Uche Nduka’s Ijele: Recollections for the tattooed ears of the wind

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

The poet Uche Nduka works hard at defying labels and definitions. His new work Ijele, published by Overpass Books, Brooklyn, N.Y. only deepens the enigma that is this seer. Who is Nduka? Well, if you group Nigeria’s post-colonial literature by generations, starting with Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka et al as the first generation, Niyi Osundare et al as the second, Nduka would belong in the third generation. From my perspective, this generation is probably the least studied, which is interesting because they have put together a robust body of work over the years.

ijelepictureNduka’s generation of writers is mostly scattered all over the globe; the democratization of writing through the Internet has dispersed their works all over the place and it is hard to pin their works in defined volumes. Who are these writers and thinkers? In addition to Nduka, I am thinking of writers like Olu Oguibe, Afam Akeh, Molara Wood, Lola Shoneyin, Victor Ehikhamenor, Abdul Mahmud (Obemata), Obi Nwakanma (Rex Marinus), Sola Osofisan, Obiwu Iwuanyanwu (Obiwu), Chuma Nwokolo, Nnorom Azuonye, etc. Some of them, like Nduka, Akeh, Osofisan, Oguibe, Obemata and Wood, are elusive, if not reclusive. Almost all of them are defined by a common trait: They are not overly eager to publish. Several years ago, when I first came across them in a listserv (krazitivity), I was struck by how much they obsessed over each word of their work, employing rigorous and sometimes brutal peer review to polish their works. The good news is that many of them are finally coming out of the literary shadows. In addition to Nduka, Akeh has a volume of poetry, Letter Home & Biafran Nights coming out soon, Ehikhamenor just released Excuse Me! (Parrěsia Publishing) and more works by these writers are on the way. You don’t have to wait for published works though; simply google their names and feast on the prodigy of these renaissance artists.

I enjoyed reading Ijele. For one thing, it is different. It is billed as poetry, I am not sure we are to call it that. It certainly makes one reflect on how poetry is defined today. Nduka is not merely boundary bending, he is not bothered by it; he leaves that issue to the reader to resolve. By the way, I love traveling everywhere with a book of poetry because there is no pressure to finish reading it ever. I play this game where I randomly open the book to savor a literary treat. Ijele did not disappoint, it is full of treats. Take the piece Rough Plaster; how can you not be intrigued by these delightfully rebellious lines?

you can be as oversubtle as you want. i’m not interested. why deny the vigor of discordant anagrams. the city-hearted will express errata. disillusionment will grow old between coitus and faux pas. take on magnetism: taste paragenesis. there is no escape from this becoming. you take a step towards a memo for lobsters. i shall mislead all these tourists asking for directions uptown. (p 6)

In Ijele the poetry seems disconnected from space and context, chock full of enigmatic lines, curt, rebellious and uber-cool. The reader is forced to appropriate and own the poems and assign deeply personal contexts to them. And enjoy them. Ijele is impressive, a pretty little book pregnant with lovely divinations. I was struck by the lunatic, mathematical precision of Nduka’s genius. As an example, the piece, Exit Trampoline is a puzzle; its lines read like concept titles for long poems in the head.

i will flash you 3 times and then strip. if the sky complains throw it down from a balcony. The dawn may or may not squeal when it falls. razor again but textile not steel. (p 2)

Ijele is shattered shimmering brilliance, white flapping wings of dying innocence drying on clothes lines, soapy, reeking of malarial feverishness. Nduka is quietly defiant and unapologetic about his life, the sum of his experiences. He declares at the beginning of Ijele, “three continents converse in me, no one can stop their arguments.” (p 3) Indeed, in Nduka’s peripatetic musings the restless angst of exile is acknowledged – and abandoned. In Not Surrendering, everything comes together nicely in a loud vulnerable sigh:

i see you as you braid her hair, orchids of mire, seven-petaled night. beyond needing time to nurse a child. the art of breaking hoops. Soot undersung otherwise. I must understand & not mock my task of flight. I need your attention. Venice can wait. Someone like you walks through faces i can fade into. the hidden lust of a star teasing the sky can’t stay hidden any longer. i did not know what to say when she told me he kicked her umbrella off her hand into traintracks. the sidewalk painters of prince street need your attention. my seabag hangs on a wall. (p 4)

