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“Like a Candle in the Wind…”: Funeral Oration For Dr. (Mrs) Faith Obiageri Ibhawaegbele (1972 – 2012)

Dear Dr. (Mrs) Faith Obiageri Ibhawaegbele, I stand here with a heavy heart, as your former teacher, your former M.A. and Ph.D. Supervisor, and as your colleague, to plant these flowers of words in the garden of your memory.

On Wednesday October 3, 2012, you began your eternal ascent without a farewell, and your body which now lies irrevocably silent, unmoved by mortal wailings, unfettered by worldly cares, immune to weeping winds and stormy seas, undaunted by pining stars, insensitive to this vast convocation of mourners, unyielding to the desires of all that you do not depart, bears the clearest testimony to those who may not have believed that, because we are born at all, we must surely die. Anyone who does not die was never born at all. And so Death is inevitable; it is a natural event, a leveller and the end of all things. This Death has called you and you have answered. You have run the good race; you have fought the good, valiant fight and you have gone to be with the Lord.

Though your life was brief like the great, memorable chapter of a small book, you soared like an eagle seeking no other tree to perch but the iroko. You twinkled ever so brightly like the little star. You left your mark in all things that you touched and you transformed the dark colours of life to bright ones everywhere you went. You had a soft, gentle, tender but big heart, a heart of love, peace, prayerfulness, care, compassion, kindness, forgiveness … You always sought to pay your dues in everything you did; you never cut corners. You worked hard like a strong soldier. You burned the midnight oil like a resilient, untiring Amazon. Yours was the determined and patient life – determined for knowledge, patient in waiting for that which you knew would be yours. You were a dogged fighter, though your mien constantly exuded calmness. You radiated a warmth that was infectious, a zeal to work that was passionate.

I remember the earliest beginnings of your academic sojourn under my tutelage: your tender, faltering yet bold and determined steps, the breaking out of your voice like a resolute tendril shooting out in the early cold mists of dawn. You hugged the shadows of your dream; you unleashed the determined walk of one who sought to conquer the sun. Your song bore the certain resonance of a universal gong. Who was I not to give you a chance to do the walk of a Louis Armstrong? 2003 broke with you earning a degree of Master’s in the same area I chose to hone my art, seeking to turn the base metal of every day experience into the gold of art.

You listened carefully; you learned well; you followed well, and at a stupendous pace. You were marked for great things, for signs and wonders, and limitless were the bounds of my joy at producing the second Master’s in my growing career. I had lost the first one, another rising star by name Clement Yuba, to cold, cruel, unkind and unwavering death in 1998. You brought the joy back, and I could see the face of the moon, see the beauty in the rising of the sun and smell the smell of roses…

Your goal was the pinnacle. This goal was etched in your eyes like a defiant mark on marble. It was engraved in the determined, timeless look your eyes bore, the look of one who was unstoppable. Just a quiet challenge I gave you, and I knew that you desired the Apotheosis. And together we worked (I, at getting my first Ph.D. product, and you at reaping the first fruits of the great dream that had stirred in your heart). And so, in 2009, we had different, yet similar reasons to celebrate when you were crowned, like I had been many years before, a Doctor of Philosophy in Stylistics.

From then, I called you “Small Doctor”, confident that you had truly seen the synergy between language and meaning which had formed the architectonics of our research efforts.

“Small Doctor”, how was I to know only three years on that your life would remind me of “a candle in the wind”, the lyrics of Elton John’s soul-stirring song? How would I? How would we – Professor Jude Agho, Professor Amen Uhunmwangho, Professor Ben Egede, Professor Isaac Elimimian and myself – who had seen in you and our other rising stars, the true marks of one who would fill the vacuum we would leave when we grow old and retire?

You sure lived your life like a candle in the wind. But your candle lit the darkest corners of our darkest dawns; it brought illumination upon our dark, dismal and brutal silences; it brought joy and laughter to all your students – our students – who have all gathered here today in their numbers, tears in their eyes, their hearts heavy as mine, to bid their unforgettable heroine a final farewell on the journey from which no one ever returns.

The sky has lost a budding star; the sky has lost a budding star, and there is a deep void in the face of the firmament.

But we must dry our tears and weep no more, because we know you lived a blessed, eventful, determined and productive life; we must weep no more because we know you are joined with the saints; we must weep no more because we know too well that, someday, we all shall be reunited with you in Paradise where there shall be no weeping or wailing; where there shall be no more parting.

Goodnight, my first Ph.D. product of whom I will remain irrevocably proud; goodnight, bold and confident warrior in the academic savannah; goodnight, my best friend; goodnight, my little sister, and sleep tight.

In the Belly of a ‘New’ Culture: Paradigmatic Foregrounding in Sola Osofisan’s ‘Sin-Eater’

One of the features of globalization is its tendency to interconnect people economically and culturally.

It is also indicative of the shrinking of borders and boundaries in such a way that a deep sense of homogeneity and community can be felt and the world begins to look like one village peopled by those who share common bonds. The emergence of a techno-culture in communities that would otherwise have remained isolated sends great signals that globalization brings about ‘modernization’, and that this new culture brings about progress. But often the seeds of ‘progress’ do germinate into weeds of destruction, so that in the process of expanding links across humanity and evoking a global consciousness, globalization is both a balm and an irritant.This paper examines how the Nigerian writer, Sola Osofisan, in his short story, ‘Sin-eater’, paradigmatically and stylistically deconstructs the anguish of Stella, his female character, who flees from the organization she works for. This thirty-page story is one of the ten short stories in Darkvisions, which was a co-winner of the 1992 Association of Nigerian Authors Prize for prose fiction. In it, Osofisan, who is also a poet and dramatist, reflects his concern for the loss of moral values in his fast-paced, globalizing society through his sensitive use of language. Much of the triumph this short story achieves is hinged on the close attention the writer pays to psychological details. The fears, doubts, hopeful anticipation, pain and anguish of his major character, among others, are revealed to us with skillful strokes of brilliance. The study reveals that a great deal of insights can be gained through an exegesis of the linguistic decimals deployed by a writer to project his vision of reality.

A New Social Order

Information and technological revolution is considered to be one of the offshoots of globalization, although globalization, till date, remains, to many, an elusive trend, multi-dimensional in scope, highly complex a process and full of contradictions (Erling and Hilgendorf 2004). Various disciplines – linguistics, geography, political science, sociology, economics, philosophy, etc. – have made inputs into the subject and offered numerous perspectives in its definition. In this regard, globalization is seen as diffusion of language, practices, values and technology which have influenced the way people all over the world live and think; compression of space and time; increasing information flow and technological scale, as the world is being shrunk; increasing cross border flow of information and culture, people, services, money, goods, etc.

Dale and Robertson (qtd. In Oyeleye 2005: 3) consider globalization as a process which is “multi-faceted in its operation, … massive in its reach and implications and… elusive as a concept” (4). In an attempt to offer an all-embracing definition, UNESCO sees globalization as “a set of economic, social, technological, political and cultural structures and processes, arising from the changing character of the production, consumption, and trade of goods and assets that comprise the base of the international community”1. The concept has been in existence since the 1980s, but it “stretches back decades, even centuries, if you count the trading empires built by Spain, Portugal, Britain, and Holland”2.

A basic consideration of globalization, despite its many faces, is that it introduces a new order, a new culture, into societies. How these societies have responded to it has always depended on their nature. While new techno-cultures, for instance, have been successfully managed by the advanced societies, they have brought pain and anguish to the poor ones with the attendant widening divide between the rich and the poor and general stiff competition among the few rich. ‘Modernization’, which globalization signals, has so engendered contradictions in the values of the societies which are engulfed by it that it is even considered to be more of an irritant than a balm for development. The divide which it creates between the rich who claim it is their right to be in it and the poor who equally seek it widens daily. Greed, criminality, terrorism and other vices are the end products.

It is this kind of society in transition that Sola Osofisan attempts to capture in ‘Sin-eater’, using the city of Lagos, Nigeria, as his setting. He lashes at those who, consumed by the desire to get richer at all costs, throw caution to the winds and ‘eat’ sin as a daily practice. In his moral tale, insidious corruption has put everyone in a state of helplessness. Police officers are corrupt and are ‘agents’ to multi-millionaire drug barons whom they are supposed to wage war against. (They, in fact, spy for them!) Young people cannot get jobs, despite having worked hard to earn good university degrees and are lured to join the forever-dangerous, yet tempting brigade of drug peddlers. To survive in the society, one has to do that which is neither right nor legitimate, without the fear of the attendant consequences.

The Story

The protagonist of ‘Sin-eater’ is a young lady who believes she has paid her dues by earning a university degree, and so deserves to have a job to take care of herself and her family. Hers is a desire to stop being

“another faceless job-hunter pounding these same scarred streets, keening for the powerful words that could transform her from a non-person into a person within an instant. YOU’RE HIRED” (‘Sin-eater’ 3).

However, everywhere she goes with her application, Stella meets brick walls, as the jobs are not meant for people like her but for those who are ready to present themselves before the libidinous slaughter slabs of those who hold the keys to the jobs.

As Osofisan narrates,

She (Stella) was propositioned time and again to bargain with something only a well constructed girl like her could offer strategically placed men… Men who unclothed every attractive girl in the secret corners of lewd minds, hungry eyes roaming and ravishing tantalizing nakedness. In return, they promised her favours only power could bestow; employment… a car… money… the very sun. (4)

Consistently rebuffing the moves and pressurized by her poor parents who are supposed to understand, Stella is at her wit’s end and at a point regrets why she opted to be a decent girl. It is at this point in her frustration and desperation that she meets an old school mate, Franca, who gives her a complete wardrobe overhaul and introduces her to a business she later finds out is connected with hard drugs. And then begins her life as a courier. Stella’s life immediately changes as she begins to adopt a life style that is suitable only for the rich. Osofisan describes the new life that she finds thus:

“It was a life of speed. Reality was a perpetual blur of motion. It was a life on oiled wheels, and all aspired to flaunt the latest and most expensive gizmo-filled car around.” (9)

Stella soon progresses from a local courier flitting within the country between the north and south to an international one who, on the order of the leader of the Organization, heads for America with a package of cocaine. Her naïveté in the business is soon revealed as she is easily outwitted by the wily Franca who, unknown to her, removes the cocaine she is to go and deliver in America from her even before she embarks on the trip and replaces it with a false package. And on her return from the trip, she is accused by the same Franca of having pulled a fast one on the Organization by swapping the cocaine package she was asked to deliver with a fake one. Not able to bear the accusation, and faced with the prospects of a punishment from the Organization, Stella is in deep anguish and flees. As she tries to escape, she suddenly thinks she can be spared the wrath of the Organization if she confesses to the police. Believing that her innocence would be confirmed and that the Organization would be dealt with by the law enforcement agents, she eventually makes her confession to the police. No sooner does she finish than Franca herself appears at the station on the prompting of the very agents she had confessed to! Too late, Stella realizes that the police officers were on the payroll of the Organization and that she had been locked in a most painful setup. Her anguish deepens, she is forcefully given a jab of liquefied cocaine and she passes out.

On the Linguistic Analysis of Literature

This study is hinged on the fact that linguistic insights and methods are useful in the analysis of literature, because, in literature, the writer “does ‘interesting things’ with language” (Leech and Short 2). The creative manipulation of the linguistic code by the writer constitutes an important signal of the ‘interesting things’ the writer does with language, a process that is generally known as foregrounding. The term, ‘foregrounding’, otherwise known as de-automatization of the linguistic code, was introduced by the Prague School of poetics and means, in plain terms,

that the aesthetic exploitation of language takes the form of surprising a reader into a fresh awareness of, and sensitivity to, the linguistic medium which is normally taken for granted as an ‘automatized’ background of communication. (Leech and Short 28)

When a writer combines lexical features regardless of their grammatical classes and/or functions to make “meaning”, or violates the normal restrictions on their use, he creates a foregrounded effect. Such foregrounding is normally paradigmatic and may be deliberate (an indication of the writer’s style) or merely be part of a tradition. The deliberate deviation from the norms of the language code or the accepted conventions of its use provides important material for the linguist analyzing literature. This is so, because through it, he gets to understand the artistic principle behind the writer’s creation. The language of literature is of especial importance to the linguist because it provides the writer the avenue to convey his unique artistic vision. Thus an understanding of how that medium has been exploited offers us useful ways of accessing the ideational component of the work. This is important, because the business of all art is to communicate, and as Osundare has noted,

Art thrives on the urge to share, to make known, and if possible, pass into common currency what was once a private fancy in the agitated flux that is the writer’s mind. (134)

Osofisan, as a language user, is aware of the normal restrictions that the norms of the English Language code impose. But he goes beyond the expressive possibilities of the language by ranging beyond the normal choices available to him in the language code and establishing, in the process, and for his own purpose, his own unique paradigms. In highlighting, through language, the plight of Stella who finds herself in deep anguish as she tries to survive in a fast-changing, globalizing world, he brings his creativity to bear. The rest of this paper will deal with these manifestations of paradigmatic foregrounding in ‘Sin-eater’.

Paradigmatic Foregrounding in ‘Sin-eater’

As already noted, Osofisan is a sensitive language user. But just as he is sensitive, he is also quite creative. The facility of his linguistic creativity relies a good deal on the collocational patterning he deploys, for ‘Sin-eater’ reveals a plethora of usual and unusual collocations3. Though the medium through which he communicates is prose, his gift as a poet comes in as aid.

When ‘Sin-eater’ begins, it is night, and Stella its protagonist is in flight. The author informs us that the night is not only dark but also deserted, hence Stella’s desperate need to see another person – at least to reduce the intensity of her fear. What she seeks is

1) Any face. Any safe face. Any safe face away from the place of death… (1)

We must note the repetition in this text, which is used by Osofisan to heighten Stella’s psychological/physical longing for ‘friendly’, ‘trustworthy’ (not enemy, unreliable) company. The author’s deliberate italicization of ‘safe’ suggests that Stella is at the height of her suspicion and, despite her desperation, seeks to be more discerning than ever before. Before, she had trusted and been betrayed, and now, she is not going to take any chances. But the paradigmatic foregrounding resulting from the unusual collocation of ‘safe’ with ‘face’ is most remarkable. In normal usage, it is not quite common for a ‘face’ to be ‘safe’, though ‘place’, a locative nominal, is more common ‘company’ for ‘safe’. Yet the derivation of ‘face’ indicates some form of over-generalization in selection, most likely because of the phonological (vowel) similarity present in the two:

Place – eIs

           Face                 –                       eIs

It seems to be Osofisan’s feeling that a ‘face’ can be safe, just like a place, and so an extension of the rule of lexical selection can be undertaken. The use of the unfamiliar with the familiar, no doubt, contributes to the vivacity, freshness and uniqueness of Osofisan’s lexico-semantic structuring.

No less expressive is this passage, which describes Stella’s run from her imaginary pursuers:

2) She pushed off into the night again, hugging the retreating shadows as if her life depended on it. It probably did. Her haunted eyes darted around the confined space of their sockets, stripping the night of its cloak of darkness… seeking the abnormal in a seemingly normal night. (1)

There is a complex paradigmatic structuring in the above passage, which shows the limitless possibilities of Osofisan’s collocational patterning. The rules of lexical combination are clearly not obeyed as will be appreciated in the paraphrase we render below of the passage:

As she again pushed off into the night, she was hugging the shadows (which were retreating). Her eyes were haunted and they dashed around… their sockets as they stripped the night of the dark cloak which it had.

