Poetry being a language is always at the service of a poet, functionally digging into the past and the present to remind and report the state of affairs of society. The iconic English poet, T.S. Eliot, hints at the interplay of tradition and individual talents, as prisms for an objective reassessment of life. Eliot’s poetic theory is a long (un)conscious pole, journeying from the past to arrive at the present. The impersonal inscription appears as the highbrow philosophy of such poetry that externalises individual talents which are not separated from the past. Poetry is a language. And for many to visualise its texture and tenor, one must first learn to master the sonic signalling and signifying properties, all of which would appropriate some total or substantive understanding. If this is so, a critical examination of Francis Egbokhare’s signifying poetics, helps us understand the meaning of his debut collection, Echoes and Chimes.
Francis Egbokhare, in the main, transports salvos and parodies via the mechanism of satire, deploying all schemas of the sarcastic – searing, subtle and both in similar contexts – to some effects. The poet, ensuring that regenerative anger by a blend of tradition and individual talents, he wields, spreads same through the vast universe of his poetry that forces so much reflection on how language can spike and achieve effects, directly or indirectly. In Echoes and Chimes is a title easily associable with some delightful music, but the reader discovers that the intent is subscripted beyond the surface text. More surprising, also, is how easily the title would overwrite the idea of melody and erect some martial, fiery, satiric tone oftentimes Juvenialian (fierce satire as opposed to Horiatian (mild). The poet makes choices of diction along with the necessary, the modest and the hyperbolic depending on the theme he handles. The poems, when taken for reading individually, perhaps bestride “chimes” – a semantic recasting of the word “echo.” Though “chimes” in one breath of meaning also can be substitutable. A line of difference is that echo, also means an after-effect of a given sound. This would definitely align with the central idea of the collection. Could this be some disguise to perfectly aimed salvos at people, ideas and places? A critical exploration would reveal this.
The postcolony that Nigeria is, looms large at the beginning of the collection, and with the poem, “Casualties of Depravities.” The first part of the title calls to mind J.P. Clark’s “Casualties,” which is hinged on the Nigerian Civil War. Egbokhare writes from a different angle, though. The poet persona, without distancing himself from the critical backlash, pursues a heavy-laden satirical scrub on all – directly or in contrivances – relate to those who are mired in the societal rot that seems almost evident in society. The poem searches through all people, the collective mass and people in various spheres of responsibility, to present the hypocritical persona, and apposite here is, “grandmasters of the illusion of excellence.” Again, like the proverbial one soiled finger, the persona re-christens all as pathologically inclined rogues: “Grand Theft Identity,” the same sordid appellation that the West are wont to tag Blacks (whether or not they appear to be thieves). Certain syntagms are consistent with depravities: residents of disappearing tower/Actors on a sinking sewer/Stars of a game of ruse (lines 5-7) all re-inscribe, perforce the collective involvement in some vice or the other.
The ill-ridden place is, wide and flung, but a certain context in the second stanza pivots pitiably in the ivory towers, where knowledge production should be the central concern if depravities had not gripped the society that powers the poet’s imagination. It is not unmistakable that Egbokhare writes about the academics, whose gowns, perhaps, against the value tied to their epistemic responsibility to research and production of knowledge, which is some huge expectation they have fallen short of. There is some suggestion by the persona that they have not impacted the town, as he affirms: Yes!/ We are the robed ones/dressed up in scarlet regalia of monumental errors/ collocated in academic processions like humanised penguins/None breaking formation/all intuiting affirmation/echoing the dol-rum lines 8-16).
