DISSECTING LOVE POEMS OF A SEPTUAGENARIAN POET
The caption's emphasis on Mark Nwagwu's age of 70 years plus is due to two reasons. The first is that some of his country's younger writers think that older writers are standing on their way, and, therefore, should retire to enable them, the newer and younger entrants into the field of creative writing, to shine as if it were. This is preposterous because it has never happened anywhere before. The second reason is that our poet went into literary writing as a septuagenarian. If the first cowardly proposition were to be possible and implementable, how fair could we have been to him?
In the case of Professor Nwagwu, he came to the literary scene with a full baggage, arriving both as a novelist and a poet in one stroke. But even more baffling is his choice of a theme not usually associated with old folks in our clime. This reminds me of an anecdote: a young girl asked the mother if it was true that at her age (ie her mother's age) women would usually not be interested in sex; the mother said she could not give an accurate answer, but quickly referred her daughter to her grandmother! We shall soon return to the trope of an old man's passion for love when he should have been smoking his pipe on his easy chair, ruminating on life's more serious engagements or at best ruing over what his journey in life had been these past seven decades of his existence.
Mark Nwagwu is a retired professor of Molecular and Cell Biology who spent the better part of his life as an academic at the University of Ibadan during which time he undertook ground-breaking researches in his area of specialization. Although creative writing had tugged at his heart all his science-pursuing life, he did not have the breathing space to engage his muse until his retirement in 2002. Since then, he has published two novels - Forever Chimes which was shortlisted for the NLNG Prize contest of 2007, and My Eyes Dance, written as a slight extension of his debut novel. His first collection of poems - Helen, not of Troy (2009) - was probably written and published to mark his wife's retirement also from U.I (where she had been a Professor of Educational Psychology). Nwagwu's artistic canvas in his novels is quite roomy, accommodating such pristine concerns as culture in all its meanings - in which there are clashes and reconciliations - generation gaps and conflicts in communication, spiritual ventilation, pure love and pureness of heart and feeling, soulful philosophical enquiry into existence, self and other, pride and prejudice, racism and human passion defying the pigmentation classifications of white, black, brown or green.
Nwagwu's novels deal with a world that is no longer defined by mere local and demographic details in ethnography and consanguinity. The culture regime which should have led us and ruled us today were it not for its truncation by Westernization has become hybridized, more or less a tertium quid, neither autocthonously African nor modernistically Western. Thus, Chioma, the heroine of both novels, possesses the best of Igbo cultural traits which she guards jealously as well as those of the West to which she had been exposed when she took two degrees from two American universities. This preparation, more or less the quintessence of what a modern, well-bred African can ever turn out to be, makes her a globalist, a 'glocal' citizen of the world. It is instructive that the one who is as prepared to face the world as it were is Chioma, a girl. This scenario represents a changed and changing world, particularly as she carries within her 'the last of Akadike's secrets', she being for him (i.e her grandfather) 'the end of his history' but the 'beginning of a new era for the Akadikes. And you are a girl' (Forever Chimes p.246).
This present short essay is not about Mark Nwagwu's novels, enchanting as they are; it is concerned with his poems, in fact, his love poems, found in a debut volume under the attention-catching title of 'Helen, not of Troy'. It is when one knows that the poet's wife's name is Helen that it becomes clear that one is in for a love treatise in poetic constructions. It is interesting to know that even as septuagenarians or nearly so (the wife is in her late sixties) the couple is in love, for were it not so, the poet would not have been in the frame of mind to poeticize his thoughts, let alone construct love tropes filled with deep emotional cadences such as we have in this collection. As I had tried to say ab initio, youths always think that love or even sex is their exclusive preserve but Helen, not of Troy proves them wrong.
Helen of Troy in Greek mythology was a controversial figure. She was said to have been exceptionally beautiful. Her abduction by Paris, a Trojan prince, precipitated the Trojan War. Her husband, Menelaus, King of Sparta, had to mobilize all the forces at his disposal, including men and materials, forces of good and ill-will, to wage the war until Helen was returned to him.
Femi Osofisan, the Nigerian playwright and poet, may have modelled his Women of Owu (2006) after the Trojan myth. Owu's conquest is the insistence of Maye Okunade to retrieve his erring wife, Iyunloye who had been 'captured and brought here', as reported by one of the women. She also reported that 'Okunade became bitter, and swore to get her back,' he having been 'shamed and disgraced' (p.6) by his wife's abduction.
Since the earliest of times, Helen of Troy has been celebrated as a literary figuration in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, both of whose dating is now lost to antiquity. Both epics centre on the events and consequences of the Trojan War which took place in ancient Greece. Christopher Marlowe (1564 - 1593), a contemporary of Shakespeare (both were born the same year, though Christopher died quite early - precisely at age 29) in the most popular of his plays, Doctor Faustus, refers to Helen of Troy in these memorable lines: 'Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium/Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.' W.B.Yeats' 'No Second Troy' (1910) is a veiled reference to Helen of Troy, although Maud Gonne (a widow who turned down Yeats' love overtures many times) was on his mind: 'With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind/that is not natural in an age like this/Being high and solitary and most stern.' Yeats ends the poem in these alluring lines: 'Why, what could she have done, being what she is?/ Was there another Troy for her to burn?'
