Ben Okri: Of Incidents, Stories, Stirrings. And a Song.

Over this past weekend, I went through one pile of books which I keeping adding to but never seem to find the time to read. I had to go through the pile because I needed to squeeze up stuff somewhere in my room(s) and I picked up Ben Okri’s Incidents at the Shrine and Bessie Head’s Tales of Tenderness and Power, both of which are collections of shorts stories. I picked these two only because I found that they are the only ones in this pile which I had not yet signature-labeled, like I do for all books which are in my possession and are mine.

There is a mound of books – mostly fiction, among a crowd of other genres as well as drafts and pamphlets and other documents. All these and more are permanently sitting, large and airily, in one armchair in my living room. And the situation on the chair is but one spillover of what had long happened to my bed and any other space which happened to be idle and unlucky enough in any other part of the room. It just has to be too bad for such a space if it happens to be in or on a piece of furniture. It will not be spared.

This is how Head and Okri’s ended up on the waiting-to-be-read mound on that armchair. And this is my first time (having) to read both writers writers – or is it to have pieces of their works? Truth is, I never planned to read any of the two. Not this soon, not yet, at least. Now, I’m on the fourth of the eight short stories in Incidents at the Shrine. Disparities is the title. And no, I’m not reading the stories in the order in which they appear in the collection.

For all the three or four I’ve read so far, I hear the voice of Chuma Nwokolo. Voice in the literal, not literary sense. Voice as in the sound, and maybe the personality – but not necessarily of persona – of it. Nwokolo’s. I am still figuring out why this is so for me, but I’m very certain it has nothing at all to do with both Okri and Nwokolo being Nigerians. Otherwise, it could have as well been the voice of Rotimi or Wole Talabi or Soyinka or Ifeoma Okoye or Achebe or Ene Heneshaw or Adichie or Adewale Maja Pearce or others. Or?

The epynomous story in Mohammed Naseehu Ali’s collection, The Prophet of Zongo, echoes the ending or how the main character ended in Okri’s Converging Cities. A major character, Monica, in Laughter Beneath the Brigde vivdly reminds me of Anowa in Ama Ata Aidoo’s Anowa a play; the setting and much of the themes resemble those of Beast of No Nations, the movie; part(s) of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart makes me appreciate how the Egungun part of Laughter Beneath the Brigde later turned out.

I am well into Disparities, a little over half-way through it. Even though the setting and strain of the themes may be distant from those of Ayi Kwei Armah’s Fragments (a novel), there is a lot I see of in both characterization and voice. And this time, voice as in both persona and personality. Still in this story, I find that there remains more truth, sadness and loneliness than one may be willing to tolerate, especially if one has imbibed too much of the sleek lies, divine vanities and well…the exalted follies of (what) this side of eternity (has turned and is growing into).

This also means that, I see a lot of Armah’s Baako (main character in Fragments) in Okri’s I-don’t-know-his/her-name-yet in Disparities – so far in my reading, this other character in Disparities has still not been named by Okri. Maybe this character in Disparities will also go (deliberately) not-named, like The Man, a similar character in another Armah novel, The Beautyful Ones are not Yet Born.

Again, I’m on my fourth story and I can say Okri’s writing tastes like parables.

They touch on the human and the mundane but not without giving that needed, albeit eccentric glimpse – and sometimes, or a little more – of the (sur)real world(s) and or forces that inform and or define this popular side of the known and absolutes. They are as innocent and wild as they come, but with neither apology nor any claim to perfection. They are as easy as they come, but only apparently. The stories exude truths that one may think are simple and familiar, and sometimes even funny, until one finds that they are also sly and slippery and sticky, so that given even the smallest shred of thought, these stories weigh on the mind and refuse to let go…

There is Okri’s story endings, which I find natural but not exactly predictable; conclusive and yet, may as well be cyclical; and then, full and no more. No spillover of any kind, and yet lead somewhere and everywhere and nowhere, all at the same time. The endings.

I can say similar things about Okri writing in the first person voice. It drips with something so far away, beyond mere craftsmanship and empathy for its own sake.

