Book review: Afam Akeh, Letter Home & Biafran Nights. London: SPM Publications, 2012. Price: £9.95
Guest blogger Chielozona Eze is associate professor of English and postcolonial studies at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago. He also runs a blog focused on African literture, African Literature News and Review.
Such long a letter
Afam Akeh is one of the better known names among his generation of Nigerian poets. He is not known for many volumes. In fact, his literary fame rests solely on his only collection of poems to date, Stolen Moments, published in 1988. Based on the mastery displayed in it though, the African poetry community eagerly anticipated his next volume. Letter Home & Biafran Nights is worth the long wait. Like the smell of mango freshly plucked from tree, the first stanza caresses your sense with its rich lyrical and philosophical sweep.
Where the largeness of the dream
is touched by the smallness
of one’s footsteps
there is travel guilt shed
like loose feathers
or discarded skin
This is easily one of the most remarkable beginning stanzas of the poems I’ve read in the recent past. Exposing a contrast between an individual and the universe that is symbolized by dream, the first stanza announces the overarching theme of the collection. One imagines the lone traveller’s paws against the infinite magnitude of the world that does not really care. It is against this backdrop that this pilgrim, who might have seen himself as a prodigal son, suddenly sheds his guilt. The instinct for survival in a foreign environment takes over the rein of his life. This is, indeed, what most of the poems in this collection are about. A heart torn between loyalty to the land of his birth and the land he has taken refuge in, between personal survival and duty to the larger world.
The first poem, “Letter Home,” is divided into four sections that relate the narratives of four African exiles in the West. Their heartbreaking fates are linked to their home by the trail of the letter. Another of the poems, “Letter to Soyinka,” is a retort to what might have been perceived as Soyinka’s failure to understand why many children of Africa have fled the continent. It is biting in its direct, too direct, address to the Nobel laureate.
Is it the wine, weather
the gods that failed?
has your name on it?
How exit a love
that lays claim
on one’s life?
in your beard
is counsel for my fellows
this day of doubt?
But the anger of these lines is a mere expression of the speaker’s frustrations at not being in the land he loves and at being misunderstood by none other than Wole Soyinka, one of the best minds his country has produced. The speaker’s generation has been excreted from the land by the failures of the Nobel laureate’s generation.
The African immigrant experience in the West is not necessarily gloom. The speaker in “Dream Christmas” appears to delight in “seeing the world/white at Christmas, a dream of childhood.” Nor are the poems just about the fate of African immigrants. “The Living Poem: Manifesto for the Public poem,” is the poet’s ars poetica, the artist’s definition of what good poems should be about. Poetry is no longer a thing for the elite few; it is not an esoteric speak. Rather poetry should be “shaking hands with normal folk/not proud and poor like a listed building/leaning on public pity”
To me, Akeh comes to life most in “Biafran Nights.” In it, one feels the weight of history and of a people nearly decimated by genocide and the war that should have been avoided. In “Biafran Nights,” Akeh returns to the Nerudean lyricism that distinguished the “Letter Home.” It is a style of noble lyricism that seeks to marry heaven and earth in a single breath. In this poem, memory becomes a “master griot” that is “stubborn with tales.” And, as if to warn us that those who ignore their history are bound to repeat its mistakes, or perhaps that we cannot wish away our past, the ultimate griot reminds us of our “network of neglected moments.” It is all about a “land imperiled imploding like a myth.”
“Biafran Nights” is, thankfully, long and in three parts. I wish it were even longer. Each stanza is a cache of precious imagery, allusions, metaphors that leave no doubt that a master is at work. The whole poem is as soulful as the prayer of a truly humble believer in the infinity of the universe and the smallness of man; it is to be savored. See, for instance, how the second part begins: “Not a litany of events, history is human smells/and sounds, private motives in public spaces.” There could be no better wisdom than this, no better note of caution. Indeed, poetry, as the manifesto spells out, shakes hands with normal folk. Akeh is best as a philosophizing lyricist, who tends to make extensive, wisdom-packed statements. It is perhaps in respect to the depth and richness of the wisdom of these words that he chose to be as lucid as the biblical prophets.
Every once in a while one wished he had balanced the lyricism with more narrative and imagistic details. More descriptions. This is, however, merely a philosophical question that does not detract from the beauty of the collection. Letter Home & Biafran Nights is a literary success.