Thus, by informing us in the matrix phrase that his own Helen is 'not of Troy,' Nwagwu prepares us to meet a human being, a life-and-blood personality, not a mythological construct or fictionalized persona. In other words, the other 'Helen' (that is 'of Troy') may have been imagined or conceived to hammer out certain existential explanations for life's convoluted underpinnings. But this is a Helen that is human with all her strengths and weaknesses, a woman with whom the poet has lived for over 40 years. The poet's overarching metaphor around which Helen's physical and soulful beauty is configured is her eyes, variously presented as 'diamond eyes', 'eye meets eye', 'liquid eyes', 'your eyelashes dance', 'I see you in my eyes', 'you are in my eyes', 'you live in my eyes', 'your eyes/liquid pearl/flow over me', 'in your liquid eyes', 'caressing your eyes', 'marathon eyes', etc.
Nwagwu's almost total reliance on eye/eyes as his meta-emotional element for love and associated feelings originates from the Igbo expression of love, which is 'ihunanya', meaning, that which is lodged in the eyes. Thus, for lovers, each would almost always be found in the eyes of the other on a constant basis. Thus a lover is one who is constantly within his/her partner's eye range and vice-versa. In the case of the poet, it seems that his wife, who though had taught at Ibadan with him, and was always within his eye search, is probably currently enjoying the best of proximity to her husband at the moment. The reason is that the couple is not just retired from active research, all their children have left home. In their near lonely house, husband and wife have more time than ever before to realize more fully the goodness in the other, occasionally cutting drinks together and reflecting on how far they may have come in each other's company.
In the Beginning
The very first poem in the collection recalls the first meeting between two lovers, which meeting blossomed and led to marriage: 'helen of ccc/come to spc.' She is invited to 'run and frolic/on grass and sand/with limbs of mirth and/joy.' The acronym 'ccc' stands for Cornelia Connelly College, Uyo in present-day Akwa-Ibom State while 'spc' is St Patrick's College in Calabar, Cross River State. It is not likely they knew each other then, because, whereas the poet left school in 1956, the wife started her secondary school career in 1957. But it is instructive that the two schools are geographically located in the thick forest belt of the Niger Delta region where crude oil is a major mineral. It in this evocative poem - the first poem - that the poet-speaker beckons on his would-be wife to 'come live in my mind…/that i may see/into joyous grace/with your diamond eyes.' The consistent use of low case 'i' in this and other poems is apt for at least two reasons besides its deployment as a stylistic device. First, the poems are largely a return to the kingdom of youth and youthfulness at heart. Most of the events of this poetic volume point to when the poet and his wife were much younger, at a time when they may have seen each other 'from mines of sweet/purity' (p.5). Secondly, Nwagwu's 'of the Soul' and 'of the Spirit' sequences of poems remind us constantly of the diminutive significance of the human world compared with the loftiness of the things of the soul and those of the spirit.
In the second poem, the image of the diamond, though this time a rough one, is advanced in 'Rough Diamond.' The poem is a small one – as most of the poems in the collection are – whose power resides in just one long question beginning with 'who made that first cut/aiding nature /to show her stature of brilliance of light…,' and which eventually led to the 'prism of marriage bond.' The answer is left to the couple, although 'the rough diamond' is suggestive of a precious stone just dug up from the earth which requires to be washed and cleaned out, and when applied to humankind may suggest a virgin yet to be 'touched.' In 'I Knew Her,' the idea of 'touching' is given full reign. The poem's first three lines are probably the most memorable in the corpus of poems, filled with profound emotional underpinning: 'he said: thinking is far from knowing/ and I say, you make me think/that I may know.' He speaks of 'seeing, smelling, hearing/tasting, touching there,/touching here', which he says 'don't add up to much.' Yet these are the grits and grains, the essential ingredients without which no love may flourish at the end. Here all the five senses are involved and still the poet talks down on what those who have not really fallen in love emphasize in a love relationship, what he describes as 'merely ephemeral/vanishing in the distance', referring to love for the wrong reason.
In 'Lift the Glass to Your Lips,' the poet is asking us to celebrate with him. Since he asks us to 'engage the bouquet' (p.7), perhaps it is engagement time. Helen is so dear to him that he sees 'Helen' in everything: 'You need a Helen/to know your wine/like a ship needs a port/to feel at home.' Perhaps Helen is good at recognizing a delightful wine. Such is the urgency to get to know her that he speaks of the need 'to meet Helen/waiting to be discovered/in the ocean depths/locked in vats/impenetrably deep.' At this point, 'eye meets eye/lip locked to lip/self is renewed.' As it has been said early on, 'eyes' have been central to this wonderful relationship. In 'Liquid Eyes,' the poet-speaker asked to be bathed, but it is 'not with water.' The reason is that 'dabbing the surface' with water does not really 'reach the bones.' However, 'with liquid eyes' life essences 'flood my soul/drop by drop/back to life' (p.7).
