joe ushie's literary / linguistics views

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Reviews by Joe Ushie

*The Efficacy of Hope

The Distinguished Chairman of this Occasion,
Major-General Edet Akpan (Rtd),
The Chief Launcher, Obong Eddie Archibong Udoh,
Hon. Members of the State Assembly,
Distinguished Chairmen of Local Governments,
Your Royal Highnesses here present,
Co-Launchers and Other Distinguished Members of the High Table,
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen,
I am especially delighted to be at this special gathering today and, even more so, for the special opportunity to review this great work of art, A Harvest of Scarlet Coals and Other Poems, written by one of our own, Mercy Ekanem-Inyang. I am glad, not just for the opportunity to identify with the creative genius of a former colleague and friend at the then University of Cross River State, Uyo (now the University of Uyo); my joy also derives from the fact that this outing would offer me the opportunity to attempt to correct the impression that poetry, as a literary genre, is synonymous with difficulty.

Poetry is indeed about the oldest genre known to man anywhere in the world, especially here in Africa. Among us Nigerians, and in particular the people of the present Akwa Ibom and Cross River States, our literary heritage shows an array of songs in our various languages which were rendered on all conceivable occasions and hence expressed various themes and concerns. There were songs composed for the many festivals, songs composed as outlets for personal grief and affliction, songs produced to mourn departed loved ones, songs to provide the necessary rhythm and inspiration for work, songs to celebrate victory and successes. And, above all, there were songs to criticize, often through satire, the events in one’s community or environment. In addition to these, there were also proverbs and myths and legends and wise sayings and riddles, all of which entertained our forefathers, besides whatever lessons they were meant to teach the audience. Note, for example, how very few words in the Efik/Ibibio/Annang language are used to convey the concept of egalitarianism and freedom in the proverb which translates into English as "Every mfi has its own crown"; or another proverb from the same language group which, in warning against the consequences of procrastination, simply says, "If water lasts for too long in the mouth, it turns into saliva". All these are the various forms of poetry, which our forefathers produced, used and handed down to us.
But, unfortunately, while the folktale’s reincarnation in the modern printed form as either a novel or a short story has been readily accepted by us and is being enjoyed, the written modern poetry has been commonly and simplistically branded as difficult, and then often discarded, in spite of poetry’s enjoying of the highest esteem in our literary heritage. This is one reason why I consider this day, this launch and this review to be very special to me because the book of poems whose birth we are here to serve as midwives does itself have all it takes to restore in us that love for, and enjoyment of poetry as a long-cherished strand of our literary heritage.

As stated earlier, the personal joys, sorrows, visions, disappointments, afflictions and worldview of the individual in the indigenous society were common themes in the oral songs and other compositions of our forefathers. This aspect of our heritage has been most effectively carried over into the great work of poetry which we will be privileged to see and have shortly. Although the 64 poems which make up the anthology are not arranged in the order of their themes, it is easy to identify those which are concerned with, or derived from direct personal experience and those arising from the author’s commitment to the lot of humanity as a family, in the tradition of the singer-satirist of old. Thus, we can isolate the following as examples of poems that emerged from the poet’s personal experiences: "I Rise Again" (p.3), "A Mother’s Prayer" (p.5), "A Rape of Paradise" (p.6), "Let Go" (p.8), "An Update for Mother" (p.10), "When I’m With You" (p. 11), "For You I. E." (p. 21), "Ndarafi" (p. 27), "Life Is Waiting" (p. 28), "Release" (p.59), and many more others. In the real concrete world, when success is mismanaged, it could result in destructive pride or in the downfall of its host. Similarly, when a disappointment or an affliction is not understood and handled philosophically, it could lead its victim into paranoia, schizophrenia, suicide or any other form of mental or psychological disorder. But although our author may not have experienced any unusual personal tragedy herself, she has patiently and stoically allowed to ferment whatever usual disappointments she may have had into a fountain of rare wisdom and therapeutic lines for all of humankind to learn from, or be consoled by. In the poem, "I Rise Again", for example, she announces with defiance and confidence that she is rising again "to conquer worlds/ Only fertile minds/Would venture". Now back on her feet, she however resolves in another poem "Let Go" never to revenge. In her own words:

Revenge may be sweet, but it’s best
That the villain meet his fate
At another’s door (p.8).

Beyond enduring afflictions and eschewing vengeance, the poet believes that the best way to handle adversary is to strengthen one’s hope and look towards a brighter future. Lines that stress this golden approach to hurt are in many of the poems in the collection. The first example is the following:

When life’s journey and time
Stand still for you
Tomorrow seems light years away
Cry if you must [but]
Don’t give up (p. 30).

Similarly, the second stanza of another poem "Hope" also cautions:
If nothing else but hope remains
Chances are you still can win
If hope’s gone with all the rest
Then life’s a dish with ash for salt (p.49).

About the same species of words of wisdom and courage are offered the reader in such poems as "Go Forth" (p. 58), "A New Day" (p. 54), "Release" (p.59), and "Down and Up" (p. 51). It is in recognition of this emphasis of our poet on the futility of remaining down, and the stress on the importance of hope as a source of fortitude in moments of disappointments, failures and setbacks that I christened this review "The Efficacy of Hope".
However, the special literary diet waiting for us this day is not just a product of our writer’s direct personal experience only. Indeed, much more of it is a result of her feeling for the young man, the young woman, the man, the woman on the street; and, on the other hand, it is about the incidence of social injustice, either here in our country, Nigeria, or elsewhere in the world. Her commitment to, and feeling for her motherland and its downtrodden majority are tear-provoking, quietly revolutionary in tone and prophetic. In the poem, "Who Will Bell the Cat", for instance, the poet-persona presents this picture:

We are harvesting
Ungainly babies,
Little sweeties weighed down
By heads disproportionate
Their rags torn beyond
Redemption (p. 43).

