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A war of Verses in Idoto’s Watery Presence

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The poets sitting on a bamboo bench in the Otosi Grove waiting for performanceIt all began before we set out to Idoto…the exchange in verses. Responding to amu-nnadi’s poem announcing his journey from Port Harcourt to Awka, the poet,

Nduka Otiono had cheerily declared “See you in Awka this weekend, Chijioke as poetry becomes love, becomes war…”   Well, Otiono was quite prophetic; it was love. It was war. But it was also memory. A memory of love. A memory of war. A memory of love and war… as poets became pilgrims and pilgrims became prophets; tracing the footsteps of the poet-protagonist in Heavensgate.

[Photo: The poets sitting on a bamboo bench in the Otosi Grove waiting for performance]

We had set out from the Okigbo compound after breaking his birthday cake and downing several cups of tasty palm wine. Mother Idoto had summoned all the children of Christopher Okigbo for a feast of return under the floral canopy of her grove. Poets from far and near had arrived Ojoto with voices tremulous with new songs. They had all assembled in answer to the call for The Return to Idoto … Poetry’s most illustrious river!

We arrived a point where we would have no further need of our vehicles and disembarked. Someone had pointed at a verdant green forest as we sped by and remarked that it was known as the Oilbean Forest. His remark ignited interest since Oilbean occupies a great place in Okigbo’s poetry. We filed out like worshippers arriving in a temple. As we stood in what seemed like a single file, Okigbo’s lines in Fragments out of the Deluge came to me unbidden “And to the cross in the void came pilgrims; Came, floating with burnt-out tapers,” Okigbo had sung and I began to see everyone on the journey as a pilgrim of sorts. We had all come to immerse ourselves in the mythologies of Okigbo’s art which requires a complete self-surrender that might help our understanding of his poems by sharing in a piece of his lived experience. 

Obiageli Okigbo, leading the pilgrims to River Idoto in the final chapter of the 2015 edition of the poetry festival – The Return to Idoto

The voice of Okigbo Mbem wafted into the mid-day air as we lined up in a single file. Okigbo Mbem who may well pass for a male version of Chielo, the priestess of Agbala in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, led the procession. His voice rose and fell eerily with the wind, imbuing the air with a gathering ritual. His voice switched seamlessly from invocation to incantation and then supplication, spraying spells in dizzying torrents. Then suddenly, a middle aged woman emerged with emblems of a religious worship. A priestess of Idoto, she was colourfully dressed in the ceremonial clothing of her office. A crown of beads graced her head. She had a flywhisk on one hand and a bowl of offerings on the other. Her appearance lent depth to the procession. We were soon joined by another priestess, similarly dressed and exuding the peculiar charms of a sorcerer. Their combined aura completed the ring of solemnity around the procession. 

The procession observed brief stopovers at two sacred places before we continued our journey to the riverbank. At one of the stops, Obiageli Okigbo fired up her laptop and played a recorded voice of her poet father reciting Elegy for Alto, a poem in Path of Thunder, a set of poems prophesying the Biafran War that eventually claimed him. A cold chill descended on everyone as we listened to his voice lament; “the robbers descend on us to strip us of our laughter, of our thunder.” A new sense of awakening draped the pilgrims on hearing the poet for the first time and getting a new intimation beyond the pages of his verse. I quickly recalled that in an interview several years ago, the nonagenarian poet, Gabriel Okara had told me that Okigbo did not have a good reading voice. But I was too awestruck by the sudden reality of hearing Christopher Okigbo’s voice to tell whether Okara was right or wrong. In retrospect though, it did appear to me that the voice I had heard bore close resemblance to the voice of his son, Onyebuchi. The voice had the same effect on me as the sudden discovery that Christopher Okigbo has a son. According to John Okigbo, Onyebuchi was conceived shortly before Christopher fell to federal bullets at Opi Junction during the Biafran War. He was re-united to the Okigbo family in 2004. 

