TITLE: DISPOSSESSED AUTHOR: JAMES EZE GENRE: POETRY NO. OF PAGES: 138 YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2020 PUBLISHER: DARAJA PRESS REVIEWER: UGOCHUKWU ANADI
Bildungsroman is not a term we usually associate with poetry. Rather, we use it to describe that type of novel where the protagonist grows, not necessarily in age, but in morals and psychology, and maybe, ideology too; where the protagonist struggles with self-definition, faces social and psychological conflicts and loses their innocence. James Eze’s dispossessed, in every sense of the word, is a bildungsroman. Here, our protagonist is the poet himself.
Divided into three parts, the first part of the collection is titled ‘innocence,’ consisting of poems that reminiscence on the poet’s childhood and reflects on his early stages as a poet. In the second part, the process of losing this childhood innocence begins and is thus titled ‘transgression.’ Here, the poet moves from the personal to the private to experience love, that type of romantic love many believe makes poets of all it engulfs. The loss of the poet’s innocence is completed in the last part of the collection, ‘atonement,’ where the poet finally goes public to lament the myriads of evils bedevilling his home country, Nigeria.
In this debut collection, Eze subtly, yet strongly enters the pantheon of deified Nigerian poets who must be read both blissfully and seriously if the reader wishes to enjoy the full taste of the delicacies they make.
For Eze is in himself a chef–the one who beckons on us to come let’s “pipe peppery verses.” There is no better way of thinking of dispossed than by thinking of that special Nigerian delicacy, pepper soup. It is a warmth-producing meal for those blanketed by cold; it fires the spirit of the downcast but it also provokes tears. As one enjoys the meat, which is the principal ingredient needed to prepare pepper soup, probably with agidi–that unique delicacy gotten from fermented corn–one is also not free from the tears the pepper induces; one is not free from the jerking spasms of coughs that come with its firing of the body; one is not free from those moments of clear-headedness, those moments of insights it produces. It begins with pleasure and at the end leaves the one consuming it floating, floating between pain and pleasure, merging both, and so it is with dispossessed.
In the opening poem, ‘petals and buds,’ the poet invites us to “listen with me/to the joyous laughter of petals/and the suppressed grunts of hesitant buds.” He is the “hesitant bud” “striving for self-definition.” Eze is the budding poet who looks at his predecessors: the Okigbos, the Okaras, the Nerudas, the Eliots, the Yeats, the Pounds … and wonders, filled with self-doubts, if for him “the late bloomer” “there still be a room for a splash in the wineglass?/will there still be space for my dessert of metaphors?”
But the poet doesn’t continue in his self-doubts, he is not left dreading his predecessors, believing they have made it impossible for him to be heard, rather, he draws inspiration from them; they motivate him. For their verses have “awakened the pores of my prescient pollen/and I sing tongue-loosed in time’s ear/amid this bird nest of merry bards.”
At the end of ‘innocence,’ the poet emerges bolder and stronger and more confident and more convinced in his being as a poet and begins to dream of the fantastic things he can achieve with this newly acquired status. He redefines himself in ‘i am’: “i am/the oxygenated laughter/of africa’s ruptured civilization/rebounding with sturdy steps/to reclaim its missing soul,” adopting Emefiena’s assertion that In Biafra, Africa Died and equating his essence to that of this nation, which we will later learn in ‘atonement,’ is very dear to him; he becomes a “prophet, priest and pilgrim,” paying tribute and eulogizing the month of April which birthed him and his son, Madiba, the month Eliot had termed the cruelest month, the month in which “born on eke market day/i arrived with the tropical rain in thunderous fanfare/uprooting ancient trees to carve my own pathway.” We now see a self-reassured poet, one so sure of himself that he now uproots the ghosts of his bardic ancestors, planted as self-doubts in the way of his poetic fulfilment. Filled with a sense of high self-worth, he invites his contemporaries that “it’s time to pipe peppery verses/into the eyes of the gods,”–the kaput gods and the humans in the top echelon of Nigeria’s government who have made of themselves Ajịja, that Igbo agent of death and destruction.
