Chielozona Eze’s poetry: Prayers to Survive Wars that Last

Chielozona Eze has written a book of poems that connect the wars of his childhood with the wars of his exile. He goes home to his ancestral land in Nigeria where the Nigerian civil war, his first conventional war began, and in verse he looks at his world inside out. It is a fascinating look, this little book with the enigmatic title, Prayers to Survive Wars that Last. These poems remind us that there are many types of wars, but people mostly think of conventional wars where guns are the bayonets to the heart. Similarly exile is more than a trip to Babylon, once you leave your hearth, the heart knows and grieves for the warm comfort of home, familiar surroundings tastes and smells. Well, most times. Sometimes, you just walk away, never look back, grit your teeth and bite hard into the peaches of Babylon. Life, as war goes on.

TEST_eze, chielezoneBorn in 1962, Eze was a child during the Nigerian civil war, a terrified witness to a daily hell. The war remains one of the most written about – and most unexamined of Nigeria’s traumas. That war that raged from 1967 to 1970 consumed over a million lives, mostly Igbo citizens, a genocide that destroyed lives and trust among the major ethnic groups. The timing of the release of the poetry collection is interesting, coming at a time when there is a renewed clamor for, if not an independent Biafran nation for the Igbo, a restructured Nigeria with power devolving away from the center to regions, designed perhaps along ethnic lines.

Eze’s volume of poetry has about 47 poems in it, anchored by an interesting essay- preface by the writer Chris Abani. Abani’s essay, by the way. is remarkable more for its claims and assertions than for its substance. When Abani charges, for instance, that “most Nigerian poets focus on the rallying call of protest, politics, and nation,” one senses that he has not been reading a whole lot of contemporary Nigerian poets. Indeed, it is the case that this is one area where African literature is veering away from the monotony and narrow range of poverty porn, grime and protest literature. I am thinking of young and exciting writers like Jumoke Verissimo, Saddiq M. Dzukogi, David Ishaya Osu, Romeo Oriogun, Timothy Ogene, etc, who clearly do not suffer the burden that Abani talks of. As an aside, Abani was born in 1966 on the eve of the war; his claims of being a witness to that war go beyond appropriating someone else’s pain, and comment eloquently on the class distinctions during the war that made the witnessing to fall disproportionately on the voiceless poor. This is where Eze comes in, a child who witnessed and suffered a war he did not ask for. Finally, Abani anointing Eze in this preface as “a true and worthy successor of Christopher Okigbo” is patronizing beyond the telling of it. Eze is his own voice and there are no comparisons. Eze is no Okigbo.

So, who is Chielozona Eze? Google him, and you will get impressive blurbs like this one:

“Chielozona Eze is a Nigerian poet and philosopher and literary scholar. He is associate professor of Anglophone African literatures at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago. He earned his PhD in Philosophy and Literature from Purdue University, where he also obtained an MFA in fiction. He has master’s degrees in Catholic theology and comparative literature. His areas of research include Igbo poetics, African feminisms, globalization and Africana cultures/identities, literature and ethics etc. He is actively collecting and archiving Igbo oral poetry, and he seeks to continue in the tradition of his father, who was a prominent oral poet in Amokwe.”

It is true, Eze is a remarkable  scholar and quiet patron of the literary arts in Africa (who has hosted many writers on his blog), a beautiful soul burdened with the gift of deep sensitivities. A highly regarded scholar and prolific poet, Chielozona Eze was shortlisted for the £3,000 Brunel University African Poetry Prize in 2013. He has published his poems in journals like the Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Eclectica, Northeast Review, and Sentinel Poetry Movement. When the history of contemporary digital African literature is written his name will be right in there along with writers like Afam Akeh, Amatoritsero Ede, Sola Osofisan, Molara Wood, etc.

