profession equips him with ingenuity and scenic-imaginative depiction, which enhances readers’ perception as he visualizes the content with little or no stress. The array of the subject matter (different/differing places, locales, cities, towns, villages, monuments, countries) is blended and presented in such a way that the reader sees them clearly as the title of one of his earlier collections, Landscapes of Reality.

      With Places: Poetic Geography which collects all his environmentally-inspired poems together it is indubitably clear that Yusuf is a poet of place. His poems of place often involve dislocation and even disintegration of what could be called the ‘placescape’. On one side, Yusuf’s poems of places are the most topographical of poems and as such represent a clearly delineated locus. The monuments, landmarks and routes of the places he writes about become the poem-as-map filtered through the consciousness of the poet. On another side, Yusuf’s poetry also encompasses a ceaseless questioning of place, of geography, through a decentred subjectivity; and at the core of this back-and-forth location and dislocation of place is the poet’s immediate celebration of its value. In a simple, though not simplistic tone and voice, Yusuf aestheticizes the everyday aspect of different places, different cities, and locales across the globe, and turn them into sites of meaning, while suggesting that these shining surfaces almost always portend to other spaces beyond them.  

Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, Mixed Legacies                                                                    

       From the descriptive angle, poetry is patterns of words arranged to produce rhythms in a continuum of metaphorisation of variegated human experience. Essentially however, poetry is the metaphor itself of the primordially patterned movement in form of transition or rotation of the small and bigger elements, from the proton-electron of the atom to the massive diurnal, galactic and mega celestial rotation of the heavenly bodies. Individuals endowed with procreative imagination capable of apprehending and capturing the totality of the human experience in its complexity, beyond the routine, outward veneer, no matter their background and orientation can become poets.

       Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, like many lucky members of her exalted age and persuasion (having written in virtually all the genres, from novels, short stories, poetry, plays to children fiction, in addition to academic scholarship for which she is equally noted) has dexterously exploited to the optimum her skills as a prolific and accomplished academic to craft the poems of Mixed Legacies: Poems (2013-2018) which I find amply evocative of contemporary 21st century Nigerian literary-cultural experience in all its complexity. The over one hundred poems of the volume (which has a feel of a selected collection) were composed around the titular “mixed legacies”: cultural and literary figures, idiosyncratic and local subject matters which range across national, cross-cultural and global concerns to endow the volume with the characteristic universality of poetry, despite being rooted in the local.

Don’t Call it Genocide Yet!  Patrick Oguejiofor

      As the scholar Anthony Oha, once argued, many poets over the years have been made to churn out poetry as simple debased appeasement to a certain class of “scholars” who pride themselves as consumers of poetry. Such debased poetry is not just difficult (linguistically, contextually and ideationally), but has lost any pragmatic or aesthetic value. A true poet, then, is one who sees poetry as a service to the society; indeed, the poet as Oha further argues is he who “believes in correcting by reflecting”. And one such poet is Patrick Oguejiofor whose fourth collection, Don’t Call it Genocide Yet! is a testimony to Oha’s conception of an ideal poet.

       It is in this regard that Don’t’ Call it Genocide Yet! needs to be seen and appreciated. Oguejiofor’s poetry is one that is tinged with pain, and offers the discerning reader very little pleasure. For the poet is an angry man who is clearly bothered by the myriad of problems afflicting his country, Nigeria and is moved to action, albeit metaphorically, to sound a note of warning through poetry.

       The poems in Don’t Call it Genocide Yet! though they lay no claim to any complex dexterity of metaphorisation, or the attendant deepening of imagery, given the topicality of the poems, nonetheless are, in their own ways, works of great promise. The poems collected here make a strong statement about the poet’s intention and offer to the reader, in an uncluttered diction, his various ideas and feelings on a number of themes: particularly the Boko Haram violence, the scourge of kidnapping around the country, farmers-herders clashes, general anarchy and forlorn hopes well-thumbed subject so beloved of poets: injustice and hopelessness.

Joe Ushie, Yawns and Belches                                                             

       Since the advent of modern Nigerian Poetry of English expression, such disparate poets as J. P. Clark-Bekederemo, Gabriel Okara, the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, Tanure Ojaide, Onookome Okome, and a host of others, have ably represented this unique part of the country in Nigerian poetry. Like the rest of poets in other parts of the country, poets from this region have imbued and enriched Nigerian poetry with their respective communities’ oral traditions and lore. Apart from that, perhaps the single most important contribution of poets from the Niger Delta is both their political and literary attempts to put the region on the literary map, and show the world what was and is happening there in terms of the disastrous oil exploration by ruthless multinational companies, which, invariably, results in the region’s environmental degradation, economic stagnation, and wanton suffering of the populace. So sustained and remarkable is this poetic protest by the Niger Delta poets that now within the annals of Nigerian poetry—at least in its expansive English expression—there is the recognition of the unique feature of this indubitably Niger-Delta “poetry of protest”, and of raising awareness about the larger question of environmentalism and the place of federalism, which seems to be the bane of the region within the Nigerian polity.

       Indeed, it is imperative (if not critically expedient) to consider Joe Ushie’s Yawns and Belches (Kraft, 2018) in the light of the “overarching horizon” of other Niger-Delta poets, both established and new. This is not to suggest that all poets from the region seek to write with the same critical idiom, with the same displaced voice or with the same terrible tenor, necessitated by the equally terrible mess that the Niger Delta finds itself in. Rather, it is to establish the existence of a kind of “stylistic, even linguistic, meta-thematic tradition” that finds acceptance in a corpus of work emanating from the same region.

     Unlike his previous books, which stridently make their name and boldly confirmed Ushie’s growing reputation based on his eco poetry and nature-dominated concerns, the present collection seeks to explore and explain the recent happenings in Nigerian polity through ceaseless allusions and references to such happenings using the overriding metaphor of eponymous yawns and belches. But this is not to suggest that the usual obsessive metaphor of a place of origin, of attachment to geography, of the symbolism of the earth, or of the imagery of the homeland is absent in Yawns and Belches.

             In the end, Yawns and Belches establishes further the place of Joe Ushie in the new Nigerian poetry. With varied voices and style the book shows that even when there is a central theme with which poets like Ushie are usually identified, that theme could be realised without an explicit recourse to it. Like in his previous collections, Joe Ushie has demonstrated that a concern for the degradation of the environment is closely linked with the assumption that poets, like all other creative artists, are physically, culturally and metaphorically rooted in specific geographies, and that they strive towards the well-being of those physical and cultural geographies. In this collection, Ushie has shown that when it comes to what Charles Bodunde calls “the appropriation of the physical environment”—as both subject and object, Ushie is a master of portraying the decay in the people’s lives.

Ismail Bala writes in English and Hausa. His poetry and translations have appeared in the UK, the USA, Canada, India and South Africa, in journals such as Poetry Review, Ambit, New Coin, Okike, A Review of International English Literature and Aura Literary Arts Review. Born and educated to university level in Kano, he did his post-graduate studies at Oxford. He is a Fellow of the International Writing Programme of the University of Iowa.