Back Again at the Foothills of Greed by Idris Amali – A Review
Akwu Sunday Victor
A reader who is used to Idris Amali’s poetry would indubitably realize the absence of anger, and radical temper in the collection, Back Again at the Foothills of Greed. The reason could be that the era we are in isn’t a military one or perhaps, the poet is gradually moving from his youthful Marxian social vision to a liberal humanist one. Whatever the reason may be, it is lucid that, the poet in this collection speaks with a tonality of detachment. Here, the function of the poet, is to observe society as it wobbles along in its cesspit of myopia, degeneration, and instability. Therefore, the seriousness with which life was approached in Generals Without War, is absent in Back Again. But we must also theorize that, the Twenty First Century witnessed the demise of military dictatorship in Nigeria and the gradual enthronement of democracy and constitutionalism. What characterized military rule in Africa was greed for power and wealth. This feature of military dictatorship is universal. However, the rise of democracy, a system of government fabled to be that of the people, by and for the people has elements of welfarism, egalitarianism and socialism. In this context, the source of wealth production is a commonwealth and greed is an alien in this sociopolitical structure. However, with the rise of democracy in Nigeria, greed and avarice once again took centre stage. The Twenty First Century which was tagged The Magic Year by Jerry Agada in his collection of poems, became an extension of the old, polluted and rotten system. It therefore means that, Nigeria is back again, albeit in a new century to the doldrums known as greed.
The poetry collection is dedicated to a special group of people whom the poet is sympathetic of their hopeless and jejune condition and they are the subaltern class and the hoi polloi; the socioeconomically exploited and politically oppressed and marginalized. The poem was further dedicated to ‘those whose salaries are owed/And never to be paid even in their hungry graves.’ To ‘those deprived of their rights/By the official tour, allowances…’ (5) and above all, ‘To those pupils whose school paths/Have overgrown into elephant grass.’ The reason why their paths are overgrown by grasses is, their ‘teachers languish of salary arrears/Growing into pyramid peaks across the land.’ (6). The collection is further split into seven sections. They are subtitled in the following order: ‘Prelude,’ ‘Let them Die,’ ‘Strings of Emotion,’ ‘Lineage of Rage,’ ‘Abodes,’ ‘Tower of Neglect,’ and ‘Back Again.’
The first poem ‘Poet,’ is a criticism of who a poet is, his function culturally and socially and above all, it is a diatribe against the earlier poetic tradition in Nigeria. The poet’s eyes have to be ‘telescopic,’ so he can view the world and he must have ‘vision’ by means of which he can ‘predict success and doom.’ The poet must also be psychologically endowed so as to be able to ‘see the heart of darkness of human heart.’ But poetry must not ‘manifest’ itself in ‘alienated logs of confusion acknowledged/No plastic child of Soyinka’s plastic delirium.’ This diatribe against Soyinka and other bourgeois African humanists was initiated by Chinweizu et al in the early 70s through 80s in scholarly publications such as Towards the Decolonization of African Literature and “Prodigals, Come Home.” While Soyinka took a swipe at the emergent radicals in his essay “Neo-Tarzanism: The Pseudo Poetics.” The second generation of African poets rallied behind Chinweizu et al, covertly or overtly and thus moved from the modernist tradition to a tradition steeped in “the words of great Ijala, Egwugwu, Ashama/Alekwu chants and Algaita…’ This implies the return to oral poetics as means of revitalizing poetic impulses and shaping of sensibility. The poet also attacked some ‘critics’ whom he called ‘detractors.’ They destroy poets’ poetry but at the same time, ‘envious of the destroyed’ work.
The poem ‘Lizards,’ is symbolic. The lizards are power seekers who humbly come to the people when but once in power, they turn to monsters. Split into three stanzas, the first tells of the coming of the lizards: ‘They came first/The male with red eyes and fat heads/Across our thresholds…’ but the mistake is, ‘’we left our rough and smooth walls/Our doors and buttocks opened.’ Haven accessed the heart of the people, ‘the lizards of yesterday/Have sprung in tormenting numbers of the chicken pox.’ The lizards have multiplied like chicken pox and now control the source of wealth production of the land. Everything has now ‘become preys/Of the lizards.’ (18 – 19 ). ‘Let them Die’ on the other hand admonishes the people to allow the ugly past and its makers to pass away. ‘Let no one carry rumours of the decades past/That ushered soldier ants of pains and sorrows/Across the famished land/ To stir broken hearts to fragments.’ What pains most is that, those who made the past ugly have plundered also the future: ‘Let no child cry for tomorrow/For we have helped our men rape tomorrow.’ In this context, the youths are not the leaders of tomorrow because there is no tomorrow. Those dying amongst them, ‘let them die in their marshal graves.
