This is an especially exciting post for Lyric Essentials. Christopher Okigbo’s writing is not widely available, and here we get to hear it read aloud by poet Uche Ogbuji. It was such a wonderful opportunity to talk to Ogbuji about how Okigbo’s poetry has served as a model for his work, and to gain some context for some of Okigbo’s more difficult passages. Thank you all for joining us!
Jessica Hudgins: You say that in writing “Limits,” Christopher Okigbo establishes his voice. In Part II of the poem, Okigbo describes, I think, that process. What do we mean when we say a poet has “found his voice”? How has Okigbo’s writing and thinking about this influenced yours?
Uche Ogbuji: I’m glad you picked up on that statement of mine, truthfully just an off-hand use of the critic’s trite formula. My first reaction was: “Ooh! Shouldn’t have tossed that off so thoughtlessly,” but I pondered what that expression might mean in the case of this particular poet, and in so doing I think I’ve been able to better organize and explain my thoughts on his significance.
Most would actually say Okigbo found his voice in “Heavensgate”, the long poem that preceded “Limits.” Before “Heavensgate” he’d published various lyrics, and a sequence entitled “Canzones” but these were quite clearly derivative of Eliot, Pound and Hopkins, his early lights, and carried less of the sonic energy that characterizes “Heavensgate” and later work.
The common reaction to Okigbo is something along the lines of: “his poetry is so obscure but so appealing to the ear and his images are so enticing that you somehow feel compelled to grasp them.” That ability to create broken-mirror collage with hypnotic tones and assonances, along with his unique and arresting way with symbolism is the key quality of Okigbo’s voice, an instrument that surely took copious preparation and experimentation to master.
Uche Ogbuji reads “Siren Limits” but Christopher Okigbo:
Most likely my subconscious assignment of finding-of-voice to “Limits” was born in selfishness: what does it mean to me for Okigbo to have found his voice?
Africa’s literate classes venerate Okigbo because in just one half-decade (mid 1960s) of dazzling output his confident, unignorable voice demonstrated a potence that’s ours as well to claim, even from within the colonizer’s language. Okigbo’s poetry was the first to wrest control of the apparatus of modern poetry, applying it successfully to concerns of Africans building their own nations, remoulding their own cultures in the new global context. In “Heavensgate” he operated for himself, charting a journey as a prodigal (scion of a Christianized family conducting his intellectual discourse in English) returning to indigenous religion and idioms for true fulfillment. “Limits” echoes many of the earlier poet’s themes, but it’s clear the journey is not just for himself, but for others to follow.
As you say Part II, with its sustained image of a sapling finding its way to sunlight under the canopy, captures the situation of the artist in the immediate aftermath of colonialism. His own ancestors seem to tower above, as do the edifices of departed Europeans. So who is he? How does he burst through and take his own place? Who is to say he has a rightful place, hybrid that he is? The artist must start with roots deep in his own traditions and make canny use of the sap of colonial education in his veins, both of which together support growth towards an audience, towards the sunshine of present and future relevance.
Just because my ambitions would have me break through among the tall trees as Okigbo did doesn’t mean I should slavishly follow Okigbo’s style. Quite the contrary. The entire point of his work is to clear the passage, to bless my own individual instincts in growing both from my indigenous roots and from my colonized sap. My own poetry is less modernistic fragment and more old bardic patterns and narrative, rejuvenated by another art form that’s succeeded in easing African (diasporic) sources into modern global context: Hip-Hop.
Under the separate influence of Hip-Hop I’ve gone back to insistence on (often modified) meter and rhyme in a way some might like to believe unworthy for post-colonial poetry. Mine shares no superficial resemblance to Okigbo’s style. But, and this is the crux, it’s thanks to him I carry the conviction that what I’m expressing in my own way is a genuine furthering of the cultures of Eastern Nigeria to which I was born, to which I still feel the most urgent belonging.
There in the innumerable times I’ve read Okigbo’s poetry, in the many passages I’ve memorized are lessons on the use of language’s music to entice the reader, have them persist though my layers of meaning may not be immediately clear. Okigbo taught me to make harmony among the branches, however dense and prickly.