In this text, possibilities meet impossibilities, as lexical items keep companies they would not ordinarily keep: “She … (was) hugging the retreating shadows”; “Her haunted eyes dashed around… their sockets, stripping the night of its cloak of darkness.” In reality, a human being can hug, but only that which is tangible and not an abstraction like shadows, whether it has the capacity to ‘retreat’ or not. In a similar vein, in ghost stories, we can have haunted ‘houses’, but not ‘eyes’. Ordinarily, that which has no hands or other similar facilities, cannot perform the act of stripping (as eyes are doing in passage 2 above) let alone the night. But in all these instances, Osofisan seeks to communicate something new, to take us into the physical and psychological dimensions of Stella’s fears. As she flees, reality takes on a semblance of unreality, and vice-versa. She has been thrust into the belly of something which she seeks desperately to get away from, and it is a huge battle indeed, catching a clear picture of anything. Her imagination constantly flips, as she is thrust from one stage of fear to another. In this state, as Osofisan describes,

3) Stella convinced and consoled her galloping imagination that getting away, even temporarily, from Ikeja, a suburb of Lagos, the sprawling once-upon-a-time capital of Nigeria, could better her chances of escaping with her life. (1 – 2)

Human beings have been known to console other human beings, or themselves, but not “galloping imagination”, an abstraction. Similarly, horses are known to gallop, and when they do this, their four feet leave the ground. ‘Imagination’, even when it is at its creative best, is not known to do this. But in foisting these propositions, Osofisan seeks to communicate the intensity of Stella’s confusion as she tries to convince herself that exposing the organization she works for to the police would give her the freedom she seeks. It is a desperate act, but as Osofisan tells us,

4) but if she could slip through the easily infiltrated police ranks to reach the superiors, perhaps she could barter with the whole dirty story. Call a press conference and vomit the horrible truth before the whole world. (3)

Interestingly, almost every attempt Osofisan makes to tell his story gets trapped in the web of paradigmatic structuring. In 4) above, for example, the verb phrase, “vomit the horrible truth …” elicits the following meaning:

i) That truth can be horrible

ii) That truth can be vomited (like food or drink)

At this stage, Stella is ready to throw caution to the wind. She has kept the truth inside of her for quite some time and it is now horrible leaving it to remain there to torture her, to make her sick. She has to, like the act of vomiting, throw it all out, damning the consequences. Osofisan’s imagination is clearly peopled by things which are unreal and it is his ability to bring them to us this way that helps us to appreciate Stella’s dilemma.

When Osofisan goes back in time (a year earlier, actually) to capture Stella’s days of job-hunting, he informs us that Stella inherited the principle of being a good girl from her grandmother, and describes those days of her grandmother as days “when men respected women, and chastity walked proud.” (4)

When Stella and Franca meet again after their university days, we are told that Franca “drove Stella to the nearby Mr Biggs where both of them exhumed old times over a grand feast” (5). Corpses have been known to be exhumed and they are tangible, but not ‘time’, which is temporal and abstract. Osofisan’s choice of the verb ‘exhumed’ offers some indication that what Stella and Franca did was bring the times that were literally old and dead back to life in their conversation and, in reliving them, there is fresh reawakening not unlike a corpse that had been dead and buried being exhumed to be seen again. Clearly, just as the reason for exhuming a corpse is, in most cases, to examine the cause(s) of death, Stella and Franca’s examination of their past as undergraduates helps them to fashion new bonds of friendship which eventually makes Franca secure her first-ever job since leaving the university.

The meeting is crucial, for it signals Stella’s break with a past of intense suffering where

5) an extended family of plodding job seekers stared her in the face. (4)

At the meeting, Stella had felt cheap beside Franca

6) although she was turned out in what she considered her battle dress, her best blue flared skirt cringing under a courageous cream shirt. (5)

At that meeting too, Stella’s general appearance had been rather ruffled: “tired clothes, shoes crying for polish, dry crinkled skin…” (5).

Osofisan’s lexical selections and the manner he combines them reveals a broad-based collocational geography. In 5) above, the nominal phrase “an extended family of plodding job seekers” and the verb phrase “stared her in the face” offer some impossibility in real-life situation. But the choice of ‘family’ is meant to convey the feeling that Stella was consoled by seeing other job hunters like her plodding the streets. That this ‘family’ stared her in the face suggests that the reality of their presence was not lost on her.

In 6), in which Osofisan describes Stella’s cream shirt as “courageous”, various reactions are at once elicited: laughter, sympathy, etc. What is not lost on the reader is Stella’s courage to battle all odds. She had worn the dress so often that it had become a trademark. Ironically, it is not by deliberate choice, hence we sympathize with her. The world she finds herself in had values different from the ones she learnt from her grandmother and from the university, and she is prepared to battle on.

Unfortunately, however, Stella’s new job is not the most suitable for her kind of high moral standards even when she meets the high and mighty and the poor and lowly who had been washed by the strange tide of the brand new world. This last group Osofisan calls

7) The buyers of auctioned dreams, frigid screams… Vague young men and women who had embraced habits they lacked the financial muscle to sustain and the demonic will to refrain from… They drifted about as if borne by the wind, disconnected, coke-caned into the silly state of scattered days… (11)

“The buyers of auctioned dreams” refers to those who seek dreams that are not realizable but can only be imagined under the ecstatic effect of hard drugs. The neologism ‘coke-caned’, which is derived from a Noun + Verb combination is an obvious phonological pun at the word ‘cocaine’ and is meant to reinforce this proposition. The reader’s familiarity with the abbreviated word for cocaine (‘coke’) offers useful guide in the interpretation of the lexical compound. The verb ‘cane’ to which a past-tense ‘- ed’ morpheme has been added in the above passage, refers to the act of hitting someone with a stick as a form of punishment. Osofisan clearly alludes to this act in deriving ‘coke-caned’, meaning to be punished by ‘coke’. Clearly, the men and women who are being spoken about have lost their bearing as a result of excessive indulgence in cocaine and must now float about as dregs of the society.

Stella had been working for six months when she meets, for the first time, with the head of her Organization variously referred to as ‘Chief’, ‘Father’ and ‘God Father’. She is given briefs on a mission she has to go with hard drugs to the United States. During the brief, we are told that

8) The Chief turned back to Stella, his low voice hissing out of the small mouth like the unwanted blessings of a mamba. (11)

The simile in this text exhibits instances of irregular foregrounding. How does one “hiss” words from his mouth when he is speaking in a low voice and a hiss is supposed to suggest a loud whisper? Again, how can these words be likened to the “unwanted blessings of a mamba”? Can a mamba bless, even if the blessings are “unwanted”? Incredulity is what stares the reader who confronts this passage. But like every instance of foregrounded irregularity in literature, there is always some form of “sense” in apparent nonsense. Information offered by Osofisan indicates that the Chief is the most feared person in the Organization. He is not only thought to be like God, but believed to be God himself. He is held in deep awe, and his word is law. These things explain why at this encounter Stella is completely overwhelmed by respect and fear that even make her tremble. Even when the Chief “appears” from the rooms to meet Stella, she sees that as “materializing” (13). Thus Osofisan’s preference for the word “hissing” is well motivated. He is seeing things from Stella’s perspective. She is not listening because of her awe, and, therefore, everything comes to her like hissing. As for the reference to the venomous African snake called the mamba, it is observable that its motivation derives from the preceding word “hissing”, for it is the habit of this snake (like all snakes) to hiss. But more importantly, Osofisan alludes to the awe in which Stella holds the Chief as he briefs her. Like the mamba, whatever pronouncements that would come from him would never go down well with her in her state of mind. It is necessary to note that it is this encounter with the Chief that is responsible for the change in Stella’s fortune.

When Stella eventually goes to the police station after her wandering to expose the Organization, she meets

9) A moody policeman perched behind a moody desk in a mouldy office moodily stabbing at his nicotined teeth with a ballpoint. (23)


10) Dirty posters on the abused walls lamely urged: HELP THE POLICE TO FOIL A ROBBERY… DIAL 199… THE POLICE IS YOUR FRIEND. (23)

The picture Osofisan paints here is a laughable, yet grim one, and it is at once meant to suggest that where Stella had come thinking she would place all her burden would, despite its pretences, offer her no succour afterall.

In passage 9), we are struck by the nominal phrase, “a moody desk”, which offers to the reader a rather strange proposition. Expressions like “a moody man”, “a moody child”, where the adjective, ‘moody’ selects an animate object, are quite familiar, as only an animate object with human characteristics can elicit the action described. But not a “moody desk” in which ‘desk’ has the features

– animate

– human

– + item of furniture.

Osofisan’s choice is meant for stylistic purposes. He sets to paint a gloomy picture of the police station where not only the personnel but also the objects that are in it offer no hope to those who come there. His proposition seems to be that only a ‘moody’ desk would befit a “moody policeman”.

The picture of gloom is also captured in text 10) which is reflective of the posters in police stations calling on everyone to cooperate and assist the police because they are our friends. Of special interest to us is Osofisan’s collocation of the past tense verb ‘urged’ with the noun phrase “dirty posters”. There is clearly a ‘mistake’ of selection here, because literally speaking if anything would have to urge, it would have to be a living, animate, most expectedly human object endowed with that capacity. Posters have no capacity to ‘urge’, let alone ‘lamely’, except, perhaps, figuratively. Thus Osofisan’s personification of posters in the passage is stylistically designed to animate them, give them human attributes. Unfortunately, this attribute of animacy goes further to reinforce the attenuating capacity of the human being to do anything right or well. That the posters are said to be dirty and can only urge ‘lamely’ suggests this.

Stella’s final betrayal by her friend, Franca, is revealed at the station where Franca and two men from the Organization are secretly invited to the station by the very policeman Stella had confessed to. She thought she still had hope when Franca indirectly admits to her that she had been responsible for the swapping of the cocaine parcel. But as we are told,

11) Stella found her friend’s eyes… Saw the sorry smile… And hope died a premature death. (29)

Once again, the expression “hope died a premature death” instances paradigmatic foregrounding as ‘hope’ is invested with life to the extent that it is given the capacity to die even prematurely. This is the same death Stella had envisaged and feared but which, as things were, seemed most likely for her when she is forcefully injected with the liquefied cocaine and she falls into unconsciousness.


There is little doubt that one important facility language offers the language user, despite its rules, is a high level of flexibility. It is this flexibility which enables him to manipulate language in the manner he does to project his artistic vision. In this paper, we have seen how Osofisan, in trying to tell the story of his character in a globalizing world, goes beyond language’s expressive means and establishes his own unique paradigms. The unique collocations which establish these paradigms are clearly indicative of his creativity as a writer. They also affirm that a writer truly worth his salt who confronts a reality in which he must express himself must do so in a manner that he would not be constrained. Reaching beyond language’s expressive means is a manifestation of this freedom of the creative spirit. In ‘Sin-eater’, Osofisan has focused on the anguish of his character. He has explored the nature of this anguish against a backcloth of the character’s anxieties and fears. At the end, we do not just have a realistic portrait of the character, but also the world in which she tries to live.

Overall, our aim in this study has been to see how in examining aspects of the tools Osofisan has used in telling his story we are able to establish a basis for critical intuitions.


1 See UNESCO. Globalization and Governance in the UN System. http.//www.unesc.org/most/globalization/Introduction.htm.

2 See e-cyclopedia. Globalization: What on Earth is it about? BBC News Special Report, February, 1999.

3 Remarking on the importance of collocation to the study of the language of literature, Gregory and Spencer state that “the creative writer often achieves some of his effects through the interaction between usual and unusual collocations” (‘An Approach to the Study of Style’ 674). Collocation itself is set up to account for the tendency of certain items in a language to occur close together. Simply put, it is theThe picture Osofisan paints here is a laughable, yet grim one, and it is at once meant to suggest that where Stella had come thinking she would place all her burden would, despite its pretences, offer her no succour afterall. ‘compa/emny’ lexical items keep.

Works Cited

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e-cyclopedia. Globalization: What on Earth is it about? BBC News Special Report, February, 1999.

Gregory, M. and Spencer, JA New Social Order. ‘An Approach to the Study of Style’. Linguistics and Style.

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Leech, Geoffrey and Michael Short. Style in Fiction: A Linguistic Introduction to English Fictional Prose. Essex: Longman Group, 1981.

Osofisan, Sola. Darkvisions. Lagos: Malthouse Press, 2001.

Osundare, Niyi. ‘Style and Literary Communication in African Prose Fiction in English’. Topical Issues in Communication Arts 1. Ed. Solomon Unoh. Uyo: Modern Business Press, 1987. 134-167.

Oyeleye, ‘Lekan. ‘The New Linguistic Order: A Critical Examination of the Impact of Globalization on the English Language (in Nigeria)’. Perspectives on Language and Literature. Eds. Moji Olateju & ‘Lekan Oyeleye. Ife: Obafemi AwolowoUniversity Press, 2005.

UNESCO. Globalization and Governance in the UN System. http.//www.unesc.org/most/globalization/Introduction.htm.

Pronominalisation as a Rhetorical Strategy In Tanure Ojaide’s The Fate of Vultures


In this paper, we examine the rhetorical effect of the use of pronominal forms in Tanure Ojaide’s collection, The Fate of Vultures and Other Poems (1990).

Ojaide has been classified into the ‘alter-native tradition’ of Nigerian poetry. This, as Funso Aiyejina informs, is made of

young Nigerian poets…set to make poetry as relevant to the realities of their daily existence as possible: no more pursuit of the clever and esoteric lines of Soyinka, the Latinate phrases of Okigbo and Echeruo or the Hopkinsian syntax of Clark. (119)

We show here that much of the effect Ojaide achieves in this work arises not just because his themes are topical, but because he uses pronouns, among other stylistic devices, to heighten the rhetorical impulse of a large number of his poems; to delineate the opposing forces that people his vision. The conflict in the poet’s view of his society is, therefore, summarily statable in a Them and Us opposition, the them being the wielders of political power (the metaphorical ‘vultures’), and the us, the exploited mass to whom power really belongs. In line with his poetic vision, Ojaide’s sympathy is with the us of his poems, and the pronominal forms They/them, I/mine/our(s)/us, you etc., form a major part of his repertoire for criticizing, on the one hand, and maintaining solidarity, on the other.

Overall, the essence of this essay, which is linguistically (or, more appropriately, stylistically) orientated, is to show that though personal pronouns may be simple, they provide useful references which sufficiently point in the direction of a writer’s artistic vision; they form part of his rhetorical resources. In choosing to use linguistic insights to explicate literary-critical issues, we are motivated by the belief that such insights may offer a more solid foundation for critical intuitions.


Tanure Ojaide is not an unknown figure in African poetry. He has to his credit, till date, more than eight published poetry collections, one of which (Labyrinths of the Delta, 1986), was the Africa regional Prize Winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1987. Another collection, The Eagle’s Vision (1987), clinched the 1988 Okigbo All-Africa Prize for poetry. The title poem of the collection under study received the 1988 overall BBC Arts and Africa Poetry Award. Ojaide’s other published works include the Endless Song (1988), which received an Honourable Mention at the Noma Award for book publishing in Africa, and Children of Iroko and Other Poems, which was released as far back as 1973, making Ojaide easily the first among the members of Aiyejina’s ‘alter-native’ tradition of versification to be published1. It is, perhaps, partly to give affirmation to this fact and also to acknowledge Ojaide’s prolificity and clearly defined social vision that one of the contributors to the blurb of The Fate of Vultures, Joseph Bruchac, editor of The Greenfield Review Literary Centre, whose press published the poet’s first collection, notes that he personally regards Ojaide “as perhaps the most important voice in the generation of African writers following Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka”. Another contribution to the same blurb, which is drawn from the 1988 ANA Review, generously observes that Ojaide’s

simplicity and acuteness of language, the deftness of symbols and images, the causticity and poignancy of the message, the specificity and musicality of the free verse structure all remind one of David Mandessi Diop, Pablo Neruda and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Much critical opinion on Ojaide has been as highly celebrative.

The critics not only try to straddle the poet within the ambits of the ‘new tradition’, whose primary concern is to give clarity to poetry rather than confound it, or make it confounding, but also readily state in glowing terms that in Ojaide, Okigbo has an heir. Unfortunately, however, hardly any linguistic evidence is provided to support much of the intuitions expressed, even when it is common knowledge that a poet sieves experience using the material of language, so that views, perceptions, thoughts, etc., seek realization through this very medium (S. K. Verma 23). In this vein, we can easily respond with the following questions to the imprecisions contained in the assessment of the ANA Review review quoted above. What, for instance, accounts for Ojaide’s “simplicity and acuteness of language”, the “causticity and poignancy of the message”, or, even, “the specificity and musicality of the free verse structure”? Intuitions such as these demand support linguistically, which are, unfortunately, not even considered.