Nigeria was caught in a Civil War from 1967 – 1970. Those who witnessed the war could testify of its crudity. The war has deepened the lacuna between the south and the north and the major tribes in the country. In the poem, ‘Peace Forgotten,’ the recent tension and agitation for the emancipation of the defunct Biafra is reminisced upon. Those who are agitating today are those who were not born during the war period but those still alive remained silent. The poet, a distant observer noted that, what began ‘as cannons of threats and rhetorics transformed/Into cannons of smoke and fireworks at dusk.’ The more the poet looks the more what he sees becomes a ‘darkening’ ‘vision.’ ‘Children rushed amidst rains of bullets/From unseen encroaching foes/As window panes and frames shattered/And water pipes ejected into fountain flows.’ In the vision, the poet could not see ‘the initiators’ and ‘the designers of war,’ and even the ‘elders.’ The poet says, ‘I saw no one near nor afar.’ (22) This is a troubling vision reminiscence of Christopher Okigbo’s ‘Path of Thunder.’ The truth of the matter is, ‘Children who know no roots and rhythms of war’ are the victims and instruments of war and destruction. Taking a distant view of life, in the poem, ‘A Garbage of Life,’ the poet, ‘sits by the wayside/Amidst confused crowd/But removed.’ The five stanza poem captured divergent deplorable existential conditions of the hoi polloi in a degenerate society. Children who had no hands in their provenance are also caught in the imbroglio. In the first stanza, we see portraits of ‘Babies wrapped/Wrapped in delicate linens of life,’ while some of the babies are ‘ragged, tagged/While others in bare hands/Exposed, hardened to the biting sun.’ In the second stanza, the poets notices ‘The almajiris armed in files/With rusty plates of lives.’ Almajiri are ‘pupils of Islamic faith’ who live on begging for alms. In the third stanza, we encountered women who strapped with children and even twins on their bags pester ‘windscreens in squadron for alms.’ The poet draws our attention to those who live in affluence amidst the colossal socioeconomic ruin. The rich are ‘those from another planet/Blinding us with stinking wealth. The picture of hopelessness, lawlessness, disillusionment pervades the poem. Police men who are meant to maintain law and order put his face the other way when some persons were ‘engaged in disgraceful duets. Where it is clearly stated, don’t urinate, throw refuse dump or hawk, are where people hawk, throw refuse and urinate. It is a clear picture of mess and disorderliness.
Tenure Ojaide is indubitably the poet’s contemporary and friend. The poem, ‘Vision’ is dedicated to him. It calls back to mind the past when they were younger and when the ‘great lines’ and ‘songs’ of the poet, Ojaide makes the military oligarchs trembled. However, time has toned down their revolutionary vision of life ‘time beget reality/As we watched the eagles/Feed on for life’ (33). In the poem, ‘Dance of the rich,’ however, the poet captures ‘the vultures of the land’ as they gather in great feast. These were men of inconsequence but have now become giants and tower above the land. political power is described as ‘metallic costume’ and could be ‘loaned’ to those seeking it by the people. However, once politicians are empowered, they become ‘Eyes of cataract that no longer see filth.’ They ‘deoxygenated our land.’ once there is a change of power, the people erupt in a ‘momentous dance.’ This is the dance the poet says, ‘I will not join…’ (93). ‘The stream of life, on the other hand is a poem that is built on the model of Kofi Awonoor’s ‘Songs of Sorrow.’ The poem is a message to the political class: ‘if you are lucky to see them/Tell them, our brothers, the politicians/That the stream of life has cut us off/On the other side of the river’ (95). Political power is not a means of self-aggrandizement but the reverse is the case in Nigeria. The gap between the ruled and the ruling is so wide that one hardly sees those representing him. They swim across the the river and abandon their people. Thus, ‘The crabs and mosquitoes of the river pester us.’ More so, ‘Tell our brothers, the politicians that we starve/ As their stream of rosy life daily swells.’ The last stanza ends with a note of warning: ‘Tell our brothers […]/That we shall at mid-day strip them of our wings/For them to crash at the bar beach.’ Political power is thus, Icarus’s wings and once clipped, the politicians crash to oblivion.
The ‘Chameleon routes’ portrays society as dichotomized into two classes: the political elite and the people. In Nigeria, those in the political class are often deified and revered by the people. The politicians are however, ‘those who kill our dreams/Before we ever have a dream.’ But the people, ‘empty’ their ‘reserved strength/Into lavish smiles’ for the politicians when they pass by. The poet concludes ‘I shall stay away from these chameleon routes/Wave and flap flags no more/And make no heroes from our foes.’ The political elites are social products. Abubakar Gimba in his Letter to the Unborn Child argues that Nigerian leaders are not aliens but creations of the Nigerian society. In the poem, ‘My seed in the house,’ the poet ponders upon the kind of law makers who peopled the nation’s chambers. However, they were products of the Nigerian educational system. And being a teacher, some of them were once upon a time his pupils. Being an advocate of egalitarianism, justice and equity, he wonders why his pupils have taken another route entirely different from the ones he has shown them. He is neglected and thus sits in his ‘dilapidated chair’ watching them make laws that enchain liberty and fundamental rights of the people. They are ‘… the seeds/ I planted and nurtured but behaving like/The knife which leaves its sheath/Does not know its owner.’ In all, the neglected teacher/poet watches and returns to his place of seclusion and begin searching. ‘still in search of ideas to heal mankind/In my acknowledged but abandoned clinic/For mankind’ (99).
