Charles Omoifo’s Please Remember Me is a book of poetry dedicated to the “memory of those who died so that a Nation can grow” (dedication page). This dedication at once points to the direction of the author’s concerns: the sacrifice for nationhood.
The author does not specifically mention this nation (in his dedication, at least), but we are not fooled. He is talking about our own dear country, Nigeria; its losses, its labyrinthine struggle; the murky waters in which its rulers swim as they hold blood-stained hands over those they are supposed to lead; the vision of its youths who are continually repressed and suppressed; the rape of the polity and, above all, the possibility of hope. The tonalities are redolent and strident. As Professor Sam Ukala who writes the foreword for this volume states, the volume is “…absolutely uncompromising as it holds up a mirror to us all, showing to which side of history we shall belong”.
Omoifo’s portraiture refracts a nation state which Ukala again describes as “the front line of a running battle between freedom of speech and the brutal denial of it.” As he goes on to observe “Those who stay on the side of freedom of speech and protest ineptitude and injustice easily get killed by ‘the cruelty’ of the ‘country’s Establishment’, ably represented by trigger-happy law enforcers”. (But Omoifo does not hurl his ideas at us like empty slogans; rather he devises vital stylistic props to project his unique artistic vision).
Please Remember Me derives its title from ‘Colonial Legacy’, the last poem in the collection in which Ayemere the son of Ubiaza, declares an intention to return to the campus after the holidays, working in the farm. As we glean in the poet-persona’s narration, the sentence constitutes the last words rendered by the young man whose dreams held the key to a bright future
We worked till the sun was high;
we rested In the farm hut. His eyes were with me
But his inner eye was far away. Then he said
Brother, I am going to Campus day after
Whatever happens, please remember me. (187)
Ayemere’s words are loaded, born out of a certain foreboding and fear that he would lose his life, and that he would not return. He loses his life and does not return, as the brutality of the Establishment is unleashed on the metaphorical Campus and death tolls its worrisome and dreadful bell.
It is certainly the desire to celebrate then, that propels the kinetic energy behind the tapestry of Omoifo’s narration. But Please Remember Me is more than just a tribute. It is a profound acclamation of the zest, beauty, variety, vivacity, virility and undying potency of African oral culture. The volume displays the author’s irrevocable attraction to the lores of his people, the Esan people, and he weaves this attraction into a mosaic of patterns that brings back memories. As we get continually sucked into an alien techno-culture and the power of DVDs makes us spin, Please Remember Me urges us to remember the very things that weaned us; that we grew up in; that defined our existence; that gave us values; that made us both human and humane. In other words, it urges us to remember the village square and the moonlit nights, not the artificial gardens and meretricious street lights that now rule our lives. It is an urge, a call, a strident call to a past of glory.
That Omoifo is able to reflect, to a considerable extent, the dramatic possibilities of oral culture even in the medium of cold print is at once a clear indication of his alertness as a poet on the one hand, and his skillfulness as a raconteur on the other. Moving from an oral/aural medium to a written and, if you like, ‘deaf’ medium remains one of the stiffest challenges facing the African writer till date. But while some of them have tried to get around it by transliteration, others have tried to retain the immediacy of speech in cold print and maintaining the dramatic effects of the oral medium in the written medium. Omoifo goes beyond just creating an interface style; he uses the English language as a standard, but he sustains the rhetorical qualities that define African speech. The following extract from ‘Ikhio Dance’, the eighth poem (or do we say, ‘Narration’) in the collection speaks volumes:
When mother was going to the market
Marcelina said, leave the load for me
Then mother took load light, saying meet me up
But Marcelina settled the load on a child’s head
Has her head become too delicate to carry load?
That he means this poem, like other poems in the volume, to be performed rather than recited is very obvious, and he, therefore, sees speech as not an end, but a means to reinforcing the dramatic possibilities of his poems. He subsumes the poems to be mere script, mere potential action, while the actual performance remains the very essence.
Please Remember Me certainly rings with the clarity of a gong. The 47 poems it parades, despite their variegated nature, are all united in the affirmation of the poet’s rare gifts; they proclaim a poet who not only sees, but also hears. While some of the poems may be said to give their themes away so easily, because of their high suggestiveness, others are crisp and proverbial, relying on the poet’s vast and enviable array of allusions and references. To say that Omoifo’s lexico-semantic geography is broad is an understatement knowing full well that, apart from the references he makes to his oral (unwritten) culture, he is a well trained agriculturalist. The plethora of agricultural jargon that pervades the texts encapsulates the debt Omoifo owes to his professional calling.
In all, Please Remember Me is a mighty great contribution to African poetry and an affirmation of the resilience of the human spirit.
Book Sub-title: Narration on the Murder of Ayemere Azemheobor
Publisher: Idehuan Classic Books, Nigeria
Date of Publication: 1999
Price: Not Stated