In ‘transgression,’ our minstrel becomes hopelessly in love. He has found that kind of love that “bear[s] hopeful stories to a bruised world,” love that is not ephemeral or performative but one rooted to his heart. Maybe, this love is the “hardcopy version of my dream” which he lamented earlier in ‘mirror’ eluded him and left him “clutching the remnants of a nightmare.” Maybe not. Maybe the hardcopy version of that dream is the dispossessed now in our hands. But one thing we know is that this is not the type of social media love where we can laugh even without smiling, where we can love without loving, where we can tell our lover, “I will never think of cheating on you,” few seconds before we hop into the bed with the “side-chick”–
for this love is not an instagram picture that gleams with gloss at high noon but elopes with a dozen likes at sunset behind the clouds never to be worshipped again beloved this love is a sweet song that rings beyond the metallic melody of a gong like a peal of thunder to herald the liquid exultations from a smitten heart
In ‘atonement,’ the reader who has been stuffing agidi into their mouth, washing it down with the pepper soup and possibly gaiety-mixed palm wine, becomes sober and allows the tears to stream. The reader can no longer afford to only read blissfully at this point for to do so is to pursue rats in a house engulfed by an inferno. Nigeria is the poet’s country; by a few years, the poet escaped being a citizen of the defunct country, Biafra. But the poet is a Biafran. He may not be, legally, Biafran, but he is Biafran in spirit.
Spurned on by the Biafran spirit in him, he begins ‘atonement’ with ‘a fistful of kolanuts,’ a poem that implores on the spirit of the late Biafran hero, the legendary Nigerian poet, Christopher Okigbo. Known to the world “as an outstanding post-colonial English language African poet and one of the major modernist writers of the 20th century,” Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo is remembered and honoured by his own people for many more reasons. He was the one who worked with Achebe to establish Citadel Press at the outset of the war. He also volunteered and became a field-commissioned Major, laying his life to defend Nsukka, the University community where he found his voice as a poet.
The influence of Okigbo on Eze is glaring, not only in dispossessed, but, also, in the life of Eze away from the pages of poetry.
The poet in 2016, joined by the Nigerian novelist, Odili Ujubuoñu, visited the river Idoto, made popular by the late Okigbo. This visit would birth the Return to Idoto series, a biennial gathering of poets from all over the country, before the “watery presence” before which Okigbo stood, naked.
Narrating how the first visit to Idoto went, the poet had written elsewhere, “we left the lips of Idoto for the bamboo grove. But we did not feel quite the same. We had drunk of a spell stronger than the potent libations of the ages. We were now new personages possessed of Christopher Okigbo’s restless spirit, his acuity of vision, his incandescent glow that has refused to go dim.”
This restless spirit of Okigbo would lead them to found the Awka Literary Society, a society that recently organized a Colloquium in honour of the Late General Alexander Madiebo, who was, during the Nigeria-Biafra war, the Grand Officer Commanding the Biafran Army, and after that, a non-fiction author of repute; this restless spirit of Okigbo loosened Eze’s tongue for while Okigbo insists that “we must sing tongue-tied/[w]ithout name or audience/[m]aking harmony among the branches” the poet sings “tongue-loosed in time’s ear” not without an audience, but “amid this bird nest of merry bards.”
The restlessness of Okigbo’s spirit, leads Eze, in ‘atonement,’ to, among other things, interrogate the darkest period of Nigerian history, that period that claimed the pen and voice of Okigbo: the Nigeria-Biafra war.
In the first stanza of the poem ‘biafra’, the author defines Biafra, capturing the hopes and sorrows and pride and loss that came with that nation. Hear him:
biafra the searing shriek of a mother as her son dies with lips locked on a breast drained of milk biafra the young soldier's wife, clinging to the final kiss preserving its piquant taste as the last memory of love biafra the weaverbird at the crossroads trading idoto hymns for guns to save a nation from the throes of genocide biafra the professor who lost his mind drained from efforts to understand the opaque logic of war biafra the bittersweet songs that stirred hopes from the streams of despair to stroke the dreams of a new day biafra the voice in ramah slicing through folds of night to prick the conscience of an indifferent world biafra the furtive glances of saboteurs threading gingerly across enemy lines to trade off the promise of a bruised nation biafra postcards of distended entrails and starving bones awaiting a final guard of honour by vultures in the skies biafra
The poet insists that the closure needed by the victims of this war, a war where “the enemy is not a stranger/he is my father’s son/he is black like me/[…]/he has my history tattooed on his palms” has not occurred; no therapy has been offered to the depressed and the government only mouthed their “rehabilitation, reconstruction and reintegration” policy. This lack of closure is the reason for the rise in Biafran agitations from different quarters today. We have the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), we have the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), we have the Biafran Independent Movement (BIM), different groups of people who have swallowed a tuft of their hair on achieving the Biafran dream; ready to die, some even to kill, for the said purpose. Their members are clawed down daily by state agents; they are beaten, flogged, imprisoned, and even killed. Eze, who in ‘atonement’ has become defiant to the point of activism, avers that those maltreatments cannot solve the agitation problems “for jail cells might limit our movements/but no prison wall is high enough to restrain a dream,” echoing Soyinka who once said that the Biafran idea cannot be destroyed…“you may destroy the people that carry the idea on the battlefield, but, ultimately, it is not the end of the story.” The poet asks us to not be surprised at the immortality of the Biafran idea, or at the many young ones ready to go the path of Okigbo, for the reason is like the watch on our wrists, we do not need the mirror to see them. He asks: “do we need the knowing wink of a seer to accept that this tumour has come to stay?/or that colourful dreams wrapped in body bags have no tolerance for/unmarked graves?”.
