From the same poem that gave Chinua Achebe the title of the work that immortalised him, Things Fall Apart, comes this more foreboding sentence: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” The end of a year is traditionally a period of reflection and projection. We look back in hindsight at the errors and failings of the dying year and promise to do better; to banish all missteps from the coming year. Like the proverbial Owl of Athena/Minerva of Greek mythology, we are supremely wise only in retrospect—by the pitiless backward glance. As I participate in this ritual—after all, the capacity for retrospection and to learn from experience, is probably what best distinguishes humans from animals—my mind, unbidden, fixates on W.B. Yeats’s great poem, “The Second Coming.”
The first section of the poem, laden as it is with troubling images of a world unable to contain anymore the chaos and catastrophe laid unblinkingly bare by the hitherto unprecedented barbarism and carnage of World War I, also gives us those powerful statements borne of the most acute observation: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” I don’t know, but maybe the sanctimonious carrying-on of former military dictator and (s)elected president General Olusegun Obasanjo, and the rather tepid response by President Goodluck Jonathan (why did he trouble himself?) has something to do with my mind’s unilateral musing on this poem. I make no judgement as to who might even qualify for “the best” among the tiresome writers of epistles supposedly driven to passionate intensity by nothing but patriotism and probity.
But perhaps it is the image of a blood-dimmed tide that unconsciously led me to brooding on this poem, and after a while, inevitably on Christopher Okigbo’s equally memorable verses of despair, “Come Thunder”— in his case, a prediction of the Nigerian Civil War that would claim his life at the tender age of 35—but more on this presently. Still mourning the murder of my friend and mentor, Professor Festus Iyayi—and now that we have photo evidence that he was shot straight through the heart at close range, showing that the automobile accident was merely a cover for a high-tech assassination, we must insist on a judicial inquest and charges of murder and conspiracy to murder soon after by the Kogi State Attorney-General—I dwelled on that image of a beast, half man and half lion, slouching towards Bethlehem (Nigeria? since we surely have surpassed Bethlehem in holiness?) to be born.
Only Yeats, who dabbled in the occult, consulted Ouija boards, and had devised a personal spiritual vision of the world symbolised by two intervolving spirals or gyres whose outward and inward spinning represented the unending tension between order and anarchy, might have explained with any clarity what his poem is really about. Yet the tension produced by its lapidary diction and the puzzling obscurantism of its private spiritualism makes the poem plainly unforgettable. Proof is that it is one of the most anthologised poems of all times in the English language. And the more I recalled each image, the closer to Nigeria’s “blood-dimmed tide” I found it to be; not less that phrase “somewhere in sands of the desert,” an image sustained by later mention of “indignant desert birds.” Could it be because the unending bloodbath in the north-east of Nigeria creates bright red trails to the Sahara, where beasts of human head and human body roam menacingly?
Okigbo, who may be indebted to Yeats, given what I now see as the structural similarity of “Come Thunder” to “A Second Coming”—both poems start with gripping images of the chaotic present and move on to prophecy, all in very clear diction, ending with lines that defy easy explication (in Okigbo’s case, “A nebula immense and immeasurable, a night of deep waters” and “the secret thing in its heaving / Threatens with iron mask / The last lighted torch of the century,” for instance), not to mention the private spiritualism of both poets (Okigbo’s less intricate or pronounced)—spoke of “The smell of blood already float[ing] in the lavender-mist of the afternoon” and of “The death sentence [lying] in ambush along the corridors of power.” Somewhere in those corridors, I insist, someone pronounced a death sentence for the assassination of Iyayi, and the direct involvement of a driver in the convoy of the Kogi State governor leaves a lot, an awful lot, to be explained!
Well, it is 2014, the eve of the year Nigeria falls apart, according to America’s intelligence experts and war gamers. Clearly, the falcon (our so-called leaders) can no longer hear the falconer (the people). I do not believe that doomsday prophecy, the US government’s disclaimers notwithstanding. It seems to me that Nigeria has perfected the art of recoiling from absolute self-annihilation when it stares down into the abyss from its precarious perch on the edge of the cliff. And with President Jonathan’s national conference/dialogue, as deliberately ambiguous as it is, we have the rope, the lifeline, to pull us away from the fatal plunge. I will, therefore, raise a toast to 2014!