Thursday, July 18, 2024

Unrealistic Optimism in Hyginus Ekwuazi’s One Day I’ll Dare to Raise My Middle Finger at the Stork and the Reaper.


By Uchenna Ekweremadu 

  • Title: One Day I’ll Dare to Raise My Middle Finger at the Stork and the Reaper
  • Author: Hyginus Ekwuazi
  • Publisher: SEVHAGE Publishers
  • Number of pages: 98
  • Year of publication: 2015
  • Category: Poetry

This slim volume of thirty-three poems, which was longlisted for the Nigeria NLNG Prize for Literature in 2017, is bound thematically by the three-ply cord of death, gloom and positive self-deception. Peering through the anguished eyes of the persona in the poems, the reader finds a world smeared with melancholy. And since such reality can be daunting, a reasonable diversion is to set up an alternative reality, even one that is unrealistically optimistic.

The first poem paints a very grim picture of the state of humans. Trapped in the vicious cycle ‘of birth and/ of chaos and/ of death’, the persona longs for a future in which death’s bluff will be called, vowing that:

… one day
I’ll dare—yes, I’ll dare, one day
to raise my middle finger
at the stork and the reaper!
(‘Pieces of me in every crib and in every coffin’, p 11).

And also:

One day, I know
I shall come across
the rainbow-skin

which a rainbow has walked out of

and when I do all those
secret fears
and private loneliness
and hidden grievances
which crowd
the infinite space of my mind—

they shall all cease to exist…
(‘Rain drops and tears drop’, p 42).

And again:

not for me, then, the dread of
a body ravaged by age—
the incremental death
of skin and bones
and limbs and organs

not for me the numbing fear of
the ruthless mercifulness of death
(‘No penumbral shadows of age’, p 48)

One Day I’ll Dare to Raise My Middle Finger at the Stork and the Reaper is like a bitter pill dipped in honey. In other words, the morbid and despairing imagery in the poems are disguised in fine lines of palatable words. All through the volume, the weights of death and of loss rest so heavily on the persona’s shoulders. There does not seem to be a place for ceaseless joy. Whenever joy drives past, sorrow trails it. This shadow of gloom hangs over the persona and follows the persona about even to locations where peace and happiness ought to reign. At the pub we find the persona shaking their head ‘as if to shake off spider webs of torturing thoughts’ in spite of:

the oven hot gossip…
spiced with drinks and hot soup

politics… the economy… and football
brightly seen through the dark fumes
of alcohol and cigarettes…
(‘…at the drinking place’, p 16)

And also at the arrival of the rain:

again and again
I’ll hear that sound that never ceases
the ceaseless sound I thought
was the rain-sodden wind
at our unyielding door

but it was you

(‘The rains are here again’, p 27)

Sometimes, the persona displays traits of paranoia and hysteria, such that they begin to spot omens in objects and natural activities even when none might have been intended.

those approaching clouds
are they the distant clouds of a birth or a death?

I know they are seeded, those clouds…
(‘Those distant clouds’, p 49)

And also:

in the dehydrated potted plants, vainly reaching out
for sunlight—from nowhere the question floated into
her mind: how can you trust a doctor whose office
plants are dying?
(‘How do you severe the heart beating in your own heart?’, p 53)

There is sufficient evidence to support the assertion that positive illusions may be helpful under circumstances of adversity that are capable of producing depression or lack of motivation. Psychologists Shelly Taylor and Jonathan Brown published an article in 1988 claiming that positive self-deception is a normal and useful part of most people’s lives. They hold that ‘the mentally healthy person appears to have the enviable capacity to distort reality in a direction that enhances self-esteem, maintains beliefs in personal efficacy, and promotes an optimistic view of the future’. This position is not too far from Ernest Becker’s, who, in his Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, holds that people create positive illusions to help them cope with their existential terror.

In literature, efforts to cushion the soul against the blows of death are not new. Notable examples are as recent as Julian Barnes’ Nothing to be Frightened of and go back to Apostle Paul’s ‘O, death, where is thy sting?’ and further back to older times and peoples. However, the mere fact that the point has to be reasserted time and again brings into question its persuasiveness. One Day I’ll Dare to Raise My Middle Finger at the Stork and the Reaper is one more of such songs of defiance against death. But whether or not it will be more persuasive than its predecessors is left for the reader to discover.

Photograph: ‘Defiance’ by Brando

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Uchenna Ekweremadu
Uchenna Ekweremadu
Uchenna Ekweremadu 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.

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