In the approach such as we adopt here, we attempt to relate the linguistic with the literary-critical; in other words, to lend linguistic support to the literary-critical facts we raise in Ojaide’s poetic rhetorics. In focusing on pronominal forms in The Fate of Vultures, we recognise their communicative value. Interestingly enough, the exploitation of pronominalisation as a communicative device actually peaks in The Fate of Vultures, and we venture to opine that this has something to do with the high degree of social commitment in the collection.

Pronouns (we use this term here now as a nominal) are reference items used in place of nouns. They could also be classified as personals. According to Halliday and Hasan, “The category of PERSONALS includes the three classes of personal pronouns, possessive determiners (usually called ‘possessive adjectives’), and possessive pronouns” (43). They go on to state that this category has no general name in traditional grammar as its members belong to different classes that are given a wide range of structural roles. But they, in fact, “represent a single system, that of PERSON” (Halliday and Hasan 43).

As reference items, pronouns refer to something by specifying its function or role in the communicative situation. This system of reference is known as PERSON, a special term for ‘role’and we also have it traditionally recognised that such PERSON (or role) may fit into the FIRST PERSON, SECOND PERSON and THIRD PERSON, all of which intersect with the NUMBER categories of SINGULAR and PLURAL (See Halliday and Hasan 44). In English, we thus have the following distribution of personals: I, me, my, mine, we, us, our , ours, you, yours, He, him, his, her, hers, it, its, they, them, their, one, one’s, depending on such variables as person, speech roles, speaker only, speaker plus, specific reference, generalised human reference, singular/plural, human/non human, male/female reference taken into consideration. (For a full tabulation of this distribution, the reader is referred to Halliday and Hasan’s Cohesion 44).

Coming to the word ‘rhetorical’, we use the term in this essay to refer to a language user’s use of devices “to achieve the intellectual and emotional effects on an audience that will persuade them to accede to his point of view” (M.H. Abrams 159). By ‘rhetorical strategy’, we refer to the strategies of “discourse geared towards securing audience rapport, or achieving reasonable ends” (I. I. Elimimian 168). Our position here is that, in electing to write The Fate of Vultures, Ojaide not only seeks to explore experience, but also aims at ensuring that that experience is shared with his readers. This is the primary concern of art which, as Niyi Osundare has noted, also thrives on the urge “to make known and if possible, pass into common currency what was once a private fancy in the agitated flux that is the writer’s mind” (134). In doing this, the artist (poet) exploits facilities at his disposal to achieve not only efficiency and effectiveness, but also immediacy. Above all, he seeks to move his readers along, for it is only in doing this that he gets the necessary response and, therefore, fulfil the purpose of ever wanting to share.

The Fate of Vultures is made up of 51 poems broken into four sections, all dealing with different themes which range from the personal to those “reflecting on society” and our national health. Notably, even Ojaide’s seemingly personal or private poems are so only ostensibly. Both the significance and motivation (of consumption) are undeniably largely “public”.


Preliminary insights into Ojaide’s patterning of pronominals in The Fate of Vultures can be provided with the following samples of texts drawn from the poem, ‘The Wanderer’s Victory’(8 – 10), a poem which speaks of the triumph of resilience and personal will over oppressive forces:

(1) They Vs I

           They for pride of birthplace/ I, for a wider world to wander. (8)
(2)        They Vs my/me

           They planted malice in my body/ it grew flowers of

           friendship all over me. (9)
(3)        They Vs me/I/my/myself

           They  denied me hospitality,

           I grew strong from the trials of want,

           They threw a bone at me (and kept the flesh).

           I defended myself with my only weapon

           They cleared my feet from the ground,

           I stood firm in the hearts of those I loved;

           They  tortured me  and made a warrior of lazybones

           They covered the sky with clouds of disbelief,

           I saw God in the mysteries of the earth. (9)

We can identify the They/I in (1) as the ‘opposition’ and the poet-persona, respectively, who (as we shall soon see) often speaks with a collective voice. The pronominal forms are parallelistic. They has exophoric reference, i.e. the reference lies outside the text. It is, however, clear that it is also a reference to the ‘opposition’. The personal pronouns me, I, my, myself, on the other hand, refer to one person; i.e. poet-persona.

Ojaide devises the same dialectical opposition in his use of pronominal forms in the poem, ‘The Ambush’ (38), which cautions both ‘my people’ and the they, the ‘oppressors’, on the issues at stake. For the unmarked ‘they’, it is for them to always “beware of the ambush”, the collective snares laid by the masses of the people whom they have always deceived, tempted and cheated, believing that their victims have no power to discern the truth from the lie and appearance from reality. For this ‘people’, it is for them to be on the alert when the deceivers come calling: “Beware of their beautiful drums” (stanza 1, line 1), because “Theyalways want to impress you” (stanza 2, line 1); “And they are sworn to bringing you down” (stanza 3, line 8). Again, Ojaide’s rhetorical force lies in the beautiful patterning of the third person pronoun: “If they have sung hymns to vulture/ they pair and coo; “If they colour crows bright/ to pass for peacocks of the tribe/ whom will my people not dance for”. Ojaide seems to be very much aware of the gullibility of his own ‘people’: because they are poor, lowly and deprived, they are always ready to be overwhelmed by the temptations of the rich. Hence, he lets them know:

(4) They always want to impress you

                                 with the music of wealth

                                 the parties are many

                                 you  eat and dance to their  rhythms

                                 the masquerade mimes tradition

                                 the lie becomes the truth                                

                                 if you dance beyond the song

                                 if you eat up the host

                                 a catholic practice of believers

                                 and you can go beyond a mere touch

                                 into a marriage on heat

                                            ‘The Ambush’(38)

The patterning of the second person you with whom the poet-persona identifies and shares such great solidarity suggests a high degree of urgency. The poet seems to be very much aware of the snares lying around and his desire is to appeal to the emotions of the you he is addressing. while alerting them to the snares. The imperative issued to the you at the beginning of the poem ‘The Ambush’ is indicative of the poet’s deep sympathy with the subjects he is addressing on the real issues at stake. The first three stanzas of the poem are used to address the people, the you, and as if satisfied that enough caution has been given, Ojaide delves, in the fourth and last stanza, into issuing strict warning to the deceivers. Although he uses the second person pronoun you, this you can be distinguished from the earlier one which the poet devises for establishing and consolidating solidarity. This distinction is facilitated by the poet’s deployment of the vocative “my people” immediately after you: “Whatever step you take among my people always beware of the ambush”. This caution for the ‘opposition’ is meant to raise hope that a counter force exists somewhere manned by the I, we, us of the poem.

In the poem, ‘The Fate of Vultures’, which won the overall prize at the 1988 BBC Arts and Africa Poetry Competition, Ojaide’s use of the third person (plural) they/their has more direct, specific reference. In the second stanza of the poem, we have:

(5) I would not follow the hurricane,

           nor would I the whirlwind

in their brazen sweep-away;

they leave misery in their wake. (11)

The poet-persona here asserts that he will resist temptation. The first and second their are anaphoric in reference, in that they “point back” to both the hurricane and the whirlwind of lines 1 and 2. They is also anaphoric, referring to the hurricane and the whirlwind. But then, in the text, we find that the two natural phenomena are symbolic of all-sweeping corruption and graft and the loss of moral rectitude. These usually leave in their wake misery, which only the gullible suffer.

Ojaide makes effort to involve (or draw the listening ear of) the reader. This constitutes the second person you in the text. It could also be extended to imply the unidentified person ‘one’ and ‘himself’, as we have in text 6, drawn also from the same poem:

(6) You can tell

                                  when one believes freedom is a windfall and fans himself with

                                  flamboyance. (11)

In this highly ironic text, you can also be considered in the generic sense; i.e. in the sense of ‘everyone’, but this reference establishes tenor relations; it seeks to elicit some response and even appreciation, to draw greater credibility to the poet’s assertion or declaration. By it, the poet assumes too that the reader is also familiar with the proposition he offers; that it is indeed true that times exist when people indulge in self-aggrandizement in the name of freedom.

The chief and his council (‘The Fate of Vultures’) are described by Ojaide as “a flock of flukes/ gambolling in the veins of fortune” (11). They are also “range chickens” and “they consume and scatter…/ they ran for a pocket-lift/ in the corridors of power/ and shared contracts at cabals…/ the record produce and sales/ fuelled the adolescent bonfire of feathers” (stanza 3).

Ojaide here exposes the corruption and graft in the Nigerian state. His approach is quite unequivocal. The two uses of they here are anaphoric in reference. They refer to “the chief and his council…” and “Range chickens…”, and even more further to the synecdocheic ‘hands’ “that buried mountains in their bowels/ lifted crates of cash into their closets” (stanza 1., lines 6 and 7). In “the chief and his council” (stanza 3, line 4), Ojaide uses the deictic the, which is article-specific to achieve a definite reference. This definite reference has its communicative impact. It does not leave the reader to wonder or wander. He is led specifically to a particular group which in the text is the very symbol of the corruption and graft the poet is exposing. This has the effect of image vivification and character identification. It is, however, in the 4th stanza of the poem that Ojaide provides a most unequivocal clue to who “the chief and his council” are, apart from the ordinary hint at the they who “ran for a pocket-lift/ in the corridors of power/ and shared contracts at cabals”:

(7) Shamgari, Shankari, shun gari

                                  staple of the people

                                  and toast champagne;

                                  Alexius, architect of wind-razed mansions,

                                  a mountain of capital

                                  Abuja has had its dreams! (11 – 12)

This rather sarcastic text takes our minds to characters in the civilian regime in Nigeria which existed between 1979 and 1983. Hard as Ojaide’s satire may be, it is therapeutic. It offers a release from the bonds of indirectness which could be a snare. This is why the poet is just content to call a spade a spade.

In the poem ‘Compatriots’ (113) where Ojaide laments the erosion of progressive will by his own compatriots, he is not quite as direct. The poem opens with a bemoaning of a situation where the poet-persona’s “worst enemies are gathering strength”. This is because these enemies, the They, “not only brought down the eagle/ but felled irokos on sight…”. Also “They cashed on the absence of stars” and “they cashed on the eclipse of the sun” (13).

The they above refers anaphorically to the “worst enemies” implied in line 1 of the poem where the collective pronoun ourincludes both the poet-persona and his fellow countrymen whom he calls upon and appears to be soliciting their sympathy. But throughout the text the names of the worst enemies are not specifically mentioned. Rather, Ojaide uses several epithets to describe them. In stanza 2, they are “priest (sic) without a creed”, “The guardians, chronic lechers”. The poet’s affirmation not to “share in their communion” is definite enough. His rhetorical questions vivify this definiteness:

(8) What (sic) does not know of their ritual murders;

                                 who does not know they fortify themselves

                                 with vicious charms

                                 to live beyond their tenure? (13)

There is a pattern to the use of these third person pronouns. They refer to subject heads that the reader can specifically point to in the poem. But their qualifications, however, do not confer upon them any positive status, which helps to distance the poet from them and to further intensify the deep divide between the them/they and the I/me/us. Ojaide suggests that a great enmity exists between these ‘camps’, and the I/me/us camp must, therefore, hold the they/their/them in deep loathing. The members of the they/them/their camp are dubious, hypocritical and deceptive, because\

(9) As soon as they had their hold on the land

                                  they upset the customs of truth

                                  Now they have blunted the sacred sword

                                  how will justice be executed

                                  when the metal is no longer blade

                                  and the beast escapes communal rage?

                                                         ‘Compatriots!’ (14)

These questions are not meant to leave the poet in quandary; they are designed to elicit the response of the readers (who are held by the poet’s rhetorics) on the helplessness of the state of affairs for which the ‘enemies, must be loathed. The opinion is derived from the last line of the poem which serves to restate (specify) the very object to be loathed: “My worst enemies, my compatriots!”. We do not ignore the ambiguity here, though. While the utterance can be processed as (i) “My worst enemies, oh my compatriots!” by which the poet may be seen to be addressing his compatriots, his fellow “sufferers” and telling them of his “worst enemies”, it may also be interpreted as (ii) “My worst enemies are my compatriots!” which hints at some lament. Though these interpretations are encouraged by titular ambiguity, we have chosen the first interpretation, because there are sufficient textual clues to back our choice. The text totally decries the activities of looters of office who batter the national psyche with their suffocating visionlessness. But unlike the poem, ‘The Fate of Vultures’, this poem only subsumes the presence of a third party to witness the poet’s ‘testimonies’.

Ojaide’s ‘The Arrow Flight’ (16 – 17) adopts the medium of satirical indirectness in its use of the pronouns they/them/their. It opens without the them being specified. Not even the title of the poem provides an adequate clue to contextualisation. The text opens hypotactically thus:

(10) And for them there’s only one advantage:

                                 the hare’s over the crestfallen cock,

                                 the lion’s over the goat

                                 And they exact it to the last breath of their victims. (16) 

Ojaide’s images of the they/them there are immediately those of overwhelming power. The they are commanders (stanza 2, line 1), seducers (stanza 2, line 3) and they thrive in ‘muscles’ and ‘fanfare’, but no where does he openly reveal their identity, though he raises a vital question about them all the same to draw the reader’s hatred of them: “How can one be commanded to love them/ born of incestuous parents”. And he also makes vital declarations like “There’s a terrible divide, a gaping hole/ into which the king falls when stroked/ beyond the propriety of his robes” (stanza 2, lines 4 – 6). It is, however, as the reader progresses towards the end of the poem that the images he has been gathering from the poem’s beginning unites into a central image. This unity is achieved through the tying of the reference to ‘king’ in stanza 3, line 5 with that of ‘Ogiso’, which comes at the last but one line of the poem. The ‘Ogiso’ is Ojaide’s symbol of the tyrannous monarch, the ruler and, by extension, the one in the position of “authority and power”. (This is a member of the class he says in the poem, ‘Stone Culture’, 30 – 1, which wields “the stone culture of power”).

The poem, ‘New Vision’ (29) also opens with the ubiquitous they:

                  (11)         They stare at me with flaming eyes, biting

                                 their lips in regret for letting me pass.

                                 Am I daring enough, fighter of fortune,

                                 To brush savages aside with a smiler. (29)

The poet qualifies the personal pronoun I with the description “fighter of fortune” (line 3 above) and in stanzas 2 and 3 of the poem ‘New Visions’ as “Burrower through millennia of materials” and “Adventurer into the Cosmos”. But as in some other texts we have examined, the they/their pronouns are not directly identified. The most vital clue Ojaide supplies is in the question he asks in lines 3 and 4 of stanza 1 (above), though this is not marked graphologically: “Am I daring enough, fighter of fortune,/ to brush savages aside with a smiler”. It becomes obvious that the ‘savages’ indirectly referred to shares a link with the pronouns. Again, as with preceding texts, the poet-persona adopts the techniques of indirectness to name the ‘opposition’. Rather than make his poem less daring, however, it endows it with richness of significance and intensifies its suggestiveness.

The same effect is achieved in the poem ‘No’ (43), which is a definitively radical celebration of defiance. Like in the poem ‘The Ambush’, the text opens with a rather forceful imperative “Stop them”. The person to whom the directive is given is, however, not specified though the poem flourishes in the use of the second person pronouns you/your held in sharp opposition to the them:

(12) lest your enemies think you are too weak

                                 you hurl a stone mountain at them

                                 and you become a murderer. (43)

The internal logic of the text, however, provides enough suggestion that the you/your of the poem is one whom the poem holds in deep solidarity. The structure of pronominal forms deployed here is not merely to serve the function of putting forward propositions; it is meant to achieve a rhetorical force that would make the you/your really see the foolishness in working hard to ruin himself/herself by trying to please others. It is foolish, because, as the poet reveals (stanza 6 of poem): “They are all pitched against you/set to run you down and out/ they need you to triumph over their failings” (43). To really show the intensity of the divide Ojaide sees existing between the they/them and you/ your which, in our interpretation, really shapens into a we/us/our, the poet-persona once again cautions: “before they deliver you/ for their own reasons for your own fears/ stop them with an instant ‘No’” (43).


