Okigbo and Udeozo: Two Christophers On the World Literary Stage

Image: christopher-okigbo.org

 

Spring Waters of The Beginning: Government College Umuahia

A major nexus connecting the two Christophers-Christopher Okigbo and Christopher Obu Udeozo- appears to have been in their formative years. Both passed through Government College Umuahia. I do not intend to discuss the place of the College in molding the literary watering pots of literary giants of Nigerian descent, for this has been dealt with extensively by Ochiagha (TERRI OCHIAGHA, Achebe and Friends at Umuahia: the making of a literary elite.) this has passed various crucibles of literary acclaim. But it discussed the crucible that was used to heat up the literary components of the first wave of literary giants from Nigeria that has humbling International acclaims. Nathan Suhr-Sytsma, in his critical acclaim of the book, noted that

“During the 1940s, a ‘remarkable concentration of future writers’ – Chinua Achebe, Elechi Amadi, Chukwuemeka Ike, Chike Momah and Christopher Okigbo – attended the same secondary school in south-eastern Nigeria: Government College, Umuahia (p. 6). Of these figures, four are among the most illustrious of the so-called first-generation Nigerian writers, who began publishing in the years around Nigeria’s independence celebrations in 1960, while the fifth, Momah, has become a prolific novelist since retiring from the United Nations in 1990. According to Terri Ochiagha’s engaging new book, it is no ‘mere coincidence’, as Achebe once put it, that all five studied at Umuahia during the tenure of Principal William Simpson, an Englishman who made it [End Page 357] his mission to make Umuahia an English public school on African soil”. This group of writers are usually regarded as being part of the first wave of literary giants. And in poetry, Christopher Okigbo towers above the ordinary. Though his work was truncated by the Nigerian civil war, which he did not survive, he has become a reference point by younger generations of poets. According to Suhr-Sytsma,

“Ochiagha has assembled a rich archive of documentary sources, literary texts, oral histories, and personal communications from alumni of Umuahia, including Amadi, Ike, and Momah. She grounds familiar concerns of postcolonial theory such as colonial discourse and hybridity in a detailed, sensitive account of how an unusually articulate group of men experienced – and later reflected on – the contradictions of their colonial schooling. In eight compact chapters generously illustrated with historical photographs, the book moves from the 1929 founding of Umuahia as a teacher training college and the 1930s era when another major writer, Gabriel Okara, attended the school, to Ken Saro-Wiwa’s education there in the 1950s and the post-graduation trajectories of the five writers on whom Ochiagha concentrates.”

The Nexus connecting Okigbo to Udeozo cannot be separated from their common crucible-Government Umuahia. And it is not a secret that Udeozo, at least in his formative years, rode on the back of Okigbo. As I pointed out in my review of his seventh anthology, Asaa,

“There is no doubt that Udeozo sometimes draws from Okigbo’s refreshing Idoto River —at least, in the formative stage. He once in a while endures an escape from the labyrinth of their close ties. He, like Okigbo and Achebe passed through the same crucible of alchemy in Government College, Umuahia. But he has since developed with clinical precision —he, after all, is a clinical psychologist —poetic genome that effortlessly walks across time and timbre. So when he speaks of Pablo Picasso as a “Post Einsteinian medium” that is “Janus Faced” and “now speaks Latin, Mongolese, Spanish, English, Igbo, Swahili, and Sanskrit”, he is not just celebrating the universality of Picasso’s art; he might as well have been writing his own epitaph as the Mozart of Modern Poetry. Like Mozart, he is, in his own words, “en route to genius- and acclaim”, because he shared the molding crucible of ‘hunger, broken pockets, wailing, and mockery and intimate shame.” (Uche Mbah, Udeozo’s 100 days of worditude, The Sun, 16 May 2020)

