For many years Obi Nwakanma was engaged with research and writing connected with the biography of Christopher Okigbo, arguably Nigeria’s greatest poet. The biography eventually published by James Currey in 2010, reveals much of the future trajectory of Nwakanma’s own work. Fortunately, his engrossing preoccupations with the legendary life and work of Okigbo have not subsumed his creative voice as could very easily have happened. Okigbo’s poetry embodies an unstinting sublimity that is able to remain ensconced in the stratosphere even when solemnly reflecting messy and entangled earthly turmoil. This grants Okigbo’s work an epic range that is constantly maintained in those often mysterious and intriguing lines of his.
Nwakanma’s poetry, on the other hand, has an unmistakable lyrical quality mostly stripped of an unearthly grandeur. This makes it unbloated and readily approachable by the everyday sensibility. In other words, his work is not merely intended as poetry for poets, as is so often the case with Okigbo, but poetry which is frequently imbued with a directness that is able to incorporate the mundane and the sublime in the same breath.
The first poem in the collection, ‘The Story of a Donkey’, has a child protagonist very much like Okigbo’s protagonist contemplating the illustrious ambience of Idoto. But here, the similarities end even as it is clear that there is a quest to achieve some as yet elusive – and also slightly intimidating – poetic undertaking. A measured restraint – which isn’t to say an inarticulacy – that bears a civilised imprimatur is evident in the first few poems of Nwakanma’s collection, ‘This night as I muse your coming/Counting the named constellations,/Crossing the imaginary lines where stars cluster’ (p.3). In spite of the elevated subject matter, the tone is still warm and inviting. This warmth increases when Nwakanma recalls the memory of his great grand-mother who led the women of her village against British colonialists in 1929. An almost forgotten event in history, as a result, is excavated and relived. Even within the context of these rather rude circumstances, the theme of birth is still discernible in the not distant background. In a poem, ‘The Harsh Wind Orchestra’, Nwakanma evokes disparate images within the span of a few lines, images associated with degeneracy and free love: ‘Exhausted now by carousing,/Ascended the spiraling tower,/Towards Babylon,/To the crack of bitter voices,/And there,/They die of free love’ (p.7). Here, the protagonist assumes the stance of a voyeur rather than a participant which somewhat occludes the ethical character of the scene.
‘Birthcry’, which provides the collection with its title, is expectedly awash with birth cries, foetal matter and lyrical beginnings. For instance: ‘And you see with your/ Foetal eyes how the cloud lifted, revealing the sun,/Each time the face of the earth darkened/With tears?’(p.11). In this poem, the subject matter literally explodes with meaning. But in the next poem, ‘Saturday Morning’, the mundane is granted an almost celestial weight in which a scene dealing with the apparently simple pleasures of coffee drinking by luxuriant flower vases punctuates the most definitely forbidding largeness of existence. Nonetheless, love manages to triumph as the ultimate meaning or reason for life. Here, Nwakanma is quite clear as to where he stands. In ‘Orpheus at the Gates’, the mundane and the sublime are again conjoined to reveal the epiphanic phenomenon of birth. In ‘In the Steps of Manuel Sendero’, the child is fortified with empathy, ‘A glimpse of the threshold startled him/The running waters rattled him/The load argument of war frightened him!’ (p.18). In ‘Ingress’, Nwakanma displays his skill in handling sensuality and sexuality: ‘The bare pubes refreshed,/The womb is now in quickening […] It is the ornate bottle with liquid densities/ It is the cup overflowing with viscera/It is the cupola and minaret of desires’(p.25). The sexual motif becomes even more vivid in ‘Eri an Amaku’, ‘My own hands bathed in the clitoral lips of a lover’ (p.27). Not much can be said to be left to the imagination in this instance. However, the motif of birth is often dominant even when Nwakanma obviously has other thoughts in mind: ‘So the old fables lead to the rock –/ Where we must bury your umbilical cord./To the night, in which you and I/Crossed in lifeline, and bonded’ (p.29).
Nwakanma is often able to infuse explicit political material with the leitmotif of birth in a convincing manner. As such, the tragedies of Biafra, Kigali and the 2002 bomb explosions in Lagos are all linked in various ways to the ever present cycle of birth. It is difficult to forget the searing imagery of the lines from ‘Black Sunday’ which deals with the unfortunate Lagos incident: ‘He blazed through the feathered circuit/ Potent-/ He came disguised as a child/And entered the camp of warriors’ (p.37).
Another tragic incident that captures Nwakanma’s imagination is the memory of Leonard Gakinya who was hanged in Springfield, Missouri, in 2002. Race, sex and death are conjoined in a way that radically questions the validity and ultimately, the feasibility of the supposedly all-inclusive American dream: ‘And I remember the smouldering heat –/ The unsurveyed pudenda – the unvisited hacienda/ Echoing to itself ventriloquizing, the wind./ Melanin is under my skin, and that is nothing new either’ (p.39).
In ‘A Brief Memoir of Time’, Nwakanma furthers his exploration of explicit political subject matter. The event of the Belgian colonisation of the Congo and Nelson Mandela’s incarceration at Robben Island are given due attention without the customary lapse into poetry-cum-politics poor taste.
When all is said and done, Nwakanma’s collection is consistently even and he is clearly a poet who has discovered his métier, one who is equally at home handling themes pertaining to the awesomeness of nature and the tragic events of African history within the span of a few lyrical couplets.
Sanya Osha, a poet, philosopher and novelist, resides in Pretoria, South Africa. An Underground Colony of Summer Bees (2012) is his most recent novel and A Troubadour’s Thread, a volume of poetry (2013), is his latest creative offering.