The Biafran story is not the only dark history of the Nigerian State that is looked into in ‘atonement.’ The poet goes to the Northern part of the country to look at the Miango Massacre and Rukuba Road Killings in Jos, Plateau State that happened in August of 2021. As always, it had religion (or the fancy terms of religious fundamentalism, religious fanaticism, religious extremism, and many of such —isms) as the root cause. ‘ode to the zealot’ is a cry to god to deal with those whose voices matter, but who have decided to shut it in the face of these killings–“o omniscient god/douse the flame of misbegotten faith/and split in two the tongues of those/who choose silence when speech is life.”
Like many intellectuals and well-meaning citizens of the country continue to do, Eze calls for a separation of the State and religion for “so long as we can’t draw a line between politics & faith/[…]/the ripening boil of violence/will forever be pricked by the talon of hate.”
He moves to the Eastern part of Nigeria, to his home State, Anambra, to mourn the victims of the Ozubulu Massacre, a senseless killing which Eze believes to have occurred, in part due to what Professor Damian Ugwutikiri Opata, in his poem ‘Adada,’ referred to as “cassocked complicity.” In Ozubulu, still in August, this time around of 2017, more than a dozen people were killed at St. Philip’s Catholic Church, Amakwa Ozubulu, in what seems to be a fallout of a drug deal gone wrong. For the victims, the poet mourns: “Let the tears drop now/for believers who found death/in search for life//let the tears drop on ozubulu.”
Like this, the poet continues to reflect, lament and denounce the many challenges Nigeria faces today; issues of terrorism and political and religious deception; issues of tribalism and neocolonialism; the problem of the black man who is never at home anywhere in the world. Not in Africa. Not in the diaspora.
‘atonement’ brings back the self-doubts of the poet, the doubts he had already dropped in ‘innocence.’ In the typical nature of a bildungsroman, the doubts have morphed. He no longer asks whether there is a space for his dessert of metaphors on the table that has dishes prepared by the great poets; he now asks “can the poet save the world?”; is his newly acquired status as a poet of any use to a world in turmoil? He now asks “when will the ‘strongman’ die in africa?” When will our misrulers (for one must not make the mistake of calling them leaders, not even misleaders) die and set us free? But he also understands that freedom is never freely handed to anyone; the enslaved must always fight for their freedom. And that informs his defiance, the one already hinted upon. The misrulers he now asks to choose how they wish to be treated: “on this day/i make you an offer/a piece of white chalk & a stem of palm frond//whichever one you choose/i’ll be at the crossroads… waiting.” The poet has finally decided to go the route of his influence, Christopher Okigbo. He is now ready, to like Okigbo, drop the chalk of his pen, and hold between his lips the deep green palm frond, a symbol of life that spurs the warrior to take the lives of the enemies, while assured of his. But he also has old scores to settle, and that he kept for the last.
At the end of the collection, the poet singled out one Nigerian poet, who, unlike Gabriel Okara, unlike Christopher Okigbo, unlike the many other poets who were praised in the collection, is undeserving of his admiration. This outlier, the enemy even, is the writer and environment rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Ken Saro-Wiwa, described as a “pipe-smoking intellectual” by his niece, Donu Kogbara, is one person whose life and legacy is as much canonized as it is demonized. Part of the Ogoni 9 murdered under the Sani Abacha sadistic dictatorship, the activist writer and freedom fighter is remembered in some quarters, a quarter Eze obviously belongs to, as a selective freedom fighter–one who fights for the freedom of his people while at the same time fighting for the subjugation of his perceived enemies.
