For Chinua Achebe at 70
Ah, Chinua, are you grapevine wired?
It sings: our nation is not dead, not clinically
Yet. Now this may come as a surprise to you,
It was to me. I thought the form I spied
Beneath the frosted glass of a fifty-carat catafalque
Was the face of our own dear land — ‘own’, ‘dear’,
Voluntary patriotese, you’ll note — we try to please.
An anthem’s sentiment upholds the myth.
Doctors IMF, World Bank and UNO refuse, it seems,
To issue a certificate of death – if debtors die
May creditors collect? We shall turn Parsees yet,
Lay this hulk in state upon the Tower of Silence,
Let vultures prove what we have seen, but fear to say –
For if Leviathan is dead, we are the maggots
Probing still her monstrous womb – one certainty
That mimics life after death. Is the world fooled?
Is this the price of hubris – to have dared
Sound Renaissance bugles for a continent?
Time was, our gazes roamed the land, godlike,
Pronounced it good, from Lagos to Lake Chad.
The hosts of interlopers would be exorcised,
Not throwing the baby out with the bathwater,
Enthroning ours as ours, bearing names
Lodged in marrow of the dead, attesting lineage.
Consecrated brooms would sweep our earth
Clean of usurpers’ footprints. We marched
To drums of ancient skins, homoeopathic
Beat against the boom of pale-knuckled guns.
We vied with the regal rectitude of Overamwen –
No stranger breath – he swore – shall desecrate
This hour of communion with our gods! We
Died with the women of Aba, they who held
A bridgehead against white levy, armed with pestle,
Sash and spindle, and a potent nudity – eloquent
Abomination in the timeless rites of wrongs.
Grim cycle of embattled years. Again we died
With miners of Iva valley who undermined
More than mere seams of anthracite. All too soon,
Ma, we would augment, in mimic claims,
In our own right, the register of martyrs. Oh,
How we’ve exercised the right of righteous folly
In defence of alien rhetoric . . . what God has joined, etcetera.
For God, read white, read slaver surrogates.
We scaled the ranges of Obudu, prospected
Jos Plateau, pilgrims on rock-hills of Idanre.
Floated on pontoons from Bussa to silt beds
Of eternal Niger, reclaimed the mangrove swamps,
Startling mudskipper, manatee, and mermaids.
Did others claim the mantle of discoverers?
Let them lay patents on ancestral lands, lay claim
To paternity of night and day – ours
Were hands that always were, hands that pleat
The warp of sunbeam and the weft of dew,
Ours to create the seamless out of paradox.
In the mind’s compost, meagre scrub yielded
Silos of grain. Walled cities to the north were
Sheaths of gold turbans, tuneflul as minarets.
The dust of Durbars, pyrotechnic horsemen
And sparkling lances, all one with the ring of anvils
From Ogun’s land to Ikenga’s. Rainbow beads, jigida
From Bida’s furnaces vied across the sky with
Iyun glow and Ife bronzes, luscent on ivory arches
Of Benin. Legend lured Queen Amina to Moremi,
Old scars of strife redeemed in tapestries
Of myth, recreating birthpang, and rebirth. And, yes –
We would steal secrets from the gods. Let Sango’s axe
Spark thunderstones on rooftops, we would swing
In hawser hammocks on electric pylons, pulse through cities
In radiant energies, surge from battery racks to bathe
Town and hamlet in alchemical light. Orisa-oko
Would heal with herbs and scalpel. Ogun’s drill
Was poised to plumb the earth anew, spraying aloft
Reams of rare alloys. Futurists, were we not
Annunciators of the Millennium long before its advent?
In our now autumn days, behold our leaden feet
Fast welded to the starting block.
Vain griots! Still, we sang the hennaed lips and fingers
Of our gazelle womenfolk, fecund Muses tuned
To Senghorian cadences. We grew filament eyes
As heads of millet, as flakes of cotton responsive
To brittle breezes, wraith-like in the haze of Harmattan.
Green of the cornfields of Oyo, ochre of groundnut pyramids
Of Kano, indigo in the ancient dye-pots of Abeokuta
Bronzed in earth’s tonalities as children of one deity –
We were the cattle nomads, silent threads through
Forestries and cities, coastland and savannah,
Wafting Maiduguri to the sea, ocean mist to sand dunes.