Udeozo, in my opinion can be categorized as the bridge between the second and third wave of African poets. His thematic approach also belies his root in the Judeo-Christian religion, where he broadly differs from Okigbo, the bedrock of the first wave. But their joint foundation on the literary foundation of Classics and the universalism of knowledge gave them the initial impetus to develop into two Christophers that took the poetic world stage by storm. Perhaps, if Okigbo had lived longer, he could have developed differently, as seen by the progression of his poetry from the early self-discovery, to defiant ritual poetry, and finally war drums. It exited with his futuristic projections that appear to be prophetic verses of his death wish. Udeozo, on his own, began with war memoirs, and moved to the difficult task of resolving the conflict between his fanatic belief in new age Christianity and cultural roots, a conflict he tries to resolve by rendering to “Cesar what belongs to Cesar…”. Both artists have in common the universal zeal for arts in General-in fact, it was a known fact that Okigbo was initially in a dilemma on whether to let out his muse through art, music, or poetry (he was particularly awed by western classical authors like Debussy and others), Udeozo took a more expanded view of knowledge. He is a clinical psychologist by training, a visual artist by inclination, and a poet by choice and profession. These are the inculcation both received through the foundation laid by William Simpson at the Government College Umuahia, though it could be argued that Udeozo never met the venerable man. But his legacies never left the College, though, according to later graduands, the curriculum that brought out these great men may no longer be there. This nostalgia is brought home by one Tonye Okoro, a later graduand of the citadel.

“I was in GCU 1979 – 1982. It was a magical place. Though we were informed that it was a shadow of its pre-civil war self, it was still an institution you cannot describe by words – it was better experienced. For instance, the house magazines made sure every student wrote something.

Sports was everything. It was almost impossible to become a captain, no matter how academically brilliant, without being good in one sporting activity or the other.

I still go to sleep and get back to Umuahian in my dreams, and loathe to wake up.

It was magic!!” (Comment on the Guardian review of Terry Ochiagha’s Achebe and Friends At Umuahia, The Making Of A Literary Elite, Guardian, 2 Feb 2020).

That Government College Umuahia produced colossi like Achebe, Okigbo, Saro Wiwa, whose poetry was more of rebellious and lacked the cap of depth worn by Okigbo and Udeozo, which shows that it was the cultural center of the literary glitterati. In its review of the book, The Nigerian Guardian wrote:

“Cultural attitudes at the school also attract Ochiagha’s piercing gaze as she crafts her retrospective of the boys’ pilgrimage. She is particularly interested in the cultural attitudes of school principals which range from the founder, Reverend Robert Fisher’s paternalistic permission of ‘cultural alloyage’ to William Simpson’s vision of the school as ‘The Eton of the East’ with ‘Englishness at its core’; to the frank dismissal by W.N Tolfree and Adrian Slater of all that was indigenous in the colony. Ochiagha shows us how these attitudes served as powerful catalysts, producing in the schoolboys a counterforce of ethnic pride and increasing national consciousness, which they expressed in subtle acts of subversion of imperial authority.” Currently Udeozo plays a major role in the unification of the alumni of the great institution.

The Two Christophers and the Poetry of revolution“

 

In an interview with a local newspaper Udeozo declared:

There was a reluctance by the Establishment to validate the new voices in our literary firmament…Simply put; I wondered who was going to save the worlds of Uche Nduka, Ogaga Ifowodo, Esiaba Irobi, Amatoristero Ede, Remi Raji, Izzia Ahmad and say Promise Ogochukwu Okekwe … who were releasing works that accurately portrayed their own seasons: but with a near-tragic backdrop! Constantly, I noticed that the authorities in the field kept evaluating these young persons with other critical parameters and values totally different from their world view and experience. The monotonous comparison with Okigbo, Soyinka, and Clark – kept being invoked against the performance of these youth- regardless of what they were saying and against the source of their inspirations…The Third Wave Poets do not appear prepossessed with any agenda to project their works as ‘culture – carriers’ in the sense which Ibe Nwoga; advanced for sensitive and successful art…you have cultural lei motifs in say Promise Okekwe, Olu Oguibe, ‘Sola Osofisan and Izzia Ahmad; but not in the chromatic surplus witnessed in Okigbo, Tanure Ojaide, or even the tenuous Ossie Enekwe that comprise the other waves…“Pain. Anger. Protest. These are the dominating moods of The Third Wave of Nigeria Poets. Even the mildest mannered among them are capable of hot words! The literature of the African Continent appeared destined for revolutionary themes …” (Conversation around The Third Wave of Nigerian Poets with Obu Udeozo, Vanguard Newspapers, 3rd and 10th March, 2013).