We lost our way once before we arrived the Otosi Grove. As the grove opened its floral depths to welcome us, it dawned on me just how close our long tortuous trek from the clearing where we had parked our vehicles, through two stops to the Otosi Grove seemed reminiscent of the experience of the poet-protagonist that Okigbo assumed as he explained in the second paragraph of his introduction to Labyrinth. Okigbo had observed that in Heavensgate, “the celebrant, a personage like Orpheus, is about to begin a journey…the various sections of the poem, therefore, present this celebrant at various stations of his cross.” In a funny way, the brief stopovers and collective recitation of the Poem, “Heavensgate The Passage” by the six poets on the way can be compared to the observances of their Stations of the Cross to purify their art before the eventual arrival in the watery presence of Idoto. A fascinating conversation between art and life! 

Poets Nduka Otiono, amu-nnadi, Uche Umez, Chuma Nwokolo, Tade Ipadeola and Iquo Diana Abasi Eke recite Heavensgate at Idoto.

The urgent sounds of Ekwe welcomed us to the Otosi Grove. We had a sense of stepping into an otherworldly hall as the lush green leaves of the surrounding bamboo formed a thick floral canopy above our heads. On the left side of the approach, a huge banner proclaimed our arrival to Idoto…Poetry’s Most Illustrious River. On the far side, a solitary woman sat in a corner roasting corn and Ube on a grill. There were a few benches made from the hollow stems of bamboo. Behind us, the flute sang in a twittering voice, weaving itself around the liquid thundering of the drum. The stage was set for the first poetry festival in honour of Christopher Okigbo in his home town. Again, Okigbo’s lines came to me – Thundering drums and cannons/in palm grove/the spirit is in ascent. Less than three feet away, Idoto gurgled away in majestic splendour.

The show soon got underway. The six poets filed out and sat on the low bamboo bench beneath the big banner. They made a striking view, looking like worshippers who had finally arrived in the shrine of their new deity. But all of a sudden, the bench snapped under their weight and tipped everyone over. The Grove reverberated with laughter and screams as we rushed to help them back to their feet but that was not an easy task. Poets are not always athletic. They sit down too long to practice their craft. So, they gather weight. 

As was the case with Words over Bonfire held the previous night in the Okigbo compound, Uche Umez opened the show with a riveting performance and amu-nnadi brought it to a close in thunder, lightning and rain. All the poets gave a good account of themselves, taking the audience through variegated experiences that added to the universe of stories told in verses. New voices like Amarachi Atama, Muna Chuma-Udeh and Ejiofor Ugwu and literature teacher and Orator, Dr. Mrs. Ngozi Chuma-Udeh all gave beautiful performances. The hair-raising displays of the Edge Crew also spiced up the show as a fitting interlude. But the atmosphere took a new shade of colour when amu-nnadi performed his widely acclaimed poem – Shrine. The globules of words strung together with his genius set themselves loose and became cowries in his hands with which he supplicated the river goddess whose phosphorescence hung in the air like musk. The flutist accompanied him. The drum egged him on. The audience watched, enchanted.  

The poets later walked to the banks of Idoto to stand before her watery presence and contemplate her legend. But not every poet made it to the waterfront as trees had fallen on the pathway and sealed off access to the original clearing demarcated for the final recitation of Heavensgate by the riverside. 

Undaunted, we persevered until we finally accessed the famous river through a flood swept path, coated in treacherous mud that felt slippery underfoot. As it turned out only four poets finally made it to River Idoto; amu-nnadi, Uche Umez, Chuma Nwokolo and Iquo Diana Abasi Eke. They were ecstatic as they romped around in her cold waters on barefoot, washed their faces, drank from her shinny surface and took memorable photographs with their feet submerged in the river. The festival came to an end when the four poets raised their voices to read Dark Waters of the Beginning from Heavensgate, their voices rising in the wind, the setting sun casting a fading yellow over the lush green leaves and the river-birds twittering in nearby trees. It made for a lovely symphony; a long symphony of extraordinary beauty strung together on memory. 

Watch out for the next edition of “The Return To Idoto.”

James Eze (eziokwubundu@gmail.com)

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