There also is his mastery for language: it is poetic and lyrical, it is lean but generous with layers and dimensions of meaning, it is precision and prudence. Images are apt. The images jump… It is almost as if language finds Okri, rather than he arriving at it. The grit and tune do not wear. The wit and humour are so fluid, so subtle, so married that they startle and saturate at once.

One more thing I find striking…I’m wondering – thinking and learning – what it is with Okri and his use of lizards in the stories. The lizards. They appear and disappear like all lizards do in real time. However, the lizards in the stories are special in that, they hold or are tied to the structure and (some of) the themes in (some of the) stories.

At one time, the lizard motif is innocent but dramatic, and at other times, curiously funny and armed with every power to tear a character’s sanity and or dignity beyond some kind of rest or redemption. They drip with the un-nameable, the un-normal, or maybe the para-normal, bordering of the spiritual. Yes, lizards. Like in Crooked Prayer and Laughter Beneath the Bridge and Converging City. In Disparities, one may see the lizard motif (morph) in(to) something queerer. Dogshit.

Even besides the lizard-y thing-y, the spiritual and the mysterious are rife in Okri’s stories. And where love and madness – or anything in between, and in any degree or status – they never ask for one’s permission (to happen) nor for forgiveness (after happening). And they never need nor even wish for one’s pity or praise. Most of the time. Most of them. Whether as events or as characters. The love or madness or whatever is raw and real and righteous in its own right, and without any restraint whatsoever.

I can’t say I’ve discovered my love for Okri’s writing because it has been there long before I actually read him, for I’ve long been famished with his The Famished Road. This has always been more because of an inexplicable pull, a bottomless yearning for The Famished Road than because it won the Man Booker Prize in 1991. I nearly got to read The Famished Road: a friend would have lent it to me, if not that the friend, at that time, was sweetly, slowly savouring the novel and among other things, was learning something about how Okri crafted dialogue. Even though I never got to read it by borrowing and have not found a copy of The amished Road to buy for myself, I couldn’t and still won’t begrudge my friend the delight and treasures…

When it comes to reading, I am unforgivably erratic – but not reckless – and willful, yet unpredictable. Or so I think. Once, I read Nii Ayikwei Parkes‘  Tail of the Blue Bird in one day; Armah’s Fragments in more than five weeks; Mawuli Adzei’s Taboo in about two days; and I’ve read bits and chunks of several others in such and several other duration-s. So even though I know it is good to set reading  goals, I end up doing with reading goals what I usually do with ‘rules’. Because I find ‘rules’ painfully incompatible, and even antagonistic, to the way I like to think my brain works, I abhor ‘rules’ and relish in ‘breaking them’ for the simple fact that they exist or that someone decided to breathe them into being.

So?

So maybe I will know better as I grow. But right now, I know better than to go setting reading ‘rules’ for the self that is me. So I will try waa diɜŋtsɜ, but I cannot promise myself to finish reading all eight short stories in Incidents at the Shrine, despite all my longing and taste of Okri’s writing.

And I cannot promise myself I will read Tales of Tenderness and Power after Incidents at the Shrine. Yes, even though I expect to come to adore Bessie Head for just about any of her writing like I do Mariama Bâ for her So Long a Letter. Somewhere in the mound on that chair and elsewhere, there are borrowed books and personal and academic and every other reading thing for me to start or finish or start and finish.

Then there and the set texts for the IGCSE and AS and A Level Literature classes that I teach. Somewhere in the set texts are a CIE-selected collection of tonnes of poetry form different places and times and peoples; a hefty collection of hefty short stories including Thomas Hardy‘s A Son’s Veto, (Hector Hugh Munro); Saki‘s Sredni Vashtar; Sylvia Townsend Warner‘s The Phoenix and Rohinton Mistry‘s Of White Hairs and Crickets. Novels include Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake and Adichie’s Americanah. For drama, besides Shakespeare and others’, there are Ama Ata Aidoo’s plays, The Dilemma of a Ghost and Anowa. Thankfully, I’ve already read Adichie’s, some of the Shakespeares, Aidoo’s two, a decent number of the collected poems and a good number of the short stories and others.

