- Title: Animist Chants and Memorials
- Author: Harry Garuba
- Publisher: Kraft Books Ltd
- Number of pages: 79
- Year of publication: 2018
- Category: Poetry
‘Can we ever again shred the drapery of the word
and return to the fullness of the spell and the chant?’ – Harry Garuba, ‘In the House of the Tongue’
‘What heart is large enough to store a question so long
it troubles every answer that history trades and analysts provide’ – Harry Garuba, ‘Girl and the Dancing Hoop’
The poet Harry Garuba has now published two volumes of poetry 35 years apart. The first of the volumes came from a 24-year-old mind and the second a 59-year-old consciousness, if consciousness can be reckoned by the calendar. Again, installing an eskhatos of any sort to benchmark the poetic output of Harry Garuba may not be a terribly useful undertaking because, like Rilke, even when Harry Garuba is washing his hands, he cannot help being a poet. In the annals of African poetry, the two events matter all the same because they touch – tangentially at first and then emphatically, on a way of seeing, and a way of reckoning and rendering reality that is closer to the geologic than it is to the chronologic – on ‘modern’ temper.
Copious intimations of this way of perceiving have always been evident in the poetry of Africa rendered in the close to three thousand languages used on the continent. The first set of poets to write in English, French and Portuguese retained these intimations (as witnessed by a trope in Poems of Black Africa, edited by Wole Soyinka, MSW and Heinemann) but Garuba gives the phenomenon a whole and substantial lease of new life. An event such as the arrival of his new volume affords us a chance to ponder how and why we got into this game of poetry at all.
Early in Animist Chants and Memorials, precisely in the fourth poem of the collection entitled, quite illuminatingly, ‘Poetry Don Fin’ Me’, the poet has this to say, inter alia:
a poem is a pain –
inflicted with words and stops
and the rhyming wrath of a poetry tutor
First, is the fidelity of the poet to his own verbal origins in ‘pidgin’ or pigeon English. It so happens that the pigeon is one of the very few birds found everywhere on the planet. It is not an American bird, or an African bird, or an Australian bird, or an Asian bird. It is a world bird. If we really think about it, this is the truest aspect of how we universally encounter language. Secondly, and after so subtly conjuring circumambience in the title, the poet describes, using the indefinite article and a transitive verb, poetry. A symbolist of Garuba’s competence never needs to mention the word ‘circumcision’ but the atmosphere is there. The ritual is administered by the ‘poetry tutor’ and the object of the ritual begins the search for substance – through caesuras, the oxymoronic motions of grasping at air, etc etc until, finally, after the ‘tutor’ dies, poetry fin’s or finds the poet. If the only poem we read in this collection is this one, Garuba would have more than earned his stripes as a master symbolist. The poet begins with collocation of the consciousness of his audience with wings in the air, traverses land, and plunges into the deep as a thing with fins. A Warri son would do this and more.
Poetry does duty at a level of consciousness that encompasses the very prehistory of language. We do not know for certain for how long humans have had speech and language but we know that the world was there before humankind claimed it and that humankind was there, unspeaking and reverent, inside the universe for a while before we found our voice. Once language became a feature of our lives on earth, we mostly forgot that humble phase of our tenancy here in which what was here before us possessed all the utterance and song. The streams and the tides, the hills and the mountains, the wind and the mists. Garuba leads his audience to a place where contemplation of all these can take place once again in humility.
In ‘Unnumbered’, a poem of allegorical significance that originally addressed tragic deaths in the wake of multiple explosions of military-grade ordinance at the heart of Lagos, the whole (poem) today transcends time and the sum of its (lines) parts. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that Garuba has written a dirge of such stunning import, such accurate focus on the nature of negligent death in Nigeria that ‘lament’ beggars the magnitude of the scope which the poet covers. It is an ode that speaks from when it was first written more than a decade ago to a literally worsted collective consciousness today. Needless, even wanton, deaths in which hundreds die – from suicide bombers, shrapnel, gunfire, bad roads, fake medicine, judicial murder and the treacherous swamp of State security networks which mire those seeking to escape the chaos unleashed upon the land – all can be seen in their true significance in this one poem. The State has practically abdicated responsibility for safety of lives and when there is a breach in which hundreds die, the State fails to do proper reckoning (of which numerical counting is the least effort) that State responsibility demands. Sadly, this is not just a Nigerian reality. It is there in Marikana, in Kinshasa, in Somalia, Tunis and Cairo.
In ‘Street Corner Woman’, another poem with multiple plausible reading potential, we encounter an archetypal feminine essence. From #MeToo to whistleblower to suffragette, the voice at the Warri street corner echoes something of the paradox of inveigled and coerced womanhood. This reviewer likes to call this particular poem Harry Garuba’s Crazy Jane poem. We find ourselves not in Ireland but in the Niger Delta, and the strangely disturbing but recognisable presence of a woman desolate and in love, a woman abused by the hypocritical horde of men who would sleep with her in the dark but never be caught within the sight of her during the day. She takes her revenge on the men by divulging their dark dalliances with her in the broad daylight of afternoon sun. This poem is the story of Nigerian ‘big men’ with oil blocs, oil and gas concessions, royalties and other perks who refuse to act decently toward their source of comfort. This poem is the story of the Niger Delta itself. She has been had but a day of reckoning approaches fast before the oil dries up.