The structure of pronominal forms in The Fate of Vultures readily shows that Ojaide does not indulge in name-calling. Although one property Niyi Osundare has ascribed to new-generation Nigerian poets is the ability to call a spade a spade, to tell it as it is, Ojaide’s position seems to be that you could name things without actually appearing to do so. This accounts for the recourse to indirectness and structured references which aim for satirical effects in the poem. Interestingly enough, Osundare himself, who, while agreeing in what has come to be considered his poetic ‘manifesto’ that poetry is “not the esoteric whisper/ of an excluding tongue/ not a claptrap/ for a wondering audience/ not a learned quiz/ entombed in Grecoroman lore” (‘Poetry is’, Songs of the Marketplace 3), also believes somewhere else that sometimes it is necessary for one’s tongue to still remain in his clamorous mouth; i.e. for the poet to remain indirect and continue to talk rather than face the risk of being censured (‘New Figure of the Committed Poet?’ 9) Ojaide’s, then, is a justifiable approach. His is not the indirectness of intellectual mechanical gamesmanship resulting from arcane collocational indulgence or turgid lexical anarchy. It is a reasonable escape from banality while creating room for intense allusiveness, suggestive and imagistic vivification.

The poet certainly takes sides. He represents and articulates the perspective of the marginalised, the poor, lowly and deprived. His politics is the politics of these people. He seeks their eventual triumph over the forces of oppression and evil. He seeks to liberate them not only from themselves, but from the powerful, wealthy and scheming. His vision of hope lies frequently in raising requiems to the opposition even when its members seem to be alive and well. He prophesies their tragic fates and predicts their disgraceful end.. It is these concerns that instruct his language and his poetic style. The poet is simple without being simplistic, accessible without being banal. He seeks to share, and, in doing this, he structures his choices. He clearly outlines his ‘oppositions’

While the dialectical structuring of oppositions, as we have seen, reaches highpoint in Ojaide’s devising of pronominal forms, however, even when the poet does not exactly name his they/ them/ their, he does succeed in whipping up enough sentiments in the we/ us/ our, etc. to sensitise them to their plight as a determined step towards their self liberation. Ojaide seems to believe that the raison d’etre of poetry is to provide room for self-search and then self-liberation. Poetry becomes a utilitarian mirror on the soul.

The artistic triumph of The Fate of Vultures certainly depends on more than one factor, but in this short essay, we have isolated one of them – the linguistic device of pronominalisation. Pronominalisation remains a communicative, structuring device enabling Ojaide to outline his vision of art: it must mean to man; it must answer to his needs; it must talk to him; it must show him his face, so that by it he can work in concert with others in similar circumstances to change the sordid state of affairs.


1 Ojaide has also published Blood of Peace (1991), Cannons for the Brave (1997), Daydream of the Ants (1997) and Delta Blues and Home Songs (1997).


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– – -. Labyrinths of the Delta. New York: The Greenfield Review, 1986.

– – -. The Eagle’s Vision. Detroit: Lotus Press, 1987.

– – -. The Endless Song.Lagos: Malthouse, 1989.

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– – -. Blood of Peace. Oxford, UK: Heinemann, 1991.

– – -. Cannons for the Brave. Lagos: Malthouse, 1997.

– – -. Daydream of the Ants. Lagos: Malthouse, 1997.

– – -. Delta Blues and Home Songs. Ibadan, Kraft Books, 1997.

Osundare, Niyi. Songs of the Marketplace. Ibadan: New Horn Press, 1983.

– – -. ‘Style and Literary Communication in African Prose Fiction in English’. Topical Issues in Communication Arts. Vol. 1. Ed. Solomon O. Unoh. Uyo: Modern Business Press, 1987.

– – -. ‘New Figure of the Committed Poet?’ Unpublished Paper. January 6, 1989.

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‘Words with Steel Shafts’: Linguistic Strategies of Resistance in Tanure Ojaide’s The Fate of Vultures and Other Poems

In the very first poem in the collection, The Fate of Vultures and Other Poems (Malthouse, 1990), which emerges as a programmatic declaration of sorts of his essence as a voice of vision for his society,Ojaide affirms: “I do not cry in vain” (2). Eight lines later, he asserts: “I dressed my words with steel shafts/for a long hunting season.” (2). These words, to a large extent, validate Ojaide’s awareness that there is indeed battle, and that this battle will be long. They also confirm his acceptance that for this battle to be won, and early too, one should be well armed. For the poet whose major arsenal is words, he must deploy words with ‘steel shafts’ which must be capable of piercing the consciousness of the overlords and the ‘vultures’ who wield political power. This declaration thus implants the kinetic energy and combative impulses that inform Ojaide’s poetic creation.

This paper attempts a close study of the linguistic decimals which form the architectonics of resistance in representative texts in The Fate of Vultures. Of particular interest here are the lexico – semantic features deployed by Ojaide, among a range of linguistic options, to hammer at the opposition, denounce their strategies of misrule and establish solidarity with the masses.

In offering these linguistic insights, we are, as is the nature of stylistic analysis, “concerned with relating linguistic facts (linguistic description) to meaning (interpretation) in as explicit a way as possible” (Short 5). The aim is to clarify readers’ literary-critical intuitions and shape them into greater understanding.


Roger Fowler has noted the relevance of linguistics (stylistics) to the study of literature. According to him, “linguistics does provide ways of unfolding and discussing precise textual effects, and may be a means of assuring a sound factual basis for many sorts of critical judgements” (28). The fact that the experience which the poet sieves is communicated through language provides enough bases for a linguistic investigation of texts. Stylistics, as an analytical branch of linguistics, is of particular aid to literary criticism in that, in carrying out its investigation of how the resources of a language code are put to use in the production of actual messages, it extends the literary intuitions of the linguist and the linguistic observations of the critic, thereby making their relationship explicit. It is this explicit relationship that helps to expose the text in its manifold diversities as a work of art using the medium of language.

A linguistic (stylistic) approach has become desirable, because an observable feature of much of the critical writing on Ojaide is that it leans a good deal towards a study of the ‘what’ than of the ‘how’; or, to put it in another way, of the ‘content’, rather than of the ‘container’. A reason for this is because the critics are often overwhelmed by the deep social concerns of Ojaide’s works, and so spend time delineating their details and complexities and playing down on how the container carries the content in precise and explicit terms. It has not really mattered whether the criticisms are favourable to Ojaide or not. Of the rather harsh critical responses to Ojaide, for example, Stewart Brown’s observation that Ojaide’s poems, except for a few exceptions, “are mostly blunt ‘messages from the front’, imagistically flat but loud with rhetorical outrage” (71) (emphasis added) typify the kind of imprecisions we are talking about. Even while the critic admits that he does not doubt Ojaide’s “sincerity or the depth of his anguish”, he flays him for “the unending self-righteousness of the narrative voice,” “the artless predictability of the sentiments” and “the clichéd language of protest”, which he says undermine the force of the poems (71). But no where does Brown validate these claims by showing through an explicit linguistic exegesis how these come to be. It is our opinion that because the literary process embraces both that which is created and the manner the ‘that’ is created, it devolves on the analyst to pay reasonable attention to both in his criticism. This is because, as Osundare rightly notes, even while conceding that art is just “more than a clever anatomy of its technical architectonics”,

… ‘beauty’ is very much a function of form as it is of content, and … in a well-executed piece of work, form advances content while content gives sustenance and relevance to form (“New Figure of the Committed Poet?” 2-3)

Ojaide’s oeuvre is a clear reflection of a poet who pays close attention to both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of poetic production, a reason why he is grouped among members of Funso Aiyejina’s “alter-native tradition”1. A winner of major national and international poetry awards, including the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for the Africa Region (1987), the BBC Arts and Africa Poetry Award (1988), Ojaide is also a double recipient of the All-Africa Okigbo Prize for Poetry (1988 and 1997), and of the Association of Nigerian Authors’ Poetry Prize (1988 and 1994). His sensitivity to language use reflects in the works he has published to date2. He can, therefore, be said to be a writer who has sufficiently cut his teeth in the writing business and is poised to use his talents to bring greater awareness to his society. This makes it quite compelling that a study such as this be carried out to justify not only the considerable attention he gives to both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ in his poetic production, but also to complement his growing international reputation.


Writing on the modern poet and poetry as a tool for social change, Olafioye notes that

Modern poetry has a social conscience and content. The poet sees himself or herself firstly as an individual, as well as a member of the collective whole. Hence, the metaphor alludes that the writer is no unattached airplant, dangling loosely without roots. He must have roots, cleavage, and a sense of belonging. He must connect himself to events, especially politics, that affect the lives of his people. He must participate, however tangentially, in social retrieval, if only with ideas, when society goes ornery. If he does so, the poet then affects contemporary realism and experience in his work with the passion for and commitment to the accuracy of meaning in imagery, diction and content, which he draws from every department of life. (50-51)

Speaking on a similar responsibility while explaining the raison d’etre for creating “Songs of the Season”, his weekly column then in The Sunday Tribune, Niyi Osundare, Ojaide’s former class mate, fellow poet and co-member of Aiyejina’s “alter-native” tradition states as follows:

My overriding mission is to create songs which jolt the slumbering, give hope to the despondent, open up the eyes of the blind. In a country of astonishing social inequalities, and pervasive ignorance, it is to show my people that the rich were not born so, and the poor need not die so. It is to stress the inevitability of change and the triumph of justice. (“Bard of the Tabloid Platform” 12)

Without any doubt, the above mission is what Ojaide has also set for himself as a writer who is concerned about the socio-political situation in his country, a mission that compels the Sierra-Leonean poet and author, Syl Cheney-Coker, to declare that “the very existence of the African writer is a political statement” (3055). That commitment to the cause of liberating the masses of the people from injustice and political bondage is inevitable is something Ojaide is fully aware of. It forms the architectonics of resistance and protest we find in his poetry. Ojaide affirms that change is not possible until it is worked for. If he therefore “uses curses, damnations and uncompromising, combatant, linguistic weapons to assail social nemesis” (Olafioye 96-97) it is in agreement with the responsibility placed on him by his electing to write, because the committed poet cannot “shut the closet on/ plebeian skulls cracking/ under patrician heels/ on kings and queens, gorged on/ our earth’s wealth/ belching bullets on tattered masses” (Osundare, ‘A Nib in the Pond’ 6). The vanguard for revolutionary change is one of which the committed writer is a part. He is, thus, both in “a text of words” and the “context of battles” (Osundare, ‘The Writer as Righter’ 38). He raises awareness about the malaise in his society, exposes the vultures and equips the mass of the people with the necessary ingredients to resist these vultures. After a word or two (in the next section) on the subject matter and theme of The Fate of Vultures, we shall be seeing how Ojaide devises his linguistic patterns both to protest and resist.


The Fate of Vultures is a speech to “social predators through mind-boggling images” (Olafioye 96). In this collection of 51 poems broken into four sections, Ojaide confronts these predators. He holds them in challenge, embattles their conscience, deprecates their guise and guile and mobilises the ruled in the battle for change. As Olafioye opines, albeit in an impressionistic manner, this collection “demarcated Ojaide’s stylistic maturity and departure. In this work, he came to his own priesthood. His words flow more fluently, direct and refined, his diction is more eclectic to suit the delivery of his message” (94). Themes of corruption and greed, insensitivity and malfeasance bolstered by the cankerworms of African leadership echo throughout the collection – all these against a backcloth of pining and whimpering masses who are denied basic essentials because of the greed of the ruling but powerful few. What Ojaide seeks in many of the poems in this collection is to “run aground” the “cosy oligarchy” (Olafioye 97) of political ne’er-do-wells and rogues – the metaphorical vultures.


The linguistic facility that Ojaide deploys to battle the ‘opposition’ comes in the nature of: 1) individual lexical items and lexical items artistically combined to produce stunning collocations, 2) pronominal forms, and 3) imperative and declarative structures. But to suit our purpose, emphasis will be on 1) above.

On the use of individual lexical items and lexical items combined to produce collocations, it needs to be stated that words, which constitute the smallest unit of language, occupy a central position in the poet’s arsenal. In the English language, words are formed from the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, and a writer’s mastery of words is often predicated on his mastery of the alphabet and how it can be put together. However, on the ideational plane, what one wants to say often influences the kind of words he uses, and how effectively he chooses the right words to express the thoughts he wants to express is also dependent upon his degree of familiarity with, and proficiency in, the language.

The Systemic Functional model of grammatical description (the neo-Firthian model) while recognising lexis as a unit of description like other models, makes lexis an independent level. In this model, lexis functions as the basic element of the Group – nominal, verbal group, etc. Its lexical ‘content’ as pertaining to the taxonomic organisation of vocabulary, relates to the ideational function which the grammar specifies, while lexical ‘register’, as this relates to expressive words or the stylistic organisation of vocabulary, forms a part of the grammar’s interpersonal function. The textual function of the Systemic Functional grammar embraces collocation (collocational organisation of vocabulary)3

Ojaide deploys lexical items with the consciousness of the issues he is addressing and the point(s) he wants to make. ‘The Music of Pain’ (2), the first poem in the collection, reveals him as a poet who is quite sensitive to words. The poet commands the reader to listen and to appreciate the fact that his is not a cry in vain; he has prepared himself well for battle and armed his songs with enough memory to deal with “overlords/ who clamped reins upon the jawbones/ of upright words” (lines 7 – 9). To establish this convincingly, he has to invoke “Aridon”, the god famed by the Urhobos to be the repository of memory, to provide a record of past victories that had been gained against state tyrants who tried to stop the poet from speaking the truth. We are at once struck by the poet’s certitude that songs can do a whole lot in the battle for change, more so when these songs reflect “communal pain”. The pivotal lexical items devised by Ojaide while pushing this argument include “resistant cries”, “scurvy conscience”, “overlords”, “upright words”, “steel shafts”, “selfish rule”, “land’s infantry”, “strength of millions”, “expanding heart”, “fate-lift”, “fine-filed matchets”, “mystery bees” and “communal pain”. Two things are immediately observable from the above: the first is that all the words – both single and combined – are nouns; secondly, they reveal that, in his attempts to go beyond the expressive possibilities offered by language, Ojaide is prepared to devise unusual collocations. “Resistant cries”, “scurvy conscience”, “upright words”, “steel shafts”, “selfish rule”, “mystery bees”, “fine-filed matchets”, and “communal pain”, all have the combination of Adjective + Noun, respectively. Adjectives are highly favoured by Ojaide as collocational partners for his nouns, because what he seeks is to convey his thoughts graphically, and the use of descriptive tags does come in handy here. “Resistant cries”, as a noun phrase forming a part of the longer noun phrase “chorus of resistant cries”, is used by Ojaide in the text to suggest defiance. It is this defiance that the poet says he had to seek for his songs. The militant and uncompromising tone becomes immediately decipherable. “Scurvy conscience”, from the longer “land’s scurvy conscience” suggests a nation that has become so sick that it has lost the capacity to properly determine what is right or wrong. This, indeed, is a terrible malaise that the poet considers worthy of being excoriated. “Upright words”, from the longer “jawbones of upright words” can be immediately observed to be a ‘strange’ lexico-semantic formation, because as a componential analysis would reveal, there is certainly a ‘mistake’ in selection. Collocationally, “upright” cannot, literally speaking, combine with “words”. We can speak of “upright man”, or, in a different sense, have the sentence “The pole is upright”, but not “upright words”. But to have economy of diction, Ojaide goes beyond the expressive possibilities of language to create a new impression that words, like men, can be upright, because they are truthful. He thus elicits some level of seriousness from the reader to the effect that this reader must believe him that the dictators (“overlords”) indeed do often attempt to stifle the truth that come out from the mouth of the poet. It is, however, temporary, because as Aridon, the god of memory would testify and unroll from history’s tapestry, the “overlords” have never really won. Herein, then, lies the hope that, because the poet won before, he would always win again.

