Book Review: Umar Abubakar Sidi's 'The Poet of Dust' as Meta-Poetry and the Quest for a Generation’s Manifesto ~ Paul Liam

Every generation of Nigerian poets has defined and conceptualized the ideological premise of its writings: from the oral opulence of Gabriel Okara’s generation to the Wole Soyinka-Christopher Okigbo's cultural consciousness and the demystification of colonial narratives of subjugation, to the Osundare-Ofeimum's social-marxist panegyrics of the dignity of the masses in a dystopian society, to the anti-despotic dirges or protest poetics of the military era, succinctly represents their distinct ideological forte. The older generation of writers conceived the functionality of literature beyond the aesthetics, of course, this doesn’t imply that aestheticism was relegated to background; they were able to consciously merged the two together, beauty and meaning. They instituted a leitmotif from one generation to another, reminiscent of the traditions of western literature: from the classical age, renaissance to the romantic and modernist periods respectively. These ideological differences within the distinct generations, demarcates and aggregates the historical as well as show the exigent realities within the specific periods. Consequently, Nigerian literature is discussed in cognizance of these unique ideological borders.

The generations were united by common concerns and aspirations for the state. To them, poetry was more than the romanticization of ideas or the mobilization of words and imageries; they served as the vanguard of the society. They weren’t writing in a vacuum, they recognized the communal purpose of being socially responsible and documenting in the process, the social realities of their periods. Poetry and literature in general has served and continues to serve as a tool of resistance and social change. These poets reminded the world through their writings of the need for the writer's critical awareness and intervention in the affairs of the nation. They also served as voices to the voiceless masses during tyrannical regimes. However, today, a new generation of Nigerian poetry is emerging amidst chaos and identity crisis, especially complicated by the idea of globalized identities or global citizenship in the age of the internet. Consequently, we are confronted by a “hybrid” generation ensuing from the interface of mixed cultural experiences and influences enabled by the internet, social media, movies and foreign journals. The implications of this new reality is that the emerging poet is partially or totally disconnected from his roots, thereby aborting, albeit prematurely, what could have become the texture of his art and the definer of the primal growth of Nigerian literature.

Little wonder, many young writers today are quick to quip that they are international writers; they reject their identities in order to fit into Western exploitative conscriptions and expectation. The irony however is that Western writers are quick to first identify with their local identities before proclaiming to be “international writers, thus, your come in contact with identifiers such as “French literature,” “American writer or poet”, “British poet, novelist or writer”, “Arabian writer” respectively. But, why does the Nigerian nay African writer hate to be called a Nigerian or an African writer? I have said elsewhere, that the new generation of Nigerian poets is embroiled in a confused politics of identity. They are subconsciously recreating their cultural identities in order to escape the deprived realities of their lives. Thus, hypothetically implying that to become an international writer, the Nigerian or African writer must first of all debase himself and devalue his cultural aesthetics, and adopt the more fittingly global identity, which happens to be the cultural prescription of the west; this mentality is a direct consequence of the hangover of a warped colonial mentality, and miseducation occasioned by the dysfunctional Nigerian educational system plus the inability of the individual to rise above his mental poverty.  But of course, there are some within the fold who insist and take pride in their cultural heritage in spite of its shortcomings. More young writers are losing their true identities simply because they want to become “international writers”, there is no longer a sense of pride and dignity in the new writer, something that was fiercely fought for by the pioneers of African literature. Paradoxically, the same writers who renounce the marker of “Nigerian” or “African writers” are the same people who are the first to enter for literary prizes specifically marked as “African Literary Prizes.”

It is also worthy to note that this emerging generation has not been paid the kind of critical attention it deserves in order to propel it towards the right ideal by scholars and critics of Nigerian and African literature, this is perhaps responsible for the lack of direction and vision in their writings. When a petal is not watered and tendered it withers. Soyinka's edited, Poems of Black Africa, and Harry Garuba's edited, Voices from the Fringe, are representative of the ideological statements of the older generations. And in-between, Osundare offered what is not only instructive but is demonstrative of the philosophical precept of his generation, with the Meta poem, "Poetry is" wherein he states:
No oracles kernel
For sole philosopher’s stone

However, there has not been such a symbolic anthology or a manifesto within the emerging generation, to create or give a concrete impression of the foregrounding principle of the generation. This period is akin to the romantic era of European literature, where individual ideals and aesthetics superseded collective vision or grand literary philosophy. In this generation, everyone is the determiner of the kind of artistic vision they want to pursue, thus, the chaos and absence of the singularity of consciousness as is been witnessed. This void has created a dialectic dilemma of some sort amongst different interests.