In saying these Udeozo had placed a finger on his own literary metamorphosis. He had earlier stated in the same interview about the dreams that propel the third wave of artists:

“The simple dreams of having a stable, decent, safe, and predictable existence! The dreams of living in an organized society and having basic amenities of life within one’s reach. The pathetic and prolonged dreams of fulfilling the Nigerian fantasy of having good roads, uninterrupted Power supply, attending well-furnished schools with qualified teachers; the right to a health care delivery system that is neither erratic nor prohibitive. The dreams to live normal lives in a sane nation – without the trauma of corruption and compromise. The dreams of the barest facilities for civilized existence in a global age and communal experience. All these minimum desires of the average Nigerian citizen had become nightmares across our diverse communities.”

These are the frustrations that gave birth to the revolutionary muse that inspired both Udeozo and Okigbo. Although the revolutionary in Okigbo was seen by many as coated in death wish (a a situation that gave birth to his prophetic strophes, Path of Thunder), his revolutionary appeal rested only with the small select group of literati, hence his poetry never influenced the floating psyches of the breakaway country, which war he immersed himself and got consumed. But it can also be said that the literati are influential in government circles. He himself was once quoted as saying that he does not read his poems to non-poets. The Complete Review, in the review of Ali Mazrui’s The Trial of Christopher Okigbo puts it this way:

“Okigbo was — or wanted to be — a poet’s poet, believing the audience that would be interested in his work would, in any case (and specifically in Nigeria), be limited. He told Lewis Nkosi in a 1962 interview:

“Somehow, I believe I am writing for other poets all over the world to read and see whether they can share in my experience.”

For pure revolutionary themes, udeozo turned to prose to express his inner stirrings in Living Dreams.

To okigbo, revolutions are more internal than external. Thus in Limits, he was able to establish the link between the internal revolution and external revolution in a nexus of cathartic experiences:

“Banks of reeds

Mountains of broken bottles

& the mortar is not yet dry…

So we must go

Wearing evemist against the shoulders,

Trailing sun’s dust sawdust of combat,

With brand burning out at hand end.

& the mortar is not yet dry…”

 

Okigbo, like Socrates who opted for hemlock to prove to himself that there is afterlife paid the ultimate price in trying to merge the esoteric and the ephemeral definitions of revolution. He proved to be an unrepentant fatalist. As Abba A. Abba puts it,

…For instance, Obi Nwakanma has argued that Okigbo transgressed the rules of war by showing total disregard for personal safety in the course of the war. For him, although Okigbo was adventurous and self-sacrificing soldier, he certainly brought death upon himself: He was a bit reckless, because throughout the operations in the area of Isienum and Eha-Alumona, didn’t care whether he lived or died. […]he almost always sat on the bonnet of the jeep whilst an operation is on—he would sit there with his rifle, his leg[s] thrown wide apart. Although that was not military, it never bothered Christopher. When you reprimanded him, he would just burst out into his loud laughter. (Christopher Okigbo’s Poetics and the Politics of Canonisation, Abba A. Abba, 2017)

 

Siren Limits: Okigbo, Udeozo Treatment of the Other Gender

Christopher Okigbo, despite his philandering reputation, appears to respect the softer essence in his works. But he makes all the efforts to transpose the classical heroines into local Igbo softer essence of esoteric pantheons. A study of his composition methods makes this clear how he transposes classical figures like Queen Dido and the heroines of the Gilgamesh Epic into the Idoto deity and the Ani, the mother earth.

