Collected Poems of Gabriel Okara
from the Introduction:
“.... Ijaw cosmology holds that prior to physical birth, human beings dwell for a time among water spirits. After departing that watery generative and dormative realm, and throughout earthly life, the people carry out specific rites, prayers and public observances including dance, song, masque dramas and processions in order to insure that their earthly community remains in harmony with the host spirits among whom they first lived. Religion and cultural tradition thus emphasize the necessity not only of maintaining balance between human and natural environments, but of active recognition and vigilance, contribution to and protection of the life-giving Delta. Traditionally then, water, and rivers in particular, hold an appropriately sacred place in Ijaw identity and sensibilities.... With publication of this first poem, Gabriel Okara would establish his literary identity firmly within the landscape and waterscape of the Delta. His body of work, in poetry and prose, is replete with riverine imagery and an abiding consciousness of union with the natural environment. Among the most anthologized works by any Nigerian poet, it has generally been interpreted as a poem of nostalgia, .... In the half-century since its publication, it has nevertheless become touchstone, prayer, protest and lyric anthem for the restoration and protection of the unified natural and human habitat of the Niger Delta.
.... it is a nostalgia not only of “the ghost of a child / listening,” but of the mature speaker anticipating that future when he will “watch / my mirrored self unfold.” The river would thus appear to function as literal, figurative and projected reflector of human memory and desire. The speaker and the river, however, are far more intimately related. To read the river as mere setting or even place to which the speaker returns is to miss the most basic expression of this poem in which river and speaker call out and address one another in their shared, native riverine language, a language unique within the surrounding and related terrain.
The poem opens with the speaker’s impassioned reply: “I hear your call! / I hear it far away; / I hear it break the circle / of these crouching hills.” Each stanza is a more urgent reply, until the fourth and longest, when the speaker exclaims plainly, “[m]y river’s calling too!” The language of the poem – the English language in which the poet composes – is thus a translation of the mother tongue of river and man, who are not only interdependent, but are, in fact, kin.
Composed in 1950, “The Call of the River Nun” garnered the silver cup in poetry at the 1953 Nigerian Festival of the Arts at Lagos, and was published in the 1957 inaugural issue of Black Orpheus, the first English language journal of African literature. Indeed, it is with publication of Gabriel Okara’s first poem that Nigerian literature in English, and modern African poetry in this language can be said truly to have begun.
On New African Poetry:
“.... No Home in This Land by Rasaq Malik opens with “Dedication,” which serves as both a literal dedication of the volume to peoples, families and individuals stunned into death by internal conflict, assasination, execution and murder, and an extended elegy that reveals the unending loss and attendant numbness and nightmarish terror that make up the daily lives of those who mourn. With near-epic command of language and time, Malik weaves Syria’s civil war, Boko Haram’s ongoing jihad, and the 1995 state execution of Niger Delta environmental activist poet Ken Saro-Wiwa into a taut litany that underscores the shared experiences and fates of nations wracked by unceasing bloodshed. “For the woman cupping the candlelight that flickers in a room / in Aleppo, for her children who curl their bodies in bed... stunned / faces of people recovering from ... a blast in Maiduguri…. / For Syria… / the forgotten names of dead soldiers. // For Ken Saro-Wiwa… a sacrifice / at the Nigerian gallows.” In the poems that follow, Malik creates an all-seeing narrator who trains a candid lens on the lived experience of mass mourning and individual grief accompanying especially the now decade-long Boko Haram atrocities.
No mere witness could render such lines as, “A woman sieves a pile of corpses,” or “My grandfather dies with our country’s name on his lips, / my grandmother said, do not bury me in this land when I die.” This speaker is weary and wary of his homeland become dirge, fellow citizens expert in “the art of grief whenever people become rubble.” At his most intensely observant, Malik conjures Gwendolyn Brooks’s “One Wants a Teller in a Time Like This.” His is a Teller on intimate terms with violent death, who simultaneously dares, somehow, to imagine an ordinary future when children live to laugh and play, outdoors and unslaughtered....”