In ‘re: epitaph for biafra,’ the last poem in the collection, Eze examines the person of this writer, not from the contested standpoint of what had been his actual role in the death of the Ogoni 4 for which he was murdered, but by the personhood of Saro-Wiwa as evident in his poem, ‘epitaph for biafra,’ a poem where he mocked the travails of the Biafrans. Writing derisively of the Biafrans, Saro-Wiwa sang:
What will they do now? They'll have toads for supper They had snakes for lunch And lizards for breakfast Reptiles are a delicacy On the survival menu...
For Eze, this mockery is highly unacceptable, especially considering that some of Saro-Wiwa’s literary colleagues: Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe and others, were amongst those who have become Biafrans. Berating Saro-Wiwa, Eze wrote: “you took a drag from your pipe and exhaled the memories of erstwhile friends and poets/claimed by the war they did not ask for…” and for this, Saro-Wiwa is not our poet’s hero.
One thing James Eze would like his readers to take away from ‘atonement,’ I believe, is that justice is the only condition for peace. In ‘atonement’ he does not go about offering supplications or bandaging wounds, rather, he opens the wounds to the peppery sensations of balms, for he believes that covering the wound does not heal it; treating it does.
The experimental Eze finds interesting. He makes use of lowercase throughout the collection, just like his Nigerian counterpart amu nnadi does in his collections. This may have sprung from e e cummings unusual capitalizations in his verses. Eze also, at many points, lets go of the punctuations, leaving the reader to punctuate in their head, as they read, thus inviting them, as with his use of enjambments, to become with him, active singers of these narratives. dispossessed is a collection from a very conscious, exceedingly committed (both to the craft and to his society) and achingly defiant poet. James Eze does not care about political correctness as he writes from his heart. This may bring up the issue of his apparent lack of sensitivity reading in some of the poems. For example, in the title poem, ‘dispossesed,‘ the author writes:
now it's getting hard to tell the face of terror is it the man with a long beard and a long white robe or the sweet boy with a cocked gun in a knapsack welcomed into a school bus by his friends with a smile?
By having the image of the white-robed bearded man as his defacto face of terrorism, the author presents, maybe not intentionally so, an opinion of the male Muslim as a potential terrorist. This goes to present the religion Islam, not as a religion of peace as its adherents claim it is, but as a religion of violence that its fundamentalists paint it to be. One begins to wonder whether the author, who is clearly a non-Muslim, is Islamophobic. In this wondering comes an interrogation of Islamophobia as a concept–is it real? In the face of Boko-haram, ISWAP, ISIS and many other terrorist groups that claim to kill for Allah, is it irrational to fear the stereotypical Muslim man? Can one say that the violence the poet speaks of here is only perpetrated by an ignorant few when in Sokoto, Deborah Samuel was barbequed in a tertiary institution?
The author might have found succour in the words of the American author and philosopher, Sam Harris, who argues, just like Christopher Hitchens, that Islamophobia is not real and that “the only problem with Islamic fundamentalism is the fundamentals of Islam.” This I hold to be the only condition upon which he comfortably accepted the stereotype of the Muslim man as the face of religious terrorism.
Eze is not divorced from his Igbo origins and one can see Igbo totems, symbolisms and expressions sprinkled in generous quantities throughout the collection. Lyricism when well done elevates the spirit of the reader; dispossessed is lyrical poetry at its best. In it, Eze juggles lots of societal issues but strictly on his own terms; he moves from the Self to the Other, in that grand confessional tradition.
There are few things to be sad of, though, in the collection. While presenting such Igbo symbols as the kola nut, palm frond, palm wine, etc., the author also presents what he called “white chalk.” I wonder, if Achebe had said “nzu” instead of “a lump of white chalk” in Things Fall Apart, would Eze have described nzu as a white chalk, that ambiguous description that calls to mind the white chalk used on blackboards rather than the ritual nzu used for purification in the Igbo tradition? In the same way, I wonder whether the status of ọja would not have been elevated globally had Achebe written ọja instead of flute, as Unoka’s best friend.
dispossessed, with lush imageries and original and witty metaphors presents us with the chronicles of Eze’s growth as a poet, his intellectual maturation and the heights of his social consciousness.
It is a successful debut collection, clinching the ANA 2020 prize for poetry and a place in the longlist of the Nigerian Prize for Literature, 2022. It is now time to remind the poet that it has been three years since he served us this and we have began to crave for more
Ugochukwu Anadị is a reader who sometimes writes. His fiction, poetry and critical non-fiction works have been published by: Brittle Paper, Afapinen, Afrocritik, Afritondo, Black Boy Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Kalahari Review, and ANA Review amongst others. Literary criticism and queer literature attract him the most. He’s currently a book reviewer at Báaru Serì.