Songs for a Nation in Agony published by Xlibris Corporation UK, is a poetry collection by Onyeka Dike, a poet with words gliding smoothly like water from an uphill river. The collection of poems can be likened to a bilsdungroman; as it documents the poet’s gradual growth from a time of innocence to experience and also the evolution of the nation, Nigeria – the painful ills and resultant aches of her citizens. Each of the sections marks a phase, a process or system in this evolution of growth.
In Entrance, the poet persona talks about his initiation into poetry, how poets are scorned and their voices stifled. This thought bears down strongly on the reception of poetry in the Nigerian society. Poetry bears the status of an elite art; one which is limited to the cult of the educated and ‘morosely serious’. Although, the poet bemoans the ‘death’ of poetry, he embraces his art as can be seen in the lines below:
…Poetry, I would have bid you bye at my birthplace
but there you anointed me to be your voice
And though this feeling arises in me that I’m yet
another voice, just an extra voice;
…Let me sing that same song, but with another tune….
In Home and Abroad, the prophetic image of the poet is made visible as Dike projects into the future, about the possibility of ‘a black president in the white house’. Also in that section, the poet criticises the liberal policies of the black president especially in regard to his support of gay relationships. The third poem in this section, “Societal Ironies” produces a biting sarcastic comparison of the Nigerian nation and her citizens being passionate over American governance whilst they ignored their own domestic affairs.
Learning to Live explores the frustration and disillusionment that comes with living in a failed nation – a nation where the cowards and braves occupy the same graves, where people have become passive to their sufferings and hook on to the crumbs handed over to them. One of the poems in this section, “Serving the Nation” chronicles the failure of the government in regard to the National Youth Service Corps. These lines offer a searing depiction of the system:
we are called to salvage the nation
while they are called to savage
they teach us slogans that will deliver us to the hangman’s noose
doctrines of ‘under the sun or in the rain’
hordes of flies led on by lords of the flies
mosquitoes gigantic feeding fat on naked flesh
innocent souls Boko-Haramed** out of existence
cheerful hearts and bodies mangled and disfigured
in avoidable road mishaps on endless journeys ….
Cultivating Anarchy, is the longest section in the collection as it addresses the major concerns of the poet. In this section, Dike explores the several ways in which Nigeria has failed as a nation. In “Songs for a Nation in Agony”, from which the collection takes its title, the poet is the otimpku, town crier who sings the songs of agony of a nation groaning in pains – from “deregulation, privatization,/subsidy removal, minimum wage decrease/endless panels and probes with no results…” Also in this section, “What a Police Officer Told me” is a ridicule of the shenanigans of men in uniforms and their love for taking bribes. The poem takes on the imageries of church offertory services – the officer becomes the minister and the citizens the congregation.
In all of these poems, Onyeka Dike shows an adept mastery of satire – sarcasm becomes him like a well-donned apparel. To get a full experience, one would have to traverse the whole collection of vibrant lyrical poetry. Here, is an appetiser from the lot, a short poem with so much intrinsic nuances:
The head of state
bought a jet worth a meagre sum of ten billion dollars
because he had a project to commission
he flew to our street
some one hundred metres from government house
to commission a project that cost
a whooping sum of ten thousand naira
In the last section, Contemplations and resolve, the poet persona comes to a culmination of the phases in the other sections. After highlighting the ills pervading the nation, Dike projects into a future where the citizens take up arms to conquer the decay in the society. This is not a war with weapons that draw blood, but “with the nuclear weapon of words.” However, another poem in this section differs from that kind of pacifist appeal – while “Taking up Arms,” calls for bloodless wars, “Driving the Demons to Hell,” calls for “for violent demonstrations/armed with stony metaphors of strong will.”
Onyeka Dike’s poetry finds its uniqueness in its lucidity – a simplicity of ideas that are beautifully and creatively presented. Poetry does not have to always read like a crypt material that only the poet himself can unravel. African literature is an art for life’s sake, therefore poems should not be enshrouded in needless vagueness.
Onyeka Dike is also a member on NS – @onyekadike
(To order for copies of Songs of a Nation in Agony, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org)