Title: Salute Without Guns
Author: Ikeogu Oke
Extent: 130 pages
Publisher: Hybun Publications International
“The memory came faint and cold of the story I might have told, a story in the likeness of my life, I mean without the courage to end or the strength to go on.” Samuel Beckett.
“Strange fits of passion have I known
And I will dare to tell…” William Wordsworth.
My first encounter with Salutes Without Guns was back in 2012, when Ikeogu Oke visited Kaduna to read at a joint session of the Association of Nigerian Authors/ Kaduna Writers’ League. He read and also sang a lot of the poems from the collection in a perfect rapture, voicing his regrets of not bringing a piano along. And even though the end of the session left the house divided as to whether Ikeoku Oke was not more of a musician than a poet, nobody doubted his mastery of the craft (whether as a singer or a poet). I still remember how we trudged homewards- Emmanuel Abdalmasih Samson, Babs Iwalewa and I- chorusing the last line from The Palmwine Ode in the very tune the poet had sang it that evening.
Salutes Without Guns is that kind of strong drink you administer to the grief-stricken until their senses are numbed and they remember their sorrows no more. The reader is exposed to a special type of grief which “no voice can speak”; which “cuts deeper than the quick,/And drips pain even after the end.” The first of the five segments into which the book is broken, drenches even the most hard-hearted reader in gloom. Not a few would pause and wonder why the poet chooses to first satiate the reader with this gourd of vinegar before bringing out the keg of sweet palmwine. Some would have preferred the elegies to come last or at some point within the pleasant session.
“Memories are killing,” according to Samuel Beckett. “So you must not think of those that are dear to you…” But because these thoughts have a way of sneaking into our minds on their own, “you must think of them… every day several times a day, until they sink forever in the mud…”
If that is what the persona is trying to achieve in the first segment of SALUTES WITHOUT GUNS, I strongly doubt that he succeeds. It seems that the pain keeps rising rather than sinking “forever in the mud”. Hear him:
“… In vain have memories
Tried to feel
Of your presence
Of your absence…”
(Away But Not Gone, Pp 27)
In long caravans,
Laden with bouquets
They come with smiles
And eyes that gleam
But sigh to see
An ever widening gulf.”
(Away But Not Gone, Pp 27)
It remains unclear whether his temporary or total loss of faith is occasioned by his loss of a loved one. He bombards the departed with a dozen questions reminiscent of A. E. Housman’s Is My Team Ploughing.
Are there nights
That walk on tiptoe
On the grounds
Of the great beyond?
(Nights and Days, Pp 28)
Is there heaven? Hell?
Limbo? Purgatory? – Where are you, my dove?…
Are there truly
Elysian fields? – Have you seen father?
(Above As Below, Pp 29)
Have you found the job
But could not find here?…
Are there Nigerian
Sores to a blighted Africa
In the new world
To which you might
(The Job You Needed, Pp 31)
Are there hordes
Of listless youths
Has been squandered
(Calluses And Power, Pp 34)
He questions the authenticity of the afterlife to which his loved one MIGHT HAVE DEPARTED. He doubts the established religions which insist on the existence of heaven and hell and limbo and purgatory and such other destinations. Rather, he keeps wanting to know “… what say/ our ancestors/ to such things?” He defies the Apostle Paul who warns that we don’t “sorrow as those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4: 13). He only stops short of speaking ill of the dead, or ‘cursing God and dying’ as Job’s wife would have him do.
“… Tell the Apostle that I – even I –
Now hum the victory song of the grave
That hides your easy charms from earth and sky
As though in a deep, sand-stuffed, impenetrable cave…”
(The Sting of Death, Pp 36)
The third segment of Salutes Without Guns comes as a relief after the bitter pills of loss and strife. It opens with a beautiful poem, A Prayer for My Daughter, which is similar to Polonius’ parting prayers to his son in Hamlet (Act One Scene Three).
“May your road not be smooth
With the smoothness
That slackens the limbs of the mind
Or rough with the roughness
That inclines the soul to despair…
May you not know valleys
Or fortune without labour,
Or forget that life is a gift
To be earned with service…”
(A Prayer for My Daughter, Pp. 67).
This beautiful prayer is continued, perhaps for someone else, in Benediction (To Womanhood).