JH: In these excerpts from Paths of Thunder, we see a brief but striking description of the elephant, which I understand as a symbol of the strength that comes from belonging to the place where you live. Your first book is called, Ndewo, Colorado. Can you talk a little about how your writing engages with place?
UO: The elephant, ényí in Igbo, is the symbol of an Igbo community, powerful for Okigbo as it is for all Igbos, and to some extent for all Nigerians. The Nigeria Airways logo in its heyday was a flying elephant, perhaps an odd image to westerners, but one that expressed the capacity of a determined people to achieve their intents. A national airline was a prestige institution in those days. Of course this one was destroyed by corruption among its administrators, and there we behold the danger of power accumulated not for the common good but rather for the enrichment of a few—Okigbo’s hunters sharing the elephant’s meat among themselves.
My interest in poetry flowered at Nsukka, the University of Nigeria, the very place where decades earlier Okigbo had served as librarian, the place associated with so many of Nigeria’s celebrated writers, from Chinua Achebe all the way through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was an engineering student, but promptly set aside proper engineering things to sojourn among Nsukka’s vibrant community of artists. In transferring to US university I avoided flunking out, got serious and earned my degree in Milwaukee. Alas my impetus for poetry faltered, as if that part of me wilted when uprooted from its native soil. A move to Colorado, having fallen in love with the place—and especially the landscape—on an earlier trip, saw me ease back to verse. I found community here—less elephant and more coyote, but anchored in genuine love for the ground immediately under our feet, and that was exactly what I needed to find poetry again.
I put together my first chapbook, “Ndewo, Colorado”—“Hello, Colorado”—in Igbo, rather quickly, an offering of gratitude. I love this place, and no small part of my writing is occupied herewith. How lucky to have at least two places to call home: the rich rainforests of the river Niger’s lower reaches and the semi-arid expanses of the eastern Rockies. It is very important to me that my writing honors both.
I believe Okigbo would have approved; He is among the array of poplars towering above in my own forest. In a messianic sense he died for his beloved Biafra in the war. My father, a sergeant in the same army was shot, and met my mother, a field nurse, while convalescing. My parents married in the immediate aftermath of having lost the war, and I was born in those circumstances. They left the country where they now stood on the wrong side of political reality and made the sacrifices of immigrants across three continents to create a life such that their children could feel at home anywhere in the world. Everywhere my parents passed through there were others who had cleared a path, the Windrush Generation and other belittled immigrants to the UK, the great civil rights leaders of the 60s in the US.
A popular Igbo chant, from sports fans to Biafran soldiers is “Ényíḿbà Ényí! Ǹzọ̀gbú!” Meaning “Elephant of the people! Trample down your opponents!” This bespeaks the sacrifices of all those inestimable forebears, who remain with me, and in whose name I feel honored to work a claim on broader global perspective, a future for humanity where brown people negate all attempts to erase them. It is said of the Igbo that we’ll travel wherever in existence you can find a marketplace, and I’m sure Okigbo would be delighted to hear an assuredly African voice echoing the marketplaces among Colorado’s mountain ranges.
JH: I want to stick with that image for a minute, because I really like the attitude it conveys. “With a wave of the hand/He could pull four trees to the ground.” The elephant is godlike – when he moves, his motion is at once destructive and something that doesn’t seem to have all that much to do with him. What specific moments do you love in these poems?
UO: The elephant is the people. They had the ability to bend the landscape to their will, as evidenced in the thriving pre-colonial villages and towns of the Igbo. As you say the consequences of the elephant’s merest progress are world-changing, so imagine the consequences of the elephant’s downfall. The subtitle of Path of Thunder is “Poems Prophesying War,” and here is another part of Okigbo’s legend. In this, his most clearly political verse, he was not only decrying the venality and increasing violence in the nation, but also suggesting the inevitability of what became the Biafran war, and his own death in the circumstances of war. He was—too sadly—right.