We should include a poem like 'Will You Marry Me' (p. 16) as part of 'In the Beginning' sequence since the couple's love is largely explainable within marriage. The poem is autobiographical since it says something about aspects of the life of the poet, including references to dates and incidents that took place in his life. By 1944, when he was 'seven years in primary school', his wife was just one year old in the year before, that is 1943, the year the creator 'gave us your eyes'. He doubts if their paths could have crossed if he had been a nitwit at school, particularly 'if I tell you I don't know sums and ran from whipping from teacher so furious.' He tells much about the synergy which existed between teachers and parents of the past in their effort to bring up a child. To run away in order to escape the whip in class could only bring one face to face to a 'Dad with a bigger cane for truant son', an arrangement in which 'teacher and father are in complete agreement.' The poet merely asks a question whose answer he already knows 'what if I came and said, marry me/tattered running nose and all divided/don't add up to much can't multiply/would you take me in as you do now.'
Captured by Her Eyes
Love is ihunanya (seeing that which is lodged in the eyes). Helen's eyes capture the poet-narrator's and I suppose vice-versa. In this 'combat' of eyes, 'my thoughts could see /into that impenetrable mystery/of divine love in marriage'. The love that is being referred to here is not the superficial type; it is not lust. It is love in the context of marriage which is ordained by God. In 'Take Leave Shoreless Sea', the poet meets his future better half at nineteen 'fresh from school' (p. 13). He admits making 'mirthful mistakes' later 'with stones in [his] shoes.' The source of the mistakes resides in 'those eyes immortal housekeepers of love external to see.' The poet blames Helen because 'it is all in your eyes the gods keep them flowing in bloody Bordeaux.' Soon after the children start coming one after the other: Ugochi was born in Sweden; the 'first cry' of Erik was heard in Connecticut Storrs where Helen may have taken a first degree in Clinical Psychology; Onyema and Ikem may have arrived while the couple was now resident at Ibadan. The poet acknowledges his wife's intelligence since she makes her professorship in psychology in good time, thus complementing his own efforts to reach the 'mountaintop in sight.' He declares: 'Your life an ocean your eyes on the floor the pearls of my soul' (p.13). Helen's intelligence is once more captured in the following lines of 'Teach me a new craft my Love': 'Teach me a new craft, my love/one specially meant for me/that I may dazzle the world/with your diamond lights/and brilliance of mind'(p.14). He also pleads for a new heart in 'Give me a New Heart.' He wants a new heart, 'one that no longer belongs to me/though it lives in me.' This is a mystical union because having been 'captured by her eyes', he can only ask for total assimilation: 'my words are me/only when they touch you/all of me collapses/into my language' ('Words' p.12).
To be continued
Poet, novelist and professor of English, Agbada is on the staff of Abia State University, Uturu, Nigeria. E-mail: [email protected]
You Live in My Eyes
Here, the poet reclines on the Igbo word for love 'ihunanya' for its true meaning: 'my people say/to someone they love/I see you in my eyes' ('You Live in My Eyes' p.8). Many things are seen in one's eyes, so what is the difference? The poet warns that 'the world and everyone/are all there to be seen/by all sorts of eyes.' But the love the poet is keen to talk about is the one in which 'you are in my eyes/you live in my eyes.' The poet warns that 'the world and everyone/are all there to be seen/By all sorts of eyes'. Helen's love flows both inside and outside the poet. In 'Love Glows Inside Outside', (p.9) he does not require a doctor 'to tell me I'm well/my skin/broken/lets you see/my inside'. The truth is that since 'you say/you want all of me/why bother then/with inside or outside of me/if love glows all over'. In other words, love is total; it does not accept some aspects of one while rejecting the others. He reminds the lover, 'your eyes/liquid pearl/flow over me/make me sparkle,' and beckons on her to 'live in me/and have all I am' (p.9).
If 'you live in my eyes,' the poet is bound to ask 'how can I be cold?'('How Can I be cold'p.10). The fact is that 'living with you…inside outside' means that 'i'm hot and bold.' Similarly, if they live in each other's eyes, she can always 'reach for [her] pot/and scoop out a story/with memories so hot/it burns with fury' ('Caressing Your Eyes' p.10). The preceding four lines of a stanza is one of the memorable verses in Nwagwu's Helen, not of Troy. Notice that 'pot' rhymes with 'hot' and 'story' with 'fury'. Love, at any rate, is ignited with words, the same way that light got into the world with God's proclamation in just a few words: Let there be light! The poet informs that each time he wants to command Helen's attention 'i run my soul/and call up the word/that speaks to your face /caressing your eyes'. He states further: 'Though words don't stick/they have a life/in your liquid eyes' (p.10). In 'Words', when his words fall on her, they 'render her soft sublime/reflecting rays of love warm' (p.12). His words are that magical such that when they 'touch you/all of me collapses/into my language' (p.12).
To be continued
Poet, novelist and professor of English, Agbada is on the staff of Abia State University, Uturu, Nigeria. E-mail: [email protected]