Respect is the word that sits on the head of Afam Akeh in the convocation of Nigerian poets. It is well-nigh impossible to see any contemporary gatherer of metaphors who does not have a high opinion of Afam’s work. This is indeed remarkable given that it took Afam more than two decades to publish his second collection of poems, Letter Home & Biafran Nights, after his 1988 debut outing, Stolen Moments, published by the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). Afam had shown early promise but there was a lacuna in publishing which prompted ANA under the inspiration of Odia Ofeimun to publish Afam Akeh’s Stolen Moments alongside A Shout Across the Wall by Idzia Ahmad, Amnesty by Kemi Atanda Ilori, Cotyledons by Esiaba Irobi, Flower Child by Uche Nduka, and Questions for Big Brother by Emman Usman Shehu. These poets have come to be iconified as the Update Poets.
It is against the background of the long wait from 1988 to 2012 that Afam dedicates his second collection thusly: “To my family and the many others of my personal and literary journeys who waited loyally these many years for my letter home.” It is indeed a wait worth the while. The downer though is that if a poem stays too long with the poet without being published in a collection there may be too much revising that could somewhat compromise the earlier versions of the given poem. For instance, the beginning of an earlier version of “Letter Home” in my custody goes thus:
in the fourteenth year
Where the largeness of the dream
is touched by the smallness of one’s England
there are travel guilts a wayfarer sheds
like loose feathers or discarded skin.
The flight so far is full of fret.
This island is a perch to many birds,
home of sorts to the travel worn,
lost in transit, storied swallows
and things out of touch with their beginnings,
harried between exclusions and inclusions,
tortured by absence,
as spoiled for options but without choice.
The published version in the book Letter Home & Biafran Nights on my table now runs this way:
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.
The flight so far
is full of fret, this island
a perch for my birds,
home of sorts to
the travel worn, storied swallows
in transit between
inclusion and exclusion,
as spoiled for options
but without choice.
Of course the poet will insist on a note of finality like Christopher Okigbo: “The versions here preserved are, however, somewhat different and are final…” But as readers we do have a say in matters like this, for I do have in Afam’s case a very haunting attachment to the first line of the first version: “in the fourteenth year.” Chinua Achebe did point out after his revision of Arrow of God that “there may well be some so steadfast in their original affection that they will see these changes as uncalled for or even unjustified.” In the end, it is neither here nor there. What matters really is that Afam Akeh’s devotion to poetry is dignified and very ennobling. If he had been hankering after political correctness he would not have added “Biafran Nights” to his title. Biafra is still a very raw point in Nigeria and I daresay that some Nigerian award-givers may never touch the “rebel” lines with a very long pole.
Letter Home & Biafran Nights lends a universal reach to the themes of absence and loss in a world where the symbol of land offers a semblance of home. The land gathers all stories, and the poet can always burst out in song as a paean to “an uncommon age”. The poet as a prophet offers the reality in this currency: “Much deeper than change/are the scars of change.”
Afam Akeh’s poem “Letter to Soyinka” is a poignant reply to the Nobel Laureate’s depiction of youths of the new age in his 2002 collection Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known: “The children of this land are old/Their eyes are fixed on maps in place of land/Their feet must learn to follow/Distant contours traced by alien minds/Their present tense has faded into past.” Afam pleads guilty to Soyinka’s charge: “I am that brood of brats/you haunt in verse.” The elegiac finale is heart-rending: “If we end/as we have lived/we may be buried/away from you.”
The legend of Olaudah Equiano, the freed slave who published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, in 1789 is reprised in the insightful and touching poem “Gustavus Vassa’s Girls” with Afam supplying the footnote, to wit: “Anna Maria Vassa, first daughter of Gustavus and Susannah Vassa, died in July 1797, nearly four, just months after father’s death in March 1797, aged 52. Her mother had died one year before her father, in February 1796, aged 34. Joanna, the younger daughter, born in 1795, was 62 years old in 1857, when she died without a child.”
Afam’s formative years as a poet take pride of place in the poem “Harry’s Den”, which bears the dedication: “For that Ibadan poetry life of the 1980s.” Afam and other young poets at the University of Ibadan came under the mentorship of the young lecturer and poet Harry Garuba: “In dark tropical nights/Poetry staggered to Harry’s den/enlightened by beverages,/ burning with words/and imagined worlds.” That halcyon world leads on to the He/She lampoon of the poem “No More Eliot, She Said” (notes from a late 20th century Eliot class).
By the time we get to the section of “Biafran Nights” Afam Akeh’s firm grounding as a poet of sound sense and sensibility has been made manifest through lines of supple revelation. “There are nights that speak with clenched teeth,” he writes. “A sense of depth comes with their dark…” The new day dawns with shouts and songs of “Happy survival!”
There is little doubt that Afam Akeh’s influence as a poet will continue to grow with more awareness across Africa and on the global plane. He believes in the properly punctuated poem and does not adopt cheap experimental affectation. Letter Home & Biafran Nights is a sure pointer to the mastery of a poet in the elite ranks of poets anywhere.