Uche Ogbuji reads two sections of “Path of Thunder” by Christopher Okigbo:
In Path of Thunder Okigbo expresses ambivalence about the January 1966 coup d’état which ended an era of monumental civilian corruption, but also ensured a cycle of repeat violence. I love how he uses variations on Igbo proverbs to get these points across. Igbo proverbs are famously open to flexible interpretation, requiring a sensitive reading of context.
The eye that looks down will surely see the nose;
The finger that fits should be used to pick the nose.
Having declared that the necessary had happened, brought about by the only realistic agents available, Okigbo frets about the consequences: action was required, and immediately so, but risked being cut short of fulfillment by a chain of counter-actions.
Today – for tomorrow, today becomes yesterday:
How many million promises can ever fill a basket…
Of course the poet was putting himself in grave danger by daring to speak of such things.
If I don’t learn to shut my mouth I’ll soon go to hell,
I, Okigbo, town-crier, together with my iron bell.
That outright rhyme, a very rare thing in Okigbo, startles the reader with its sounding finality.
The moments I love most in Path of Thunder are in the preceding poem, “Come Thunder.” I’ll have to forbear from quoting the entire poem. Not only is it a masterpiece of Okigbo’s ability to stitch together the oracular and the proverbial, but it is a feast for the ear, and the imagination.
NOW THAT the triumphant march has entered the last street corners,
Remember, O dancers, the thunder among the clouds…
Again Okigbo is expressing his ambivalence around the coup and the lingering violence, emphasized in how he repeats this couplet’s rhetorical formula. The third stanza is then a brooding, intense sequence of images expressing the thick air of danger in the country, the unavoidable path to war. Then, oh my goodness! oh my word! A bellowing of lines etched by the oracle on scraps of iroko bark.
The drowsy heads of the pods in barren farmlands witness it,
The homesteads abandoned in this century’s brush fire witness it:
The myriad eyes of deserted corn cobs in burning barns witness it:
Magic birds with the miracle of lightning flash on their feathers……
In farming and the relationship to land are the true reading of the world for traditional Igbo. Okigbo feels everything in that tradition vibrating with signs of the war that will soon devastate Igbo and allied lands. Death will come for all sides with the supernatural force of lightning, its agents visible to all, brandishing their weapons over the landscape.
How might Okigbo’s people be delivered from the horrors he foresaw? Though never ones to actually invest in the Christian god, both Okigbo and his friend and colleague Chinua Achebe were happy to use the religion’s literature to express salvation from a powerful enemy, whether the colonizer or the generals who fanned flames of ethnic vengeance after the January 1966 coup. Achebe’s book title invokes the Arrow of God, as does Okigbo in this poem. The language echoes David’s song of praise after victory over Saul.
He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet.
Out of the brightness of his presence bolts of lightning blazed forth.
The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded.
He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy, with great bolts of lightning he routed them.
—from 2 Samuel 22, New International Version of the Bible
The thunder drumming accompaniment to the dance of death grumbles into the poem’s ominous ending.
And the secret thing in its heaving
Threatens with iron mask
The last lighted torch of the century…
Reminiscent of the ominous ending of the poem that gave Achebe another book title (“Things Fall Apart”).
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
—from “The Second Coming”, W.B. Yeats
You don’t have to hail from Nigeria to grasp the chill of what was to come. Horrible images of mass starvation brought by war to one of the most fertile corners of the world led television newscasts on every continent. Okigbo’s prescience could not help his people, but the fire of those words scorch every cell in my brain that is the product of my parents.
JH: Okigbo’s poems are long! Do you often write long poems? What do you admire in his use of the form?
Okigbo insisted on pushing up the temperature with his themes as he returned, progressing through the verse. His major publications were long poems which can be taken as sequences of short poems, but at the risk of fracturing the motifs and echos he so carefully builds. I made my excerpted recordings as short as I could while doing the poems proper justice.
