In this collection, Akinlabi comes across as an expert cartographer, mapping identity and his sense of place through the sometimes hazy, yet poignant imprints of memory. Peter Akinlabi is one poet who is skilful and deliberate in his language. The imagery in his lines illumine and excite in equal measure— whether he writes about childhood, remembered spaces lost to war, death, voyages, or mythology (as in the poems Oyo, Oshun and Oedipus’s will), his words are a delight to read, with their inferred meanings and sometimes multi-layered metaphors.
In A Laying-on of Hands, he tells us
I remember my father
in small voices, the tortoise’s;
a trickster, untranslated
in his own tale, lost in the haze
of his own metaphor.
Riding on the carpet of these words, this reviewer is reminded of moonlight tales, enjoyed at the foot of a grandfather who also spun “small creations of a fetish loom”. Suffice to say, Akinlabi’s is a memory that dances in unabashed, practised steps to the oral traditions of his native Yoruba land. And these steps dot the stretch of his cartography even as he takes us through Nigeria, to Ghana, The Congo, and Libya.
As we move on from the father’s “mystifying call and response movements…” we feel a certain sense of reverence and even dedication in the way he moulds words to form pictures of the landmarks on this charter’s course. From the opening poem we are greeted with
I imagine my birth as under
an ancient tree on the twenty-sixth day
of the month of the masquerades.
We are warned early on, of things to come in the collection when we read that
The sail was calm, but peace
was a function in a shroud
Thus we are little shaken when of his beginnings he tells us:
The day is stifling, duct-taped
into sunspots under the odan tree;
This childhood memory would be incomplete without a mother’s sufferance and toil, and Akinlabi gives us this much as he tells of a mother who ‘recalled the parable of the Fall with easy trepidations’, and ‘knew the exact directions of sorrow’s course’.
I remember that nest now
as fractured songs, a rhetoric
of flooding, weaned like time
in a garden of mythologies she cultivated
as a bridge of faith.
In little time we move into dark spaces, where loss is the deep red ink with which the poet-cartographer marks troubled spots and times on this intensely passionate journey. Mortality, and man’s impotence before it is painted in sordid detail in A strophe for the body (III):
it could be a map on that tarmac,
leavening into a riddled and sordid question.
death wrestles man,
wrestles the body cold …
Loss and gore haunt the poems in this collection, almost as much as memory does. In Re-Membering Bornu, the poet tells of a city now a ghost of its past self. With the pain that can only be felt for a loved one, he manages to paint before our eyes a city once agog with life and the gay interactions of youth, then juxtapose this with its present ghostlike state —of chaos, and bloodshed and incessant bombings by a sect who claims to abhor western religion. It is as much a tragic tribute to what memory holds pristine, as it is an attempt to piece together the splinters that gore has left in its wake.
We chase the singed face
of Borno’s ghost round
a ring of fire, hair ablaze,
routes and memory in disarray,
Plato, rum, and all in between—
no longer a smear of wine
no longer a mess of mush
on cockeyed ties;
Moving forward, we find that a similar dark narrative is to be found spread-eagled in A report from Benghazi. It also becomes clear that at the heart of this collection is a quest for identity.
This quest is what consciously or unconsciously pushes the question of ritual faith, pagan and fetish customs, and what to a large degree informs the “unrevealing” which appears quite often in the collection. This mission is quite clearly stated in A Return to Takoradi:
Now as to a diaspora of hex, I return to you,
like my father before me,
a strangered autochthon, limping
to the tune of doubt.
But I bear a different duty,
to reimagine lives and bodies flung
beyond borders of explication …
Maybe the mission of the strangered native is to find true self (through the tune of doubt) by seeking out a heritage once left behind in his bid to blend into the global narrative. Again this is suggested in Ouidah, where he says that he has come
face-first, furtive as air, in a seeker’s mask,
a poet-paleontologist, searching for text
in the signs that must lift the veil off
a Dahomeyan darkness
Again, he continues:
I assemble memory
in the heathen signifiers of her defunct name,
naming a civilization now remembered
only in its dismembered parts.
The quest to find self sometimes extends to faith and ritual, and their place in this cartography cannot be denied as both appear in different poems. In some instances, we feel the poet’s surging need to better appreciate who he is through the aperture of the different beliefs and customs he has been exposed to.
Words such as pagan, heathen, ritual, faith, and belief peep out at one like fireflies between darkened leaves on a moonless night. In the title poem we read:
… you walk this earth with all, breaking
certain devotion on these hillocks, and watching the ground
of faith shift, like us, onto the slouch
The collection ends with a troubling serenade from slain Patrice Lumumba to his beloved Congo. Troubling because it raises several questions in the reader’s mind, chief of which is- what is the place of hope in the light of a nation’s past failures and seeming present handicap? But it further draws attention to the poet’s earlier words; ‘all memory is an imminent coupling of debt and derailment.’
An immensely enjoyable read, A Pagan Place is a collection with engaging verses that one would be drawn to revisit now and again.
Iquo DianaAbasi Eke loves to perform poetry, yet dazzles with her fiction and nonfiction. Her writings appear in KalahariReview, SarabaMagazine, ANAreview and Olisa.tv. In 2013, Her first poetry collection, Symphony of Becoming, was shortlisted for the NLNG Nigeria literature prize, and the ANA poetry prize. She occasionally blogs at iquoeke.blogspot.com.
Peter Akinlabi is a Nigerian poet. Born in Ogbomoso, he has an MA from the University of Ilorin, and now lives and works in Ilorin. He was the winner of the 2001 Okigbo Poetry Prize and the 2009 Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition.
Peter Akinlabi’s A Pagan Place is part of Akashic Books’ chapbook set, Eight New Generation African Poets (April 2015). This 8-piece boxed collection features the work of eight African poets with an introduction by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani, and each chapbook has its own introduction from a thoughtfully paired stalwart African poet and writer. Akinlabi’s chapbook is introduced by Matthew Shenoda.
The set also contains, Yellow Iris by Janet Kofi-Tsekpo; Who Are You Looking For by Amy Lukau; The Wire-Headed Heathen – Inua Ellams; Vuyelwa Maluleke’s Things We Lost in the Fire;Mitu’s Spice Tour by Blessing Musariri; Viola Allo’s Bird From Africa; and Bearing Heavy Things by Liyou Libsekal.
For more on AiW’s deep dive into the box set, see our latest post in the series, AiW Guest Rehaana Manek’s review of Bearing Heavy Things, by Liyou Libsekal.