Poetic Insight (Issue 3)
ABIKU (An Appraisal of J.P. Clark’s Poem ‘Abiku’)
by Oghenero Ezaza
Abiku is a Yoruba (Nigerian) appendage for any child suspected to have been born but dies at infancy, comes again, dies and reborn in a painful circle. In Igbo (Nigeria), it is called Ogbanje. Traditional rites believed to remedy this situation ensure that the child is either born not to die at infancy or dies but never re-born. J.P. Clark addresses this complex issue in his poem entitled Abiku.
Coming and going these several seasons,
Do stay out on the baobab tree,
Follow where you please your kindred spirits
If indoors is not enough for you.
True, it leaks through the thatch
When floods brim the banks,
And the bats and the owls
Often tear in at night through the eaves,
And at harmattan, the bamboo walls
Are ready tinder for the fire
That dries the fresh fish up on the rack.
Still, it’s been the healthy stock
To several fingers, to many more will be
Who reach to the sun.
No longer then bestride the threshold
But step in and stay
For good. We know the knife scars
Serrating down your back and front
Like beak of the sword-fish,
And both your ears, notched
As a bondsman to this house,
Are all relics of your first comings.
Then step in, step in and stay
For her body is tired,
Tired, her milk going sour
Where many more mouths gladden the heart.
About The Poet
J.P. Clark-Bekederomo was born to Ijaw parents, in Kiagbodo, Niger-Delta, Nigeria, on April 6, 1935. He attended the Native Administration School and the prestigious Government College in Ughelli, in present day Delta State, Nigeria. J.P. Clark and Prof. Wole Soyinka were students together at University of Ibadan where he bagged his bachelor’s degree in English. As a student at University of Ibadan he was editor of a students’ publication/ magazine known as The Horn which he also co-founded. He has written plays and various collections of poems. J.P. Clark is one of Nigeria’s foremost writers, and enjoys a good international recognition.
Analysis of The Poem
A line by line analysis of the poem is as follows:
Lines 1-4: The poet addresses Abiku with a harsh tone. In line 1 he tells Abiku that he has been coming and going. In line 2 he tells him to remain in the spirit world i.e. ‘baobab tree’. In lines 3-4 he tells him that if this world is not good enough for him, he should follow his fellow spirits (‘kindred spirits’) to wherever they go.
Lines 5-11: Here, the poet relaxes his harsh tone and understands with Abiku that the family is poor and resides in a humble environment. In lines 5-6 the poet-speaker agrees that water usually leaks through their thatch roof during rainy season. Line 6 also suggests that the family resides in a riverine area. This of course is influenced by the poet’s Niger-Delta background. In lines 7-8 the speaker admits that bats and owls often ‘tear in at night’ and during harmattan (lines 9-11) the walls made of bamboo sticks are usually dried up.
Lines 12-17: Here, the poet insists that despite the sufferings of the family which he just admitted, this same house had successfully raised other children and capable of raising great children (‘many more will be who reach to the sun’ lines 13-14) He urges Abiku not to remain in the middle of the two worlds of the living and the dead (‘no longer then bestride the threshold’ line 15) but should rather ‘step in and stay for good’ i.e. Abiku should come into the world and not die at infancy anymore. The poet addresses this issue because it is believed that Abiku keeps dying at infancy because he was born into a poor family.
Lines 17-22: The poet reminds Abiku that special incisions have been put marks on his body hence they recognise him whenever he is re-born. He also tells Abiku that since he keeps being re-born into their family whenever he dies, shows that he has no route to come into this world except via this family (‘bondsman to this house’ line 21).
Lines 23-26: The poet’s concern shifts to the mother of Abiku. After series of child-bearing, her body is now tired, and her breast milk is going sour because despite all the series of child birth, she has not a child to suck her breast. He also tells Abiku of the other children who had been borne of the same mother, but who, unlike Abiku, had all lived after their birth to suck the mother’s breast and thereby gladdened her heart.
- 1. Belief in the Metaphysical: The concept of Abiku is metaphysical. It is common and real to Africans; however there seems to be neither scientific nor biological proof/ explanation of the concept/ belief. The practice of cutting marks on the dead child, and so on and so forth is very real and makes much sense to us, Africans; but may be incomprehensible to someone who doesn’t share our beliefs.
- 2. Belief in the Spirit World: The poem shares the belief in another world where those unborn and those dead reside.
- Poverty: The poem laments the consequences of poverty. Times are hard for the family, and even the new born child does not want to stay, but dies.
- Ordeals of Motherhood: The poem celebrates the plight of the poor mother who suffers recurring child birth but does not enjoy the fruit of her labour.
- Joys of Motherhood: The poet did not fail to hint on the gladness which the other children had brought the mother after their birth.
- Optimism: Despite the fact that the family is suffering from poverty the poet-persona however backs the family by appreciating the fact that the family had raised other children successfully and vouches that she will raise other children that will achieve greatness.
Setting: The setting of the poem is riverine Niger-Delta, Nigeria. The poet’s Niger-Delta background greatly influenced the output of the poem. The reference to river, and drying of fresh fish, tell us that the family resides in the riverine area, and that is influenced by the poet’s Ijaw locality. Also, the poet compares the mark on Abiku’s back and front to the ‘beak of the sword-fish’ (line 19).
Tone: In terms of tone the poem is very unique. It does not maintain one tone from the beginning to the end. Rather, it keeps changing. At the beginning, the tone is harsh and scolding. Then it changes into a tone of understanding and remorse before it changes again into a tone of admonition and lastly changes into a tone of pity, when the poet talks about the mother.
Structure: It is a one stanza free verse poem.
- Ceasura: This is where a sentence ends in the middle of a line and a new one begins from there. (Line 17)
- Repetition: ‘step in’ (line 23), ‘tired’ (lines 24-25)
- Enjambament: This is where a sentence runs into another line. (Lines 16-17)
- Metaphor: ‘Who reach to the sun (line 14), ‘bestride the threshold’ (line 21)
- Simile: Comparism with the use of ‘like’ or ‘as’. Line 19, line 21
About the Reviewer
Oghenero Ezaza writes prose and poetry. He has published a collection of poems titled: Reflections. His poems have featured in various poetry anthologies including: ‘Wushapa’, ‘Black Communion’, ‘Who Shall I Make My Wife?’ amongst others. He writes from Warri, Nigeria. Facebook: Genza – Literature and Gospel Comedy, Twitter: @ReflectPoems, Phone: 07038784963.