I mix short and long poems fairly evenly. I do admire Okigbo’s dedicated focus in comparison to my ragged chewing through on so many fronts at once. I’ve come to grant myself that I haven’t his luxury of concentrated purpose. I am an immigrant working as an entrepreneur in technology, which can be an unforgiving grind for livelihood. I steal as much time for poetry as I can, and sometimes all I can manage is to get down a short lyric germinated in my head. Now and then a longer matter emerges and insists, so I’ve gained practice developing these in the available bursts of time.
Okigbo’s poetry engages despite its demands in length and obscurity because of how expertly he maintains the energy of his language. It pulses with warm, red blood, thus I can flow along wherever it takes me, even if I can’t immediately make conscious sense of the landscape rushing by on the banks. There is a litheness, a musclarity to Okigbo’s verse, and I very much recognize my own tendency to write verse as a quasi-athletic endeavor.
Okigbo was a fine footballer, captain of the University football team, travelling all over Eastern Nigeria to play. Friends noted his restless animation, a restlessness I know too well. I need to do a hundred things in order to be settled. I still play football some five days a week, mixing in other sports, including snowboarding, as suits a Coloradan. I crave that physicality but the rush of applied energy writing poetry can feel weirdly akin to running the pitch, sticking in a tackle, kicking the ball with skill and purpose. I often stand or pace as I write. Oh to channel that restlessness with the constancy of Okigbo’s poetic dedication! But I’m probably just not that sort of poet. I take as much from hot moments of street-side rap/beat-box cipher as I do the ritualized yam cultivation that gave me my surname, that gave Okigbo some of his signal motifs.
Okigbo’s dedication is especially notable in his many passages suggesting that even sexual energy must be packaged as an offering to the goddess supervising his creativity. The outlet of sport is acceptable, but he knows he risks dissipation in some of his other urges.
I hang up my egg-shells
To you of palm grove
Upon whose bamboo towers hang
Dripping with yesterupwine
Once properly cleansed, having made the right offerings—those long poems that preserve so much of his life-force—he can impose himself on the world with the confident poise that forms his bequest to us, to me. Upon his example I can journey halfway across the world, have those crucial roots unservered, stew richly in the sap of modern consciousness, and gear up to light everything I perceive with a flame of tutored energy.
Queen of the damp half light,
I have had my cleansing,
Emigrant with the air-borne nose,
Uche Ogbuji, more properly Úchèńnà Ogbújí, was born in Calabar, Nigeria. He lived in Egypt, England and elsewhere before settling near Boulder, Colorado. An engineer by training and entrepreneur by trade, his poetry chapbook, his poetry chapbook, Ndewo, Colorado (Aldrich Press) is a Colorado Book Award Winner, and a Westword Award Winner (“Best Environmental Poetry”). His poems, published worldwide, fuse Igbo culture, European classicism, American Mountain West setting, and Hip-Hop. He co-hosts the Poetry Voice podcast with Kierstin Bridger, featured in the Best New African Poets anthology, and was shortlisted for Nigeria’s Eriata Oribhabor Poetry Prize.
Uche Ogbuji’s website: http://uche.ogbuji.net/
Purchase Ndewo, Colorado here: http://uche.ogbuji.net/ndewo/
Hear more of Ogbuji’s poetry: https://soundcloud.com/uche-1
Follow him!: https://twitter.com/uogbuji
Christopher Okibgo (1932–1967) was a poet, teacher, and librarian born in Ojoto, Nigeria in 1932, and recognized today as a major Modernist and post-colonial writer. He worked as assistant librarian at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and as West African Representative of Cambridge University Press at Ibadan. He founded Citadel Press with Chinua Achebe, and belonged, with Achebe and Wole Soyinka, to the Mbari Writers and Artists Club. His work is published in several collections, including Heavensgate, Limits, Silences, and Path of Thunder. He was killed fighting in the Nigeria-Biafra war.
Learn more about Christopher Okigbo’s life and poetry here.
Read an excerpt from his biography Thirsting for Sunlight here.
Chinua Achebe speaking at the Christopher Okigbo International Conference in 2007: