The Primacy of Life: A Review of Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresiad
- Title: The Heresiad
- Author: Ikeogu Oke
- Publisher: Kraft Books Ltd
- Number of pages: 105
- Year of publication: 2017
- Category: Poetry
‘I felt my standpoint shaken
In the universal crises.
But with one step backward taken
I saved myself from going’ – Robert Frost, ‘One Step Backward Taken’
The poet’s mind jumps about from the important to the trivial, from the savoury to the unsavoury, gathering ingredients, the type that T S Eliot refers to as ‘disparate experiences’. These ingredients, when collected proportionately and blended, result in honey. This analogy is reinforced in Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresiad where the discerning reader finds sufficient traces of the classics, history, religion and myth.
Oke’s love for music is long known to his readers. His previous work, Salutes without Guns, also contains singable poems accompanied by scores, a feat he has again achieved (at a higher, astonishing level) in his latest work, an operatic poem titled The Heresiad. The poem won the 2017 Nigeria NLNG Prize for Literature.
An all-knowing narrator, who intermittently pauses to invoke the guidance and direction of higher powers, tells the story of a man’s relationship with, and his struggle to please, two seemingly centrifugal and sometimes parallel forces: faith and reason. Zumba, an author who symbolises intellectual and creative freedom, is a servant to those two masters. He refers to Faith as ‘Gracious monarch’, and to Reason as ‘My chosen lord and master, over all’.
It is the clarity of the picture and the intensity of the plot that hold the reader spellbound in spite of the chicken-hearted Zumba, whose cowardice is enough to render him undeserving of any sympathy. On the surface, it is baffling that Oke would star such a character in such an epical work, which usually is expected to celebrate heroism, bravery and even stoicism. But when examined deeply, it becomes clear that The Heresiad is restating the primacy of life. It is the instinct to survive that compels Zumba to swallow his pride and renounce honour and principles.
Notwithstanding, Oke makes Zumba in a way that wins him the love and sympathy of the reader not minding that he is atypical of Socrates, Thomas More and all those willing to die for the causes they take up. As soon as Zumba learns that the Monarch’s hit squad is after him, he makes up his mind:
I will arise and go before my hope is spent
And go to beg the monarch to relent
This mortal cast, though blemish, that I have,
I’ll rather keep than hasten to the grave (lines 189–192, Canto I, p 20).
Yes, to save our pride remains our right;
But then I think I feel a genuine fright:
To think I have to die for what I write,
The way a candle dies for yielding light (lines 209–212, p 21).
The trees that can bend in the storm are the hardest to
And so I must bend and not break for my writing’s sake (lines 217–219, p 21).
Zumba is not a first offender. One of the Faithfuls dispatched to hunt him down declares:
This same man escaped our wrath before;
Yet he taunts us with his newfound lore.
What a strange event it’ll be indeed
If his head survives his new misdeeds (lines 55–58, p 15).
Another member of the squad confirms:
This man [has] once again [blasphemed]
And must we bear our holy writs defamed? (lines 419–420, p 29).
To be fair to the Monarch and his Faithfuls, the offensiveness of the much-discussed book is not in doubt, for even one of Reason’s stalwarts sent to save Zumba admits:
For, yes, the book is known to all of us,
That stung our rivals and provoked their cause.
We’ve heard of treachery and of blasphemy,
And more that’ll make a friend an enemy (lines 189–192, Canto II, p 43).
Reason, or intellectualism, does not seem as anti-theist as many proponents of the Enlightenment and allied movements would like to have it. In The Heresiad, Reason does not disagree with Pope Francis who holds that ‘When the light of faith goes out, all other lights begin to dim’. The problem with Faith, as Reason points out, lies mostly with ‘the strict, unbending bigots’ who fail to realise that heretics can also be instrumental in fixing ‘faith’s distorted light’.
It is very likely, and justifiably so, that the reader would see Oke’s award of ‘The Hero of the Poem’ to Reason as hasty and undeserved. This is because Reason spends the entire time talking to himself, to his page and to Zumba, instead of engaging the Monarch. The unarmed rescue force he hurriedly dispatches ends up as captives. Moreover, by the time he finally decides to visit the Monarch for a talk, the latter has already unilaterally backtracked and forgiven the author.
The Heresiad is undoubtedly one of the deepest and richest works by a Nigerian poet in recent years. Its tone, structure and central theme are traditional, yet the diction is fresh and colourful. One of the many ties that binds this work to some of the greatest works of poetry is the phrase ‘I shall sing’, which opens the poem’s eleventh line. It calls to mind Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey, both of which open with the word ‘Sing’, and Virgil’s Aeneid, which opens with ‘I sing’.
Photograph: ‘Survive’ by Liz
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Ekweremadu Uchenna was long listed for the Erbacce Prize for Poetry, 2015 and 2016. He was the first runner-up for PEN Nigeria/Saraba Magazine Poetry Prize, 2011, and made it to the Book of Winners, Castello di Duino International Poetry Competition, 2010. His works have appeared in Coe Review, The Write Room, Saraba Magazine, Imitation Fruit Journal, Wilderness House Literary, A&U American AIDS Magazine, Kalahari Review and elsewhere. He is currently working on a novel.