Orality in Amu Nnadi’s a field of echoes by Kufre Usanga

 

Amu Nnadi belongs to the third generation of Nigerian poets – the generation whom some critics consider a continuation of the second generation due to a lack of definitive/clear cut ideological separation between both generations. The second generation of Nigerian poets abandoned the esoteric language and private concerns of the first generation by simplifying the language of poetry and becoming the voice and the moral consciousness of the common man in Nigerian society.

 

Consisting of the likes of Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Tanure Ojaide and others, this generation is known for deploying poetry as canons of warfare in critiquing poor leadership and the general dystopia that is Nigeria, while embracing and incorporating oral nuances in their work – an important ingredient missing from earlier generations. (See Aiyejina1, Ushie2, Chinweizu et al3)

 

Bold and vehement in their criticism of government, this fervidness is a distinct marker of differences between the two generations. And although the Nigerian society has retrogressed, the third generation poets are less confrontational while battling contemporary existential issues. Divergent in temperament, their convergence lies in the deployment of orature in their writings.

 

As is prevalent with orality across Africa, raconteurs, poets and bards while composing their narratives avail themselves of literary tropes like metaphor, simile, idiophone, satire, irony, litotes, personification, alliteration and onomatopoeia. Other syntactic stylistic elements like repetition and parallelism are also utilized to arouse emotion and effect. Familiar symbols, images and rhetorical questions are also employed to drive home their messages. Where refrains are used, it is to incorporate the entire community during performances and festivities, thereby establishing it as a communal ethos. Oral tradition, therefore, is a great resource for an African writer to depend upon.

 

Igbo oral poetry is often geared towards the continuity of both ritualistic and non-ritualistic traditions. In ritualistic traditions like initiation, cleansing and masquerade festivities, the poetry is structured accordingly for the specific event and engages tropes like call and response, interludes, chants, refrains and the use of slit drums and other accoutrements. In non-ritualistic ceremonies like age grade festivities and social gatherings, the poetry adheres to the form that lends itself easily for social commentary on people and the community. Egudu4 in enunciating the Igbo experience in oral tradition adds that ceremonial occasions like festivity, funeral or religious festivals (ritual) bring about the performance of oral poetry.

 

Amu Nnadi draws motifs, symbols, images and other folkloric elements from Igbo oral traditions. Metaphors, proverbs, similes and anecdotes are deployed effectively to evoke the thought, sight or sound desired. In line with a Lucullan appropriation of oral literary tropes, we see Amu Nnadi’s use of proverbs, eulogy, incantation and ritualistic invocation – all values of Igbo oral tradition – incorporated into his scribal medium of expression.

 

Divided into six sections, which this essay cannot cover exhaustively, the focus here is its first movement, appositely titled ‘invocations’.  His eloquent capturing of oral ritual processes in the written form in a field of echoes5 is not only unequaled but also laudable, soaring high in its dependence and utilization of oral tradition.

 

It brings to mind T.S. Elliot’s6 definition of tradition as the totality of all preexistent works and forms of poetry, both oral and written which a living poet stands as heir and inheritor to. This encompasses all oral and written Igbo poetry, narratives and other works written in English in which the living poet may have availed himself of, which in turn influences. Elliot avows that this dexterous intermixture with the masterpieces of the past births a living poet’s originality because the living poet stands on the shoulders of his predecessors.

 

It is this digested mix that bursts forth for the keen observer to catch glimpses of the past – Igbo oral chants, Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe, Pablo Neruda, Derek Walcott and others – in this impressive collection because like Osundare7 noted, ‘in the intricate dialectics of human living, looking back is looking forward; the visionary artist is not only a rememberer, he is also a reminder’.

 

Donning the persona of a chief priest, the poet commences his ‘invocations’ appropriately with an introduction to the persona and in extension himself as the poet priest of his people. For who is poet if not ‘the chief priest of words’ who uses his lines, stanzas and metaphors to invoke images for mind, body and soul. In Igbo culture, the chief priest is not only knowledgeable in the affairs of the spirit as the guide of the people in their dealings with the spirit world; he is also knowledgeable in the affairs of men, a true worshipper and often a healer with leaves and chants. Approaching the shrine, the chief priest is garbed with charms, spells, fresh fronds and totems of worship like tubers of yam, white cock and palm wine; for you cannot approach the oracle empty-handed.

 

In ‘ablution’, the chief priest offers chants and prayers for the symbolic cleansing of the community as the spiritual leader of his people. Only through such cleansing are the people ready and open to approach the oracle and make demands. And as a communal affair, the chant employs techniques like the call and response and interlude to buttress this.