“Tall like the tree of life,
May the leaves of your beauty
From season to season,
From year to year.
And if theyy should fall…
May they fall on grounds
Richer than you can wish,
To breed new beauties
Better than you can know…”
(Benediction, Pp. 82).
Yet in all these, the scars of loss and grief are not coompletely erased from the poet’s mind.
“May you find favour with your chi,
And with the gods of our ancestors,
And with the creator on whose providence
I shall name you for she whose loss
You have redeemed.”
(A Prayer for My Daughter).
“Hence for your sake and hers,
And the dreams growing
In the womb of our hearts
Fear shall no longer posess me.”
(A Note After Dark, Pp. 69)
“I too once knew an Uyi. She was
A rose garland hung on a full blue moon.
Much burden of glory passed with her pulse
When she slept in her beauty’s June.”
(Show Me a Sign, Pp. 83)
I totally agree with T. S. Eliot who avers that “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet, these experiences are always forming new wholes.”
(Review of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler).
In the same vain, George Santayana holds that “(T)he poet’s art is to a great extent the art of intensifying emotions by assembling the scattered objects that naturally arouse them. He sees the affinities of things by seeing their common affinities with passion… so in poetic thinking, the guiding principle is often a mood or a quality of sentiment. .. Poets can thus arouse sentiments finer than any which they have known, and in the act of composition become discoverers of new realms of delightfulness and grief…”
(The Elements and Function of Poetry)
And then, perhaps, to check the poet’s excesses, George Santayana further adds that “ (T)he poet is himself subject to this illusion, and a great part of what is called poetry, although by no means the best part of it, consists in this sort of idealization by proxy. We dye the world of our own colour; by a pathetic fallacy, by a false projection of sentiment, we soak Nature with our own feeling, and then celebrate her tender sympathy with our moral being… Poetry must, therefore, to render all reality, render also the background of its figures, and the events that condition their acts…”
(The Elements and Function of Poetry)
One must be careful with the way one interprets works of art in general and poetry in particular. Riding on poetic license and figures of speech, poets and/or their works are in many cases misunderstood. Poets are often pointed out as the conscience of the society- a pedestal which only very few other groups of persons are elevated to. Which, I suspect, is why I suffer a great deal of discomfort reading At the Feet of the Lamido.
“… I sat at the foot of the Lamido…
Who saved my people from a raging mob
Before the war…
He had kept the raging mob at bay, a mob
Hungry for the flesh of innocents…
As he shepherded the flock of my people…”
(At the Foot of the Lamido, Pp 47)
It seems unjust to clothe this ‘Other’, this “raging mob”, in so barbaric a garb without considering the events that led to the pogrom. While one should not attempt to rationalize the carnage, claiming the innocent victim and painting the ‘Other’ as beasts “hungry for the flesh of innocents” isn’t entirely accurate.
The employment of Us vs. Them creates identity crises as to who the poet is referring to by “we” in the last four lines of the poem:
And we are humbled by humanity and never by the growls of power,
And we are subdued by compassion and never by the snarls of power,
And we are drawn to kindness and never to the spoils of power.
And we are edified by the benevolence of the good Lamido.”
Is this ‘we’ the peoples of the old Eastern Nigeria, or the entire human race minus the few rotten apples found amongst all the peoples of the world?
This Us vs. Them is carried on in Lest We Forget:
Their voices no longer count
In the land they fought us
To keep as one,
In the land for whose unity
They slaughtered us…
Those who killed us like flies
Now fear for their lives…”
(Lest we forget, Pp 56)
My main problem are with the words “us” and “them”, and also the phrase “my people”, a group the poet has depicted as an orderly flock in contrast to a raging mob. I don’t intend to dispute Kolawole Ogungbesan’s claim that “the writer is a member of a society and his sensibility is conditioned by the social and political happenings around him”. But to what extent does the writer go in depicting these “political happenings”?
Not too long ago we’re told the story of President Buhari visiting the then Governor Lam Adeshina of Oyo State back in 2000 to protest the killing of his ‘(Fulani) people’ by the Governor’s ‘(Yoruba) people’. If (President) Buhari would come under harsh criticism for singing the us-vs.-them song, then it would be partial to spare (Poet) Ikeogu Oke.