At the moment though, and somewhere soft and cozy inside of my being, I feel like I can and will write (more) short stories again. Soon. This has long been coming but I think having read Okri has heaved it all into a sensible motion and dare I say, direction. I feel a re-baptism and a confirmation of that song-full, soul-ish day last year when I knew and said (a) Story is calling out to me, starting and stirring and warming and whirling up…

So I sing of the song of the river and of that some-one’s-only daughter.

So I sing in the tongue that speaks and speaks true, in folds and in stretches, whenever I speak or sing or hear It or Its essence in utterance or in song. Ga.

Mawie Ga. Mala Ga.

Faa lɜ kɜ lɜ miiya e-e-e-i

Faa lɜ kɜ lɜ  miiya

Faa lɜ kɜ lɜ miiya e-e-e-i

Faa lɜ kɜ lɜ  miiya

 

Mɔko biyoo kome too

Faa lɜ kɜ lɜ miiya

Mɔko biyoo kome too

Faa lɜ kɜ lɜ miiya

*     *    *   *

The river is taking her away e-e-e-i

The river is taking her away

The river is taking her away e-e-e-i

The river is taking her away

 

Someone’s only one daughter

The river is taking her away

Someone’s only one daughter

The river is taking her away

 

Love,

AishaWrites

 

Sunday, January 10, 2015.

Fifteen Pieces of Literature: Fifteen Shades of What They Call LO.V.E. (3)

A bundle of myrrh is well-beloved unto me;

he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.

Songs of Songs chapter 1, verse 13 (KJV)

So I have issues – serious and personal – with what gets called as a ‘LOVE Poems’. I explained. Yet I can find, and have found myself falling in love with some Love Poems. This too I explained.

So what? What I think makes some ‘Love Poems’ so special, the real deal?

Out of some kind of reverence for Love Itself, and for Poetry managing to defy Its own odds in order to give a thorough, solid and (con)densed treatment of the Love subject, the real, true love poems, I would say, would rather not parade themselves as ‘Love Poems’.No. Rather than glory in balling up the nobility and boundlessness of both Poetry and Love in one piece, such poems seem to give deference – if not reverence – to the two for allowing themselves to first agree to, and then, let themselves gel and congeal in a way that only the two of them can.

imagesVHF3AU72

In such ‘love poems’, I usually find a rare, impossible mixture of something bordering on both the down-to-earth and divinity.This quality is almost to a fault, a fault which is so striking in its essence and depth and sweep that, one forgives the ‘fault’ in a way that is a quite shy – not short – of awe and yet, too generous for one to even help it. Simply, such poems have character like no other: humility – almighty and enthralling yet, approachable and filling…

Like I said somewhere of KwabenaAgyareYeboah‘s writing, there is someThing about such poems that definitely transcends art and makes an easy cliché of talent – and sometimes, even of what genius means. And it almost does not matter if that piece of poetry was informed and or inspired by some rooted, riveting personal experience or encounter of any kind. Poems of this nature, obviously, are either rare or are not found in every pile, on every day. Or I do not even know what a love poem (really) is.

talent genuis

Much of the – for lack of a better wordmagic of such poems lies in saying the taken-for-granted and the mundane in ways that are much better than just new; in ways that language is capable of and at the time, is bereft of. More of the – again, for lack of a nobler word – success of such ‘love poems’, just like most other poetry, lies in letting every syllable and pause or break of any kind, every capitalization and punctuation –if any at all – and the whole poem says more than its individual parts, and much more than its entirety.