There are things the reader sees in Nduka’s words, he blindsides the reader with the cool torrent of his words: Exile, longing, despair, narcissism, all wrapped in the toga of invincibility, of coolness, defiance, even. Here, defiance is an art, a protest march in one burst of a movement. In the lunacy, chaos is disciplined into focus – sheathed machete writing, writhing in pain, refusing the anesthesia of ogogoro. Cool scared, a careful riot almost at the tipping point of manipulative contrivance. We are scared still because we are boys still:

until the tackle took you. i was charmed by your seminars swear words. stay or be away. damned either way. we lose the world the moment we define it. the clutter of yesterminutes. connecting boundary to source. you rolled into mornings, yestermornings. furnished or not, no room escaped our love, pulse and pause: our entanglement. this clarity of hair-hold. (p 8)

In the stunning lines of Pedigree, the reader imagines the power of words folding the past into the past, threading the present into the past, and willing a future that is now:

your appetite parts the day. breaks the day into two. on one side a house. on the other a wilderness. you cover both sides. what stresses them. not departing birds. there are plenty of bridges still to burn. sometimes shriveled flowers. what stresses them. not harmattan threshold. there is still the tooting bamboo. perhaps nailhead perhaps white paper. like leaving a toll gate. one half is a wisp of silk; the other a conversation with bass clarinet. discourse on her abandon. the wanton, the sultry belle. she is at the north gate. in the hallway. at a foyer. in an emergency. her fireflies are wind-bled. (p 9)

Coitus is a recurring encounter. Semen drips from the pages into damp dank drunken stairwells, odes to broken men, women and dreams. The narcissism, the fuck the world attitude never truly overwhelms because there is the constant re-imaging, re-booting of self. In poems like Tactic or Reprisala and Any Way You Want, the reader’s mind is fixated on this intrepid wanderer: You wonder, where has this poet been? Where have those hands touched, what?

You dared and joined the nudist circus. Later you had nightmares of trekking around town naked, not finding clothes to wear. You remembered Auntie Joy’s store at Ajegunle where she sold 7Up, Maltex, trebor, bread, peppersoup, Gala, kolanut and beer. You recalled me testing how fast my fingers could lift a coin or two from her wooden cashbox without being seen. You knew she occasionally caught me during those pilfering sessions but hardly rebuked me. Instead she always pulled the box nearer her at the discovery of an invasion or impending invasion from me. Most tomes she delighted me with offers of soft drinks and pieces of fried meat. Now these are recollections for the tattooed ears of the wind. (p 44)

In Estate Too, Nduka alludes to our daily war. In this new war, all we have are words, and we are not winning this war – of words. For they have the machines that staple our angry words together into meaninglessness.

must you stage an escape? Must you paint a skinscape? date blunder, not plunder. kick a habit, not a rabbit. intrude on vixens and wizards. shine on roof and briefcase. till the soil of lunatic aromatics. moving like a caterpillar. how do you handle a stressful situation? you eat chocolate and play a piano. are those actions vague and wooly? no. are they palliatives? no. (p 53)

Nduka writes about sad days. And happy days. Everything is mixed up; it is a rich mess, he chants, cowries aloft. He is right, the poet sees. The poet is a seer. Nothing escapes Nduka’s brooding gaze, not even hickeys; I must shroud my lusty neck in turtlenecks. This is not the seventies. This volume of poetry is the sum of the poet’s experience, smashed, broken china in the rain channeling JP Clark hung over from his rage. Periods, full stops, bear sentences like burdens, each almost unrelated to the next. Do not even attempt to connect the periods. For each line is a poem. Brilliant.