Alas for lost idylls. Like Levi jeans on youth and age,
The dreams are faded, potholed at joints and even
Milder points of stress. Ghosts are sole inheritors.
Silos fake rotundity – these are kwashi-okor blights
Upon the landscape, depleted at source. Even
The harvest seeds were long devoured. Empty hands Scrape the millennial soil at planting.
But Chinua, are you grapevine wired? Do you
Tune in, listen? There is old music in the air.
The word is out again, out from the closet.
Renaissance beats are thumbed in government lairs, In lobbies, caucuses, on promotion posters,
In parliaments. Academe’s close behind. Renaissance
Haunts beer and suya bar, street and rostrum,
Inhaled as tobacco smoke, chewed as kola,
Clerics beatify the word, lawyers invoke it.
Never word more protean, poised to incarnate
In theses, conferences, investments. A historic lure
Romances the Diaspora. Gang-raped, the continent
Turns pregnant with the word – it’s sworn, we shall be Born again, though we die in the attempt.
But then, our offsprings, Chinua, have they leisure
To play at love? To commune with Source, shaded
By coarse-grain village walls at noon? Crush wild mint
Between their fingers, let the agbayun coat
Their tongues, at war with the bitterness of kola?
Raid the hoards of gods and ancients,
Recite their lineage praise-names, clan histories?
Or have the rigours of survival bred a race
Of naked predators? Is sharing out of fashion?
Community a dirty word, service an obscenity?
Are ours the emerging children of Molucca
Born to burn at six, slaughter at seven,
Rinse their hand in the throat’s death gurgle,
Secure in the arch-priest’s absolution? Attuned
At noon to dissolution of the bond of dawn, deaf
To neighbour cries? Easy reddened are the wafers
Of communion – have we been here before?
Still, here you sit before the travelled world, gathered
To pay homage. Survived the kwashi-okor days.
You’ve fed on roots, barks and leaves
Your world contracted, ringed with iron
Fenced with the wringing hands of the world
As unctuous in neutrality as Pontius Pilate.
But you made flesh what is so often said –
Sweet are the uses of adversity – as even now
Your silent eloquence attests. The ancient pot-stills
Turned refineries. Neglected herbs, mystery silica
Powered transistors to accuse the world, screaming
We are not dead, but dying. And iron monsters
Rose furtively from forest bays, hammered
From the forges of Awka. Who can forget the errant
Ogbunikwe that rose skywards, plunged to blast
A fiery tunnel through encircling steel?
Absences surround your presence – he
The great town crier, Okigbo, and other griots
Silenced in infancy. The xylophones of justice
Chime much louder than the flutes of poets,
Their sirens lure the bravest to their doom.
But some survive, and survival breeds, it seems,
Unending debts. Time is our usurer, but earth remains
Sole signatory to life’s covenant – and thus I ask:
Whose feet are these upon the storehouse loft?
Shod in studded boots or jewelled sandals,
Khaki crisp or silk embroidered – who are these?
Did time appoint these bailiffs? Behold
Enforcers out of time, shorn of memory but –
Crowned are the hollow skulls, signets on talons.
Their advent is the hour of locusts – behold
Cheeks in cornucopia from the silos’ depletion
While the eyes of youth sink deeper in despair.
Death bestrides the streets, rage rides the sun
And hope is a sometime word that generations
Never learnt to spell.
Chinua, I think with you I dare
Be indelicate – we scrape our feet upon
The threshold of mortal proof, denying
The ancestors yet awhile our companionship –
May that day learn patience from afar! –
On the stage at Bard, behind the lectern,
Gazing across time to your staunch spirit
Wedded to a contraption we neither make nor mend
My irreverent thoughts were – There sits the nation,
All faculties intact, but wheelchair bound.
Your lesson of the will, alas, a creative valour
Marks the gulf between you and that land
We claim our own.
There are wonders in that land, Chinua
Are you wired? Tuned to images of cyber age?
Severed wrists will soon adorn our walls
And Conrad’s Heart of Darkness be fulfilled.
The cairn of stones is building for the first
Butchery in a public square, a female scapegoat
Tethered for primordial rites that men devise
To keep their womenfolk obedient to the laws of man.