“Steel shafts” may not register the same awe that Ojaide’s unusual collocations convey unless it is viewed against the longer utterance, “I dressed my words with steel shafts.” Then we become immediately struck by the fact that, literally speaking, this is impossible. “Words” cannot be dressed, except in poetry. And this is what Ojaide is writing! The import of this is that Ojaide consciously strives for communicative impact. Words that are dressed with steel shafts, like soldiers in battle in an armoured tank, cannot be easily hurt, or killed. They immediately become lethal objects: hand grenades! Ojaide’s confidence in the power of well-armed words is decipherable, and it not only indicates the combative edge in the poet, but also his spirit of never giving up.

“Selfish rule” is part of the longer nominal stretch of utterance, “chiefs of selfish rule”. It is attributive. The poet-persona deploys the collocation to describe those who have seized the rein of power and now use it as a personal instrument. It is these “chiefs” that he seeks to put to shame with the communion of the people on whose behalf he sings. It should be noted that, as in the use of “overlords”, Ojaide avoids deliberate name-calling here. He definitely seeks to avoid banality and, rather, achieve suggestiveness.

In his affirmation that his songs are “the land’s infantry”, Ojaide further sharpens the combative and militant edge of his poetry. The die is cast. War has come! The fact that he engages in a recollective process by his use of the past tense “became” (“My songs became the land’s infantry”) does not attenuate the significance of this militant position; rather, it is meant to glorify the past and motivate the present to take control of the future. The poet is quite sure of this future, because he has for support “the strength of millions”, and his cause is justifiable. Therefore, a “fate-lift to laughter”; i.e. the fulfilment of destiny, is just a question of time.

Responding to the issue of the efficacy of words to trip the tyrant, and rebuffing the mockery of the cynics, Ojaide’s persona, in strong affirmative terms, insists that songs “are fine-filed matchets/ in the hands of the threatened” (lines 25 and 26). He also conceives them to be “a swarm of mystery bees” which can do no other thing but haunt “robbers of the proud heritage”. “Fine-filed”, like the previous “fate-lift”, is a neologism, carefully devised by Ojaide to register his unique vision of things. While “fate-lift” conveys the poet’s affirmation that it is the people’s fate to enjoy laughter and not the pains that the tyrant would want to see them have, “fine-filed” vivifies the image of something so carefully filed that it has become razor-sharp. To forge ahead fighting the battle, the threatened would need to have their matchets in this wonderful condition. It is the only guarantee to defeat the powerful and well-armed opposition. Further stretching his metaphors, Ojaide’s contrivance of songs as “mystery bees” attempts to ram home the image of surprise as a weapon against the opposition. Like mystery bees, who appear to emerge from no where, yet are quite dangerous, Ojaide seeks to take the tyrant by surprise. This approach is a tactical one which has often been deployed in warfare. It affirms the popular saying that the best form of attack is surprise! It must be noted that in indicating these tactics, Ojaide clearly acknowledges the power and might of the opposition. But so also does he believe that if songs can capture “the roar of lions” and “the jungle mortars of elephants”, the tyrant is nothing! Doubtless, Ojaide, as a wordsmith, attenuates the fear for the opposition in his use of words and stunning collocations.

In “What poets do our leaders read?” (6), we are offered a series of insights about leaders who, though quite weak intellectually, display a high capacity for hypocrisy, arrogance and the thirst for blood. Here, again, Ojaide exhibits his potentials as a competent user of words. The questions he poses are largely rhetorical, because their answers are self-implied; yet he displays an aura of one who wants to be informed. Here, perhaps, lies the significance of the poem. Yet, it is obvious that Ojaide’s triumph resides largely in the words he deploys in the dialectic of resistance. He commands the addressee not to “mince my heart-sprung words” (stanza 2, line 1), or “mint lores of salvation/ from the bloodsmacked and bone-decked thrones” (stanza 2, lines 2 and 3). This imperative is significant because the poet values his words greatly. Rhetorically speaking, the use of this imperative is an important attention-catching device, and it is interesting to note that, in processing its conceptual content, the reader gets drawn to the poet’s lexico-grammar. The neologism “heart-sprung” (as in “heart-sprung words”), “bloodsmacked” and “bone-decked” (as in “from the bloodsmacked and bone-decked thrones”, stanza 2, line 3) are devised by the poet to convey an affective attitude. “Heart-sprung”, a compound formation which is a combination of Noun + Verb, is used to convey the idea that the words come straight from the heart. For this reason, they are to be believed and not set aside. While conspiratorially soliciting their cooperation in not trifling with his words, Ojaide further directs the readers not to believe they can get salvation from thrones that are already violated and littered with the blood and bones of the slain. In other words, while having confidence in what he says, these same people should further believe him to the extent that he would not be lying about the information he reveals. The imperatives, then, are imperatives of caution and in their starkness, the reader is meant to be swayed never to see the ruler as his friend. It should be noted that Ojaide contrives “bloodsmacked” as one word, even though it is made up of Noun + Verb and plays the role of a compound adjective. Fusing the words together and not using a hyphen intensifies the meaning. In introducing a hyphen between “bone” and “decked” in “bone-decked”, the poet merely strives for normalcy, and the word equally helps in foregrounding the image of thrones that are crammed full with the bones of the slain. In using the expression “top ones” (stanza 3, line 3) to refer to the ones on top; i.e. the leaders, Ojaide’s aim is clearly to achieve variety in his description of the looters of state power. He sustains this in the second to the last stanza of the poem, as if relishing the words he uses to describe them. Thus, the leaders are “perjurers of the word/ drummers of bloated drums/ carriers of sacrifice; fanners of vanities”, structures which have the same grammatical features of Noun + Prep. + (Det.) + (Adj.) + Noun. They are also “sellers of tatters”. The poet appears to have come to a stage in the process of asking what poets the leaders read when he can no longer use “kind” words. The damnation he, therefore, rains on these people at this stage, reflects the poet’s bitterness for the killers who have no intellect in them. They also convey a no-holds-barred situation, which reflects total defiance of failed rulers.

“The Wanderer’s victory” (8) reflects a personal testimony in several respects, but it is also deeply public in its significance. In this poem, the persona, who calls himself a wanderer, celebrates his victory over those who thought he would never make it. Although the they he speaks of are not identified by name, textual indications suggest that they constitute the ‘opposition’. In this respect, then, it becomes quite easy to see the poet-persona as embodying the spirit of all the deprived and marginalised for reasons of “birthplace”. It is fairly convenient to see this text as the epilogue to a long season of battle with words made of “steel shafts”, in that it ushers hope for those who battle.

In “The Fate of Vulture” (11), the title poem of the volume, Ojaide displays, yet again, his penchant for using appropriate words. He invokes memory by calling on Aridon to “bring back my wealth/ from rogue-vaults” (stanza 1, lines 1 and 2). He at once, by the use of the possessive pronoun my, registers his claim to the wealth of the land which power-hungry politicians have looted and stowed away in “rogue-vaults”. It is this right that empowers him to make the demand, for which Aridon, his “memory god” and “mentor” must trace an ash-trail path to the hands of the looters. Setting off the dialectics of resistance, the poet-persona deploys two nouns, ‘hurricane’ and ‘whirlwind’, as in “I would not follow the hurricane,/ nor would I the whirlwind” (stanza 2, lines 1 and 2) to indicate that, regardless of the temptation, he would never be carried away by the power of graft which appeared to have brazenly swept away those who looted the nation’s wealth. The persona is quite convinced not to follow these powerful forces, because “they leave misery in their wake” (stanza 2, line 4). Unfortunately, the looters did not know this, or if they knew, did not care; and in this moment of reckoning when all that had been illegally gorged must be returned, it has become too late. Ojaide’s use of ‘rogue-vault’, his own lexical innovation, and a compound formation of Noun + Noun, is meant to graphically taunt both the rogues and the places where they have gone to hide their loot. Similarly, ‘pocket-lift’ as in the longer “They ran for a pocket-lift/ in the corridors of power” (stanza 3, lines 7 and 8) which is also a Noun + Noun formation and another of Ojaide’s own creation, is deliberately used to attack these politicians who are believed by the poet to have no other business in the corridors of power, except to steal – line their pockets. We are reminded here, of course, of the more familiar ‘shop-lift’. Also in this stanza 3, the persona, close to mentioning the rogues, identifies them as “The chief and his council, a flock of flukes” (stanza 3, line 4). They are also “range chickens” (line 6) who consumed and scattered. It is, however, in stanza 4 that Ojaide, as Olafioye puts it, “clinches his theme of political corruption by hanging exemplary, scampy politicians on the poetic scaffold guillotine…” (53). “Shamgari” and “Shankari” occur prominently here, and Ojaide’s phonological pun is meant to deride the more familiar ‘Shagari’, hence, to drive his point home further, he observes that these people “shun gari/ staple of the people/ and toast champagne…” Ojaide clearly refers to the key events and the actors of a particular era in Nigerian politics where, having pillaged the nation’s treasury and hidden their loot in foreign bank accounts, the actors denied the ordinary Nigerian his basic means of livelihood. It was an era of crass materialism, where some members of the ruling elite even had their names on champagne brands! Not also spared is ‘Alexius’ the architect who could only design “wind-razed mansions” in the Abuja Federal Capital.

It is note-worthy that in criticising the ‘flash millionaires’ of this era and demanding from them all that they had looted, Ojaide carefully creates a collocation set with such words as ‘wealth’, ‘rogue-vaults’, ‘bowels’, ‘closets’, ‘crates of cash’, which helps him to amplify his theme of corruption. Extra-textually, these lexical items do mean the same thing, but within the context of the text, they have been contextually conditioned to hammer similar propositions. In the last stanza of the poem, he describes the fate of these vultures of stolen power: if they do not end up in jail, they live perpetually in their crimes, mourned only by their types when they eventually die.

The motif of ‘The Arrow-Flight’ (16) is seen by Olafioye as “the harangue of state or rulership for corruptive practices” 94). But more than anything else, this poem demonstrates, once again, Ojaide’s no-holds-barred denouncing of greedy and ruthless rulers. It reveals the poet as one who would continually seek the right words to resist the predators. ‘The Arrow-Flight’ does not rely in deliberate name-calling; rather, it uses a series of animal images to push its arguments. Besides this, the poet leaves his readers with a wide range of suggestions as to who the ‘evil-doers’ are. The pronominal forms ‘they’, ‘them’ come in useful here. There is also a reference to ‘king’ and, of course, Ogiso, the poet’s historical and legendary image of the ruthless and brutal ruler. Ojaide concedes one advantage his unnamed ‘they’ have and identifies this as similar to that which the hare has over “the crestfallen cock” (stanza 1, line 2) and the lion “over the goat” (stanza 1, line 3). These images at once register a certain quality of oppressive brutality and cunning with which, we are told in stanza 2, that the unnamed ‘they’ “command the world to attention, riding/ through waves of tears in a vain-lift”. “Placebos and fufu-ful promises of wellbeing” are what it takes for these leaders to “seduce hungry patients” (stanza 2, lines 3 and 4). Ojaide’s attempt to convey the overwhelming authority of the rulers over the ruled whose cries of hunger “cannot be heard from high places” (stanza 2, line 8) is observable. The lexical items ‘vain-lift’ and ‘fufu-ful’, his neologisms, suggest, yet again, that in his desire to extend the expressive possibilities of language, the poet is prepared to create new words. ‘Vain-lift’ is a nominal compound made up of Adjective + Noun. Like ‘fate-lift’ (Noun + Noun) which plays the role of a noun compound in ‘The Music of Pain’, the poet’s aim is to achieve compression. The lexical hybridization of ‘fufu-ful’ is also designed for this same purpose. In the third and last stanza of the poem, Ojaide registers his defiance of the rulers. This defiance is signalled by the contrastive coordinator ‘but’, as in “But let them not confuse/ muscle with metal,/ fanfare with fame”, the poet’s allusion to the fact that the rulers may have a wrong opinion of their importance. He thus wishes that the arrow-flight, picking wings from the angry wind, will pluck “the spider in the centre of his web,/ the tortoise in his moving fortress,/ the hyena in his bone-furnished den…” a clear reference to the rulers. That the ‘Ogiso’s’ whom Ojaide refers to as “a plagued dynasty of beasts” (stanza 3, line 14) are not spared, but are rather wished by the poet never “to live a full life”, heightens the mood of defiance.

The last poem we will discuss in this paper which shows Ojaide’s careful deployment of words as weapons of battle and resistance of the rulers and their ploys is “When Tomorrow is too long” (18). In this poem, the poet calls on his unnamed addressees to be wary when a juggler arrives in town, loaded with a bag of histrionics. Although naturally this juggler would draw attention since he is a spectacle himself, no one should fall for his tricks. Ojaide clearly recognises the deftness of the juggler and concedes it: “His closed fist presses/ a honeyed cake into an ashen loaf./ With his gap-toothed shine for a wand/ he throws out one thing/ with one hand/ and with the same five/ he takes in more than seven.”. What is needed is absolute vigilance. Recognising that the juggler never moves alone and that he has in his tow “attendants, poster-pasters” and all those who “frolic in the loot of a flood”, there is a sense of urgency in the appeal. Of course, Ojaide does not directly name the juggler, but textual cues suggest that he is the ruler who seeks to perpetuate himself in power by being the beneficiary of a democracy which he ostensibly seeks to bring to the people. In the final stanza of the poem, Ojaide calls on his addressees not to allow the juggler to perform, even when he comes to town “with an eagle in a glittering cage”. They should, rather, “Do to him what you’ll do/ to a cobra in your doorstep”. This stanza thus clinches the theme of resistance in the poem.


There is no doubt that language is an important structuring device in poetry and that it does play a vital role in the poet’s attempt to communicate his ideas, views, feelings, etc. As a structuring device, it offers the writer a huge opportunity to project his artistic vision.

In our examination of sample texts from The Fate of Vultures and Other Poems, through a consideration of Ojaide’s exploitation of individual lexical items and collocation, we have tried to show that linguistic insights could serve as aid to critical interpretation and that ideas gained can help to place on a more proper footing the reader’s intuition about literary effects. On a particular note, we have seen that Ojaide specifically views words as sacred objects which must be used to strike the right cords of meaning. Communicative effectiveness would, therefore, depend on how well a writer has taken advantage offered by language’s immense possibilities. In his combative disposition in which he sees as becoming more over-bearing the “overlords” who have taken over control of state power and now flash it like a dangerous weapon, Ojaide believes he desires a powerful linguistic arsenal dressed as “steel shafts” to take on the opposition and hit hard. To a large extent, he succeeds, and one only hopes that the targets of his onslaught would read him and change their ways, after all, “What poets do our leaders read?”


1 This tradition of Nigerian poetry, as Aiyejina explains, is made up of “young Nigerian poets… set to make poetry as relevant to the realities of their daily existence as possible: no more pursuit of the clever and esoteric lines of Soyinka, the Latinate phrases of Okigbo and Echeruo or the Hopkinsian syntax of Clark.

2 These works, apart from the one under study, include Children of Iroko, Labyrinths of the Delta (Greenfield Center, NY: Greenfield Review Press, 1973, 1986, respectively), The Eagle’s Vision (Detroit: Lotus Press, 1987), The Endless Song (Lagos: Malthouse Press, 1989), The Blood of Peace (Oxford, UK/Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1991), The Daydream of Ants (Lagos: Malthouse Press, 1997), Delta Blues and Home Songs (Ibadan: Kraft, 1998), and Invoking the Warrior Spirit (Ibadan: Heinemann, 1998). His poetry has graced the pages of many anthologies such as The Heinemann Book of African Poetry in English (1990), Border Lines: Contemporary Poems in English (1995), Poesie d’Afrique au Sud du Sahara(1995), Rainbow Voices (1996), and Poetry 2000 (1996). In addition to two books of literary criticism, Poetic Imagination in Black Africa: Essays on African Poetry(1996) and The Poetry of Wole Soyinka (1994), his memoir, Great Boys: An African Childhood (1998) has been released by Africa World Press, Inc, New Jersey.