The lines reveal how the pervasive misnomer becomes a common decimal in the academia that not only produces error-ridden men of the ‘regalia’ which in turn, also catalyses the highly read, a set of university teachers upon whom the society depends on for transformation. The sorry end of the stanza reveals how such ignoble representation of the academics, perhaps, collectively appears to succumb to stagnancy, which the hyphenated “dol-drum” suggests. The italicised part of the poem, stylistically foregrounded, hits harder than the previous lines. One reads the palpable poet persona’s anger in:
We are sycophants
Wallowing in error
In the name of hunger
We shall plunder (P.9 lines 18-22)
Here, what becomes urgent is the poet’s intention to pillory academics, unsparing them for, it appears that there is such regenerative anger that dominates the landscape of the collection. This comes from suggestively, as we view the first-person subjective case pronoun “we”, aptly indicative of the poet’s participation in and of the experience garnered in the academia. Linguistic inclusive terms serve importantly to rhetorically spot and splurge them all, of the vexing vices of the postcolony which Egbokhare harps on in the following circumferential signs: “The casualties of depravities,” “Captives of a colonial mentality,” “Slaves of a racial calamity” “Minions of a farcical ideology.” Much suggests that the poet relies on the fodder of documented history, and he implicitly recoups interacting memories from the past to activate the present imagination. Certain evidence points to the textual echoes of the historical past through suggestive signs that recall colonialism or other repressive governance, particularly the British colonial government which has terribly altered the mentality of a number of the educated people in Nigeria and Africa.
The second poem is a jolt, and the deployment of Yoruba oral salvo is careered in the title, “Mumu.” The poem particularly continues the direct vitriol, what in effect, appropriates the kind of satire that Juvenal, the Roman writer, is identified with. Evident, here, is also a run of the poet persona’s angst on what the country has become – “failed experiments,” pathetically the poet persona states that the young ones are “guinea pigs of mindless research,” not yet enough, “The women are laid down in desert storms, ravished in the dunes.” All these running catalogues couched in palpable images and resonating in seething tenor present to the fore, the unmistakable throes of postcolonial antimony. We view another cache of suggestive metaphors that paints a familiar, relatable experience of many Nigerians who are almost wired to cry more than the bereaved, in anything that connects their half-throttled sympathy; the lines suggest as much “We flow with every trend,” “Graze with every herd.” (10) And this pointedly so, relates with instances when certain mishaps or hints of racial assaults, given quick wings by pervading media, get to them, the ones who draw some indignation are “Elevated as spectacles to the global coliseum.” The poet persona clamps down on the skewed mentality of flowing with anything and everything, even to the point that he wonders if we have “the genes of slavery,” and questioning also why the people, without carpeting the persona, “can’t stand up and be counted and be upright?” In the long poem, implicit rage rides through with a well-honed range of images that paints pictures of Africans in the perpetual drudgery of an anomaly. The poet attempts to stir some thought about the implication of such abiding subservience to the inchoate colonial burden that has reduced the mental capacity of most Africans. The poem recalls, without such alternating voices of Ocol and Lawino, the Okot P’Bitek’s Song of Ocol and Song of Lawino grafted on persistent anti-colonial poetics. Egbokhare’s poetry reprimands, unlike Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. He does this by demonstrating the many colonial strategies deployed in suppressing Africa’s, and by serving to stir Africans to rethink colonialism from an insider-outsider’s refracted mirror. It attempts to shape Africans to the consciousness of their being, and for a remarkable turnaround to subsist from this blunt, barefaced critical backlash!
Egbokhare by the poem, “The New World,” touches on the deconstruction of sex and sexuality. The poem, in carefully chosen words, gives heightened meaning to the world, which in terms of previously known sexes, now seems to accommodate other kinds of sexual identities and in turn propel such re-inscription of postmodern decentering of conventional roles. What might be retrievable is that the obscurity of what Egbokhare writes about is mindboggling to a moralist, particularly if one has not in real life heard or read that elsewhere “men have wombs,” “Women grow phalluses/ Children guardian parents/ Pets babysit owners” (13). The language that conveys this is both scathing and slithering. For instance, the new world relays unbridled freedom to renegotiate gender, sexuality, virtues of truth, honesty and all that once easily struck consistently charged positive values and meanings. Dramatic reversals of known positive attributes are what the poet persona rues: “truth has many versions/ updated with new applications/ Trends triumph/ Evil is laundered in modernity…” The effect, here, of these weighted lines, that hint at another T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland”, if we recall is achieved through metaphors, hyperbole, and other tropes. Such expressive figurations have powered both the tone and the texture of the poem.
