Niyi Osundare: “Who’s Afraid of The Proverb?”

Photograph from 2005 of a fragment of The Berlin Wall (1961-1989)...Osundare's poems, Checkpoint Charlie and Berlin 1884/5, treat "The Wall" "falling" with multiple ironies regarding History...

Photograph from 2005 of a fragment of The Berlin Wall (1961-1989)…Osundare’s poems, Checkpoint Charlie and Berlin 1884/5, treat “The Wall” “falling” with multiple ironies regarding History…

Niyi Osundare
(born 1947, Ikere-Ekiti, Nigeria)
. . .
The Large Heart
.
When last did you say hello to a neighbour
Or share with him the early pick
From your backyard garden?
.
When last did you lower that fence
Trim those thorny hedges
And throw a handshake across their forbidding top?
.
When last did you stop in the street
To crack a joke or savour banter
And spread the healing magic of laughter?
.
When last did you say “Bless you”
To soothe a sneeze, or “Take care”
To one who has stubbed a toe?
.
When last did you offer a meal
To a hungry stranger and command
The water from your well to was his feet?
.
When last did your dough of friendship
Rise in the furnace of the sun,
Your milk of mercy in the pitcher of the moon?
.
When last did you think about your fatter calf
And the skinny swansong of the begging bowl
The sin-phony of your silk, and the scream of the national rag?
.
When last did you throw a bridge
Across the gulf and sew little stars in the darkness of forgotten skies?
.
When last did you listen to the wails of the forest
Arrest the savagery of a wanton machete
Enlist in the Salvation Army of Earth and Sky?
.
A genuine smile is longer than a mile,
A large heart is not a medical problem.

. . .

Letter from The Editor
(who once lectured a Nigerian poet of my acquaintance on the virtues of “traveling poems”)
.
Thank you for your poems
Our Editorial Board was tremendously amused –
.
– but there are too many foreign places
In your verse, too many African names
Too strange for the sophisticated glide
.
Of our English tongue.
(You see, we prefer words which pose
No threat to the dental health of our readers.)
.
Too many matters better left to politics – and politicians;
What does poetry have to do
With those who rule us – or those we rule?
.
– with the whimsical temper of stocks and shares,
The cost of a ream of paper
Or the price of bread in the marketplace…?
.
Too strong, your feelings; too sharp
The thrust of your tropes…
We are a people tuned to tamer truths.
.
So: why not bend your wit to the rule of rhyme,
The supremacy of nothingness,
The post-modernity of silence…?
.
Send us poems unclogged by human kindness…
Send us poems that travel.
. . .