3 The terms ‘ideational’, ‘interpersonal’ and ‘textual’, as they relate to the functions that the neo-Firthian Systemic Functional model sees language as performing, are explained in detail in MAK Halliday (1970a, 1970b, 1971 and 1973). In the ideational function, language is viewed as encoding propositional content; i.e. our experiences of the real world and of our inner world, while the interpersonal function provides a means whereby communication is achieved through the assumption of speech roles in interaction. The role assumed could be that of declarer, questioner or the one who gives orders. The textual (or discourse) function emphasizes the means which language provides for making links with itself and the situational context in which language is used.

Works Cited

Aiyejina, Funso. “Recent Nigerian Poetry in English: An Alter/Native Tradition”. Perspectives on Nigerian Literatures 1700 – the Present 1. Ed. Yemi Ogunbiyi. Lagos: Guardian Press, 1988. 112-128.

Brown, Stewart. New Trends: African Literature, 20.

Cheney-Coker, Syl. “A Poet in Exile”. West Africa 3360: 3055-3059.

Fowler, Roger. “Linguistic Theory and the Study of Literature”. Essays on Language and Style. Ed. Roger Fowler. London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966. 1-28.

Halliday, MAK. “Language Structure and Language Function.” New Horizons in Linguistics. Ed. John Lyons. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1970a. 140-165.

– – -. “Functional Diversity in Language as seen from a Consideration of Modality and Mood in English”. Foundations of Language 6.3 (August 1970b): 322-361.

– – -. “Linguistic Function and Literary Style: An Inquiry into the Language of William Golding’s The Inheritors.” Literary Style: A Symposium. Ed. S. Chatman. New York: OUP, 1971. 330-365.

– – -. Explorations in the Functions of Language. London: Edward Arnold Publishers, 1973.

Ojaide, Tanure. Children of Iroko. New York: The Greenfield Review, 1973

– – -. Labyrinths of the Delta. New York: The Greenfield Review, 1986.

– – -. The Eagle’s Vision. Detroit: Lotus Press, 1987.

– – -. The Endless Song.Lagos: Malthouse, 1989.

– – -. The Fate of Vultures. Ikeja, Lagos; Malthouse, 1990.

– – -. Blood of Peace. Oxford, UK: Heinemann, 1991.

– – -. Cannons for the Brave. Lagos: Malthouse, 1997.

– – -. Daydream of the Ants. Lagos: Malthouse, 1997.

– – -. Delta Blues and Home Songs. Ibadan, Kraft Books, 1997.

– – -. Invoking the Warrior Spirit. Ibadan: Heinemann, 1998.

Olafioye, Tayo. The Poetry of Tanure Ojaide. Ikeja: Malthouse Press, 2000.

Osundare, Niyi. “New Figure of the Committed Poet?” Unpublished paper. January 6, 1989.

– – -. “Bard of the Tabloid Platform: A Personal Experience of Newspaper Poetryin Nigeria”. Paper presented at the 1987 Canadian Association of African Studies in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

– – -. The Writer as Righter”. Unpublished version. nd.

– – -. A Nib in the Pond. : Ife: Ife Monographs on Literature and Criticism. 4th Series. No. 6, 1986.

Short, Mick. Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose. London & New York: Longman, 1996.

Verma, Shivendra K. “Topicalisation as a Stylistic Mechanism”. Poetics 5 (1976): 23-33.

Canvass For a Painter: Aspects of Graphic Representation in Niyi Osundare’s Poetry

1.0 Introduction

In an interview with this writer some time in 1993, the Nigerian poet, Niyi Osundare, while responding to the issue of conscious style in his poetry, remarked as follows:

I am not a painter, but I am a connoisseur of painting…The page for me is like the canvass for a painter, and I see it as a great opportunity that must not be wasted. I want to draw poetry on it in such a way as would make it mean more. So there is that consciousness about it…(113)

With these words, Osundare confirmed what had become observable in his poetry: the joy he derives in plying the poem, playing with form and occasionally indulging in different forms of visual experimentation. In the tradition of free versification, he often indulges in the exploitation of ‘free’ form, not only to appeal to his readers and capture their attention and interest, but also to intensify his messages (Adagbonyin 1).This paper pays attention to aspects of graphic representation in eight poetry volumes of Osundare1 and also considers some of their stylistically motivated features. Graphic representation which involves “the patterned systems of the graphic substance” (Spencer and Gregory, “An Approach to the Study of Style” 70) is described by Leech as “the whole range of writing system, punctuation and paragraphing as well as spelling” (A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry 39). According to Crystal and Davy, the feature involves “language’s writing system, or orthography, as seen in the various kinds of handwriting and typography” (Investigating English Style 18). These definitions, when applied to poetry, obviously embrace phenomena like lineation, punctuation, capitalisation, lexical cramping, lexical truncation, alphabetical bracketing, aphesis, etc., which, overall, help to define verse shape and the general layout of the page.

It is four aspects of the above manifestations of graphic representation (punctuation, alphabetical bracketing, lexical cramping and lexical truncation) that we focus on in this paper. Like the other manifestations mentioned above, they are meaning-signalling devices.

1.1 Punctuation

It is generally agreed that punctuation constitutes a veritable means of encoding the unspoken aspects of a linguistic performance. A visual medium of language, punctuation “maintains the link between the spoken and written words of discourse….[and]…is therefore a clue to interpreting language and meaning in a poem” (Mabel Osakwe, “The Language of Wole Soyinka’s Poetry” 127).

Looking at Osundare’s poetic texts, however, this statement appears not to apply totally. This is because, while punctuation is used with great regularity in some of the texts, it is used randomly and sparingly in some others. There are even texts where punctuation marks are not used at all. In most of these texts, the reader’s predictive knowledge of English grammatical patterns aids his interpretation of the poetic texts as he can fill in, mentally, the punctuation marks, where they are expected to be. For these same texts, too, thought patterns, rather than graphological markers, come in handy as useful cues for determining sentence structure. We shall now look at this deviant use of punctuation.

1.1.1 Irregular or Non-Use of Punctuation Marks

Regarding the irregular or non-use of punctuation marks, the very first poem, ‘poetry is’, in the first volume, Songs of the Marketplace, provides a ready example, as it hardly sports any punctuation mark. The only instances we have in this poem of 33 lines broken into six stanzas are four apostrophe marks used as follows: “the hawker’s ditty” (3), “the grass’s morning dew” (3), “no oracle’s kernel “(4), “for a sole philosopher’s stone “(4); and a period used to mark the end of the poem. Stanza 12 of “Excursions” (also in SMP) shows no enthusiasm in the use of punctuation marks (see text 24 above). The poet leaves the reader to fix in the marks, where necessary, in his processing of the text, using as expected his (the reader’s) predictive knowledge of English structure. It is this knowledge that enables the reader to identify four distinct clauses, three began by the use of “several” and the other signalled by the contrastive conjunction “but.” In all, four punctuation marks – three commas and a period – are supplied; a comma each at the end of lines 2, 4, 6, and a period after “eye” (end of text).

In the following passages, the reader is also expected to fix in question marks where appropriate, because Osundare provides none. Here, he must recognise the interrogative patterns and intonational cues:

1) We ask the tyrant

                   when will you end your torture

                   he asks us

                   when will the snake stand on its own legs

                   when will the rat wed the mouse’s offspring…

‘The Padlock and the Key’, VV 65).

2) do you remember

those blast furnaces

where millions sweat for a pittance

on waists leaner than a wasp’s

those plantations

    where profit whips slash

the drudging flesh

those mines

where men buried alive

resurrect billion lusts

and diamond dreams

(‘Remember’, A Nib 16).

3) Oh moon oh moon where is your horse where, your haste

Who reaped your gallop in the furrows of the sky

     Oh moon oh moon where is your wardrobe, where, your ward

Who spread your silk in the loom of the sun

(‘XX’, Moonsongs 39).

For example 1), the reader is required to know that the text is written like a narrative complete with the narrative/turn markers “we ask the tyrant”, “he asks us”, so that he also supplies inverted commas open and closed for the sentences conveyed in the form of direct speech. Identifying such sentences is aided by the narrative cues.

No doubt, the infrequent or non-use of punctuation marks constitutes, in the text, an important aspect of deviation, but it cannot be described as eccentric. No where in his texts does Osundare take the liberty of using punctuation marks where none is called for. In this regard, he differs markedly from the American poet, E.E.Cummings, whose idiosyncratic use of graphetic features marks him out as one of the most eccentric poets of all time.

1.1.2 The Stylistic Significance of Infrequent Use of Punctuation Marks

The first reason that may be adduced for Osundare’s infrequent use of punctuation marks is that he seems to view the practice (especially the use of commas and semi-colons) as an unnecessary hindrance to the free-flow of his ideas. It destroys the tempo of reading, breaks up the text unduly, thereby “adding difficulties to the reader’s attempts to assimilate fairly long stretches of text at a time” (Crystal and Davy, Investigating English Style 179). Besides, since the grammatical structures he always manipulates give fairly reasonable cues as to where the breaks between structures come, it is not really necessary to use distracting punctuation marks as additional indicators. The following text from Midlife illustrates his point glaringly:

4) Through burning waters

Through ashes of accumulated patience

Through earth which chews the showers

of tardy rains

Through lakes pregnant with storms

Through seasons which bloom every seed

For twilights of contending baskets

Through earth’s gable

Through the window of the sky

The sun reaches out for its ram horn (Midlife 7).

The urgency conveyed above by the absence of punctuation marks (commas) after each of the prepositional phrases used by Osundare to recall the past, cannot be missed. It is obvious that the poet discards the marks in order not to slow the tempo of reading. Introducing pause markers of any kind would delay reading, especially as the paratactic phrasing anticipates a subject + verb + object component. This eventually comes in the last line. The rush of ideas and the piling up of effects creates suspense. In addition, the fast tempo of reading, made possible because of the absence of commas, intensifies the sense of urgency and immediacy in the text.

Another stylistic effect of Osundare’s unconventional use of punctuation marks, especially commas, is conceptual bonding. Here, the poet succeeds in tying words together. The result is intra-textual compounding, the neutralisation of semantic oppositions and contextual conditioning. We illustrate the point with two examples from the texts:

                     5)          it must end, this slave life must end

heloted squattered squalored kraaled

booted butted robened hanged carcassed

(‘Soweto’, SMP 47).

6) The moon the moon is the cannibal stomach

of slaving galleons, Badagry Elmina Bagamoyo

Port of (S)pain, the crayon claws of the

apartheid dragon….

(Moonsongs 25).

In 5), the poet raises hope for the oppressed blacks in South Africa’s South West Township (Soweto). The connection of all the past-participial verbal features “heloted”, “squattered”, “kraaled”, “booted”, “butted”, “robbened”, “hanged”, “carcassed” is reinforced by the absence of commas, so that they can now be more definitively viewed as items which readily collocate with “slave life”. Thus, a slave life is a “heloted” life, a “squattered” life, etcetera, which the speaking voice affirms must end.

The slaving galleons of Badagry, Elmina, Bagamoyo and Port of (S)pain are what the poet says the moon is in text 6). These were all vibrant slave ports during the period of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. They all represented the humiliating and dehumanising aspects of that chapter of our history. It is for this reason that Osundare conceptually ties them together here. He largely shuns the use of commas in listing these “galleons” in an attempt to bridge whatever geographical gap exists between these former slave ports. They are now grouped together because they represented one major theatre of suffering, humiliation and slavery.

Apart from achieving conceptual bonding, Osundare’s neglect of punctuation marks in some of his texts intensifies certain words and phrases. In the following texts, for example, the words “maps”, “going”, run” and the prepositional phrase “of breaking chains” are intensified:

7) …the moon is the throaty clatter of

                  breaking chains of breaking chains of breaking chains

(Moonsongs 26).

8) Going going going

The water is going

(WL 67).

9) My story has legs

But it will not run away

Run run run like a wandering elf

(‘wolf gift’, SOS 117).

10) Maps maps maps

for the map is a promise of the compass (ML 68).

We suggest that the absence of punctuation mark in 10), where Osundare plays with the word “maps”, tends to give the impression of a large number of maps, whereas in 7), where he views the moon in another “complex of masks” as a symbol of liberty, it is that of an endless, uninterrupted breaking of chains, a continuing action. In text 8), a sense of urgency is conveyed in the uninterrupted repetition of “going”, while in 9) a sense of drama is conveyed: the word “run”, because of the absence of any breaks in its repetitive pattern, actually seems to ‘run’.

Still on the stylistic effect of the irregular or non-use of punctuation marks in the texts, a point that must also be made is that ambiguity often results from Osundare’s unenthusiastic use of punctuation marks in several of his texts. Again, the reader draws upon his predictive knowledge of grammatical patterning to place punctuation marks where they ought to be in his processing of the texts. The following texts show instances of ambiguity caused by the non-use of punctuation marks where they are required:

11) The sun stands smothered

and clouds heavy exchange

groans of parturition (‘Dry Season’, SMP 73).

12) we sing the lines

and hear our voices

read the words

and see ourselves

in the mirror of every letter

(‘A Nib in the Pond’, A Nib 13).

In passage 11), Osundare describes the sudden gathering of clouds in a dry season afternoon. Here, the reader is faced with a puzzle, which arises because of the trouble in readily classifying the word “clouds” in line 2. Is it a verb or a noun? The trouble arises because of the absence of any punctuation mark. If the reader considers it as a verb, the puzzle deepens, since the word immediately following (“heavy’) is not a noun but an adjective. He is tempted to process it as “heave”, the verbal whose orthographical form comes quite close to the word “heavy”. Nevertheless, even this yields no meaningful stretch of utterance when combined with “exchange” and the words in the line below it – “groans of parturition”. He produces the following:

and clouds heave exchange

groans of parturition

In examining the entire text closely, however, the reader will notice that the key to the disambiguation of the text actually lies in the word “clouds”. If he conceives it as a noun, it becomes obvious that the word “heavy” is a manner adverb used as a form of interposition between “clouds” and “exchange”, with “exchange” beginning the predicate. He, therefore, needs to place commas before and after “heavy”. The result is the stretch of utterance:

The sun stands smothered

and clouds, heavy, exchange

groans of parturition.

This becomes a logical, meaningful processing of the idea of fruitlessly waiting for rain which the entire poem from which the extract is drawn talks about.

In passage 12), the reader’s task is how to make out a clear thought pattern from lines 2 and 3, for these, indeed, are responsible for the structural ambiguity:

                    We sing the lines and hear our voice read the  words and see 

                                ourselves in the mirror of every letter.

By placing a comma after “voice” (line 2 of text 12), he resolves the problem and emerges with this structural pattern

sing the lines and hear our voice


read the words and see ourselves…

1.2 The Use of Bracketing

Bracketing is a device used by Osundare to interpolate words, phrases and sentences in the poetic texts. It creates a useful avenue for providing extra information, and for authorial comments. More specifically, however, alphabetical bracketing helps him to limit, restrict and amplify the meaning being conveyed by the lexical items he uses. Words affected by bracketing in this regard are usually made to look like double-edged swords in their semantic import, and new collocational spans are usually created. The words can be processed independently or otherwise of the bracketed letters: the reader is usually left with a choice. Functionally speaking, the stylistic effect of bracketing is that it shows Osundare’s personal attitude to the issues he is addressing. Alphabetical bracketing shows that the poet is not just content with using lexical items; he wants to range beyond their single meanings, thus enriching communicative value. In the following pages, we shall be examining the two types of bracketing mentioned above, i.e. those involving words, phrases or full sentences and those involving letter(s) in words. We shall, as usual be doing this against their communicative value.

13) And then Sule feels his strength

Buckle for the first time

His forehead oozes some blood

(Not enough to go round)

His head hollows into swirls.

