Tuesday, May 23, 2006

poetry review

Poetry That Tests the Patience
By Molara Wood
Open Sesame by Emman Usman Shehu, Bookcraft (Ibadan), 2005, pp80.

This review resists the temptation to tackle the collection titled Open Sesame from the beginning, and does the opposite - starting almost at the end. The poem, ‘Chant of a Flaming Tongue’ does not make an appearance until page 68 of this, the second volume of poetry by Emman Usman Shehu.

The poet's first collection, Questions For Big Brother, was published along with the debuts of four other ‘Update Poets’ by the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), in 1988. Open Sesame, Shehu’s follow-up, has taken nearly two decades to arrive.

The volume brings together 61 poems over some 80 pages, with an introduction by critic Harry Garuba. With 17 stanzas spanning five pages, ‘Chant of a Flaming Tongue’ is the longest work in Open Sesame; it is also one of the more successful pieces in the collection.

Taking his cue from Cuban poet Herberto Padilla’s exhortation for the "dangerous poem," Shehu responds:

Herberto, every poem becomes dangerous
the moment I open my loud mouth;
this orifice, this buccal cavity, this repository
of a restless, blaring, flaming tongue…

In the voice of a righteously indignant braggart, the piece ranges over many of the poet's concerns. From the late Herberto and Cuba's reactionary politics, Shehu connects with Nigeria - in lines desirous of a revolution.

And who knows what will happen
when the people are tired of wailing?
And who knows what will happen
when the people are tired of suffering?
And who knows what will happen
when the people are tired of praying?

Often sounding - like much of Shehu’s socially conscious poetry - like a political speech delivered on a hastily improvised soapbox, this is poetic pamphleteering of sorts. The poem also delves into the deeply personal. Therefore, the dead being celebrated as inspiration and catalyst for change is not just Herberto, but also the poet-persona’s parents.

The celebration of women in their many guises is a running theme in Open Sesame and informs the depiction of the mother in ‘Chant of a Flaming Tongue.’ Mama warned the poetic voice of possible ruin via his mouth, but he insists:

Yet she gave me this loud mouth.
Yet she gave me this flaming tongue.
Yet she nurtured this unyielding conscience.

A resistance of certain strictures of Nigeria’s feudal North emerges strongly. There is a real identification with the mother figure, and an engagement with the travails of women. The poetic voice leaves no doubt that he is able to mount such resistance only because his mother raised him that way. She herself was no stranger to "improvised speaker’s corners"; she fought "turbans of hypocrisy" and "scrubbed henna / of retrogression from the minds of her sisters." By the time we come across the line: "My loud mouth Mama warned me…" the cycle is complete. Mama herself is recast as a ‘loud mouth.’

Papa gets a mention too, but mainly in a supporting role to the mother, in a subversion of gender roles. It is not the woman that ‘stands by her man’ in Shehu’s poem; it is the man, and he pays the price of ostracism from society.

The poem is one long ‘wail’ to Mama, Papa and Herberto. It connects the personal with the public in its anticipation of societal change. Anything could happen, the poem says - hence its dangerous quality.

The play with gender continues in ‘Gorgon’, in which a dictator not unlike General Sani Abacha is feminised into the Medusa of Greek mythology - subverting the exaggerated machismo of his ilk. The first stanza, riddled as it is with clichés about chills running down spines and "surprised eye-balls" - is a tad unfortunate. However, the use of clichés is part of the poet's established style; his leaning towards dub poetry evidenced by the fact that he is also a musician.

Added to the unapologetic use of clichés, rhymes and repetitions that reinforce the musicality of the lines, the collection is full of references to myths. Figures from the Arabian Nights, the Bible and nursery rhymes, even popular culture regularly pop up. Thanks to Shehu’s penchant for clever wordplay, the Pied Piper becomes a ‘paid’ one in ‘Piper’. The poem uses the nursery rhyme mode to denounce political hired mouths and praise-singers in tunefully repetitive, alliterative sarcasm.

The praise singing formula is itself turned on its head in ‘A Daily Cry.’ The chant-like work is an indignant cry: of the poor to the rich, the weak to the strong, even the disabled to the able-bodied. Ultimately, the poet rails against the tendency of the more fortunate in society - to look the other way.

