Friday, February 17, 2006


Christopher Okigbo

Christopher Okigbo (1932 - 1967) became the leading poet of Nigeria in the years prior to his death. His education at the University of Ibadan in classics provided him a solid background in European literature while his personal studies in African culture gave him a deep knowledge of indigenous literature, and his great gift was the ability to create a dynamic fusion of such disparate materials. He was raised as Catholic, but he was taught that he was in fact the reincarnation of his grandfather, a priest of the river goddess Idoto; almost certainly this awareness contributed to the form of his poetry, which is visionary, incantatory, at times almost ecstatic, in nature. In poems such as "Elegy of the Wind," he evokes reconciliation between past and present, between man and nature:

White light, receive me your sojourner; O milky way, let me clasp your waist;
And may my muted tones of twilight
Break your iron gate, the burden of centuries, into twin tremulous cotyledons . . .

Man of iron throat -- for I will make broadcast with eunuch-horn of seven valves --
I follow the wind to the clearing,
And with muffled steps seemingly out of breath break the silence the myth of her gate.

For I have lived the sapling sprung from the bed of the old vegetation;
Have shouldered my way through a mass of ancient nights to chlorophyll;

Or leaned upon a withered branch,
A blind beggar leaning on a porch.

I have lived the oracle dry on the cradle of a new generation . . .
The autocycle leans on a porch, the branch dissolves into embers,

The ashes resolve their moments
Of twin-drops of dew on a leaf:
And like motion into stillness is my divine rejoicing --
The man embodies the child
The child embodies the man; the man remembers
The song of the innocent,
Of the uncircumcised at the sight of the flaming razor --

The chief priest of the sanctuary has uttered the enchanted words;
The bleeding phallus,
Dripping fresh from the carnage cries out for the medicinal leaf . . .

O wind, swell my sails; and may my banner run the course of wide waters:

The child in me trembles before the high shelf on the wall,
The man in me shrinks before the narrow neck of a calabash;

And the chant, already all wings, follows
In its ivory circuit behind the thunder clouds.
The slick route of the feathered serpent . . .

He was particularly influenced in some of his work by T. S. Eliot, especially the Four Quartets:

"On the New Year"

Now it is over, the midnight funeral that parts
The old year from the new;
And now beneath each pew
The warden dives to find forgotten missals
Scraps of resolutions and medals;
And over lost souls in the graves
Amid the tangled leaves
The Wagtail is singing:
Cheep cheep cheep the new year is coming;
Christ will come again, the churchbell is tinging
Christ will come again after the argument in heaven
Christ . . . Nicodemus . . . Magdalen . . .
Dung dong ding . . .

And the age rolls on like a wind glassed flood,
And the pilgrimage to the cross is the void . . .

And into the time time slips with a lazy pace
And time into time
And need we wait while time and the hour
Roll, waiting for power?


To wait is to linger
With the hope that the flood will flow dry;
To hope is to point an expectant finger
At fate, fate that has long left us to lie
Marooned on the sands
Left with dry glands
To suckle as die.

Wait indeed, wait with grief laden
Hearts that throb like a diesel engine.
Throbbing with hopes:
Those hope of me those hopes that are nowhere,
Those nebulous hopes, sand castles in the air --

Wait and hope?
The way is weary and long and time is
Fast on our heels;
Or forces life to a headlong conclusion
Nor yet like crafty Heracles
Devolve on someone else
The bulk of the globe?


Where then are the roots, where the solution
To life's equation?

The roots are nowhere
There are no roots here
Probe if you may
From now until doomsday.

We have to think of ourselves as forever
Soaring and sinking like dead leaves blown by a gust
Floating choicelessly to the place where
Old desires and new born hopes like bubbles burst
Into nothing -- blown to the place of fear
To the cross in the void;
Or else forever playing this zero-sum game
With fate as mate, and forever
Slaying and mating as one by one
Our tombstones rise in the void.

He began writing and publishing poetry in 1958 and quickly became recognized as the leading poetic voice of Nigeria. In the years immediately following Nigeria's independence in 1960, as the political situation within Nigeria became increasingly chaotic, his interests extended to include political concerns, as one of his last poems shows:

"Elegy for Alto"
(With Drum Accompaniment)

the horn may now paw the air howling goodbye . . .

For the Eagles arfe now in sight:
Shadows in the horizon --

The ROBBERS are here in black sudden steps of showers, of caterpillars --

The EAGLES have come again,
The eagles rain down on us --

POLITICIANS are back in giant hidden steps of howitzers, of detonators --

The EAGLES descend on us,
Bayonets and cannons --

The ROBBERS descend on us to strip us of our laughter, of our thunder --

The EAGLES have chosen their game,
Taken our concubines --

POLITICIANS are here in this iron dance of mortars, of generators --

The EAGLES are suddenly there,
New stars of iron dawn;

So let the horn paw the air howling goodbye . . .

O mother mother Earth, unbind me, let this be my last testament; let this be
The ram's hidden wish to the sword the sword's secret prayer to the scabbard --

The ROBBERS are back in black hidden steps of detonators --

For BEYOND the blare of sirened afternoons, beyond the motorcades;
Beyond the voices and days, the echoing highways; beyond the latescence
Of our dissonant airs; through our curtained eyeballs, through our shuttered sleep,
Onto our forgotten selves, onto our broken images; beyond the barricades
Commandments and edicts, beyond the iron tables, beyond the elephant's
Legendary patience, beyond his inviolable bronze bust; beyond our crumbling towers --

BEYOND the iron path careering along the same beaten track --

The GLIMPSE of a dream lies smouldering in a cave, together with the mortally wounded birds.
Earth, unbind me; let me be the prodigal; let this be the ram's ultimate prayer to the tether . . .

An OLD STAR departs, leaves us here on the shore
Gazing heavenward for a new star approaching;
The new star appears, foreshadows its going
Before a going and coming that goes on forever . . .

When Biafra seceded from Nigeria in 1966 to form a nation largely of the Igbo people and the Nigerian government set out on a policy to starve Biafra into submission, Okigbo who was Igbo joined the Biafran army and requested a posting to the field rather than a secure position behind the lines; he was killed in August of 1967 during the defense of the university town of Nsukka.

There is an excellent biographical/historical/critical essay on Christopher Okigbo to be forund here.

What I find most interesting about many mid-century ex-colonial African and Caribbean poets (and other writers) is the influence of Eliot on them. You can certainly see it in Okigbo and in early Kamau Brathwaite. You can also see the influence of Joyce and other early twentieth-century stream-of-consciousness writers on novelists and prose writers like George Lamming, and the French ex-colonial writers owe huge debts to the existentialists.

I find it interesting because I'm pretty certain Eliot was as politically conservative as his life and background would indicate. Still, the uncertainty of his writing had its impact, even upon me, coming a generation later.

Walcott, apparently, rejected it.

That influence has passed, I think, now. Today's new writers are influenced by Walcott and Soyinka and Okigbo and Ngugi.
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