The poetry of Ebi Yeibo – Part 1
In recent years, the Niger Delta crisis has thrown up quite a number of notable poets from the region, among whom is Ebi Yeibo. Born in Ayakoroma in Delta State, Yeibo has earned a reputation as one of the finest voices from the Niger Delta. He was educated at the Delta State University, Abraka, and later, the University of Ibadan, where he obtained a Master of Arts in English. He is currently a lecturer in the Department of English and Literary Studies, Niger Delta University (NDU), Wilberforce Island, Amassoma, Bayelsa State.
Since his foray into poetry, he has garnered to his credit, not less than five collections, which are: Maiden Lines (1997); A Song for Tomorrow and Other Poems (2003); The Forbidden Tongue (2007); Shadows of the Setting Sun (2012); and The Fourth Masquerade (2014). The Fourth Masquerade won the 2014 ANA Prize for Poetry.
A survey of select poems from at least, four of his collections will give us an idea of the versatility of, and budding greatness of this poet. The collections in view are: Maiden Lines, A Song for Tomorrow, The Forbidden Tongue, and The Fourth Masquerade.
Maiden Lines (1997) happens to be Yeibo’s first outing. The metaphor of the collection’s title “maiden” is not lost on the reader: first, it presupposes something new, fresh, in other words, a fresh set of “lines” or poems; second, it alludes to the fine incisions or lines made with a certain instrument on the belly of an average Izon maiden, as a sign of her beauty and maidenhood.
This fact is alluded to by the poet in the words of his grandmother Kadabramu, in that they (lines of verse) are “as permanent as maidens/carry flowery lines/ on their alluring stomachs” (p. 87). From whatever perspective the reader wishes to view the wording of the title, both meanings coalesce to bring out the idea of a fresh or new poetic sojourn by an equally fresh poet with the object of creating beauty. As a debut collection, the poet falls back on experiences within his traditional Izon culture and world-view, a fact that has been commented on by critics.
This collection is made up of thirty-four (34) poems in all, covering various facets of life in Nigeria and beyond. The chick that grows into a cockerel is seen early in the morning: the aesthete that Yeibo has now become is noticeable even in this first collection. Five poems from this collection shall be given close attention. These poems are: “Mermaid”, “The unemployed graduate”, “Friends”, “River ethiope” and “Claypot”. The poem “Mermaid” recalls the poetic debt the new poet owes to older poets, most especially Christopher Okigbo. To underscore this point, the poem is actually dedicated to the latter, as the subtitle indicates: “For Chris Okigbo”. Like Okigbo’s “Idoto”, the poet here pays homage to his muse, which in this case, is his native lore and custom, as well as the legacy from Okigbo. The poet-persona of the poem sees himself as one on a sacred mission and therefore seeks blessings for a great outing and reassurance of a heroic return:
The owner is come home/ And the sojourner/ Finds a roost/ In the fire that soothes/ Like raindrops (p. 15).
The second poem to be examined is “The Unemployed graduate”. Unemployment in Nigeria is a sign of the worsening economic and social conditions of the nation.
As its name implies, this poem narrates the everyday experiences of Nigerian undergraduates soon after leaving the ivory tower and returning from National Service. The hope that a university degree will guarantee a job is shown here to be a mirage.
After several disappointments in job-seeking, the graduate-persona of the poem has been given hope of a possible recruitment in a certain establishment. The joy of the persona at this point knows no bounds until hunger forces him to buy from a roadside seller, a favourite Nigerian snack, guguru, made from ground peanut dough. To the graduate’s eternal shock, it is his application for the job in that same establishment that has become the wrapping paper for his snack:
That application letter,/ That singular fountain of hope,/ Lay among roadside sellers/ As wrapping paper-/ To fill vacancies in the stomach?
The above scenario is occasioned by the leaders’ mismanagement of the country’s resources and economy, to the advantage of their private pockets, whims and caprices. The persona sums up this fact in the concluding stanza as follows:
Callous may be the right word/ But we all are unfortunate symbols/ Of our society’s arid state-/ Sales managers/ Of the unholy whimsicalities/ Of our leaders’ drunken mien (p. 38).
The next poem to be examined is “Friends”. This poem comments on the hypocritical nature of many modern-day friendships. Friends who smile in your presence with a laughter akin to the sting of scorpions, but who assassinate and stab you when your back is turned:
For when you come to me/ You laugh without end/ But never did I know/ It was the laughter of scorpions/ For when you turn your face/ You frown like sinister satan/ And leisurely stab my back.
