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Poet in the Time of Buhari Nigeria at 59

The country is burning, both in dream and in wakefulness-

to which part of the flames must he,

the firefighter,

turn his hose?

 

I

 

The poet stares long at the blank screen and the blinking cursor.

His mind wanders.

A century before now, poets stared at blank paper.

Millenia before, blank cave walls.

And before then, the primal poet stared at the darkness

in the face of the deep,

the world without form.

 

Even though paper and screens are now a bright white,

the space between the poem and nothing remains a vast darkness.

Where will he direct his beam of light?

He is always looking out for his immortality-

the eternal relevance of his verse. 

Perhaps, then, he will write about death.

Or maybe the fauna, maybe the landscapes he has seen,

or maybe love-

those things which, for the most part, cannot die.

 

And while the poet dillies and dallies, he falls asleep.

 

 II

 

And while asleep, our poet dreams.

The landscape is familiar-

seven hills, Rome, on fire.

But it is not Nero, fiddling as the flames dance higher and faster,

it is he, or at least someone that looks like him,

singing about his lover, his flawa, his sugar.

 

The poet wakes up sweating-

(not odd, considering his dream was on fire)

and considers what the dream may mean.

Will the generations hence, for which he is so concerned, say of him:

And while Nigeria burned, he wrote of love?

 

III

 

Herzog says ‘the poet must not avert his eyes’

but everywhere around our poet, something is going to shit.

He tries to fix his gaze on the out-of-school hawkers 

but his taxi runs into a pothole on the road 

his thoughts usurped by the deathtraps that litter kilometers of road

till he is startled by the radio presenter:

‘…mysterious snake reportedly swallows 36 million naira in JAMB office.’

 

The poet, in a small eureka,

decides to turn his gaze on the motif of war.

It is all around him-

and he’d have the opportunity to throw in Okigbo.

 

There’s a war for the soul of the North,

and Leah, who chose freedom over freedom,

is caught in the crossfire. 

But as the image of the dreaded Sambisa begins to form in his mind,

he thinks-

isn’t there, also, a war for the soul of the South?

The poet remembers Auden’s words

on the eve of the second war to end all wars-

‘We must love each other or die.’

Love,

easy and difficult at once.

 

Looking out at the evening sky,

he thinks about Buhari’s drones-

leisurely taking postcard pictures of the irriguous landscape.

But what about the landscape of terror?

 

IV

 

The poet tries to think of broader connotations of war.

Ogoni farmlands are still marshes of oil.

Isn’t that a direct affront to Kawaa-Bari?

Isn’t that a war against the land?

 

And what about the war against the sea?

In other parts of the world, the poet reads,

an army of plastic will soon outnumber and overcome the fish.

In Ogoniland, the fish rush towards the hooks of fishermen,

to escape lungfuls of crude. 

 

Remembering the soot-filled skies of Port Harcourt,

he thinks a war against the sky is in progress.

He sees the smoke contort as it rises higher,

shape-shifting until it reaches its true form:

a middle finger to the ghosts of-

Saro-Wiwa, Dobee, Eawo, Gbooko, Levera, Nuate, Bera, Kiobel

and Kpuine.

 

V

 

But, midway through the first sequence of words,

he gives the departed a second thought.

Will writing about the abandoned mess made by shells

not put him in a mess of his own?

 

Jail time in exchange for permanence seems a fair bargain

but he fears going to prison has gone out of fashion.

These days, he thinks,

you get a prison number,

a cell,

and maybe a hashtag that trends for a week.

If you’re lucky, your jail anniversaries are marked.

Jones Abiri has now been in prison for 1 year. 

Jones Abiri has now been in prison for 2 years.

Activism reduced to counting.

 

The poet looks at his frail frame-

can he survive two days in gaol?

 

VI

 

But, in that moment, he remembers Yevtushenko-

‘When the truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie’

The blank screen is a lie.

In Lagos, Kolade Johnson is dead,

robbed of his life by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad.

In Abuja,

officers are raping sex workers

with pure water sachets.

The truth does not rhyme,

does not roll off the tongue like a catholic prayer

and he thinks he must write these things,

that posterity must hear the facts of the matter.

And that he may even help the present-

schoolkids already parroting the dangerous lie:

Police is your friend.

 

VII

 

But what about the Army?

The poet recalls a news article he saw a week before-

A book has been written to immortalize Buratai-

the book is targeted at children and young adults

to bring the need for great leadership skills to their-

 

Attention!

He knows the book will tell all the times the man, supposedly, took a-

Right turn! 

But what about all the times that are-

Left! Left! Left!

What about the hundreds of Shiites ushered in a-

Forward march!

into a mass grave dug deep in the soil of Zaria?

He thinks about the soldiers filling the dugout, and the final-

About turn!

He hopes, to all the gods mankind has known, that they are never truly-

At ease.

 

VIII

 

Away from the wars against the people,

he thinks about the abstract wars.

He’ll start with Buhari’s war against indiscipline,

which died in ‘85.

He’ll then move to Buhari’s war against corruption,

which was dead on arrival.

He’ll play on the phrase ‘de-looting only for re-looting’.

And if he tries hard enough,

work in the rhyme ‘Diezani’s Louboutin’.

But upon discovering the right pronunciation,

he sees the rhyme will not fly.

 

What differentiates a poem from a thesis is this-

the poem must be indistinguishable from song.

But how will he write all these real and metaphorical wars-

bombs going off, cries rending the air-

into music?

 

IX

 

At home, his father is at war with bats.

They came out of the dark,

and have made a home of his beautiful pine tree.

First, his father deploys floodlights-

but the bats turn a blind eye.

 

Then, it is suggested that they are fruit bats-

only there for the mangoes beside the pine.

So, his father decides to starve them out.

The bats go off in search of food,

but always return to the pine.

 

His father also tries pesticides,

tries spraying water,

starts a bonfire every night,

buys a catapult to shoot at 2 am.

Still, the bats do not budge.

 

In his poem, if it ever comes to be-

our poet plans to use these bats as a metaphor

for some aspects of Buhari’s Nigeria.

 

X

 

And while all these thoughts compete within the poet-

he realizes this, too, is a war-

with himself.  

 

He remembers Sontag-

‘to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude.’

The infinite poem is either impossible or undesirable.

What will make the cut?

The country is burning, both in dream and in wakefulness-

to which part of the flames must he,

the firefighter,

turn his hose?

 

A small hallucination unfolds around him as he lies, that night, in bed.

Different apparitions are tugging with equal persistence-

boys with stumps for legs tug at him,

girls with tear-stained faces and bloodied skirts tug at him,

Sleep also tugs at him