Literary Zone

Poetry and Human Rights: Exploring Human Rights in Niyi’s City Without People

3 March 2014 at 19:34 | 9825 views

By Professor Sheik Umarr Kamarah, Virginia, USA.

The link between Human Rights and natural disasters is rarely made in traditional Human Rights discourse. But when parts of Asia and the Americas witnessed a set of devastating tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes in
2004 and 2005 it became clear that natural disasters create problems relating to human rights, not only those of a humanitarian nature. These natural disasters brought to the fore of human consciousness the need to pay attention to the multiple human rights challenges natural disasters often create. Poetry and Human Rights have always been good bedfellows. Many poets around the world have contributed and continue to contribute to the discussion of Human Rights.

The late Dennis Brutus, a South African poet, used poetry to launch a stubborn protest against apartheid. Niyi Osundare, pictured, Africa’s “Nature Poet,” and currently the continent’s most celebrated poet, is one of the most recent poets to take up human rights issues in his poetry collection, City Without People.

Niyi Osunadare’s most recent collection of poems, City Without People: The Katrina poems, is an eloquent poetic testimony to not only the multiple human rights challenges disasters do create, such as unequal access to assistance, dislocation or enforced relocation, loss of documentation, property restitution and the like, but also the limitations of the very concept of Human Rights.

This paper investigates Niyi’s exploitation of the resources of Language to capture the nature of Katrina and its effects on Man and Environment. In particular, the paper looks at how human rights issues such as enforced relocation/dislocation, loss of documentation, and (un) equal access to assistance, are treated in Niyi’s City Without People: The Katrina poems. That
Niyi’s Katrina poems allow us to see how both humans and their legal frameworks are rendered hopelessly impotent when, “The murderous fury of raging waters” violently assaults the rights of humans; when the levees of the right to life, property, Home and liberty are summarily dispensed with in “Katrina’s Diaspora;” and when “The city/is 8 feet/below sea level,” while “The people/are/many, many miles/below government care.”

In the poem, “Pedigree,” Niyi Osundare sketches a brief history of hurricanes in the gulf:

“So many horses of pain

have galloped through these shores

Each with its own aftermath…”

But Niyi concedes that “…none has left hoofprints/as deep and wide as Katrina’s scars.” Katrina wins the award for meanest horse “of pain” to have “galloped through” the gulf. It is this enormously devastating hurricane that the poet sings about in the Katrina poems.

The theme of enforced relocation or dislocation is treated in poems like “The Lake Came to my House,” “Katrina Anthem,” and “Katrina’s Diaspora.”

In “The Lake came to my house,” the poet captures the gradual build up of Katrina which starts as a “whisper among/The leaves” and ends up sweeping the poet’s “house away.” In the second stanza, Niyi exploits the phonetic resources of English to portray the explosive nature of Katrina:

“Then, the pit pat pit pat bing bang bing

Of the hooves of the trampling rain

My shuddering roof, my wounded house.”

The use of the onomatopoeic words pit pat, bing bang, in the first verse of the second stanza to mimic the explosive noise made by the rain bombs dropped by Katrina, is very effective.

Also, the complex interaction of the rhythms of alliteration and assonance in that verse produces the effect of pain. The consonant sounds involved in the alliteration are, p and b. The poet selects these consonants from the category of English consonants called, Plosives or Stops. The consonant sound /p/, is a voiceless bilabial plosive, and /b/, a voiced bilabial plosive. Each one of them is produced with an explosion of air through the mouth. This interesting mix of voiced and voiceless plosives creates the rhythm of explosion mimicking nature’s explosion Katrina produces. Assonance in the first verse is created by repeating the vowel sounds /i/ and /a/. The rhythm of organized dissonance is created by the repetition of these vowel sounds helping to create the overall effect of pain and disorder. Clearly, Niyi creatively exploits the phonetic resources of English to enhance the effect of the message of explosion, pain, and disorder.

In the second and third verses, the poet employs transferred epithets to portray the ideas of violation and pain. In “trampling rain” is encoded the idea of violation as the rain tramples upon the rights of Man to a residence. It also connotes the idea of a stampede of horses pointing to both the speed of the rain’s trampling and the nature of its destruction. In “shuddering roof” and “wounded house,” the poet hints at the idea of pain and destruction.

The idea of explosion and broken-ness is continued in subsequent stanzas. In the poet’s living room, “The sky/Rumbled like a stricken bull,” while “Levees (built with levity)/Collapsed like hapless mounds.” Eventually, history and identity are washed away as “Roads lost their names,” and “Streets their memories.” Niyi has a way of impregnating simple language with profound
statements. In “Roads lost their names,” the poet takes on the issue of naming as a human ritual that ascribes identity to the named. The loss of a name is the loss of an identity. In “Streets their memories,” the idea of the loss of identity and history is hinted at. Here, the poet makes clear the interface between natural disasters and human rights. Humans have a right to their history and
their places; washing them away is a violation of such right.

The author, Professor Sheik Umarr Kamarah.