The next poem, “River ethiope” is a river within the poet’s state of origin, Delta State. The poet-persona shows his ambivalence towards this river. He acknowledges the river’s pristine beauty and attraction that draws people from far and near to picnic by its banks; but at the same time, he is also aware that underneath this funfair, there is the river’s dangerous and destructive side, which is equally as old as its famous beauty. Hence, he calls for caution in the last stanza:
And thenceforth, I know/ The sleeping danger/ That illuminates outward grandeur/ And we must romance/ With a long spoon.
The last poem in this collection to be examined is “Claypot”. This poem appears to be a set of admonitions from the poet’s grandmother, Kadabramu, to the poet, about life in general, as well as on the need to mistrust all things foreign, connoted here as “alien waters” (p. 85).
According to Kadabramu, foreign culture, may be “painted white”, /but the teleguiding spirit/ of most foreign wares/ is couched in black, wreaking/ mysterious tales of distress/ on our great, great land/.
The claypot here therefore, represents the blackman’s spirit, living culture or way of life, which is now being rejected by the present generation of Izon/Nigerians due to ignorance:
O it came from the very dust of this earth/ That carries living breath from the beginning/ From which we came, and to which/ We all must surrender some day./ Yes, it passed from my forefathers/ From the faceless past, unto our age… (p. 86).
A Song For Tomorrow and Other Poems (2003) is divided into four sections. The first section is entitled “Night” and contains 27 poems. The second section is captioned “Song”, and contains eight poems. The third section is captioned “Undercurrent” and contains three poems, while the fourth section is captioned “Twilight” and contains five poems.
We shall proceed to examine selected poems along these sectional lines to bring out their beauties and verities. From Section One which contains the largest number of poems in the entire collection, three poems shall be examined, namely: “Night”, “The “Eagle” and “For Our Sons Who Are Patriots”.
From Section Two, two poems, “Marks in the sky” and “In Memoriam” shall be examined, while in Section Three, one poem “Why I sing” and finally, in Section Four, the title poem “A song for tomorrow” shall also be examined.
The poem “Night” is crafted as an epigrammatic statement of three lines. But this paucity of lines is more than made up for, in the layers of meaning it carries. Essentially, night in this context is a benumbing blight that has overtaken the nation, invidiously taking over and destroying its vital organs irreparably.
The result of this blight is profuse sweat from both the leaders and the led. In other words, when a nation loses its focus and its bearings as a result of the selfish blindness of both its leadership as well as the gullible blindness of its followership, the result is that the nation gropes endlessly in the dark losing sweat but achieving nothing tangible in the end.
The poem “The Eagle” is the poet’s lament over the nation-State of Nigeria. This is so because the Eagle is the nation’s national emblem. The nation is seen as a nation that once stood out in majestic splendour among the comity of African states and nations, but which for unknown reasons has committed self-destruction, as the poet mourns:
But people say it shot itself/ O it’s sad, so sad/ Watching it fall. (p. 22)
“For our sons who are patriots” adulates the young men of the Niger Delta, the so-called militants, who sacrifice their lives through fighting in order to draw the attention of the world to the plight of the degradation and pillage of the Niger Delta by the multinationals and the national government. The poet-persona is saying that in a nation where human worth and patriotism are counted as nothing, where uncertainty, violence and evil are the only ever-present realities, men either ‘die like fowls’ or fight and die as heroes. The patriots therefore, are those who have chosen to die as heroes; they are the ‘seven-headed men-‘ who have chosen to risk their lives in order to stand up to challenge the tyranny of our political leaders, ‘flaming Nebuchadnezzar(s)/Right in the fiery furnace’ (p. 36).
The poet is therefore, saying that these militants, rather than being condemned or vilified, should rightly be regarded as patriots and heroes who attempt to ‘salvage a hapless race’ from the threat of death which hangs over all Niger Deltans.
“Marks in the sky” is a lament on the passing away of Sesan Ajayi, a fellow poet and intellectual colleague. The poet ends the lament by saying that the mortal body dies but the poet’s spirit and his message lives on where nothing can destroy its power. The next poem, “In memoriam” also mourns the passing away of the famous Lady Diana, the Princess of Wales, of the English royal family. As one of the persons whose effect on the world was salubrious, the poet is saying that kindred spirits like hers will never die ‘like the Word that will know no death’ (p. 72).
In “Why I sing”, the poet gives reasons why he creates poetry. According to the poet, when a bard sings, he is revealing hidden truths to his fellow man to prod him to fulfil his destiny.