The poem, ‘Insulate’ looks at the situation of the leaders once they attain political power. ‘Once they climb/To the ladder’s top propped by all/They become insulated/Insulated from your yearnings’ (88). To attain political power, it is a collective responsibility ‘of all.’ But once there, up above, the people see only their ‘anus.’ The poem, ‘Back Again (At the Foothills of Greed) is a poem of lamentation. It laments the present abject condition of Nigeria, a country ravaged by greed, corruption and other vices. The poem tells us that the root of underdevelopment and stasis is greed. The ten stanzas poem lashes at the people and their leaders who have allowed greed to take roots in the nation’s foundations. The rise of a political dynasty is but ‘another full moon of “chop and chop.” The leaders are described as ‘eagles and vultures’ who ‘with surgical talons poised’ have succeeded in empting ‘our starved bowels’ (100). They also ‘prey upon the weak,’ and enriched themselves through ‘the corrupt ocean of contract booms.’ This further solidifies their hegemonies such that they could ‘perch upon high throne.’ The fifth stanza focuses on the actions of the people that legitimize the reign of terror. ‘we turban evil in the arena/Meant for the righteous.’ This act has ensured the enslavement of ‘our future.’ Furthermore, corrupt politicians are given chieftaincy titles and unmerited academic degrees arbitrarily. ‘We deck the commanders/Of night and daylight raiders/With red caps fitted with wild feathers/Anchor their treacherous wrists/With elephant tusks and beads.’ The people, furthermore, ‘mount the evil on white stallion’ and above all, ‘eulogise those who drain our wealth.’ The bulk of the blame is on the people who behave blindly empower dubious, corrupt and questionable characters. In the light of the above, ‘Wisdom’ is lacking in the people. The poem, ‘Wisdom’ is a critique of the absence of wisdom in Nigeria. It is blessed by nature to lead but not armed ‘with the wisdom to rule.’ Thus, ‘ours is yet a nation/Without wisdom’ (104).
There are poems that address nature. Poems like ‘Rains,’ Jos (i),’ ‘Jos (ii)’ ‘Lagos,’ ‘Maiduguri Today,’ ‘Maiduguri (iii),’ ‘Tarkwa Bay,’ Maiduguri is a recurring motif in the poet’s poetic repertoire. It is the capital of Borno state and an old centre of learning. It is on the fringes of Sahara desert with a strange climatic condition. The poem ‘Rains’ shows the significance of rainfall to a region where rainfall is ‘erratic.’ Rainfall that is often seen as a herald of vegetation, regeneration has its side effect. ‘The rains, stagnant pools, rising slums/And strong-fisted mosquitoes of hard drumming.’ (53). Nature is seen by the poet as two edged. It could be friendly when it wants and could be devastating and destructive.
The poetry collection touched upon diverse themes which include religion and hypocrisy, ‘Easter Friday,’ ‘Eclipse,’ ‘Let us’ is a poem that admonishes man to listen to the teachings of the religious leaders: ‘Listen to the Imam/Listen to his raining and haunting words/Piling like healing magna’ (42). While poems like ‘My dear Harrison,’ ‘Otukpo meeting’ ‘Ancestors,’ ‘Minstrels,’ and ‘Songs of war,’ ‘National service,’ ‘This earth,’ ‘The mentors,’ ‘The professor,’ touch upon friendship, death and occupation, ambition and dreams-fulfillment, and service to humanity. The poems in this collection are, undoubtedly well forged and their messages poignant. The existential condition of the populace which is rather pathetic compelled such poetic outburst. From independence to date, pantheons of leaders have crested to the zenith of power on promises of redemption and regeneration. But succeeding generations of leaders have successfully dashed hopes reposed in them, crippled the wheels of progress, and pulled back the hands of time. The reason for stasis in all ramifications of life is but greed. Thus, the poet pointed fingers at the root of our stagnancy and retrogression. Greed has affected human lives, animals, plants, towns and cities and has successfully toppled social and economic order.
The poet Idris Amali is a master wordsmith. His power over English language is gargantuan as it manifests itself in the imageries he created. Some of these imageries are like labyrinth of Daedalous, they do not yield themselves easily. Every line of his poetry speaks volume. There is a perfect solemnization of form and content. However, in this collection, the poet appears disillusioned, observant. The militancy which revealed itself in Generals without War is nowhere to be found in Back Again at the Foothills of Greed. The poet laments, whimpers and his shrill voice lacks that revolutionary fire needed to incite action. Nevertheless, it is clear that we are in a new dispensation, perhaps, democracy is gradually encroaching into the metallic temper of the poet’s voice or perhaps, old age is making the poet’s vision to shift from that of a socialist realist to that of a critical realist.
Amail, Idris. Back Again at the Foothills of Greed. Ibadan: Kraftgriots, 2012.
Akwu Sunday Victor holds a degree in English and Literary Studies and is currently pursuing his Masters in Literature. His writings cut across the three genres of literature. He is a foremost critic of contemporary African writing.