Nnorom Azuonye, in his treatise of previously unpublished works of Okigbo, indirectly highlighted the obsession with the feminine. Phrases like “the cruelty of the Rose” from the original sirene limits illustrates this –

“An image insists

From flag pole of the heart;

Her image distracts

With the cruelty of the rose…”

 

Anyone requiring further treatise on this must visit Azuonye’s work, which is gargantuan in nature. But a quote here may suffice:

 

“…there is also little doubt that Okigbo’s sensibilities may have been riled

by the overt sensuality and even lascivious immorality of the European courtly love

scenario, as exemplified, for example, by the scandalous and disastrous adulteries of

Eleanor de Aquitaine in the French romance cycle and of Queen Guinevere herself in the

English Arthurian cycle. As a matter of fact, the courtly love tradition of the medieval

European romances are known to have been founded on an arcane fetishization of adultery.

Okigbo may have himself been a womanizing prodigal in real life but in poetry he

courted moral probity that may have repelled him from an immoral love scenario with a

clear potential for undermining the high and excellent seriousness of the poetic muse of

his vision,15 an image for which he gained better insights from his reading in 1960-61, at

Nsukka, of Robert Graves’s The White Goddess. Although Robert Graves acknowledges

the influence of the ideals of Medieval European courtly love, the primary center of his

theory of poetry, by which Okigbo was influenced, is the figure of Anna Perenina or the

perennial Anna (the simultaneously destructive and creative anima of cross-cultural

mythology), which seems to have helped Okigbo to develop the paradoxical image of his

“white queen,” in Heavensgate, Limits, and Distances, as “the supreme spirit that is both

destructive and creative” (introduction to Labyrinths, 1965, in 1971). (Chukwuma Azuonye/Christopher Okigbo at Work: Previously Unpublished Papers).

 

“…some of these drafts reveal a lot about “the road not taken” in the evolution of Okigbo’s

art. One such road is the lure of using characters and motifs from European medieval

romances—especially the English Arthurian cycle—as a framework for his explorations

of the tenuous relationship between his poet-protagonist and the presiding lady of his

poetry, his muse, manifested in conflations of various idealized female figures in crosscultural

mythology with Okigbo’s own experience of the anima, i.e. the simultaneously

destructive as well as a creative female presence that energized his artistic imagination (the

earth-goddess, Anị; the water-goddess, Idoto; the water maid or mamị-wọta of

postcolonial urban legend; his own mother, Anna Okigbo; and his wife, Judith Sefi

Attah” ). (Chukwuma Azuonye/Christopher Okigbo at Work: Previously Unpublished Papers).

 

Okigbo had, at the beginning of his work, asked the earth, the goddess of fertility, Ani, to bind him-most probably from being free to flirt with foreign feminine, but at the end of his poetic journey, he was demanding to be unbound-a freefall of cultural integration having been achieved:

“& the canceling out is complete…”

 

For Obu Udeozo, the case of the softer essence is summed up thus: It is complicated. Though his mother loomed large in the psyche as the perfect heroine, his fleeting echo of acrylic glances on feminine profiles is either a professional crush or deep-rooted entanglement science of Prufrockism-a hesitant reigning in of vaulting emotions. In his work Asaa, for example, he professionally focused on the doyens of the pretending runway. To him, they are flickering stars of bioluminescence-mmumu onwa-.

Summarizing the issue in my review of his work, Asaa, I put it thus:

“His deft marriage of classical Allusions with the Terra Firma of his native ani becomes evident-like, for example, Leila Lopes: “Canary Festivals/lure Mozaert/s divine horns/and Renoir’s Pallete/Into atilogwu dancers” brings to the fore his intent: pulling the sparkle back home.

“This has been woven into relevance in the work. Hence Beyoncé Knowles must answer to the long drum but Jenifer Lopez, the “wine flute Sybil”, will” vanish into heaven/and caress molecules/of sunlight with laughter.” Beyoncé’s black heritage calls the long drum. These are both Americans. But when he picks Soul sisters-Genevieve Nnaji, NsiIkpeEtim, Queen Nwokoye, OmotolaEkeinde, and other troubadours of the pretending runway, his fecund mind molds baskets of magnetic offerings of being.  millennia and civilization” (“When Udala grows at St. Peter’s Square”, The Source Magazine, May 13, 2020).