The void of an ideological premise within the current generation appears to have been filled up by the recently published, ambitious work of Umar Abubakar Sidi's The Poet of Dust. The collection is a grand statement of the arrival of a sage with a refined consciousness that both instructs and prescribes a sense of direction and purpose for the generation. Sidi's work is a grand theorization of poetry, representative of the ideological motif of the emerging generation both in its experimentation with style, form and language. A trend E.E. Sule describes as the “exogenous aesthetics” because of the generation's obsession with and romance of foreign aesthetics and metaphors. It is a collection reminiscent of the “Euro-modernist” tradition. Published in 2019 by KONYASHAMSRUMI, the collection can best be described as a contemporary poetry dictionary. It is assured, confident and invocative of a philosopher’s imagination. Like Osundare’s Poetry is, the Poet of Dust is a poetry manifesto of a generation lurked between post-modernism and tradition.

Sidi is magical, unpretentious and radical in his conceptualization of poetry. It celebrates the allure of the poem. It equally teaches, elicits and mocks the philistine inquisitor. Through the employment of different poetic forms and styles such as allusion, lyric, metaphor, imagery, allegory, symbolism, witticism, amplified by a sturdy narrative technique that sometimes calls to mind elegant prose, The Poet of Dust manifests varied influences drawing largely from Arabic, Greek and unapologetically imitates loosely classical English epics poetry such as Iliad, Odyssey, Beowulf, especially with its intricate metaphorization of the poet as “man and dust”. This is true of the collection, in the opening poem, The Peninsula of Poets, the persona alludes to the seven characteristics of the English epic, which he refers to as “The ABC of poetry & the 7 articles of a poet’s faith” (9) and we are also introduced to the uniqueness of the epic, which is the celebration of iconic or historical figures or events. We see how the poet introduces Adonis, who in Greek mythology was the god of beauty. The image of Adonis is a recurring decimal in the collection. The book's title suggests that man was made from sand!  So, if the poet is of dust, then to dust he shall return. Thus, even the poet with his grandeur is mortal and all mortals are made of dust.

The Poet of Dust as meta-poetry. A Meta poem in simple terms is a poem written about poetry. However, Sanchez Torres as cited in Arturo Casas’ About Poetry and Performativity defines Meta-poetry as ‘those texts “in which reflection on poetry is the organizing principle” of the poem.’ This presupposes that meta-poetry is chiefly concerned with poems that celebrates the poet, discusses the art of poetry and or beauty of the poem. The collection clearly defines itself as meta-poetry, its ambitious definition of poetry and the poet in almost all the poems fits into Torres’ definition. The collection is divided into two parts: The Poet of Sand, and Poetic Manifesto. In the poem “Instructions to a Poet” the persona doles out instructions to the poet thus implying what should constitute the guiding principle of the poet. He calls for the poet to adorn himself in the garb of consciousness and set the agenda for a revolution. The persona enthuses in stanza four of the poem thus:

Poet. Awaken. Rise
Rise against the litany of letters
The innuendoes of I
The villainy of V
The obscenities of O
Rise against lies
Against the alphabet of lies (19-20)

Just as it has been stated at the beginning of this exposition of the collection being a poetic manifesto, the second section of the collection does nothing but idealizes about the ideals of a genuine poet as well explains the quality of a bad poet. Like Osundare, we see in The Poet of Dust a social consciousness that seeks a return to the golden days where poetry and poets more than being mere purveyors of vacant aesthetics, were deep thinkers, philosophers and rebels who used poetry as tool of resistance and social justice. In the poem, “In Lieu of a Preface”, the persona posits in the opening stanza:

We need poems with the skin of porcupines that will prick the bodies of poets, pierce their skins, sting their consciences and force them to cough out poems about beauty, rascality and emasculation of lies

We need poems of steel and manacles that will seize the ram-shackle captains of the community and cast them in underground dungeons beneath the rocks (43)

The poet persona seems disappointed in the new generation for their lack of guts and the dearth of consciousness in their poetry. The persona reechoes his disenchantment with the contemporary poet in the poem, “This is not a Poem this is not a Prayer”:

Today, the poet cannot sing,
A self-appointed Soldier of God
And his vest of bomb has just
Detonated in his box of voice (47)

The persona equally has some words for those he regards as bad poets in the poem, “Things Poets Do” in which he ridicules the laziness of the new poet and his aversion for depth and the mechanics of a quality poem. He submits thus:

Bad poets define poetry as the aesthetic amalgamation of words to evoke a waterfall of bliss”.

There is no escaping the paradoxical and sarcastic tones of the persona in his rumination of the affairs of poetry-land, upon which he is presiding as the master.

And in conclusion, it suffices to posit that Umar Abubakar Sidi’s The Poet of Dust belongs to the neoclassical class of Tade Ipadeola’s Sahara Testament, Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresaid, Amu Nnadi’s A Field of Echoes, and Ahmed Maiwada’s We Are Fish whose experiment with form, craft and style is grand. They are energetic in their bold re-invocation of the classical tradition of European form and aesthetics. Of course, if we have no tradition of our own to advance, emulate, or perhaps, cannot create our own, there is absolutely no wrong in impressing on the tradition that gave rise to our modern written literature. Sidi’s work deserves to be read for its own merit, because it is good.

Paul Liam is a poet, author and writer with several critical articles to his credit.