About the poems, I enjoyed reading the collection, there are many poems to like in this slim volume. The first poem is Lagos, Lagos, a poem that reminds one of the homecoming of a nervous warrior – on the wings of prayers and an airplane. Visually, it calls to mind the pretty line in Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief  – of a plane which “drops gently and by degrees towards the earth as if progressing down an unseen flight of stairs.”:

Our plane broke through dense clouds
and glided over a sea of rusted roofs
                                and skyscrapers
                                        and slums
                                                    and palaces
                                                        and refuse dumps
                                                                    and people
                                                                       and people

From that first stanza, Eze, the war survivor returns to his mother’s hearth. From that poem on, the reader feasts on tender verses that plumb Eze’s angst, pain and longing for a certain peace away from the war of the past – and today’s drumbeats for war. The poem, The art of loving what is not perfect brings Eze’s mother to the reader’s consciousness – on the wings of deep words. In Memory: a parable, Eze is a tormented soul, haunted by the past and the realities of the present, a man apprehensive about a future that is right here, ugly and foreboding:

I know a thing about memory:
It is a blind dog left in a distant city,
It finds a home in a shelter, waiting for love.
Months on, chance brings its master around.
At the sound of his voice it jumps and barks
and whines and wags its tail.
Will the master reject it again?

For Eze, memory is a struggle, memory is life in ether borne on the wings of faith and spirituality. He looks at the past frozen in time, as if with the eyes of a traumatized child. It is a struggle, a painful one for which even prayer does not provide a salve. In Ezes’s memories of war, he emotes beautifully and urges us to remember history:

 The past, if forgotten pollutes
the village drinking well

Eze is his own voice but some of the poems do hearken in a good way to the industry and craft of the old masters of poetry. Unknown boy soldiers, The exodus offer hints of Kofi Awoonor and Wole Soyinka. The poems are enigmatic, giving the reader tantalizing peeks into Eze’s world view and politics. His politics is an issue: What does he now think of the Nigerian civil war? Starved girl is typical of most of the poems, seemingly accessible, simple words pregnant with meaning and feeling:

 The ground is dirt
Grasses are in spots
A white wall darkens
Two children on a wobbly table.
The one faces the camera.
The other stares at the ground.
Her ribs jut out,
her belly balls forth.
Thinning limbs, bloated feet.
Walking must be hell.

If you listen well you can hear me whisper:
Merciful God,
why are we doing this to ourselves?

The poems make the point painfully that the term, “War is hell” is more than a mere cliché. The poems are powerful enough to not require visual imagery.  Hear these lines from Remember me:

She makes it out the door.
Her thighs are stockfish.
Her stomach is a sad balloon.

prayersFaith is a constant subject in Eze’s poetry, he rarely questions it, choosing to revel in its mystery. Memory haunts Eze always. You sit in the darkness of your space and all these images of hurt and longing won’t stop drawing themselves on your conscience. It is not all war poetry; it is that and more. Letter to self from a city that survived is perhaps a defiant clap back to a generation baying for war. It is worth the steep price of the book ($15 for the hard copy, $10 for the digital copy). Ode to my refugee shirt is a nice comforting ditty evoking joy from a sad place.

The reader admires Eze’s generosity of spirit; his verses reflect on other people’s suffering and eloquently uses poetic narrative to reflect on the universality of suffering. Without uttering the word, “love”, Eze’s poems reek of love and compassion and one learns that there are beautiful people who come from a place where the words “I love you” live silently in the hearts, eyes, hands and souls of those who truly love each other.

There are many pieces to love in this slim volume, but my favorite is A new planting season (for Chinua Achebe – 1930-2013). This short moving elegy speaks volumes to the profundity of Achebe’s depths:

Before his last breath the elder showed his hands,
palm up. Empty, he said, like the long road ahead.
I’ve planted the seeds my father put in them;
planted them the way my mother taught me.

Look around you and in the old barn.
More seeds, dung, watering cans, machetes,
two sided machetes. What needed to be said
has been said. Everything else is up to you.

One imagines the poet locked up in solitary talking to himself about the personal and communal pain that won’t go away. There is a war going on, there is a war coming; Eze’s poems make his point plaintively, “I saw war, war is hell, never again.” We can only hope.

Prayers to Survive Wars that Last is available on Amazon. Eze is a veteran digital native and the enterprising reader will find some of these poems freely available online, the book is fast becoming an archival medium.  It is not a perfect book; there is a sense in which it was a disappointing production. Editorial issues mar the book, there are quite a few beautiful lines marred by editorial issues, quite unforgivable in poetry. Some of the poems read like works in progress, puzzling fillers for a little book of poems, inspiring the question: Why is this a poem? In a few instances, the pieces suffer from too many words where less or none would do just fine. And then there is the shoddy publishing of the book itself by an outfit called Cissus World Press Books (which by the way boasts the quirkiest, non-responsive website I have ever seen). My copy literally dissolved in my hands as the glue holding the pages gave way. Not to worry, I bought a digital copy online. It is a better production. Which is fine by me, the book is dying anyway. My Kindle is happy.