An encampment is on the move, biped
Amorphous tents, a sorcerer invasion choreographed
In castration shrouds, visors no less secretive
Than face-masks, twin to ancestral masquerades
Proclaimed infidel. They slink through streets
And markets – yes, it is our women on the move
Our mothers, wives and sisters, comrades-in-arms
Bereft of limbs and faces, haute couture decreed
By encyclicals of eunuch priests. Features
Mummified by laws of terror. Oh my compatriots,
Shaved bare-skull at initiation, convertites
Dipped body and soul in the waters of salvation
Are yours these zombies of the age, are these
The paracletes of the new millennium?
They’ll murder heritage in its timeless crib,
Decree our, heroes, heroines out of memory
Obliterate the narratives of clans, names
That bind to roots, reach to heavens, our
Links to ancestral presences. The Born-Agains
Are on rampage, born against all that spells
Life and mystery, legend and innovation.
Imprecations rend the air, song is taboo,
The stride of sun-toned limbs racing wind a sin,
Flesh is vile, wine, the gift of earth, execrated.
These tyrants have usurped the will of God.
How did we fail to learn, that guns and boots
Are not essential to a coup d ‘état?
Shall Ala die? Ahiajoku be anathematised? Does
Oya defile her streams, Ifa obstruct the paths
Of learning and councils of the wise? Praise the Lord And launch the bulldozer – they’ve razed
The statues of mbari to the ground, these
Christian Talibans. Their brothers in Offa
Murder Moremi in her shrine, shrieking Allah akbar.
Rivals else, behold their bonded zeal that sanctifies
Alien rape of our quiescent Muses, extolling theirs.
We who neither curse their gods nor desecrate
Their texts, their prayer mats or altars –
What shall we do, Chinua, with these hate clerics?
While we sleep, their fingers spread as brambles,
Deface our Book of Life. How teach them:
Some are born pagan, wedded to life’s seamlessness
Tuned to the breath of things, magma and animus.
The waters of the Holy Gospel bounced against
This splinter of Olumo Rock, retreated
In despair, seeking more porous earth. How reveal
The sublimity of godhead that abhors
The murdering tyranny of Creed? Has gore
Proved godlove on Kaduna streets – ten thousand
Mutilations and three thousand dead of faith?
But the sun rose still the following dawn, indifferent.
Let all creeds be recast. If the gates of Paradise
Are locked behind the Pope’s demise,
We wish him blessed occupancy of yonder realms
With all the Heavenly Host. Has the last Imam
Been here and gone? Then, Bon Voyage
Seek me out among the questers, creed-divorced,
In covenant only to that solvent that is earth.
How shall they be taught, Chinua, that Ajapa
Lives, but no longer borrows feathers from the birds
To survey earth? Myths are our wise cohabitants. Icarus .1.
Transcended wax, new trajectories lace the spheres.
The galaxy is boundless host to a new race
Of voyagers, seeking the once forbidden. Cinders
From Promethean dares, shards of Ajapa’s shell,
Are constellations by which ships of space are steered.
The jealous gods are no more. Age by age
We inched towards the sun, then raced beyond
To drink the heady draught of space, returned to earth
Emboldened. The voices of new prophets are not voided
In the wilderness but fulfilled. Applause
Is the new music of the spheres – it’s heard
In other lands, I am told. I have not heard it here.
But we survived, Chinua. And though survival reads
Unending debt – for time, alas decrees us
Witnesses, thus debtors – earth alone remains
Our creditor. Yet I fear the communion pots
Lie broken at the crossroads, kola nuts and cowries
Scattered by scavengers. Couriers turn coat,
Turned by profit, priest, predator and politician.
The masquerade’s falsetto may reveal, not
Artifice but loss of voice, its gutturals camouflage
Death throes, not echoes of our spirit realms.
The strongest eagle, wing-span clipped, talons
Manicured in gilded thumbscrews may not hold
Nor bear the weight of sacrifice. Our caryatids
Are weary of cycles of endless debts. Incense
Of burnt offering, heavy with abominations
Hangs dose to altar, dissipates between Earth
And Sky. Shorn of new alibis, our intercessors
Falter at the door of judgement. What shall we say
To the years that drift past, accusing?
What shall we chant to their dew-bright notes –
Our new tuned buglers of the Renaissance?
Originally published in Guardian Nigeria
Photo Credit L’Express Culture