Arts & Entertainments

A paean to laughter, symphony of hope

The cover of ‘’Our Country Holds A Whip Against US shows an indifferent map of Nigeria with a sizeable part shaped like a bloodied cow being carved, indiscriminately, by people who seem to have no method to their madness. This illustration presages the brutal nature of the three long poems that each forms a part of the book. Starting with a dedication that is a curse on those who killed Lt Abdulrahman Bashir in Maiduguri, the rest of the book sizzles with violent imagery, gruesome metaphors, “Of savages sharing blood / To kith and kin in covens / Sharing, always sharing.”

Of course, the reference to the infamous words of Mrs Patience Jonathan is evident here, as are the many references to the party that brought her husband into power, “Pdpites, every strain of us; / Scions of scammers, / Viruses mutating in PDP-fold / …of roguery” In the first part of the book titled “Season of Baleful Banalities”, we are inundated by such savagery, as hyperbole piles on hyperbole, till we become indifferent to the gore. In the main, we are looking at what the political theorist, Hannah Arendt, has called “The banality of evil.”

This book examines a running theme in the works of Abdullahi Ismaila, in poetry or prose, to wit; our country treats us badly, horribly, so our feelings towards it can only be anger, a dissonance that is unbridgeable. The first two parts of the book examine the causes of this dissonance, using metaphors borrowed from music, using a syncopated rhythm to define such a relationship. It is not harmonious music, not meant for dancing, the clash of instruments creates too many discordant tunes.

The poem is a ballad to rage, rage against the cluster of felonies that keeps the country stumbling from frying pan to fire at almost every turn. “We escaped rattle-snakes/ To embrace pythons;/…We leapt from the trenches/…But ended up in ditches/ With vermins in tow;/ We jumped out of the junta’s frying pan/ And ended in the firestorm/ Of bigoted projectiles.”

The poet uses a surfeit of paradoxes, ironies, alliteration, personification, hyperboles, irregular rhymes, metaphors and similes to present a gruesome picture of a failed state. It is sometimes too long and too repetitive but you cannot forget the picture he paints here of a place where the bellowing blows of misfortune have banished the tingling tones of our gaiety: “Of the anguished seasons / Which lodged dagger / In our.” That is another thing: how long can people live with their laughter held in perpetual abeyance? “LAUGHTER/That waited too long/ In the tired larynx of griots/ Struggling to raise a chuckle.”

There is a lot of influences noticeable in this work, including the Bible and the Quran. But foremost is the dominant flavour of Niyi Osundare’s “Waiting Laughters,” for the running theme of this three-part collection of poems is the way several seasons of anomy have led us to this joyless place. There is a lingering fear that perhaps it is too late, we have waited so long that our very chords have forgotten how to vocalize joy. “Of what use is the LAUGHTER/ Which waited too long/In the compost of anguished seasons” There are many borrowings from oral literature here, with the use of proverbs and wise sayings and exclamations and local names of people and things.

In parts, the work looks like a dirge, like other works of African poets of the school of orature, like Kofi Awoonor, Okot P’bitek, and of course Christopher Okigbo whose Labyrinth is a perpetual source for this writer. Yet in many places the poems are not so simple, not Osundare’s poet of the marketplace, but rather dense and turgid, and very difficult to understand.

This is large because the poet took poetic licenses and created his own words, sometimes deliberately changing the order of words used in common phrases, making them uncommon. But it is in the use of metaphors private to his milieu, of names and places drawn from his eclectic reading, and the collocation of certain multisyllabic words, that make parts of this work challenging to the average reader. Indeed, in many instances, one comes across the same problem with meaning that critics have come to associate with the poems of Wole Soyinka, especially that beautiful piece of poetry, “Idanre”. Like when the poet talks of: “Ruffled numina / And ghoulish principality/And other gourmands,” or “Tonalities. Whimpering in turn / Tonalities.

We intoned.” Or this stanza: “Encased in viviparous delights / With the hardcore first, / Then the encore, / And the decoy of bubble blues / Which explode into shards / Of luminescent lights.” Both the first and second parts, of this book, “Season of Baleful Banalities” and its twin, “Season of Toneful Wailing,” speak of a hopeless situation where leaders give us stones for bread, plunder the granary of our collective patrimony and leave us destitute, kill our hopes and our destiny, and respond to our complaints with more violence.

The poems are a paradise of paradoxes where “custodians of our Earth/Die salivating in this sickened/Land of the slough of despond.” The politicians here or rather “poli-thieve-cians” are exactly like the way the Bible describes the devil, “that cometh not,/But for to steal, and to kill,/And to destroy our fealty .” In Part 1, we waited for laughter and despaired that it will never come.

In Part 2, ‘Season of Toneful Wailing,’ the wailings continue only the people are getting fed up. They are angry fit to burst at the puny prize that their long-suffering has yielded, aghast at the gap between what they hoped for and what they got.

“We bargained for fresh air/…We got mustard gas.” The problem is with leaders who eat and foul up the place! And then they lie fulsomely, hoping to ‘‘transform History with Sophistry.” In so doing, they let vengeance loose. So in this part, we see that the people are fed up, fit to burst are now mitigated by the possibility of action, of retaliation.

That quest for redress became manifest in the third part of this collection, appropriately titled, “Season of Wakeful Laughters”. Here, hope is reborn like the Phoenix and our land is gradually rising from the ashes of its past. Now, the people are poised to take their destiny into their hands. It is now apparent that “Laughters will return / To our clammy cavities / To be laughed soulfully.” The book ends on this promising note, repeated as much as the first two parts overstated the desolation.

First, of course, we need what the author has called “the strong breed” (a la Soyinka), Men of sterner stuff, matadors who will take the bull by the horn and redirect us to the promised land. The last poem is therefore the opposite of the first; it is a paean to laughter, a symphony of hope. It is the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, the prize of the patient dog, a memento to those who laugh last. Joyfully: We shall rouse the world / To dance to our sparkling smiles.

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