Then Shehu whips up a storm in the discordant soundscape of ‘The Caged Birds Screech.’ A declaratory piece, it is a call to rejuvenation, rendering the pain, the discomfiting noise, and clamour of the dispossessed. With the refrain: "Open Sesame!" - from which the volume gets its title - Shehu fuses the Arabian Nights with television. The poet envisages a magically transformed reality free from the "caves of despotism" and "the Forty Thieves" of society. In the clangour, Big Bird gains the symbolic gift of flight.

‘Sirenade’ is another inspired title, conflating in one stroke the siren of visiting dignitaries’ motorcades with the welcoming serenade. Only, this ‘sirenade’ is a song of suffering.

Sir, you are passing by,
or this time stopping-by
to see the ghetto-hood?


Sir, we have no buntings
or hip-wriggling maidens
to line the rut-tarred route.

It is tempting to imagine that Shehu might one day become the master of the formulaic verse. Whether he succeeds at this, will depend on how successfully he resolves the poetic tension between the spoken and the written qualities in his work. In Open Sesame, there is a certain disjointedness of space between the two - and the poems themselves bear out the contention.

Many of the pieces would work better in performance than on the page. They insist on the duality, necessitating a self-consciousness in the reader. Thematically and stylistically, this is poetry that tests the patience of the reader, conditioning a certain approach to the act of reading itself. A rewarding reading of poems like ‘Beware’, ‘Diversions’ and ‘Hook, Line and Sinker’ - would involve their being read aloud, as though to music.

The first stanza of the short ‘Hooks’, declares:

My words seize
the pages
of your mind
in a reading instant.

The boastful voice is akin to Rap music, and not unlike rapper Nas bragging:
"You’re a slave / to a page / in my rhyme book."

But formulas can only go so far, and Shehu’s poetry could do without some of its self-imposed strictures. There is an unhelpful attachment to prepositional phrasings. Instead of trusting his lines to convey mood, Shehu often spells it out. Thus, Open Sesame is replete with phrases like: "wheels of affluence." "votes of optimism." and "clarion of opulence." In ‘After the Siege,’ one could almost play a game of ‘spot the three-word phrase. There were at least eleven examples; and they clobber the work with predictability.

Clichés too, are a mixed bag, and not even a poet of Shehu’s experience can transform examples like "no holds barred" and "raging bull" when they surface in the collection.

But when it comes to taut explorations of the gender divide, the poet has an assured touch - with the short, sharp pieces that open the volume. Race and class divides are transgressed in the first poem, ‘Goldilocks’.

Goldilocks straight from uptown
took her chance downtown
and broke the standing rule
in the strange arms of Dreadlocks.

Much meaning is compacted in the encounter between the blonde Goldilocks and the Rastafarian Dreadlocks. The narrative seems to continue with the next piece, ‘Lease of Life’. Goldilocks may not have led such a fairytale life after all; she meets him:

at another junction
of her turbulent life

The "red light" turned to "amber" and then to green, suggesting possible progression from a life of vice to a clean, respectable one. The poet moves with ease from the grand themes of his longer pieces and, with some distancing, gives equal attention to minute details. A keen observer, he ponders upon ageing in ‘Telltale’:

The crow and his feet
turn the outer sides
of her bewitching eyes
into a standby helipad
of a soft landing
the talcum fails to hide.

Due to Emman Usman Shehu’s stylistic daring, his poetry is stripped of the pretentiousness that characterises the work of some of his contemporaries. It should be interesting to see how the poetic tension of Open Sesame is resolved in his next volume.

* Published in The Guardian, Lagos, on Sunday May 14, 2006.


Blogger Poetrywithmeaning.com said...

That was SOOOOOO long!!

But well worth it. I am glad I read the entire thing. GREAT work!


3:27 am, May 24, 2006  
Blogger Eastern Light said...

Yes, I agree it was a bit longish Molara, and only, I think your engaging way of presenting it held my attention to the end.

I was a bit worried about the title, but it got resolved as I read the piece.

Finally, may I just say that I like the way you review books, so effing blunt and to the point.


9:00 am, May 24, 2006  
Blogger St Antonym said...

You're a wonderful close reader of poetry.

Thanks for banging on about cliche. Poets must be on their guard against it. Can't be overemphasised.

9:32 pm, May 24, 2006  
Blogger the flying monkeys said...

This was an interesting read. Thanks

8:06 pm, May 27, 2006  

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