 

eke eliri na-ogburugbu, anyi abia

mighty python which ties a great knot

we have all come

 

ihe juru onu na-adig ntagbute

great song a single heart cannot contain

rousing praise a single voice cannot proclaim…

we have all come, dirty, drained and famished…

 

The Igbo communal cleansing portrayed here is parallel to the Yoruba communal cleansing with cogent diversions in practice. In Achebe’s Arrow of God, the chief priest, Ezeulu, leads the ablution festival with chants as members of the community gather in the market square and pray for their cleansing. In Soyinka’s The Strong Breed and Femi Osofisan’s No More The Wasted Breed, a male from the lineage of the strong breed is sacrificed at a specified time or a stranger is sacrificed for the cleansing of the community.

 

At the ‘shrine’, the chief priest is primarily concerned with singing the praise of the deity. Invocative names are offered: ‘secret to eternal rebirth’, ‘great spirit’, ‘furu ihe na-eme ihe, iyidobu na-agba miii!’, ‘maa na-emeroha!’, ‘igwurube oru miii!’ (11). It is not shocking that the deity does not have a name but is known by his praise names because the names capture attributes of his person even as they attempt to define his essence, but not the totality of his being which is profoundly incomprehensible in a way that a single name can do no justice.

 

The chief priest is sufficiently armed and prepared to hear and understand ‘messages kolanut lobes hear from the ancestors’ so as to interpret to the people. Although a higher spiritual being to other humans because he straddles both the physical and the spiritual and lives as an intermediary between the oracle and the human, the priest acknowledges thus:

 

                                    every dawn, with dew drops of ablution, you stir

                                    and I come alive, again and again, singing as a bird (10)

 

before you bowed, before you small as grain

                                    before you, totem of worship (11)

 

In line with Igbo oral aesthetics of mkpoku mmuo, praise chants for the goddess Ifa in the poem ‘ifa’ is suffused with symbolism, proverbs, anecdotes, allusions, repetitions, alliterations, personifications and apostrophe. Ifa is mother and the use of such elements gives rhythm to these lines thereby reinforcing them as chants:

 

                                    the river flows, chanting your name, ifa                   

                                    the breeze blows, carrying your name

my mouth opens, trembling as it chants

my mouth opens and river begins to flow

a river trembles, calling all to worship (20)

 

Whether invoking a cleansing ritual or an ‘initiation’ rite in the shrine, grove or forest, Amu Nnadi’s evocation is poignant in rendering and striking in its fluidity. For this worshipper, ifa is muse and mother, hence he poetizes and lyricizes his native Igbo myths and deities through such explorations.

 

In ‘idoto’, the poet pays homage to Christopher Okigbo’s mother Idoto of ‘The Passage8’. His opener, ‘with liquid arms receive, mother’ (15) is reminiscence of Okigbo’s ‘Before, your watery presence’ referencing the goddess’s river abode. But unlike Okigbo, whose cry was of repentance and anguish – a prodigal returning to his roots –, the poet and his group are seekers, pilgrims, requesting safety and guidance as they traverse the sacred grove and indeed guidance so as not to stray from the right path in life.

 

The poet is not metaphorically naked like Okigbo although he is following in his footsteps and therefore paying obeisance to the elder poet. This poem clearly proves Elliot’s statement of an ephebe poet’s originality surfacing after a thorough digestion of an older poets’ work. The ‘legend’ of Idoto’s greatness is also referenced by Amu Nnadi who asserts thus:

 

                                    all our masked paths you know

                                    known since spring’s first drops

our searching eye guide mother

that we do not from you wander(15)

 

Amu Nnadi in this eclectic collection is ambitious and it is beautiful how the diverse oral tropes tie the numerous poems together. With over a hundred poems, this collection traverses existential issues, social commentary, love, spirituality, philosophy and human foibles. The poet’s penetrative gaze moves through Paris, Barcelona, America and returns home to Jos and Abuja. In this, the lines between person and personification, in the best of Elotian tradition, are beautifully blurred.

 

 

NOTES/REFERENCES

  1. Funso Aiyejina, ‘Recent Nigerian Poetry in English: An Alter / Native Tradition’, Perspectives on Nigerian Literature, 1700 to the Present (vol. 1) ed. Ogunbiyi, Yemi. A Publication of Guardian Books (Nigeria) Limited. 1988
  2. Ushie, Joe. Phases in Nigerian Poetry in English. http://www.africaresearch.org/Papers/Ush1.pdf 3/18/17
  3. Chinweizu, et-al. Toward the Decolonization of African Literature Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1980.
  4. Egudu, R. ‘The Igbo Experience’, Oral Poetry in Nigeria eds Abalogu et-al. Nigeria: Nigeria Magazine, 1981
  5. Amu-Nnadi, Chijioke. A Field of Echoes. Nigeria: Parresia, 2016
  6. S. Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, Selected Essays. London: Faber and Faber, 1932
  7. Osundare, Niyi, ‘Preface’, The Eye of the Earth. Nigeria: Heinemann Educational Books, 1986.
  8. Okigbo, Christopher. Heavensgate. Nigeria: Heineman, 1971.

 

 

Kufre Usanga is a literary researcher whose interest is in Environmental Literature and Orality.