Christopher Okigbo’s Voice

First published in Next newspapers, March 13, 2011. Reproduced for archival purposes only.

The late great Christopher Okigbo once said of his poems’ similarities to other people’s works: “It is surprising how many lines of my Limits I am not sure are mine and yet do not know whose lines they were originally. But does it matter?” I think it matters. A while back on Next, the poet Chimalum Nwankwo offered evidence that Okigbo had plagiarized some of his poems. He quoted Carl Sandberg’s poem, For You: “The peace of great doors be for you./Wait at the knobs, at the panel oblongs./Wait for the great hinges.//The peace of great churches be for you./Where the players of loft pipe organs/Practice old lovely fragments, alone//The peace of great books be for you,/Stains of pressed clover leaves on pages,/Bleach of the light of years held in leather.//The peace of great prairies be for you./Listen among windplayers in cornfields./The wind learning over its oldest music.”

He contrasted it with Okigbo’s The Passage: “O Anna at the knobs of the panel oblong,/Hear us at the crossroads at the great hinges/Where the players of loft pipe organs/Rehearse old lovely fragments, alone-//Strains of pressed orange leaves on pages/Bleach of the light of years held in leather://For we are listening in cornfields/Among the windplayers,/Listening to the wind leaning over/Its loveliest fragment….”

Nwankwo has been harshly criticized for his views, but he has a point. Many Nigerian thinkers that I greatly respect and admire point out Okigbo’s youth and observe that “derivation” of others’ works was common practice at the time. But then if someone had shown me Sandburg’s lines without attribution, I would have sworn that it was Okigbo’s voice. Which begs the question: How much of Okigbo’s voice is borrowed or “derived”? Derivation is nothing new. The late Ola Rotimi made it very clear that his play The Gods Are Not To Blame was an adaptation of the Greek mythology Oedipus Rex. Wole Soyinka has been careful to make the connections between his plays and external influences. So is Okigbo guilty of plagiarism? Yes, I agree with Nwankwo There is no attribution as far as I can tell; if there had been notes explaining this, it would be reasonable to see this as an experiment.

A poem is a spiritual journey undertaken by the poet-priest, a deeply personal journey that finds voice in poetry. If I was to take a renowned writer’s work and incorporate it into mine, I would be required by traditional conventions to cite the source. If I was to come up with a copy of it, using most of the language, without attribution, it is possible that it would speak to a reader as the original spoke to me. If the reader was to find out that indeed, this new story used language and themes virtually lifted (in Okigbo’s case, about 80 percent) from the original, the reader would feel a certain sense of disappointment. There would also be questions as to whether indeed the writer undertook that journey personally. There is a software out there that determines how much of a student’s work is similar to work out there. Okigbo’s piece would have been unacceptable today were it to have been submitted as original work, no ifs, no buts about it. More importantly, it raises reasonable questions in my mind about how much of the spiritual journeys in his works were his journeys. I think that is an important question.

Donatus Nwoga wrote an excellent paper on the subject titled Plagiarism and Authentic Creativity in West Africa. The paper showcases several other instances of plagiarism by Okigbo. Take this piece by Miguel Hernandez, the Spanish author of “El amor ascendia entre nosotros“: “ Love ascended between us like the/moon between two palms/that have never embraced;/Love passed like a moon between/us and ate our solitary bodies/ And we are two ghosts who seek one another/And meet afar off.

Here is Okigbo’s “Lament of the Lavender Mist”: “The moon has ascended between us—/Between two pines/That bow to each other;/Love with the moon has ascended,/Has fed on our solitary stem;/And we are now shadows/That cling to each other/But kiss the air only.

Here are lines from Alberto Quintero Alvarez: “What departs leaves on the shore/Gazing seawards at the star foreseen;/What arrives announces its farewell/Before a coming-and going that goes on for ever.

Here is Okigbo: “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…”

These pieces and several other instances in Nwoga’s excellent paper offer evidence of plagiarism; if it is “derivation”, it is actually poorly done, with little attempt at creativity. I believe my friends who assert that these forms of imitation were common practice at the time but it would be impossible to defend this conduct today. I am in awe of Okigbo and I doubt that the day will come when someone would convince me that he was anything less than a genius. But let’s call what he did by the real name: Plagiarism. And it matters, because it was wrong.