So, for him, “the dark dimpled goddess of magic lands” was able to forge a marriage of Piano and drums:

“…lure Mozarts divine horns

And Renoir’s pallet

Into Atilogwu dancers” –

as she is momentarily transformed to Agboo mmonwu- the female masquerade known for its beauty and coyness, surpassed, perhaps, by the Ijele, the sacred rites masquerade that appears once in every seven years.

 

Igbo Language and Culture: Reining in the Two Christophers

Okigbo appears to be caught between two worlds-the worlds of Classics and the Igbo worldview. He picks up Igbo concepts and phraseology, adapts it to classical literary definitions, and modifies them out of recognition. A typical example will suffice.

 

“And he said to the ram, disarm.

And he said: Except by rooting,

how do you harvest a cassava tuber?”

 

This is a modified  translation of an ancient Igbo egwu onwa, or moonlight game dance:

 

Ebune naa azu

Ihe ibu na ukwu di ka ji akpu…”

 

Here, it appears simple enough, but with Okigbo, it is not always simple.

Azuonye had been able to show the metamorphosis of heroines in the rough manuscripts of Okigbo’s poetic compositions. For example, Okigbo was known to have composed poems in Igbo language, though unpublished, and working on a novel in Igbo language.

Below is a typical Igbo poem by Okigbo, as presented by Azuonye:

 

ỤLAGA

Ị nụgo ka mmụọ na-ebe n’ime ụnọ

Garube n’ilo ka ị fụlụ egwu

Ududo

Ụlaga ibe m, ike n’ụnọ

 

Can you hear the spirit wailing in the house

Go to the clearing and see a spectacular dance

Ududo

My fellow Ụlaga, strength of the home.

 

Here, he is seen recreating the ritual and initiation song of the Ulaga masquerade. Ideally, following Okigbo apotheosis, this ought to have metamorphosed into an English rendition. But by the time it passes through the crucible, classical mythology could have completely taken over, so much so that the original thought will no longer be recognizable.

This is in contradistinction to udeozo, who, though obsessed with the preservation of Igbo culture, never wrote any poem in Igbo language-at least none known yet. But he did great work translating Achebe Odenigbo Lecture into the Igbo language. And a catchphrase you will always catch him using is “Daalu rinne”. But udeozo is known to think in a juxtaposed mesh of English and Igbo forms, thereby creating a hybrid that passes the definition of obscurantism for those with less information and background-to understand his works. Thus, apart from allusions, his works are suffused with interspersed Igbo language phraseologies-particularly phrases whose rendering in translation will make it lose its meanings, as for example, in Pele:

 

“…as we witness

Obong of Calabar

In mid-air

Ugo chili ozo

Above the mountains…”

 

It will be difficult to comprehend the transliteration of Ugo chili ozo by a non-Igbo. In translation, it means an eagle that has taken the ozo title. It can only be understood by those who value the regal concept of the eagle and the prestigious ozo title, which esoteric symbolism cannot be fully fathomed by a non-initiate. (Ironically, udeozo literally means the fame of the Ozo cult.)

But as of today, udeozo is standing as a mentor to the younger generation of Igbo writers who form the third wave of poetic influence.

 

Conclusion: Udeozo builds on Okigbo Legacy

While Okigbo remains arguably the African writer whose work has garnered tremendous literary acclaim, udeozo seem to be the one completing what Okigbo was not able to do during the time his brief candle burned. Okigbo was working on a novel, Udeozo has taken it to the conclusion. Okigbo’s daughter has been at the forefront of immortalizing her father’s work through artistic interpretations, but Udeozo does that for himself. But one thing is certain: Okigbo, if he were to live longer, would never have become a court poet and artist, the past- time that keeps Udeozo’s agwu running. He had painted portraits of leaders without a number, dedicated poems to individuals from all works of life, nationalities, and age, and still remains focused on the cultural creative lane. It is only hoped he is thinking in terms of legacy continuity. But these things come spontaneously…

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