The bard may also be warning his fellow man to gird up himself, ready to confront the battle of life. Therefore, the poet’s message is a ‘rumbling whirlpool/ that brings the heritage and the dream/in one good whole’, hammering ‘same into the soul of man’ to make man humane and to keep him alert to claim and fulfil his God-ordained destiny.
Indeed, A song for tomorrow is a parting shot. In the poem, the poet-persona is saying that the wisdom embedded in art is not good enough if it is not accompanied by action because if a plague with a long history does not change its course on its own volition today, it means that the future has already been mortgaged to disaster.
So, today is the time of action, when the evil must be caged so that the hope of the future may be assured; so that the laughter that now plays on our lips will grow to build a bulwark against oppression and general destruction in the future.
The Forbidden Tongue (2007) is a volume of poetry that is preoccupied with the notion of the power of words, whether spoken or written (which has been one of the principal credos of this poet), for in the words of Osundare, “to utter is to alter”. But more importantly, the poem also reiterates the poet-prophet’s courageous stance to ‘utter’ the truth, while also counteracting and pre-empting the state’s power to undermine or put this ability under lock and key, hence the title, “The Forbidden Tongue”.
The veracity of the above statement is reinforced by the three short epigraphs the poet has chosen to launch the volume with: the first, from his Izon traditional lore, the second from a fellow Nigerian contemporary writer, Akachi Ezeigbo, and the third from the Bible – book of Proverbs 15 v 14.
All three epigraphs stress the audacity of uttering, as well as the sacredness of the word of truth. It therefore becomes obvious that the poet in this volume sees himself as a prophet who must tell the authorities the truth about the people’s condition of suffering and deprivations, in their “raw, pungent” form.
Specifically, this collection contains 30 poems, five of which shall be used for commentary in this essay. The poems are: “Song”, “Rage of a river”, “Corruption blues”, “Remembering Kadabramu”, and “The forbidden tongue”.
In the poem “Song”, the poet-persona sees his vocation as a poet as not different from the wild gyrations of a drunkard, or better still, a mad man. This image is pertinent in that since the beginning of the modernist era when the world was exposed to weapons of mass destruction and other mind-boggling phenomena as never before experienced, the average writer in tackling these issues, has increasingly seen himself as a mad man or prophet. This self-image in Ebi Yeibo is not out of place, as it synchronises with the self-image of one of his literary icons, Christopher Okigbo. Okigbo in his poetry equally saw himself variously as a fool, mad man, town-crier and prophet.
In this poem therefore, Yeibo sees the poet as making ‘canorous music’ (poetry) from the ‘deep croaks’ (artistic endeavours) ‘of drunk frogs’ (inspired poets). This poetry, like ‘scathing manure’ is meant to serve useful purpose – that of softening hardened hearts (‘calcified farmlands’) as well as sanitise and liberate the Niger Delta environment (‘creeks’) from its despoilers through committed poetry (‘searing song’).
In view of the high task which the poet has given to himself, he therefore, encourages himself and other poets to revive the dying hopes of the Deltans (‘stoke the sagging sun’) by not giving up their unequivocal, acerbic poetry (‘resilience of our tongue’).
In the poem “Rage of a river”, the poet-persona justifies the anger of Niger Deltans whenever they wreak havoc on pipelines and other paraphernalia of multinational companies and the government:
Dwellers of the delta/ Wax wild on the wings of wreckage.
Using a series of rhetorical questions, the poet-persona gives reasons for the people’s ‘wildness’ as being a response to their situation: a people whose beautiful environment (paradise) has been bastardised and degraded to become “a prostitute’s rag”; whose “swamps” have now been riddled with “cauldrons of chemicals”.
These are people who should be rich due to the wealth produced by their environment (“patrician pockets”) but are poor (“hoist Harmattan flags”) because they have been short-changed and their wealth goes to distant neighbours.
Most painful of all, is the “slaughter of white eagles” (militants) whose deaths have covered the region with a pall of mourning (“sackcloth”). The final justification of the region’s militancy is presented in the analogy of the hawk and the hen thus: When a hawk swoops on chicks/ The mother goes wild. (p.28)
The ‘hawk’ in this analogy represents the combined force of multinational companies and government backed by the army, who plunder the resources (‘chicks’) of the Niger Delta region, while the region is represented as the mother hen that ‘goes wild’ by responding to this daylight robbery with militancy and anarchy.
• Dr. Okon, a literary scholar, teaches literature at the University of Uyo
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