Literary Zone

Poetry: The Passage

17 May 2012 at 03:43 | 9483 views

The Passage

By Christopher Okigbo*

BEFORE YOU, my mother Idoto,

Naked I stand;

Before your weary presence,

A prodigal

Leaning on an oilbean,

Lost in your legend

Under your power wait I

On barefoot,

Watchman for the watchword

At heavensgate;

Out of the depth my cry:

Give ear and hearken…

DARK WATERS of the beginning.

Ray, violet,and short, piercing the gloom,

Foreshadow the fire that is dreamed of.

Me to the orangery

Solitude invites,

A wagtail, to tell

The tangled-wood-tale;

A sunbird, to mourn

A mother on spray.

Rain and sun in single combat;

On one leg standing,

In silence at the passage

The young bird at the passage

SILENCE FACES at crossroads:

Festivity in black…

Column of ants,

Behind the bell tower,

Into the hot garden

Where all roads meet:

Festivity in black…

O Anan at the knob of the panel oblong,

Hear us at crossroads at the great hinges

Where the players of loft organ

Rehearse old lovely fragment, alone-

Strains of pressed orange leaves on pages

Bleach of the light of years held in leather:

For we are listening in cornfields

Among the windplayers,

Listening to the wind leaning over

Its loveliest fragment…..

*Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo (1932–1967) was a Nigerian poet, who died fighting for the independence of Biafra. He is today widely acknowledged as the outstanding postcolonial English-language African poet and one of the major modernist writers of the twentieth century.

Early life

Okigbo (photo) was born on August 16, 1932, in the town of Ojoto, about ten miles from the city of Onitsha in Anambra State. His father was a teacher in Catholic missionary schools during the heyday of British colonial rule in Nigeria, and Okigbo spent his early years moving from station to station. Despite his father’s devout Christianity, Okigbo felt a special affinity to his maternal grandfather, a priest of Idoto, an Igbo deity personified in the river of the same name that flowed through his village.

Days at Umuahia and Ibadan

Okigbo graduated from Government College Umuahia (in present Abia State, Nigeria) two years after Chinua Achebe, another noted Nigerian writer, having earned himself a reputation as both a voracious reader and a versatile athlete. The following year, he was accepted to University College in Ibadan. Originally intending to study Medicine, he switched to Classics in his second year. In college, he also earned a reputation as a gifted pianist, accompanying Wole Soyinka in his first public appearance as a singer. It is believed that Okigbo also wrote original music at that time, though none of this has survived.

Work and art

Upon graduating in 1956, he held a succession of jobs in various locations throughout the country, while making his first forays into poetry. He worked at the Nigerian Tobacco Company, United Africa Company, the Fiditi Grammar School (where he taught Latin), and finally as Assistant Librarian at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, where he helped to found the African Authors Association.

During those years, he began publishing his work in various journals, notably Black Orpheus, a literary journal intended to bring together the best works of African and African American writers. While his poetry can be read in part as powerful expression of postcolonial African nationalism, he was adamantly opposed to Negritude, which he denounced as a romantic pursuit of the "mystique of blackness" for its own sake; he similarly rejected the conception of a commonality of experience between Africans and black Americans, a stark philosophical contrast to the editorial policy of Black Orpheus. It was on precisely these grounds that he rejected the first prize in African poetry awarded to him at the 1965 Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, declaring that there is no such thing as a Negro or black poet.

In 1963, he left Nsukka to assume the position of West African Representative of Cambridge University Press at Ibadan, a position affording the opportunity to travel frequently to the United Kingdom, where he attracted further attention. At Ibadan, he became an active member of the Mbari literary club, and completed, composed or published the works of his mature years, including "Limits" (1964), "Silences" (1962–65), "Lament of the Masks" (commemorating the centenary of the birth of W. B. Yeats in the forms of a Yoruba praise poem, 1964), "Dance of the Painted Maidens" (commemorating the 1964 birth of his daughter, Obiageli or Ibrahimat, whom he regarded as a reincarnation of his mother) and his final highly prophetic sequence, "Path of Thunder" (1965–67), which was published posthumously in 1971 with his magnum opus, Labyrinths, which incorporates the poems from the earlier collections.

War and legacy

In 1966 the Nigerian crisis came to a head. Okigbo, living in Ibadan at the time, relocated to eastern Nigeria to await the outcome of the turn of events which culminated in the secession of the eastern provinces as independent Biafra on May 30, 1967. Living in Enugu, he worked together with Achebe to establish a new publishing house, Citadel Press.

With the secession of Biafra, Okigbo immediately joined the new state’s military as a volunteer, field-commissioned major. An accomplished soldier, he was killed in action during a major push by Nigerian troops against Nsukka, the university town where he found his voice as a poet, and which he vowed to defend with his life. Earlier, in July, his hilltop house at Enugu, where several of his unpublished writings (perhaps including the beginnings of a novel) were, was destroyed in a bombing raid by the Nigerian air force. Also destroyed was Pointed Arches, an autobiography in verse which he describes in a letter to his friend and biographer, Sunday Anozie, as an account of the experiences of life and letters which conspired to sharpen his creative imagination.

Several of his unpublished papers are, however, known to have survived the war. Inherited by his daughter, Obiageli, who established the Christopher Okigbo Foundation in 2005 to perpetuate his legacy, the papers were catalogued in January 2006 by Chukwuma Azuonye, Professor of African Literature at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who assisted the foundation in nominating them for the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Azuonye’s preliminary studies of the papers indicate that, apart from new poems in English, including drafts of an Anthem for Biafra, Okigbo’s unpublished papers include poems written in Igbo. The Igbo poems are fascinating in that they open up new vistas in the study of Okigbo’s poetry, countering the views of some critics, especially the troika (Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie and Ihechukwu Madubuike) in their 1980 Towards the Decolonization of African Literature, that he sacrificed his indigenous African sensibility in pursuit of obscurantist Euro-modernism.