Checkpoint Charlie
.
A tortured rainbow:
mosaic of broken epics
.
Quarry for museum hounds
and undertakers for private temples.
.
Here, now, in the dust and concrete splinters,
The Wall
which grew so tall, so wide,
.
It cut the sky in two:
the sun rose on one side, set in the other.
.
Market forces howled and swaggered on one side,
the whimsical Babel of stocks ‘n shares.
.
On the other, human Need wrestled with human Greed
– culture with chaos, mercy with monopoly.
.
Then, a smiling comrade dropped the egg…
and the world couldn’t gather the shattered pieces…
.
Our guide told the story from his own side,
as I took another look at the boy
who sold “The Wall” for tourist dollars.
.
“Come buy History, come buy History!”, he screamed
again, his voice vanishing into the late morning traffic.
. . .
Berlin 1884/5
“Come buy History, come buy History!”
.
I looked round for vendors of my own past,
For that Hall where, many seasons ago,
My Continent was sliced up like a juicy mango…
.
…to quell the quarrel of alien siblings.
I looked for the knife which exacted the rift
– how many kingdoms held its handle?
.
The bravado of its blade,
The wisdom of potentates who put
The map before the man,
.
The cruel arrogance of empire,
Of kings/queens who laid claim to rivers, to mountains,
To other peoples and other gods, and other histories…
.
And they who went to bed under one conqueror’s flag,
Waking up beneath the shadows of another,
Their ears twisted to the syllable of alien tongues.
.
Gunboats,
Territories of terror…
.
Oh, that map – that knife, those contending emperors,
These bleeding scars in a Continent’s soul,
Insisting on a millennium of healing.
. . .
Skinsong 3
.
And pale shadows descend
Upon our noon of bronze:
“You have no past,” they say,
“Your history is darkness
Which never knew the faintest sun.”
.
“Tell us another lie,”
Retort the griots,
About trees without roots,
Rivers without sources,
Because without whys.
Tell us
About the bridge
Which looks forward
Without a backward glance.
. . .
End of History
.
Old truths tumble down
In sunrise cities;
A hated wall dissolves
In a haze of fireworks
And gathering shadows.
.
Old truths tumble
– On the compost of newer Truths.
.
And sunset pundits swear
They have climbed the mountain,
And seen History’s grave
In the elbow of misty valleys.
.
Pundits say
The sun has suddenly stopped
Its limbless journey across the sky.
.
Today I look History
In the face,
His/Her brow a taut membrane
Of inexhaustible riddles.
.
Today I look History
In the face,
And I remember the child in the tale
Who touched the elephant’s tale,
Vowing he had seen everything
About the giant in the forest.
. . .
Testament 1
.
I hold this shred of eternity
in my hand
pulsating like a purple pledge;
falling leaves twirl in the soundless wind
the sun brightens up its corner of the day.
.
The afternoon bell has come and gone,
burying rapid moments in decibels of silence.
.
I hold this shred of eternity
in my hand.
.
I sew that thread
into the memory of the sky
where clouds are cottonballs
waiting for the lyric of the loom.
.
I am a poet:
my memory is a house
of many rooms.
. . .
Who’s Afraid of The Proverb?
(To go with the song:
Owe lesin oro
Oro lesin owe
Toro ba sonu
Owe la fi nwa *)
.
I
.
Who’s afraid of the proverb
of the eloquent kernel in the pod
of silent moons?
.
Who’s afraid of the proverb
of the kola in the mouth of the mountain,
giant udder of the cow of the sky?
.
Who’s afraid of the proverb
of the drum which left its echoes
in the auricles of leaping streets?
.
Who’s afraid of the proverb
of the river which traverses the earth
in limbless intensity?
.
Who’s afraid of the proverb
of the sonic feathers of metaphors in flight,
the lift and thrust of impossible fancies?
.
Who’s afraid of the proverb
of the wind’s truthful lyre,
melodic thrum of Desire’s fingers?
,
Who’s afraid of the proverb
of the shortest distance
between many truths?
.
II
.
Who’s afraid of the proverb
who’s so fat on the Lactogen of the moment,
has lost all hint of the milk of dawn?
.
Who’s afraid of the proverb
stalking minnows in brackish waters,
scared of the shoals which surprise the deep?
.
Who’s afraid of the proverb,
anonymous spaces
in the abyss of the sky?
.
Who’s afraid of the proverb,
first clay in the furnace
of chilling fires?
.
Who’s afraid of the proverb,
silent salt in the feast
of delicious words?
.
Who’s afraid of the proverb?
Who’s afraid of
m-e-m-o-r-y?
. . .
* The proverb is the horse of the word.
The word is the horse of the proverb
When the word is lost
It is the proverb we use for finding it.

. . . . .

To read Osundare’s poem “Metamorphosis”, click on the following ZP link:

https://zocalopoets.com/2012/04/11/niyi-osundare-alupayida-metamorphosis/


Poems of Protest from Prison: Nigeria, 1995

Shell Oil in Ogoniland Nigeria_Image courtesy of BBCX365 Johnny Selman

Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995)
. . .
The Call
.
Hear the call of the ravaged land
The raucous cry of famished earth
The dull dirge of the poisoned air
The piteous wail of sludged streams
Hear, oh, hear!
Stunted crops fast decay
Fishes die and float away
Butterflies lose wing and fall
Nature succumbs to th’ecological war.
. . .
Keep Out Of Prison
.
“Keep out of prison,” he wrote
“Don’t get arrested anymore.”
But while the land is ravaged
And our pure air poisoned
When streams choke with pollution
Silence would be treason
Punishable by a term in prison.
. . .
Ogoni Hymn
.
Creator of Ogoni
Land of glory and wealth
Grant us thy peace and lasting love
Plant justice over the land
Give us thy wisdom and the strength
To shame our enemies.
.
Creator of Ogoni
Land of glory and wealth
Grant everlasting blessings, Lord
To people of Gokana
Khana, Eleme, Tai and Babbe
Glorious Ogoniland.
. . .
Town-Crier
.
Take these cuffs from my legs
And set me free
Pick the lies from your teeth
And let me be
Town-crier, proud gong
Calling the lame and deaf
To defend their blasted land.
. . .
Stone Deaf
.
Tired
of the questions
bored
by the din
of the lone voice
piping
to ears hearing
only
the sounds of their choice.
. . .
For Zina
.
I have raised the questions, daughter
Which you and your kids must ponder
I feel guilty I did not sooner
In my lifetime urge them stronger
And now, ere I answers provide
I may in cold blood lie buried
Have I your futures compromised?
. . .
Night Time
.
The beep of insects
The hoo-hoo of bullfrogs
And the croak of toads
Companion of a night
When nightmares burgle our sleep.
. . .
Morning Song
.
This morning is sheer poetry
as from my detention cell
my heart sings with the red
freshness of hibiscus flowers
the vivid colour of the ixoras
shooting out of the green abundance
of a heart which resists surrender
to a garden of rank weed and mush.
. . .
I Lie Alone At Night
.
I lie alone at night
And think all of one year’s gone
Since I held you in my arms
In the bed we know so well.
.
I lie alone at night
And see the callous bandits
Break into our hallowed bedroom
Cruelly knife our togetherness.
.
I lie alone at night
And think of you lying lonely
Dreaming of my return
To the home we love so well.
.
I lie alone at night
And think of the thick boots
Which stalk the halls of tyranny
And crush us underfoot.
.
I lie alone at night
And wonder why you wait
And endure the gripping pain
Which is my lot to bear.
.
I lie alone at night
And think of the stranger moon
The stars beyond my gaze
Your beauty like moons and stars.
.
I lie alone at night
And pray the day will come
To mend your broken heart
And steel my breaking soul.
.
I lie alone at night
And dream a great new dawn
Without boots and knives
Broken hearts, breaking souls
Empty dreams and lonely beds
Stranger moons and searing pain
When you and I and all of us
Can hold hands and sing our love
Into a night captured by peace.
. . .
Fire
.
There is a fire in me
Burns all night and day
Flares at injustice
Leaps at oppression
Glows warmly in beauty.
. . .
Kenule “Ken” Beeson Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995) was a Nigerian writer and environmental activist, of Ogoni ethnicity. Ogoniland, situated in the Niger Delta, was exploited for crude oil extraction from the mid-1950s onward by the Dutch giant, Shell Oil. Ogoniland suffered extreme environmental degradation – from oil spills, flares, and waste dumping. Saro-Wiwa, from 1990 to 1995, with MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People), led a non-violent campaign of resistance against Shell and the complicitness of Nigeria’s government, under the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha. The writer/activist’s execution (along with eight others) provoked international outrage, resulting in Nigeria’s suspension for several years from the Commonwealth of Nations.
. . .
Nnimmo Bassey, co-ordinator of Oilwatch International and director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation – from his introduction to The Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa (published 2013):

Reading through the treasure trove of letters and poems compiled here evoked such intense memories of Ken’s resolute struggles against an oil behemoth and a deaf autocratic government. His crusade frames one of the most tumultuous periods in Nigeria’s history; his tragic story evokes anger and demands action to resolve the crises that first led the Ogoni people to demand that Shell clean up Ogoniland or clear out of the territory. It was Ken’s leadership, in great part, that forced Shell out of Ogoniland in 1993…..His pioneering work in building a virile environmental justice movement as well as that for the rights of minorities in Nigeria remains outstanding – and continues to inspire campaigners around the world.

. . . . .