With Ijele, one soon ceases to be shocked. You have to read Coming Apart (p 63); these are words trekking onwards with more than a sideways glance at Nigeria, that geographical construct the poet is not coming back to because he never really left in the first place. The poet says these boundaries live rent-free in our heads. There is something schizoid about these lines, feverish, alternating among shades of darkness and light, the clashes blinding the eyes. And nightmares return in reverse order: Aluu, Biafra.

six children burnt in front of their parents. dying for what they knew nothing of. that country? “mere geographical expression.” some historied sepia. my room rejects drapes. chimera is something else. I whiz with it… this won’t do. this won’t do for meridians or for you. once a year and once upon a bear. an allergy that needs to be heard. you do sugarcoat it. a solidarity abandoned. who believed that tripe: “no victor, no vanquished.” miles away from where snapshots are.

Nduka the poet is a weaver-bird that has witnessed things. There are words in these meanings weaving more meanings from the diarrhea of the mouth, stages of needy grief, defiant, aloof, defiant, and needy. Nduka the poet is an imp, a mad, brilliant imp. You break into an impish grin at these lines in Counterfactual:

at the soul’s Sulphur Springs, i took photographs. when i went into a darkroom to develop them, the negatives went into a coma and never woke up. say something. break out. break out from twisting your grunts around a bus stop. i throw way salute-0. Man no die, man no rotten, you may prostrate before those vengeful elders but don’t do it on my mat. not even between clauses and golden pots. (p 67)

Fascinating. Sometimes you imagine this mad man in the market place wandering around muttering to himself picking up unrelated trash by dusk. And the clutter is art. Sometimes you think the poet is talking about you. There is sense in the broken shards of broken men. You are filled with wonder as you find the eulogy in the lunacy of the lines of Slow Trek and your heart breaks into applause:

what is connected disconnects itself. grief raps loudly on a windowsill. you head for the fast track ahead of earnest scavengers. in this season of financial homicides, bills rig your worth. rig your worth. but you keep a date with mourners for no one is free from the madness of death. of course the last gasp remains a prophesy on a slow trek to infinity. it badgers wine, flowers, meal for two. it is the voice that speaks undisturbed. a drop of water is its drop of seed. it teaches what holds, what thaws, what delights. hard lives pluck dignity from ancient experiences. (p 69)

Sometimes the self-absorption grates the poetry into overbearing nonsense. Read Into The Fray and you shake your head at lines like: who gives a shit about how much ice is on your Rolex? (p 71) You want to know and perhaps own the poet’s demons. You have a sense of an interesting, perhaps, dark existence lived in luscious painful narcissism like the rest of us. In Branching (p 72) the bemused reader asks: Why do we waste our lives so? Nduka doesn’t seem to give a rat’s arse what you think. He has written. You figure it out. He has spoken. Listen to the wind-rush of brilliance and lunacy. (p 72)

In Likeness and Impasse (p 73), Nduka is at his most powerful. He keeps the reader at bay, helpless. With the context withheld from view, the reader flounders and begs for context, crack cocaine between the covers, emptiness and nakedness, natural allies in the buff. There are all these phrases twisting in the wind, tart, bad attitude. And funny as hell. The lunacy is almost contrived but not quite. Everything is in place in the way a lunatic’s things are not in place; carefully strewn about with the careful carelessness of a diviner’s cowries. All the emotions are here carefully sifted from the silt, exquisitely calibrated.

Is this poetry? I don’t know. I don’t care, I am a consumer, mine is to enjoy it. This is different, it does not fit anywhere. I don’t obsess so much about the lines of poetry. I simply enjoy them. I enjoyed every morsel of Ijele, even those I disliked. That is the beauty and genius of Nduka’s brooding insouciance. Music is the result. Joy triumphs over the banality of heartache. Listen to the dibia in Through the Gap (p 81)

To countervail rudderlessness with rootedness. I can’t love you unconditionally, you said, I won’t hold that assertion against you. The caucus is of no interest to a poet waiting tables.

Applause. Dambudzo Marechera would approve.