(‘Sule Chase’, SMP 17 – 18)

This text is the sixth stanza of one of Osundare’s most satirical poems. Osundare here describes the state of a victim of society’s wrath fleeing with a crumpled three-kobo loaf of bread he had been forced by hunger to steal. Sule is pursued by almost everyone in society, including those who should know better. The pursuers include tailors “with giant scissors,” permsecs “with PENDING files”, barristers “with dusty wigs,” NEPA experts “with fused bulbs”, telephonists, the doctor, the don, contractors, Reuter agents, etcetera. It is a race that is destined to end tragically, especially when we are told in stanza 2 of the text that “A barrel-buttocked woman” is the one who “blows the whistle / for the fastest race in Lagos”. With this sensation- /blood-seeking crowd on him, it is a race Sule the victim cannot win. In describing his gradually failing strength, Osundare, with the use of brackets, introduces a rather sarcastic note by stating that the blood that goes out of Sule’s already injured forehead is not enough to go round his pursuers. It is not enough to slake their thirst. In this remark lies the butt of Osundare’s criticism. The fact that he puts this comment in brackets clearly marks out his authorial voice. He is not an impartial, ‘uninvolved narrator’; his sympathy certainly lies with Sule.

In this same poem, ‘Sule Chase,’ bracketing is used in three other instances, thus making it the only poem in the entire volume (SMP) where bracketing is used with such frequency. These are in stanza 3, where Osundare makes reference to one of Sule’s pursuers: “The sergeant just gone to inspect / his tenth mansion (you can never trust / contractors: they’ve grown so smart / since the first battalion of oil rigs / Besieged our shores)” (16-17) and where the crowd now swarming on Sule is said to include “The sergeant with his belt / (He lost his gun in the chase)” (18). In all these instances, Osundare seeks to deride Sule’s pursuers.

In Songs of the Marketplace, bracketing of words, phrases and sentences is further used for authorial comments, as for mere interpolation, as follows: ‘Siren’ (21); ‘the Horseman Cometh’ (45); ‘Namibia Talks’ (49) and ‘Hiroshima’ (55).

In Village Voices, it is used as follows: ‘A Villager’s Protest’ (48); ‘The New Farmer’s Bank’ (50); ‘The Eunuch’s Child’ (54) and ‘Dying Another’s Death’ (55).

A Nib provides four instances of use as follows: ‘The Poet’ (10); ‘From Pub to Pew’, ‘Merry Metamorphosis’ (28) and ‘On Hearing of a Coup in a Friendly Country’ (33).

We can find examples in The Eye (3) and (14) where there are two instances each, and in the poem ‘Forest Echoes’ (15). We also have examples in ‘Harvest Call’ (19) and ‘eyeful glances’ (24). In Songs of the Season, we have the following examples: ‘Song of the Pandering Don’ (13); ‘Only Four’ (51); and ‘For Chief Samuel Fal Adeniran’ (64). Further instances are: ‘For Ayodele Awojobi’ (77), ‘The King and the Poet’ (124). We have one example in Midlife (81).

As for the other kind of bracketing – alphabetical bracketing – a great number of instances abound in Osundare’s poetry. We comment on only the following across his texts:

14) Once here in May

a tasselled joy robed the field

like homeless green

once here in May

the sky was a riot of pollen grains

and ivory mills waited (im)patiently

for the browning of grey tassels

(‘Harvest Call’, The Eye 19).

15) Waiting

like the pothole for its po(r)tion of blood

(WL 52).

16) So

Next time the taxman comes in his hel(i)copter

let him come like an iron hawk

he will find us waiting,

a flock of iron chicks

(‘echoes from the rural abyss’ SOS 133).

In text 14) above, Osundare reminisces on the joy of harvest and the richness of the month of May. It was a month, he recalls, of green and of plenty, a month where grey tassels (of the maize) gradually turned into brown and “ivory mills waited (im)patiently”. The bracketing of the syllable/morpheme ‘im,’ which graphologically highlights ‘patiently,’ provides the suggestion that the word can be processed with or without the brackets. Thus, we can derive the word ‘patiently’ or ‘impatiently’ depending on whether or not we incorporate the bracketed morpheme ‘im’ in our processing. It goes to show how much Osundare wants to range beyond one level of meaning. ‘Im’ conveys an affective attitude. It stresses that while the ivory mills the poet talks about may be yearning for the browning of grey tassels with a great deal of impatience, their waiting is also a patient one since this must come to pass. In ‘patiently’, therefore, lies Osundare’s attitude of hope. He seems to suggest that since the sky becomes “a riot of pollen grains” in the month of May the patient wait for the browning of grey tassels will certainly yield fruits. We must note the hint at ‘May’ and ‘riot’ which reminds us of the 1989 “Anti-Sap” riots in Nigeria. These riots yielded a harvest of blood in the streets but witnessed/anticipated a temporary relaxing of economic measures by the then military regime.

The same affective attitude we notice in 14) recurs sharply in 15) where, in talking about an aspect of waiting, Osundare provides two meanings in ‘po(r)tion’. This word can be read either as ‘portion’ (as in measurement,’ e.g. ‘portion of land’) or ‘potion’ (as in, for example, ‘liquid mixture’). This is due to the bracketing of the letter ‘r’. In conceiving the idea of waiting as the pothole waiting for the ‘po(r)tion of blood’, Osundare gives an attitudinal focus to his message. He wants us to go beyond the ordinary meaning of ‘portion’ and instead relate to the word ‘potion’. As man waits for life, so does the pothole thirst for its dose of blood. This is Osundare’s proposition and it raises a sense of alarm over the danger of (our) pothole–ridden roads.

Finally, in 16), Osundare seeks solidarity in the collective ‘us’ (those in the rural abyss) in line 4. He raises a sense of resolve against an expected invading taxman. Next time the taxman comes “in his hel(i)copter”, he rouses the rural folk, everyone must wait as “a flock of iron chicks”. The bracketing of ‘i’ in ‘helicopter’ gives a strong indication that Osundare wants to foreground the rather unusual word ‘helcopter’. Nevertheless, innovative as this word may be, we are tempted to think that the three letters ‘hel’ is the prime motivation for the innovation. In other words, Osundare has a special interest in ‘hel.’ We will here ignore the graphological incompleteness of the word, in case we are thinking of ‘hell,’ and instead consider the phonological implication. This, in itself, also offers a semantic implication. Transcribed phonemically, ‘hel’ can be rendered as /hel/, the same way that ‘hell’ can be rendered. Therefore, what we have is a phonological pun. We suggest that in foregrounding “hel-copter” Osundare specifically alludes to the idea “hell on wings!” He visualises the next coming of the taxman as hell descending, since this makes life difficult for the ordinary folk. Because he feels this rural community can repel the power of this “hell on wings”, he is hopeful that the iron hawk will meet them – ‘us’ – waiting, “a flock of iron chicks.” An iron resolve to ward off the invading taxman and his exploitative tendencies (hell) is a danger proof. This is what Osundare seems to recommend.

1.3 Lexical Cramping

This graphetic feature, like truncation which we shall soon see (1.4), is a deviation from the normal syntactic expectation of space between different words. Involving the running of words together on the pages of a text, it arises from the language user’s desire to graphologically ignore the rule of spacing which normally indicates where one word ends and another begins. The running together of words on a page often depends on the user’s artistic intention, but it is specifically the result of such user’s desire to fuse words together to achieve semantic compounds. James Joyce and E. E. Cummings are writers who distinguish themselves in this regard. Osundare, who incidentally, says he has not read much of Cummings (Adagbonyin 114), uses lexical cramping in only three of his poetic texts. These are Songs of the Marketplace, A Nib in the Pond and Waiting Laughters. That the practice does not extend to his entire corpus is not an indication that he considers it of little significance to his poetic production; rather, it is that he indulges in it only when the need arises.

There are five instances of the use of lexical cramping in Songs of the Marketplace, the first three coming from the poem ‘Sule Chase’: (i ) “And Sule has / the onceinalife luck / Of leading Lagos in a race” (17); (ii) “Sule / Tears through traffic / In bumpertobumper grave (17); (iii) “The Homicide Unit arrives / for an onthespot arrest” (18). The other two instances are drawn from ‘The Nigerian Railway’ and ‘Reflections’, respectively: (iv) “crawl ing / wear ily / fromswamptosavannah” (30); (v) “We are all equal: / cocoacoffeetea growers…/…./ And cocacoffeetea drinkers”(38).

A Nib in the Pond has only one instance: “Swilling and swaggering / threepiecesooted heroes / basking masturbated egos / in impotent suns” (‘Tottering Tower’ 25).

Waiting Laughters has two examples: (i) “The innocence of the Niger / waiting, waiting / fourhundredseasons / for the proof of the prow” (37) and (ii) “waiting/withoutafacewithoutanamewithoutafacewithout a- / waiting / for the Atlantic which drains the mountains with practised venom” (37).

In “onceinalife” above, four words are cramped together to serve a more forceful note as an adjective compound describing ‘luck’. Osundare aims for an intensifying effect. “Onceinalife” implies that which does not happen often. It embellishes Osundare’s ironical tone. There is even, a strong element of humour that the word conveys. This emerges when we weigh the lexical compound against the grim background in which it has been used. Sule is fleeing with his life, with a large hypocritical mob in hot pursuit of him. Yet, he is being described as having the luck of a lifetime to lead Lagos in a race!

In “fromswamptosavannah”, Osundare, in running together four words – ‘from’, ‘swamp’ ‘to’ and ‘savannah’ – to derive a locative adverbial phrase, aims for what may be described as graphic onomatopoeia. That is when we view his cramping against the overall visual shape of the text, ‘The Nigerian Railway’. Here visual form echoes or enacts (!) sense. The ‘sense’ is the Nigerian railway itself which the poet describes metaphorically as “snaky structures and tortuous millipede on legs of iron”. “Fromswamptosavannah” serves the function of visually simulating this snaky, lengthy structure and of indicating the unbroken railway link between the South (‘swamp’) and the North (‘savannah’).

“Threepiecesooted”, drawn from A Nib, simulates the expression “three-piece-suited”, though it does not adopt the hyphens. As a phonological pun, its significance lies in the word “sooted” which is chosen by Osundare to achieve a deriding effect. The text from which it is drawn is a critical examination of an ivory tower – the University of Ibadan – to be precise. Osundare describes as “threepiecesooted heroes” some of his colleagues who frequent the senior staff club – the ‘brave dons (who) wrestle it out/with sweating bottles / swilling and swaggering” (see full text, page 25 of A Nib). There is an indirect reference to the fact that these colleagues are always fairly well turned out – in three-piece-suit – but Osundare would rather prefer to see them as not “suited” but “sooted”. The word bears his ire, just as the lexical compound from which it is derived fully registers his attitude of derision.

Osundare’s devising of “withoutafacewithoutanamewithoutafacewithouta– ” emerges as, perhaps, the most experimental and complex of his lexical cramping in his entire volumes. This is so, because eleven lexical items have been run together here, all making three phrases, with a fourth being interrupted. Separated, the cramped lexical items can be read as “without a face, without a name, without a face, without a- ”. An explanation we can adduce for Osundare’s desire to run these items together is that he intends to tie together, conceptually, the facelessness and namelessness of waiting which he talks about in the text. In other words, waiting without a face is not different from waiting without a name. Both are aspects of waiting. The repetitiveness of the pattern suggests the interminableness (and boredom!) of waiting. It is necessary to note here that Osundare seeks to use graphic form to simulate ideational content. The absence of punctuation marks (fullstops or commas) at the end of the full phrases he cramps together suggests how concerned he is with making sure the reader processes the items together conceptually.

1.4 Lexical Truncation

Like lexical cramping, lexical truncation is also a foregrounded irregularity, in that it distorts patterns of syntactic expectation. It results from taking liberty with the graphological rule of spacing, of the acceptable standard lexical exploitation of space for English words. Here, lexical items are split without regard being necessarily given to their phonological or morphological structures. Often, for the conceptual content of a particular text to be fully grasped, it requires the piecing together of the truncated morphs or morphemes of words.

Osundare’s poetic texts show a wide range of truncated words. There are those that are truncated phonologically (syllabically), those that are truncated morphologically and those whose truncation is neither phonologically nor morphologically motivated. These truncations are marked with or without hyphens and they often spread beyond single lines. They constitute an avenue through which Osundare strives to achieve some form of collocational scatter for his words, a feature which increases the expansive range of his words. We shall illustrate this point shortly, but for now, we show the different patterns of truncation in the texts.

1.4.1 Phonologically (Syllabically) Motivated Truncations

These types constitute the highest number in the poetic texts. They are so called because their divisions are determined by syllable end. Some degree of musicality is achieved in their pronunciation. The following examples are available in the texts:

 SMP:                        “Con-Gre-Gation” (28), “Con-Tact”(49);

 A Nib                         “a

lone” (9), “con science”(21), “reliability”, “re-liability”(22), “eve- ning sin-phoney” (42), “Burn-ham-dom” (42).

The Eye:          “spine-less”(16).

Moonsongs:      “ex


                                 ated” (36), “per….fume” (53).

“a-mazing” (68).

Waiting Laughters:     “a-

        long” (6), “ill-

                                                        literate” (16).


                    grounded” (78), “re- tiring” (91).

 Songs of the Season: “con-tract” (24), “a-mazing” (116),


solve” (145), “quiet-

                  ly” (146), “be

                                                          come” (146).

 Midlife: “care-less”(27), “gun-

                                            prints” (67), “geo-


“con-tour” (97).

1.4.2 Morphologically Motivated Truncations

Here, the division of words is determined at the end of morphemes rather than syllables2.. The following examples are observable across the poetic texts:

Moonsongs:                 “ash –

        en” (116); “loud-


Waiting Laughters:      “Wait

  ing” (6), “sleep

                                            ing” (32), “un

                                                                                do” (32),


                     forgetably” (35), “crown-

                                                        ing” (58).

Midlife: “un

                                               easy” (84).

1.4.3 Non-Phonological, Non-Morphological Truncations

A Nib “id-ioms” (9)

Moonsongs: “rid-

dling” (57), “art-

                    eries” (68).

Waiting Laughters: “band-

ages” (6), “wo

                              und” (34), “urge-nt”(74),

“Pilgrim-age” (92), “comp-

                                                                    ass”(80), “tong

                                                                                     ue” (81).

1.4.4 The Significance of the Truncations

As the above sets of examples show, there is no consistent pattern in the manner Osundare truncates his words. The different types reflect his desire to achieve variation. They equally show how he seeks to match graphological form with the prevailing contextual (contentual) situation. This fact is obvious in some of the truncated words in 17), 18), 19), and 20) below. In these examples, truncations are used as expressive devices aiding communicative value:

17) They have reaped another skull

passed lip to lip

at death’s banquet

toasted to granulated dreams

to the eve-ning sin-phoney

of sunset anthems (‘Cock of our Dawn’, A Nib 42).

18) The moon is an exile

in the territory of the sky

with a fugitive baggage

and platforms of rocky sandals




by hostile fumes

and unrepentant poisons

of foreign factories (Poem xvii, Moonsongs 36).

19) Wait


And the hours limp a –





of fractured moments (WL 6).

20) When I am dead and gone

When this mouth no longer savours

The warmth of passionate breaths

let me dis




into the blue of the sky

(‘when I am dead and gone’, SOS 45-6).

Text 17) is taken from the poem marking the death of Walter Rodney. The “they” here refers to his killers, those who “burnt him to death in Burn-ham-dom” (see stanza three of this poem). The truncation of the place name gives a considerable amount of musicality to recitation, a feature which even the invented word “sin-phoney” serves to reinforce even though it is a pun on the more familiar “symphony. In this new coinage, “sin” and “phoney” constitute the key words because of the hyphen Osundare introduces between the words. The result is a new collocational scatter. “Sin” readily collocates with “eve”, the first part of the truncated word “evening”, as we are reminded of Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden (see The Holy Bible, Genesis Chapter 2). “Phoney” itself is intended to register an impression of falsehood. It is a kind of “sin” in its own right. Thus, considered in full, the expression “eve-ning sin-phoney/of sunset anthems” suggests that the anthems Osundare is referring to are not only sinful but also clothed in falsehood. Yet, these were what those who “reaped” Rodney’s skull “toasted granulated dreams” to. It suggests that Rodney’s death was not genuinely mourned by those who murdered him.

