Most readers these days especially of poetry adopt the scanning system. They look at a piece of work in a few seconds, appraise and discard it.
Such a reader would skim through the first pages of introduction or maybe, not even look at it at all. You see the Preface where the author says the book is for everyone whether they are orphans or handicapped in any way. Forward to the Foreword where an unknown name, Ahola Orgeh talks about life as hurricanes tsunamis and other such things concluding that one must have trust in God to take over his life’s battles. Say what?!!
C’mon, we have to get to the meat of these poems quickly! Listen? ‘Treasure? Ancestors? You go through the poems and if you have the traditional critic eye or are that connoisseur of verse across the ages, you just frown at some wasted time. You discover flat poetry that can easily be thrown away for being simplistic. The resonating themes of religion and inspiration also tend to be humdrum. Hmm. At that point, the casual reader might decide to throw the book to the other side: BORING! But what would you have expected from the singing Makurdi Doctor?
Enter a different reader: Maybe bored or just one who decides to read the book and at least have an informed note of its deformities. The person has heard the bad report from our connoisseur and decides to taste this verse and feel its bitterness. The cover is the first thing he notices:
You find some large water body at peace. It is dark but you see that there is some shine to the water. Then you note the moon above, its silhouette dancing on the stomach of the waters in waves. If you have ever been by any river or seen a picture, then you would understand the peace that this evokes. Is this dusk? Just another moonlit night? You really can’t tell. If you love the river and have been by one on many nights, you easily feel the peace of the cover… Okay…
There is a preface that sobers you. Chieshe does not write as himself there. He knows that the poet is not the man he really is on other days. He knows that the poet is someone transformed. So, he addresses his preface in the 3rd person narrative instead of the regular first: ‘This poet believes he has a message…’ He says that the book is for everyone especially the disadvantaged and unfortunate – all of which he claims to be. Humility?
Ahola Orgeh, though not of renown takes time to go through all the poems in the book and gives a lovely summation that can act as a perfect review anywhere. He starts his Foreword with the various water disasters that have come to be – the various storms that have come to be a part of our News every day. He picks certain lines from poems within and shows how the Chieshe fashions out the storm that is our life. Thus, he brings a transition from the natural storm to the human storm. He ends that hope would come surely especially if one follows the thoughts of the poet in God.
The various poems in Chieshe’s He Calms the Storms have motivation written strongly in them. There is a deliberate attempt to pass a message of hope to the reader. ‘Listen’ is the prologue to them all. The poetic persona noting that some people might be impatient as is usual in the busyness of life calls out: ‘Listen to me/Just offer me your time/And be fed by my word’ (1). Next he adds a promise: ‘Then life in your heart/And the flames on your mind/Will encircle the world/With the beauty of your life’ (1). You are arrested by the simplicity of these fore lines and the honesty with which they are written that you decide to go to the other pages. Through them all, you discover a discussion and exploration of the complexity of life and suggestions of how to make it all better. Indeed, Orgeh laid a proper foundation.
We note reproduction in ‘Ancestors’ (4). We find in the former a call to the ancestors in salute of their contribution to today and a report of continuation: ‘Ancestors Oh Ancestors/Time surely tells/The worth of the seeds you sowed/ Welling up in our genes/Breeding even now before our eyes/ Our own children’s children’ (4). It is identical words that we see in ‘Considerations’ (5): ‘Wild within our genes they saved/ Their living information live/And our lives have just begun/ Even as we reproduce/ Not minding our faith or creed’ (5). Some poets might have their ill feelings over this near verbatim repetition across two poems in the same collection. Still, it does not seem to distort the flow of any of them. So?
Chieshe adopts Shakespeare’s famous quote in Hamlet ‘To be or not be’ to create the style and pattern for ‘Always Choose’ (6). Simply put, the poem calls is a reminder that there must be a choice for everything we do. ‘To smile/Or not to smile…To love/Or not to love’ That is the question. You must choose, ‘Always choose.’