In another poem, “Cranks of Knowledge”, Egbokhare, in possibly the most scalding of poetic rewriting, directs his attention to palpably serious criticism of the poor academic culture in Nigeria. The suggestive “Uni-Baranda” if we view it by Vicktor Schlovsky’s defamiliarisation, recasts the University of Ibadan anthem. This particularly points out the skewed reality that he sculpts from the grandeur the institution still ironically thinks of itself through the agency of self-serving leaders and conspirators who still keep great memories of the University’s heydays while barely working to reenact its past pride. The images pervasive in the poem would rattle every reader who knows that the universe in our university already took a flight of it, as Niyi Osundare, in his 2005 valedictory lecture, had earlier argued with striking comparisons of the present pathetic slump of the institution with the University of Ibadan of his great undergraduate days. That period of his memory stretched through a little longer into the period of austerity before Structural Adjustment Programme sapped the universe of the University of Ibadan and other Nigerian universities, leaving it (them) on such flaccid state. Egbokhare’s poem has such powerful reiterations of the observation earlier made by Niyi Osundare in his emotionally-charged Valedictory lecture is what I will call “Valediction, not Forbidden Mourning”, were I to surmise the mood of that lecture by drawing successive text relations from John Donne’s poem, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Egbokhare’s “Unibaranda,” is urgent and piercing, as the prism to renegotiate some regeneration, perhaps is important because he knows the ‘university’ too well, and he is aware that there are many who still think of the university, as that “fount of knowledge.” The anthem, as he would suggest, is off the present reality. Moreover, poetry allows for such alternative route for re-imagining life, the poet versifies:
Of trite learning, dip the truth
Bogey soring for all who thirst
Cranks of knowledge to endure
Pledge to serve our famished goods
That our nation nay with pride
Help to ruin a world that is truly free
Uni-baranda self is best (p.17)
The parody of this poem placed side-by-side with the source text is shattering and melodramatic. This is poetically re-textualised, so that the poem is unmistakably fierce, built in such Juvenalian satiric mode. Here, the reader familiar with the real Unibadan anthem can basically compare:
Of true learning, deep and sound
Soothing springs for all who thirst
Bounds of knowledge to advance
Pledge to serve our cherished goals!
That our nation may with pride
Help to build a world that is truly free
Unibadan first and best
…(Ojebode, 2019: p. 58)
Egbokhare takes on the cudgel of satire, deploying ample figurative language to produce some iconic parodies. He does the same with J.P. Clark’s “Ibadan” that four-line poem that thoroughly interprets the totemic interaction of identifiable “physiography” of one of Africa’s ancient cities. With the poem “Ibadan Revisited”, there is a different hue of parody. This type is strikingly different from the previous one, “Cranks of Knowledge.” Being another satire, it can be seen as primarily an inter-text, a co-text – a reiterative text, horizontally related to the previous – and of course the converse of what I will describe as “anti-text” (largely negative, a text that overwrites the previous in a mocking way) which recurs in the previous parody.
In some poems, Egbokhare reflects with corresponding tonalities – between philosophical questioning and direct condemnation of certain sloppy thinking – hypocrisy and other related vices that individuals and institutions engage in. Such poems include: “Masquerade”(p.26 ) fervent with symbolism and hinged on hypocrisy that is almost a retrievable decimal in many Nigerians; “Reflections” dwells on the dissonant beliefs and crisis of thoughts that cultural contacts activated which unwittingly, have created a real crisis of unity and cohesion in thoughts and actions (30-31). And many poems in the collection are re-interpretive of the absurdities that seem widespread in Nigeria.