Poetry as monumental art matters in a way that dialect does not approach. This reviewer has in mind a particular monument erected in Hungary after the signing of the Treaty of Trianon in which Hungary lost some long held territory. The monument was built in the shape of a guillotine and that symbol sums up the Hungarian sentiment till this day. If we bear in mind that the treaty was signed in France, another layer of significance settles. But, there is a sense in which nationalist sentiment is easy to sum up in these images. Some phase of human history such as the Middle Passage of the Atlantic slave trade resist such summary closure. The ‘railroad of bones’ linking the continent of Africa and the New World remain submerged but words and chants such as Garuba’s in this volume remind us, in ways concrete guillotines cannot begin to touch, that our story does not end. They say the sun will run out of fuel in seven billion years. Even then, our story, maintains the animist, retains its place in the very fabric of the universe.
Animism shares a liminal border with immanentism but the two are not the same. The threshold they share ponders questions of consciousness that poets like Rilke, Brodsky and Milosz, among European poets, have examined but never quite gave themselves to. The oneiric dimensions of Milan Kundera touch on this but again not in a way that exhausts any particular vein. We turn to poetry and to Garuba’s poetry for these. The moment and musicality of Garuba, freed from the prison of scansion, rivets. The annals of animism is a terrain of the unconscious, the subconscious, and the liminal. There are no defined frontiers; it irrupts into consciousness from time to time. Garuba is usually there when the irruptions occur and we are served by his pliant presence of mind. It is a wonderful thing.
Monstrous injustices pervade the human landscape – genocide, rape, slavery, apartheid, colonialism and the list is long enough to occupy the poets of the world for a thousand generations, so what does the animist insistence accomplish? The same as poets like Hughes and Merwin brought at their prime – a pervasive sense of the extraordinariness of everything, which confuses the non-poet many a time. They call it mushiness. Poets know different. They know that trauma is a substance that seeps into individual and collective consciousness, into soil and river, mountains and the seas. It is not ever a question of basic chemistry to cleanse blood-soaked aquifers, the world has not chlorine enough for that. May chants do what chemicals cannot? Garuba’s avocation affirms in the positive.
Once, on an autumn day in the city of Quebec, on the premises of an old church converted into a library, an old woman of the First Nation led a group of writers from around the world in a cleansing ritual. Anyone could participate, on the condition that none participating had imbibed alcohol immediately before the ritual. It was a solemn affair with chants and tobacco smoke in the open air. It contrasts with this reviewer’s African experience in that the elders here pour libation as an integral aspect of the ceremony, and imbibe. The stronger the spirit the better, to nebulise and to move closer to the realm. The how is not immaterial, exactly, but the why matters more and it is the why that Garuba excels at.
The book is not all business. There is verbal ease attending some almost languorous lines in Animist Chants and Memorials and these luxuriously extend the horizons of the soul through which the percussive rhythms of the poet sound. Physicists and chemists tell us that though there are the elements, there are also isotopes of the elements, which have distinct characteristics. There are precious stones made of carbon but there is also Tanzanite, so rare because so distinct. Extending the metaphor, there are poets and there are African poets, Nigerian poets, Warri poets precious to the world because of their provenance. Garuba is not diminished one whit by his provenance. He is our Tanzanite, and we insist he is premium isotope of poet.
This reviewer’s idiosyncratic memory of a first encounter with Harry Garuba’s poetry occurred in the early ‘90s. At the time, ‘Martian’ poetry was all the rage among modernists. In Garuba’s poetry, one discovered a kind of freedom from the neurotic anxiety of ‘world’ or ‘universal’ poetry. Shadow and Dream and Other Poems was confident in its own skin and had the kind of kinesis one has come to associate with all highly individual talents. Yet, there was a solid tradition from which those poems sprang. Garuba simply made things new and this reviewer likes to think that he saw what Garuba was doing even then.
We know that memory is not only individual, however. Shared experiences survive to give it another dimension beyond the personal. Language makes it harder, even without direct sensory participation in an experience, to consign moments to oblivion. In the final poem in the collection, titled ‘No Names Survive’, a poem memorialising an entire shipload of people sold into slavery of which no living names survive, the poet again invokes the power of words to plant bulwarks against erasure. Against the cruel realisation that the vessel of slavery is known and named (it was the Zong) the poet nevertheless labours to make the human lives count. With his final exertion in the volume, the poet erects a moving memorial to the unnamed. Garuba’s is the labour of love, for the unnumbered, the unnamed whom we are in danger of forgetting to our mortal peril.
There is an insouciance to this collection which gratifies even as it edifies the soul. This reviewer does not use the word ‘edify’ lightly. The sympathies of the poet are with nature, then man, then the language of man. It is, for a poet as conscious and skilled as Garuba, a profoundly conscious choice, an informed choice. We do well to follow his swath into Deep Time.
Photograph: ‘A5e01898c’ by Christophe EGGERS
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