A Review of Inua Ellams’ The Wire-Headed Heathen

AiW Guest: Jason Allen


This month, Jason Allen continues our deep dive into Eight New Generation African Poets with a review of Inua Ellams’ The Wire-Headed Heathen.

This is the third chapbook by Nigerian-British performance poet Inua Ellams. The poems display his versatility in style and structure in this pamphlet in which the long-form narrative poem, the lyric meditation and the haiku coexist. Ellams’ work is a journey through different poetic structures: he explores their effectiveness, how each allows the poem to flourish into its own road of significance. With lithe use of language, the author shifts emotional registers, dancing between the humorous and the imaginative (‘Faith in a Time of Double-Dip Recessions’) and the deeply reflective (‘The Staunch Slouch’), creating lasting emotions from the alchemy produced.

Ellams is first of all concerned with showing the convulsiveness of colonialism in his own homeland. ‘Of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris’ does this masterfully, through the ingenuous eyes of young school children, showing how these young minds contend with a colonial education, with cultural dividedness and with their vulnerability to Western media:


Image via Flickr

It was vocal mortal combat.
                Soon as the bell gonged
for break, we rushed into
                the midafternoon light,
split in two groups like rival
                kung fu schools hurling insults
across the playground divide.

The far-fetched ones of us
                claimed Bruce Lee’s mother
had loved Afro Beat, he was born
                to Fela Kuti crooning
/ I no be gentleman at all oh! /
                so fluid were his movements,
the Ogun River in his veins.

The collection is undoubtedly grounded in a strong sense of the poet’s homeland and culture. But from Nigeria, Ellams extends his gaze to the fraught experience of (post)colonialism, generally, in visceral, finely crafted lyric. Thus the subjects of his poems: imperialism, colonial domination and postcolonial society; journeying, returning and memory; force, incarnated in the colonial ‘invaders’ and in in the present-day gangsters and area-boys of the poet’s native country. ‘The Wire-Headed Heathen’ and ‘The Forced’ are two poems concerned with struggle, police brutality and gritty streets, but also with survival and the aspiration to rise from poverty. In them (as in ‘Ghetto Van Gogh’), Ellams tells vital stories, charged with emotion and with compelling language, diction and poetic pacing, all of which reflect the deep intentionality and care with which he handles the often tough subject matter that is his:

Oil drum brazier

Image via Flickr

One year after your quick slim fingers have caught
the attention of his boys who dance drunk on paraga,
the oil drum fire flickering in their eyes, you will hear
they too were born and thrown away, they had snakes
for mothers too, but were lifted from gutters and now
are this citywide tribe of hard men spidering through
the night Oluomo alone controls… (‘The Forced’)

The poetry is deeply human, often humorous. Humour showcases the poet’s ability to maturely handle stories of pain, struggle, lack and poverty, but also reflects the coping mechanisms of the kind of lives Ellams stages in this collection – individuals filled with a spirit of defiance, moved by a refusal to give up in the struggle for life and survival. Humour is faith’s defiance. This is what is suggested by the most aptly titled ‘Faith in a Time of Double Dip Recessions’, a tremendous workhorse of the imagination.

Ellams’ poetry points to the lasting scars and vulnerabilities produced by European colonial domination. It trembles with the haunting legacy of loss, violence and cultural displacement. Nowhere is this more urgently exposed as in ‘Private School’, arguably the most compelling poem of the collection:

‘The year is 1641. My ancestor is an eight-year-old child of mischief flinching at the breeze noosing his neck…’

Beginning thus, this narrative of European invasion witnessed by the speaker’s ancestor is densely emotional. It is focalised through the eye of the ancestor as an 8-year-old child, and told by a present-day African speaker, presumably Ellams. The poem ends with the speaker observing ‘island men sway to reggae’ in the ‘heaving darkness of a club’: the narrative arc spans centuries. In ‘Private School’ Ellams reactivates his own African ancestral trauma, i.e. from the slave trade, conveying the astonishment of the young child who beholds ‘strange boats longer and wider than trees’ and ‘moon-colored men’ whose coming brings about destruction, death, bloodshed and lingering trauma. Yet, more than evoking his own pain and loss, the speaker summons the experiences of displaced diasporic populations oceans away – presumably in the Caribbean – ‘centuries later’, as he observes


The Jamaican Coastline

island men sway to reggae, their eyes shut as if recalling
private lessons, they twist with the grace of deep water and waves,
they move with a sorrow only oceans know.

The images here are gripping, conveying the aching of traumatic memory. They reflect Ellams’ diction at its best, one that can suddenly illuminate, like lightening over a landscape.

In a word, the strength of these poems is that that they are real and honest; they marry the emotive with narrative moments and images in finely hewn ways. Thus, the poems are deeply felt. The visceral charge builds imperceptibly, catches one off guard. This quality, combined with the raw and honest, yet careful, presentation of history, postcolonial global diaspora and Nigerian society, is the poet’s greatest appeal.


467292_10151276630889390_18498209_oJason Allen is a Jamaican poet and a 2016 Callaloo Fellow. His work has appeared in sx salon and is forthcoming in Callaloo. Jason is also a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of Languages, Cultures & Societies at the University of Leeds.




“Born in Nigeria in 1984, Inua Ellams is an internationally touring poet, playwright, performer, graphic artist & designer.” Learn more about Ellams’ extensive oeuvre and energetic work in the arts at www.inuaellams.com.



Akashic Cover ImageInua Ellams’ The Wire-Headed Heathen 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. Ellams’ chapbook is introduced by Matthew Shenoda.

The set also contains A Pagan Place by Peter Akinlabi; Who Are You Looking For by Amy Lukau; Things We Lost in the Fire by Vuyelwa Maluleke; Viola Allo’s Bird from AfricaMitu’s Spice Tour by Blessing Musariri; Janet Kofi-Tsekpo’s Yellow Iris; 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 Toni Stuart’s review of Vuyelwa Maluleke’s Things We Lost in the Fire.

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