Now, there are several types of poets. They all write for different reasons and naturally, adopt different styles. Style being the way of writing similar to way of life of a people – we all have ours (even if we decide to borrow or copy someone else’s). Christopher Okigbo is famously attributed to the quote: ‘I write poetry for poets’ or something of the like. Many people have forever perished the thoughts of ever writing a poem or looking at another after a look at Wole Soyinka’s early thick poems. Other poets like Hyginus Ekwuazi though simple in style uses basic techniques mainly the famous T. S. Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’: ‘a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.’ Some poems are prosaic, others are in verse, others are dramatic… Across themes, you find different reasons for writing and lessons imbued. In this work, Chieshe shows that his primary focus is to entertain as well as educate. He does not hide behind any sophistication but passes his word well. The poet shows himself to be teacher who uses his lines for the effect of instruction. This would seem to be his general view of literature. This might also reflect why he uses very simple words and does not have long lines (most of the lines in the book are at an average five).
He explores religion without being ashamed in any way. He shows this in ‘Mother’ (10) where the persona challenges his mother’s right over his thoughts and beliefs. The poem is one of the longest in the book spanning five pages. ‘Meet Me’ (22) is a prayer to God challenging him first of all on not meeting the needs of the persona before the persona has a rethink and decides to simply trust the Almighty’s decisions in his/her life. African poetry is generally known to attack problems of society and giving prescriptions to governance. Chieshe continues in the tradition. In ‘Governing’ (24), he challenges the conventional views of leadership calling for people to start governing themselves before any other. As mentioned earlier, motivation runs all through the lines. The piece could well pass for a philosophy or sociology thought book.
On the whole, the basic problems of He Calms the Storms might be seen in the basic simplicity of most of the poems that might near border on prosaic tendencies. The whole repetition of lines as in ‘Ancestors’ and ‘Considerations’ might be an issue too. There are also some clichés like ‘You cannot keep being the same you/And say you are growing’ (68).
Before anyone might want to add that most or all of these, especially Chieshe’s reliance on philosophy or teaching values, the person might want to review the paragraph on style. The person might also want to go back through history to read some basic poetic pieces. Indeed, poetry is no mathematical formula with set rules to solve equations. Everyone can formulate his/hers to taste. This however does not act as an apology for some or any of the failures seen in the book. It only offers an explanation to some deliberate creations. Sure, one should add that a few features of Chieshe’s poetry would sure need some brushing. This is mainly because of few negligence here and there.
But maybe we should look at his seeming flaws once more. Professional poets might not like this but it is what an ordinary person can easily get. To say the least, it is a note that anyone can read and get every day. At this point, you begin to understand why he uses very simple diction and even clichés. The prose? The starkness of life to this poet is too bland to versify. Talk of the repetitions. It is known that life criss-crosses severally with experiences happening in the near exact way every time. How else does one show this than through a complete rendition of the same words in different places?
To overshadow most of these, Chieshe makes most of his poems to be rhythmic with some sing-song to them. ‘When we steal’ (36) and ‘Records Show’ (38) both talking of ills in society adopt a certain line arrangement and repetition of words such that when chanted to a certain rhythm, one would make fine music. From here, one quickly notes the musician that is Chieshe (trust me, you might prefer his notes to vocals ;) ).
If you are looking for a work that has you wondering what the writer means, something overtly deep in meaning, full of imagery, full of conventional poetry, and all, then, this might not be to your taste. However, if you are looking for a work steeped in passion, openness and simplicity, you would be home. The beauty of it is that sometimes behind the simplest of words lie the greatest of meanings: ‘I am responsible/ Very free to an independent mind’ (‘Sweet Thinking 69). If you are too troubled or looking for some reminder of life’s positives too, calm a bit. In the midst of your storms, the poet still sings to you (as he would if you meet him in reality), hold on, take my book and read on… Indeed, you would find after that, some burden dropped, in full confirmation of it all – He Calms the Storms.