Echoes and Chimes, as a collection, is not only about satire and parody of place and people, it is also about some philosophical ideas, praxis and prompts needed to assess key attributes for more purposeful living. In “Faith is the Key” the poet persona somewhat goes preachy, showing by telling lines, the force of faith as the key to many life’s vicissitudes “Faith is the key that unlocks life’s mysteries/ It is the balm that oils its miseries…/ Almost verging on a run of a motivational speech, the poem, however, invests keen metaphors to emphasise the immanent belief about faith and its efficacy, seen from past deployment of it in life’s successes of some accomplished figures in social and religious folklore. In another breath in the collection, Our Glories, Our Shame”, the poet forces us to reflect on such existential aspects of life. If as Shakespeare’s says “ The World is a stage … man a poor player that struts about”, we think of Egbokhare’s timely reminder about how fleeting life is, many would possibly live a life that dwells on the right values, we may not after all be in a world portrayed here:
We are lunatics
Our world is our psychosis
We are master illusionists
Performers and audience together (p.38)
While some poems revolve around other issues of historical, social and existential philosophy, the manner in which Egbokhare takes on issues that affect sanity, honesty, truth, is panoramic and poignant. Thus, we may say that Egbokhare’s poetic canvas is varied and virulent, and this may be important in the course of not praising the persistent vices that leave many conscious and consistent critics seething and striking all known antagonists, insisting on eschewing vices and demonstrating the right culture, the values that have become almost nostalgic to many conscientious Nigerians, perhaps like Francis Egbokhare. Nigerian poets from Christopher Okigbo, J.P Clark, Wole Soyinka, Tanure Ojaide, Odia Ofeimum, Niyi Osundare, Tayo Olafioye, Femi Fatoba, Remi Raji, Ademola Dasylva, Jumoke Verissimo, Akachi Ezeigbo, Joe Ushie, Chris Anyokwu, Servio Gbadamosi, tosin gbogi, Rasak Malik, Barth Akpah and now to Francis Egbokhare, have subjected to varying critical concerns in subtle and forceful tenors, human pretensions, warped politics and other deep-seated institutional woes that conspire to leave Nigeria as that old, eternal infant that crawls!
In all, Echoes and Chimes incarnates much anger at postcolonial retardation of Nigeria but the rage is predicated on social redemption. And, perhaps, the furtively couched title would provide such melodic first glance to a reader who may want to piece the title – echoes and chimes together – without encountering the poems individually to arrive at the rage that runs through the poetic course of Egbhokare. The blunt way, self-inclusive critiques of the peculiarly debilitating postcolonial experiences, makes the poetry largely objective and almost without emotional exclusionary – saint and sinner – politics, a perspective of criticism of his society; this is noted of his efforts at subjecting all to the regenerative lens. It would appear that like some poets – Remi Raji’s Harvest of Laughters, Osundare’s first collection, Songs of the Marketplace – would do, Egbokhare draws the reader with such musical magnet by the way of a signalling title, so that perhaps, reading the collection and being drawn to its philosophical, social and political echoes would cause some attitudinal review and positive change towards some truly, sonorous chimes.
Clark, John Pepper. Casualties Poems 1966-68. London: Longman Publishing.
Donne, John. Grierson, Herbert J. C. (ed.). The Poems of John Donne. 1. London: Oxford University Press. 1912
Egbokhare, Francis. Echoes and Chimes. Lagos: PIN. 2020
Eliot, Thomas. “Tradition and the Individual Talent” In the Sacred Wood. London: Faber.
Ojebode, Ayo. “In Search of Muted Voices for the Mirage Named Development” An Inaugural Lecture Delivered at the University of Ibadan. (2009): 58
P’Bitek, Okot. Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol London: Heinemann, 1966.
Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. London: Verso, 2018
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Ndubuisi Martins Aniemeka, formerly an adjunct lecturer at McPherson University, Seriki- Sotayo, Ogun State, and currently teacher of Use of English and Writing with the Centre for General Studies, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, is a poet, columnist, editor and literary conversationalist. He is also an emerging literary (poetry) theorist, critic and scholar. His work has appeared in Lines from the Rock, Bewrite.com, Africanwriter.com, Communicators League, Ngiga Review and Wreaths for a Wayfarer (An Anthology of Poems in Honour of Pius Adesanmi). His debut poetry collection, “One Call, Many Answers” was published by Communicators League in 2017. Ndubuisi Aniemeka has also had his essays published in local and international peer-reviewed journals. Ndubuisi resides in and writes from Ibadan.
NB: Echoes and Chimes by Professor Francis Egbokhare is a publication of Poets in Nigeria (PIN) slated for release on 20th June, 2020.