Reviewer: Toni Kan Onwordi
Author: Ogaga Ifowodo
Publisher: Africa World Press
Beyond dead ends
“There are no dead ends, only the birthplace
Of awaited dreams….”
So sings Ogaga Ifowodo, poet, lawyer and political activist in Madiba, his new collection of poems.
In reading Ogaga’s poetry, one comes face to face with the promise and the plight of a generation of poets who sparkled with talent and bubbled with promise. A generation stumped by lack of discipline, stunted by drink and death and stymied by exile and alienation.
Ogaga captures the angst, the failed hopes and the glaring despair of this generation in his poem, “Theme of the Half Child (Conversation with Wole Soyinka)” in which he assumes the aspect of the half child of Soyinka’s A Dance of The Forests. In an ironic turn of events, Ogaga and his generation have unwittingly appropriated the metaphor of the half-child who is born old and must die young.
In the poem, which brings to mind Joseph Brodsky’s “Gorbunov and Gorchakov” in its use of the conversational mode, Ogaga sees his own generation not merely as a wasted one, but one afflicted with a malady much worse than tuberculosis. For the poet, it is the same and yet different: “Same grief but grown too large to be the same.”
Ogaga Ifowodo, unarguably (but for Uche Nduka) the most prolific and eloquent voice of his generation, may well turn out to be the best on account of his prolificacy, his elegant expression, and fecund imagination. Ogaga’s voice is firm, and confident and his facility with the language is a testament not just to talent but to a well-honed craft..
In the collection, his stately and assured turns of phrases and expressions make the heart rejoice. Phrases and lines like; “the latest twist of face”; “he faded gently upon his curved horn” and “for bleeding the pen till the slow/night makes plain paper picturesque” glow like gems and make the pages sparkle.
Ogaga’s tone can be by turns humorous, serious, elegiac, playfully mischievous and un-apologetically irreverent especially in his treatment and invocation of Christian themes and imagery which pepper the collection.
Divided into two unequal sections, Madiba is split into “Outside the Wall” and “Behind the wall”. The poems in the collection are varied in theme, subject matter and content, but running through them all is an assured tone, graceful syntax and the distinct touch of a poet who takes his craft seriously.
In these poems, Ogaga’s trajectory of growth is clear and the keen eye can recognize the ascent to maturity. Even though Ogaga slips in the opening poem, “A Poem to Dream on” where his nod to T.S Eliot’s: “Is it perfume from a dress/ that makes me so digress” falls terribly short of the mark. But it is a telling example of how sometimes, fancy can get the better of even the best of us.
That slip is, however, in no way indicative of the grace and dignity which define the poems in the collection, a collection that climaxes with the 27 sonnet sequence, Madiba.
In Madiba, Ogaga manages to out do himself. In the twenty seven sonnets (one sonnet for each of the twenty seven years Mandela spent in jail) Ogaga tells in lucid and lyrical verses the story of not just a man, but of a people and a struggle. The sonnet sequence is a celebration of courage and the indefatigable human spirit which will not be bowed “even though they have rolled a stone against the unarmed word”. It is a paean to a hero and the sweet sun of freedom. It is a tribute to friendship and the heroic exploits of comrades.
The sonnet sequence is in many ways Ogaga’s most realized work yet. It is lyrical and even though he sticks to a fourteen line structure with rhyming couplets as well as the iambic pentameter, the sonnets in the sequence are not forced or constricted. There is a certain grandeur and lyricism that ennobles not just the subject and its multifarious themes but a trilling note that intimates the reader of something higher and edifying.
If Madiba is the primus inter pares of the poems in the first section, the same can be said of “Unmarked Hours Beat Their Hands Against The Wall” in the second section which brings to mind the best of Denis Brutus in Letters to Martha and Anna Akhmatova in Requiems.
In “ The Shorter Road to Lagos”, Ogaga recounts the famous story of his arrest. The poem opens with “The shorter road was farthest “ which could well pass as a pastiche of Wole Soyinka’s immortal line “The ripest fruit was saddest…” Further down in the poem, Ogaga offers another nod to Soyinka.
In Madiba, Ogaga Ifowodo is not afraid to speak his mind as he tackles issues and subjects that incubate in both public and private nests. His poems are about love and pain, freedom and its denial. They are about ambition and failure, the warmth of home and the cold embrace of exile and even when the verses speak of his comrades-in-arms; Gani Fawehinmi, Chima Ubani and prison reform activist Vivien Stern, his assured tone, elegant diction and aptitude for the language always manage to lift the poems beyond mere proselytizing.
With Madiba, Ogaga Ifowodo holds aloft a bright torch for his generation to make us see that there is still hope beyond the dead ends.