And, from another poem entitled "Recognize Your Kin", we have the following supplication:

Lift your hold on us for once
If indeed blood runs in your veins
We are no wood or stones you see
Pray lift your giant boot
So we can breathe (p. 16).

The political and economic instability that is still lingering in the country was indeed captured by our poet of today way back ten or more years ago when most of the poems may have been written. Thus, in the poem, "No Sign of Dawn", she laments:

Desolation is stark, staring
Everywhere, luxury has [given] birth [to] ugliness….
Today’s troubled, tomorrow endangered (p.7).

In my view, the anxiety expressed in these lines about our society still holds true today. If we do recollect that the lines were actually written some ten or more years ago, we would see in this verse the prophetic power of our poet.
Let me remind us at this point that the work we are launching here today is actually a reflection of two countries, two continents, two different climatic zones and two worlds at very different stages of development. The first is Nigeria, the poet’s own land of birth, while the second is the United States, her present place of residence. But whether here at home in the relatively undeveloped Nigeria or in far away United States, our poet’s mind is steadily on the question of social justice, on the condition of the oppressed and less privileged. We have already highlighted some of the poems in which she expresses her concern about the ordinary man and woman in Nigeria. In the book under review, the condition of the less privileged in the United States is equally captured in such poems as "Of Hope Gone Awry" and "New York, New York’, in which she portrays the contradictions in the world’s richest city, New York.
The poet’s ultimate vision for humankind however transcends race and place of birth. She would rather wish to see a world in which mankind is seen as one family, even as minor differences of race and colour would still obtain. This vision shows up in the very longest poem in the anthology, and it is entitled "A Rainbow Is Better" (p. 4).

Thus far, we have tried to show how, in this poetry work, the author has plied and ploughed the various human experiences from the personal to the public into deep statements of courage, of wisdom and of hope, for the benefit of all who would care to tap from this fountain. In sum, her concern about social justice is so strong that it is the issue in the very first poem in the collection, and which is also the title poem of the book, "A Harvest of Scarlet Coals and Other Poems". Another of the poet’s strongest commitments, as shown in this collection, is her commitment to God. Of the 64 poems in the volume, more than a half of them allude either consciously or unconsciously to God and the Holy Bible, including such ones as "The Rape of Paradise", "A Mother’s Prayer", "The Ransom" and "Mother’s Knight", which derive their titles from biblical images. When you have acquired a copy of the book, look, for instance, at a poem like "When Friends May Not Come" (p.47), and compare its wisdom and philosophy with what you find at verses 3 down of Psalm 146.

In our pre-colonial oral setting, wit and wisdom were displayed in almost all aspects of our speech. Even then, the same wisdom or wit expressed in a song or folktale sounded more pleasant to the ear, and hence it entertained, apart from teaching. These aspects of aesthetics which made our songs and other oral arts to sound pleasant even when the meaning was yet to be understood have been carried over to this work, with slight modifications in some respects to suit the print medium. Permit me to read to your hearing this short stanza, for example, that you may perceive how a conscious clustering of certain sounds has reinforced the very bright mood of the addressee in the poem:

Your eyes have sprite
Your gait is right
Your laugh rings high
Your look so bright (p. 19).

In addition to this, there is the wonderful play on words in some of the poems, typical examples of which are: "And find the smile to put a smile/In faces blue and blank" (p. 17), and "You’ll sleep the sleep" (p. 36). Also when you have got your own copy of the book, do please take a special look at the poem "An Update for Mother" (p. 10). This one poem is used to serve as a bridge in three ways. First, its tenth line is a bridge between the personal and the public pain. Next, it is the poem in which the author crosses from her Nigerian experiences to those of the American world, and, finally, it is also the last poem in the book in which the author’s unpleasant personal experiences are expressed: what follows it is a blissful piece, "When I’m With You". Furthermore, the marital bliss and harmony between father and mother of the poet is symbolically shown in the fusing together of their two names, Ndarake and Afiong, into "Ndarafi" , a poem by this title on page 27 of the work. Creative devices such as these, which abound in the anthology, are what qualify this collection as a great work of literary art, besides its wealth of words of wisdom, wit, solace and concern about humanity.

Mr. Chairman, Sir, the Chief Launcher, Co-launchers, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, once more, the pot of intellectual and creative food we are waiting to consume this morning was prepared by one of our own, Mercy Ekanem-Inyang. My humble task has been simply to taste of the food and report on my experience. I have already tasted the pot and reported accordingly. If I have inadvertently gone too far into the details of its aroma, it is because the aroma itself has been too tempting to ignore. More so, it is my own way of showing you how rich and appetizing our daughter’s intellectual food is. I cannot eat more than this on your behalf. I therefore leave the rest of it, with its entire aroma, for every one of us here and elsewhere to partake of.
I wish you all a happy reading and God’s special blessings.

Dr Joseph A. Ushie
Department of English
University of Uyo
Uyo – Nigeria.