Aesthetic Appeals in Contemporary Nigerian Poetry

Book Review

Title: Dancing Mask

 Author: Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo

 Reviewer: John Uwa

 Publisher: Kraft Books

 Pagination: 140

 

Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo is a contemporary Nigerian African writer whose fictive oeuvre does not only adumbrate contemporary feminist issues, but also raises a finger of protest in the theory and practice of feminism in Africa and the rest of the world.

Her “accommodationist” ideology which provides an alternative ideological canvas for the criticism of African feminist fiction strikes my critical curiosity; but not in the same way that this collection (Dancing Mask) elicits some sort of curiosity to reveal that which the “dancing mask” conceals. This curiosity could plunge one into some sort of confusion about the nomenclature by which this new poetic voice may be identified in literary discourse; Ezeigbo the Novelist, or the Poet?

This confusion may have been informed by Nnolim’s (2010) classification of poetic craftsmanship into the “poet qua poet” and “the versifier”. To him, the “poet qua poet” is he who is totally committed to the art of poetry without doing anything that is really significant outside of it. The “versifier” on the other hand is the poet who writes one or two lines when his poetic muse comes visiting occasionally, and afterwards, goes back to his original vocation. Charles Nnolim is one critic of African literature who has, and will continue to inspire the younger generation of African critics that has much respect for the man and his achievements. Notwithstanding, it is not difficult to hold a point of view which suggests that Nnolim’s classification is more of a polemical fiat that is based on analytical convenience and critical preference more than a literary axiom. This point of view is informed by the fact that Ezeigbo currently has four published collections of poetry. These collections have been equally well-received in the same way as the five novels she has so far written.

This observation is important to the review of this collection where Ezeigbo legitimately recommends herself as a poet that cannot be ignored in the criticism and evaluation of modern Nigerian poetry. In Dancing Masks, Ezeigbo reveals her maturity from her first three collections of poetry by presenting a superior socio-political vision for which established poets like Tanure Ojaide, Odia Ofeimun, Niyi Osundare and Tayo Olafioye have variously received critical reception.

A semiotic analysis of the Dancing Masks renders a spectacle of people, grappling with floods of socio-political aberrations that are masked in hope and humour, signified by two dancing masks on the front cover page of the collection. By this token, the masks become a motif through which greater insight is provided into themes of social relevance in contemporary Nigeria. Ezeigbo presents us with a mask behind which most people live, and “behind which certain human tendencies are disguised”.

The collection is divided into five parts, and each deals with distinct contemporary issues in Nigeria. The first section “Signs of the Times” which contains nineteen poems deals with the themes of nature, woman, sex, prostitution, exploitation, sexual violence, corruption, love etc. In this section, Ezeigbo seems to be moved by a miscellany of poetic muse which allows her to peck on various contemporary issues of our society from environmental pollution to other social aberrations. Like Chielo, the priestess of Agbala in Things Fall Apart, when Ezeigbo is in her creative elements as this collection proves, we see a personality that is paradoxical to her every day gentle and motherly disposition; and with the vigour of a prophetic muse, Ezeigbo reverberates the end-time prediction of Apostle Paul in 1st Timothy 4: 1-5 and 2nd Timothy 3: 1-5. To paraphrase the quote, men whose hearts have been seared with a hot iron will speak lies in hypocrisy. Men shall become lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, unthankful, traitors, heady, high-minded, fierce, trucebreakers, incontinent, despisers of those that are good and lovers of pleasure.

In “Weird world” and “Winter whiplash” Ezeigbo exhibits her romantic tendencies in dealing with the changing manifestation of nature; but unlike the “nature” poets who praise the beauty of nature, Ezeigbo goes a step further to question the disaster that is wrought by nature, especially the pollution that “uncoils like deadly snake”. The implication of such vision is that both poems can favourably bow to contemporary literary theory like eco-criticism. At the level of symbolism, Ezeigbo can be said to be confronting agents of exploitations and the “get-rich-quick” syndrome of contemporary society, where people no longer wait for their turn or legitimate course of earning a living. This is what she implies by “berries fruiting before their time” and “spring flowers blooming before theirs”. (19) The poetic touch of both poems is enhanced by her use of formal elements such as simile, extended metaphor, apposition and allusions. “Skeletal motion” as used in the last stanza of the first poem for instance, is an apposition that is used to clarify the nature of existence on which “life leans”. This is given further clarification by the extended metaphor of the last two lines.

Ezeigbo keeps the steam of her deployment of formal poetic elements in full motion when in “Ways of dying”, she employs elements like oxymoron, personification, apostrophe and simile to raise some existential issues that facilitate the cyclical ironies of human existence. Unlike William Wordsworth whose loss of “visionary gleam” readily connects him to the supernatural realm, Ezeigbo suggests that there are those who will not give in to nature’s hostilities without giving it a fight. To her, these people are like the “legendary cat” and only bow out after they are “done and ready proper” (26).

Using seven irregular verses in conformity with the free verse tradition in “News flash”, this emergent poetic voice takes a poignant look at governance and exploitation. The word “Ajabu” and the words “Ghana-must-go-bag factory” in the fifth verse are images or symbols which help in creating some sort of imaginative or mental pictures of  the high level of financial misappropriation and corruption that is being practised at the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, by elites and the political class. The poet also indicts those who have embraced the policy of “siddon look”, and the “mutes and mumu”. The corrupt mentality of public service holders that the “public service is not free service” is also presented as a paradox in the second stanza. The painful irony of these paradoxes is that those who ought to stand for truth and justice have kept sealed lips. This is why in “Murderer of conscience”, Ezeigbo makes a defiant appeal to all those who are disposed and predisposed to standing for justice and truth, but have tarried. Using apostrophe in the first four lines, metaphor and extended metaphor in lines 8, 9 and 10 of the first verse, Ezeigbo opines that there are defenceless people who have been permanently placed in exploitative limbo, subjugated and oppressed; people who must be defended by those whose consciences have not yet been seared with a hot iron. By this token, Ezeigbo is exhibiting her Marxian instinct and thus calling for an egalitarian society of fairness and equity.