Osundare in passage 18) describes yet another ‘phase’ of the moon. He views it here negatively. It is an “exile” which has kept itself distanced from other elements in the sky. The “baggage” it bears is a “fugitive” one. However, the poet does not blame the moon for its state. Rather, he blames the “hostile fumes / and unrepentant poisons / of foreign factories” as being responsible for the moon’s “exiled” state. This at once confirms Osundare’s unhappiness with environmental pollution and the contributions made by Western technology in this regard. Identifying with the moon’s “expatriated” state, then, becomes a strategy for blaming this very culture. What we have in this text is a unique kind of truncation. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it spreads over three lines of unequal indentation, each line containing a fragment of the word “expatriated”. Again, it is expected, as in other patterns of truncation in Osundare’s texts, that the reader’s processing of the word involves an amalgamation of these fragments. Osundare seeks to achieve visual impact. Of the three fragments that make the word “expatriated”, the only familiar fragment is the morpheme “ex” which incidentally is not a free morph. In considering the moon to be an exile, Osundare actually takes the word apart from itself. This is why the words “exile”, “fugitive”, “foreign” all share a semantic affinity with “expatriate,” the nominal from which the past-participial verb “expatriated” is derived.

Three instances of truncated words present themselves in text 19) where Osundare again dwells on the lingering culture of waiting endlessly, often meaninglessly. These are “waiting”, “along” and “bandages”. The poet deliberately fragments these words to now produce new collocational ranges. A point to make about these truncations, as we noted earlier for one-word lines in the poetic texts, is that Osundare seeks to achieve graphological emphasis by this. Within the context of this excerpt, the new words emphasised are “wait”, “long” and “ages”. These words share the same collocational span. “Long” and “ages” (as in “waiting for long”, “waiting for ages”) convey almost the same impression. They describe the kind of wait the unidentified persona in the text undertakes. As the hours drag slowly on, waiting becomes a bore. Lexical truncation is not used here just to register this impression; it is also to try to capture it. Reading requires the harmonisation of the fragmented words and morphemes to produce a meaningful stretch of utterance.

In the last text we examine in this paper (text 20), we note that of the graphologically highlighted fragments in the two truncated words “dissolves” and “quietly” (“dis,” “solve”, “quiet” and “ly”) only “quiet” gains a prominence that is semantically relevant to the text’s conceptual content. This emphasises the manner the speaker in the text seeks dissolution “into the blue of the sky” when he is dead and gone. What he seeks is a quiet death.

1.5 Conclusion

Osundare’s graphetic manipulations clearly confirm him as a poet who truly cares about the appearance of his poems on the page. The more their appearance serves as some form of run-in towards the communicative core, the better. For a poet who is largely concerned with the ideational capacities of the written word, this is quite justifiable. That the poems we have seen manifest instances of deliberate foregrounding, therefore, reflects the desire of the poet to register his unique artistic stamp. He also seeks, by this, to break the monotony of visual patterning. This has an affective appeal, which commits the reader to the poems rather than serve as a bore.


1 The eight volumes are: Songs of the Marketplace (abbreviated in some places in this essay as SMP) Village Voices, A Nib in the Pond, (abbreviated as A Nib) The Eye of the Earth (The Eye) and Moonsongs. Others are Waiting Laughters, (abbreviated as WL), Songs of the Season, and Midlife, (abbreviated as ML).

2 There are some exceptions in the examples “un-do”, “un-forgetably”, “un-easy”, which can also be considered under syllabically motivated truncation, because of their prefixes.

Works Cited

Adagbonyin, A. S. Niyi Osundare: Two Essays and an Interview. Ibadan: Sam Bookman Educational and Communication Services, 1996.

Crystal, David and Derek. Davy. Investigating English Style. Essex: Longman, 1969.

Leech, Geoffrey. A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry. Essex: Longman, 1969.

Osakwe, Mabel. “The Language of Wole Soyinka’s Poetry: A Diatype of English”. Doctoral diss. U of Ibadan, 1992.

Osundare, Niyi. Songs of the Marketplace. Ibadan: New Horn Press, 1983.

— — –. Village Voices. Ibadan: Evans Brothers, 1984.

— — –. A Nib in the Pond. Ife: Ife Monographs on Literature and Criticism. 4th Series, (6), 1986.

— — –. The Eye of the Earth. Ibadan: Heinemann, 1986.

— — –. Moonsongs. Ibadan: Spectrum, 1986.

— — –. Waiting Laughters. Lagos: Malthouse, 1988.

— — –. Songs of the Season. Ibadan: Heinemann, 1990.

— — –. Midlife. Ibadan: Heinemann, 1993.

The Writer’s Might: The Writer and the Naked Emperor

The price for speaking up is high: the towncrier often has the hangman’s noose very close to his or her throat; but the cost of silence would be even higher’ – Niyi Osundare

I must thank the organisers of this lecture for the opportunity given to me to speak on the might of the writer. Hmmnn… The might of the writer! I suppose it makes us think of the power of a goliath or some like image, which thrusts the writer upward for assessment beyond the limits of our expectations and unreels a long tapestry of possibilities! This is why I must immediately concede that I am over-awed by the word ‘might’, a ‘simple’ and ‘modest’ lexical item, yet one that conjures so much power and strength as its meaning. I am nevertheless conscious of the fact that those who have asked me to speak believe so intensely and irrevocably that the writer does have ‘might’. Does he? Does he have the capacity to make oracular pronouncements that could at once, as J. P. Clark said in his ‘Casualties’, “turn the world into a dance with rites it does not know”? Can the writer mount the saddle of a conquistador, sacking empires and rendering kingdoms desolate? Can he roll an armoured tank into the cavernous corners of brooding streets in the dawn of martial songs and wrest power from the hands of the drunken, blood thirsty emperor? Can his pen spew bullets instead of ink and mow down those who bask in the fetid heat of stolen power and tell them they have bitten much more than they can chew? With his metaphors and stubborn vision can he create a physical paradise beyond Utopia where there will be no bound but free people, no aches or pains, no suffering nor toil, no losses, but gains? Who the hell does he think he is: the writer? In an age when, according to Niyi Osundare, the question people are asking is not “how many books have you read today?” but “how many times have you eaten today” of what relevance is the writer? Often beaten, pummelled, chastised, deprived and denied his rights to freedom, does he have the ability to fulfil the messianic role he is often believed to have by virtue of his calling? So who cares about the writer?

Don’t get me wrong! I am only asking innocuous questions, some of which I believe many of us in this audience have had cause to ask countless times. We are probably still asking the questions right now! The truth is that the idea of the might of the writer is one that unavoidably throws us into a web of complexities and elaborate interrogations. And rightly so, because when we come to look at it, the writer is but a human being who sleeps and wakes up and sometimes wakes up badly when his sleep has been disturbed, as is often the case. He suffers the same privations and pains as everyone else, and sometimes even more, because it is often as if the society deliberately targets him for snuffing out! His tolerance level for that which is not right is zero because of his hyper sensitivity, a reason why he constantly suffers. His pursuit of immutable truth is with a zest that surpasses the zeal with which the corrupt seek after lucre and vain glory. He is often agitated, angry and bitter. He smells a conspiracy of everyone against his person and the values he holds so very dearly. He is often aloof from the things that many others in his community value and celebrate with pomp and pageantry. He flees from the aroma of stolen power and is constantly cynical, charged with the passion of seeking change to the sordid state of affairs. The target of his attacks is the emperor and his band of looters and he holds this group in irrevocable loathing. Armed only with the banner of truth, he is never afraid to tell the emperor he is naked. He damns the consequences of his actions. He is bold and courageous and is ready to sacrifice his life for what he believes and for those he holds in deep solidarity who are often the poor and lowly majority among whom he is to be found. While he seeks to always do that which is right and by so doing flagellates the wrongdoers, his patriotic zeal ensures that he “proffers the healing hand, points out alternative questions” (Osundare, “Singers of a New Dawn” 75). But even these unsettle the State and ruffle feathers at certain quarters. Unsure of himself and his clique, frightened by the overwhelming presence of the writer, and sensing his empire and his demoniacal grip on power threatened, the emperor does a waltz, swigs stolen champagne and in his inebriated condition issues orders for the writer to be brought to him “dead or alive”. The acolytes who seek the writer with armoured tanks and tomahawks in the slums in which he dwells know the meaning of those words, and so the writer if he does not go into exile fast enough, becomes a familiar “guest” of the emperor in either his prison or his mortuary! The overwhelming contrast between the image the writer wears before his capture and crucifixion (if he waits for the emperor’s goons) and that when he stands before the emperor’s royal presence, is so sharp that the emperor wonders within himself: “Have they brought me the right person? Is this frail innocent looking one the one that I have dreaded so much and whose head I seek?” But the emperor’s murderous instinct seeks fulfilment and a pleasing and it would not be assuaged by seeking the freedom of the held.

I have often believed that the kinetic energy which propels the writer in his business of writing also compels him to stand and look the emperor straight in the eye. In the arena of battle, this same energy drives him, frail though he may look. In the battle between brutish strength and solid ideas, ideas prevail. They will always do. They are the forte of the writer, the pivot of his strength, of if you will, his might; the raison d etre of his constant victory over those who seek to hold him and his people in captivity. They are the things the emperor seeks to kill, if he misses the writer, believing that once ideas are vanquished, what is left is only a requiem for the writer.

There have been quite a handful of arguments to the effect that he is not a writer who hides only in the closet of words and shies from the context of battle; that a writer is one who writes primarily and also joins in the physical battle for the rescue of the soul of the nation. These arguments see the writer’s task as embodying ‘theory’ and ‘practice’, if we could use those plain terms. He does not just prophesy; he ensures that his prophesy comes to pass by being part of the engineering process of retrieval. The arguments also see the writer as one who would only be building castles in the air if all he sees around him are roses, not thorns, and even when he sings about the thorns he does nothing to remove them or prevent them from stifling even the flowers that he sees. A writer’s ‘might’, therefore, will be fully established when he physically confronts the monstrous barn burners, looters and plunderers and claim for his society and his people that which is their right.

While I must confess that I have occasionally pondered over whether the stifling conditions in our nation do not make it blatantly suicidal for a writer, a physically unenamoured being who may not have been trained to even hold a double barrel shot gun, to take on a frenzied army of trained looters armed with the fleshpots of office and with the best resources of defence known and imaginable, I have also been challenged by the fact that writers who go into the heat of battle carry along with them not only their bodily selves but also the spirit of their vision. While the former could be killed, the latter never will. They remain better than those who carry their selves to war and leave no legacy behind – a fruitless and futile exercise!

The impermanence of things constantly reminds us that the very fact that we are born at all is a clear sign that we will die. Is it not then better for the writer to have something to die for than not to have, and when he finds it, so be it? Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918) had something to die for – his beautiful England, painful though it was that he was shot in the head a week to the end of the war; Christopher Okigbo had something to die for – his beloved Biafra. Ken Saro-Wiwa had ample reasons why he needed to die: that Ogoniland and the Niger Delta may live, free from the stranglehold of those who value oil more than blood. Thus it would be unreasonable to imagine that a writer’s might resides only in his ability to weave colourful threads of words, to rear beautiful dreams and probably die in the bosom of those threads and dreams. He would be unsung, for his would be like a mere ripple in the pool.

Requesting the writer to go into the context of battle is another way of insisting that he must clearly define his essence as a writer. What made him begin to write? What is his role by choosing to write? How does he perceive himself? How does he view even his life? What is his purpose in this life? The moment he reconciles himself to these questions and proffers appropriate answers, he will be able to take a position and not merely sit on the fence where he will be a target from two sides – the oppressor and the oppressed.

We insist that a writer’s job goes beyond just writing; it also involves being a participant in the affairs that control the destiny of his nation – the very events that shapen even his own life. To stand aloof and be uninvolved is to wear the toga of Armah’s The Man in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, and to self-destruct and be a destroyer. Realities of our post colonial condition suggest quite eloquently that writing has gone beyond the stage of being just self-gratifying. The realities of our world confirm that even art itself is rising beyond mere artifice – mere beauty, mere form – despite the attraction of postmodernist theorising They insist that while being a piece of beauty, art should also be utilitarian, functional and relevant, for anything short of these would make it what it is: mere artifice to be admired and then tossed aside, like a beautiful woman who has nothing to offer beyond her looks.

Extracts from an Asomwan Sonnie Adagbonyin lecture delivered at the University of Benin, Benin City, Creative Writers’ Workshop on Friday, September 14, 2007.

A Dark Song (Poem)

The sky has never been this dark
nor the horizon decked in so much crimson
The wind has never been this restless
nor the cloud so thick with foreboding…

I hold my heart in my hand lest it falls;
I pick my steps carefully
through marshy ground
overlooking stone monuments
built by the greed of desperate men
who value tears and blood.

Noon wears no necklace of solace
only a tiara of discomfort
Noon adorns no smile of welcome
only a wicked grin
Noon carries no hope
only the tattered frown
of a murderous rage
Noon bears the face of a lion
thirsty for blood
Noon is a sea of tears
not ready to dry…

I guide my steps
out of the valley of crushed roses
I sight the Rock
and the field of open graves
I stand beside the tree,
waiting for night to fall.

It breeds no delight for a troubled heart
It brooks no joy for a land on the verge of mourning
Night is the Unspoken Dread
the vault of murderous secrets and deathly capers
the relish of the axe wielder and the masked gunman
the wound that would not heal
the ache that chooses to linger

Night is the greed of the Rock
the bellyache of the desert warrior
the figure that doubles, and redoubles
the magic that turns victor into vanquished
the fire that burns and burns and burns…

I gather the remains of my tortured heart
and pick my steps through crushed stones
I seek for light in the cobbled street

Ah! Dawn will be long!

Dawn is an articulated vehicle without a driver
an egg that has overstayed its hatching
a timid throb of an uncertain heartbeat
the nagging warmth of a querulous fever
the blind rage of a volcano

Dawn is the cavernous mouth of an ambushing python
the words that collapsed at the bridge of a dialogue;
the light that refused to shine
the embers of a fire that died long ago

Dawn is the new tear in my over-stitched hope
the rusty nail in the boot I wear
the embarrassing fart of a baby that soon dies from diarrhea

Dawn is the fading of an anthem and a dying pledge
the wardrobe of scattered banners and tattered flags
the faith I lost again
and again
and again…

Dawn is the death I die,
the tears I shed
for the Rock…

Tell it to the Generals (Poem)


Overweighed by the truckloads of words waiting to be delivered…
Waiting for the tongue to un-cleave from the roof of the mouth…

What difference would this general make in this new dawn of generous robes
preceding another season of barking guns?
Who again will hold this coal of fire?

The ways of the generals are not our ways.
Theirs are paths that separate
the desert from the sea.

Beware of the wayfarer in whose bulbous robes lies a long glinting knife.
Beware of generals with pathways in their teeth
Beware of mouths which belch shrapnel and spew bullets in the time of the butcherbird…
Beware of the seasons of the generals!
Beware of the mad man who calls you a thief;
beware of the panther which bears down on a crab;
beware of the wayfarer you bid welcome when he expects a farewell;
beware of the thunder that speaks through clenched teeth;
beware of lightning that speaks the language of rain;
beware of the song that ripens in the mouth of the voiceless tortoise…

The desert, the sea…
The desert is death.
And the sea?
The wise man chooses wisely.
Let the wise choose life over death.

It may rain fire and brimstone,
but it will be well for those who court not thunder.

Let the river swell its banks,
Let the sun roast the sands
but it shall be well in the house of the crab…

April 15, 2011.