The use of original, apt imagery is one way of a poem can pull of this magic. Imagery is word-based. Other stylistic devices like structure, syntax and versification can also be explored and of course, used to complement the use of imagery. Whichever way a poem achieves this magic, it expands and or creates (new) meanings and (shared) experiences where they never existed, or where these worlds of were even thought to be possible – as far as the medium of language is concerned.

nature ethereal

And the beauty-full-est of all these is that, these magic-s (poems) are so effortless and light and fluid that one wonders whether one is not reading so much into so little. Also, one wonders whether it is ever possible for the profound and the unbounded to really happen; one is forced to wonder whether that really did happen – in such a demure poem of all others. Their brows are not weighed down with mere mechanics. Neither are they, anywhere and in any way – forced into shape and being, and then propped up, with anything that amounts to trying too hard to please – or trying to please or even, wanting to please.

And it is this very lack of want to please – and most times, even indifference to please, too – that makes the reader, the supposed giver of the ‘success’ label, wonder when in the reading of the poem that s/he was shortchanged into giving out the label, quickly and too eagerly, all the while, without remembering any real ‘work’ done by the poem.

succes

Oh, one actually ends up being pulled into and served, literally, the import and the world of the poem. So much so that one forgets all the ready-in-hand, rather artificial criteria for what a poem should look like, should be and should do. Such poems are on no prowl to score such points. In being themselves, they become many things to the many people who encounter them. And much more often than not, they are well able to afford to be the exact someThing that each of the many, many different readers are or will be, were or long to be.

Without so much as even choosing or meaning to, such poems are unassuming, at a glance, or at the start, at least. And this unassuming-ness is as well the (strong)hold of the poem. And to a large extent, this nature is also the magic’s (read, poem’s) success. Such poems. They do not intend, not to even talk of trying, to succeed. Whatever success even means. Such poems, like Love that is true and real and has come to stay, do exist, but again, are not in every pile, and not found every day. Not yet, at least. I think.

olivander-dice[1]

More often than not, and like I once said of Ayikwei Armah’s writing (prose, to be specific) too, such poems get to choose their readers – read, LOVErs. Strangely, this their proud, choosy nature, perfectly fits and gives hold and character to their unassuming, too-humble-to-be-truenature(s).

And this probably explains why every time I forget the title of such poems and or the names of their authors, I know too well that I have not lost anything at all: I may be one lucky, chosen LOVEr of such poems so I can always know that they will draw me unto themselves, with or without much effort in my seeking them out…one time too many. Always, actually. And what more, they will never fail to give me a fresh draught…a new peek…an-other spark…some simple pebble of a wisdom or a twig of thought for keeps – just one more reason of any kind, just someThing to keep me coming back to them.

stair

Such Poetry.

Such Love.

I speak of such Love Poems.

And I present the second set, five of the fifteen Love Pieces, five more shades of the magic that is called L.O.V.E.

 

6. Two Poems by Kofi Anyidoho
Murmuring
I met a tall broadchest
strolling down deepnight
with my fiancée in his arms
She passed me off for a third cousin
On her mama’s side of a dried-up family tree

I nodded and walked away
Murmuring unnameable things to myself

                                                 Bloomington, 9 September 1978

And so

And so
I could go down in crouching posters
I could gather your woes your griefs
I could reach all out for that last
calabash of fresh palm-wine
and
go to sleep to sleep and sleep
sprawled upon the floor amid your tears…
But I would wake up before the squirrel’s
search for a morning meal

                                                Bloomington, 22 November 1978

7. One Art by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

8. Two Psalms of/by Biblical David ben Jesse.
Psalm 23 (A Psalm of David)

1 The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.

2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.

3 He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
.

Psalm 133 (A Song of Degrees of David)

1 Behold, how good and how pleasant
it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!

2 It is like the precious ointment upon the head,
that ran down upon the beard,even Aaron’s beard:
that went down to the skirts of his garments;

3 As the dew of Hermon,
and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion:
or there the LORD commanded the blessing,
even life for evermore.

9.The Prologue (a sonnet) to Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy by William Shakespeare
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

10. I’m Really Very Fond of You by Alice Walker
I’m really very fond of you,
he said.

I don’t like fond.
It sounds like something
you would tell a dog.

Give me love,
or nothing.

Throw your fond in a pond,
I said.

But what I felt for him
was also warm, frisky,
moist-mouthed,
eager,
and could swim away

if forced to do so.