Review ~ Aesthetics and the Contextualization of Meaning in Ahmed Maiwada’s We’re Fish ~ Paul Liam


Nigerian poetry has witnessed significant growth and metamorphosis over the years. Poetry without doubt has gained prominence as the preferred genre of literature especially among the younger generation. It is arguably also the most abused genre today. The advent of the new media and the subgenre of spoken word or performance poetry, have further revolutionarized the genre. Poetry has become more flexible and relatable, having lost its hitherto iconoclastic gaity; a consequence of the newer generation’s obsession with pop culture and entertainment.  Poetry is gradually losing its traditional essence as a sagely enterprise and rapidly degenerating into a merchandise. There is however the existence of a group of experimentalists or poetry fundamentalists who, working separately, are making sure that the value of poetry as we have known it to be is sustained. These are neoclassical poets bounded together by their genuine aspirations to keep the honour of poetry intact. Their works are characterized by the nuances reminiscent of classical poeticism.
          Patrick Okolo has captured the evasiveness of an identifiable ideological trope in contemporary Nigerian poetry, in his article, “’New’ Nigerian Poets, Poetry and the Burden of Tradition’.  Okolo asserts that:
The challenge before the vast number of poets writing today is how to throw up a reasonable sample with necessary freshness of vision, originality, technical competence, and above all, a distinctive idiom which will ensure their place in the national repertory and give full status to their age as an era of vibrant poetry.
 Okolo’s pontification aptly describes the state of contemporary Nigerian poetry, for it is without a leitmotif or a grand agenda, unlike the previous generations that were characterized by a collective vision and aesthetics. However, it is imperative to note that there is always a group of conscious poets within a particular generation who often emerge to serve as propellers of an interventionist vision.  They write with an agenda.

          This group is represented by some of the notable bards whose works were published between 2010 and 2019 respectively, including: Ahmed Maiwada (We’re Fish, 2017), Ikeogu Oke (The Heresiad, 2017), Amu-Nnadi (A Field of Echoes, 2016), Tade Ipadeola (Sahara Testament, 2012), Emman Usman (Icarus Rising, 2018), Abdullahi IsmailaThis Country Holds a Whip Against Us, 2018), Umar Abubbakr Sidi (The Poet of Dust, 2019), Richard Inya (This is not a Poem, 2019), Femi Morgan (Renegade, 2019) and Ismaila Bala known for his anthologized poems. These are poets’ whose craft and sense of aesthetics are governed by refined consciousness towards the profound. For them, poetry must be grand in its appropriation of language and form. We see in their works the “freshness of vision, originality, technical competence, and above all, and distinctive idiom” emphasized by Okolo.  Thus, their works are considered as esoteric and experimental in nature by critics. They are poets obsessed with the spiritualism of poetry. However, it is important to observe at this juncture that the crux of this inquisition is an examination of Ahmed Maiwada’s We’re Fish.

          Ahmed Maiwada’s literary oeuvre includes: Saint of a Woman (2004), Fossils (2008), Eye Rhymes (2013) We’re Fish (2017) and Musdoki (2010). As a critic and essayist, he has numerous publications on literary criticism, and in 2009 he was shortlisted for one of Africa’s most prestigious literary prizes, the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas prize for Literature (also known as the Nigerian Literature Prize). We’re Fish is Maiwada’s fourth collection of poetry, published in 2018. The collection is a bold poetic experimentation that is unabashedly iconoclastic in form and content. We’re Fish thus reminds us of how like the fish we are fragile and susceptible to the same conditions of struggle for survival.  The text highlights the interplay of man and nature, a subliminal reminder of the fragility of life itself. The poetic persona informs us, “Tonight we’re cubes./Dissolved;/Tonight we’re cubes/Dissolving-/We sleep/In the glass called night-/In the keeper of the sums of our ghosts” (71-72). Ajayi, Olawale Taju in his article, “Contemporary Nigerian Poetry in English: Context and Form” contextualizes the question of the functionality of literature, and on poetry in particular he asserts that:
Yet, the question becomes much more fundamentally significant to poetry when it is considered that poetry is not a process of perceptible reality, but a response to it. Because of this, it is not as large a canvas, in terms of space, as the two other genres, in exploring such perceptible realities as will make a possible social existence, expansively spread to capture in minutiae the terms of social experience in a single poetic stroke, for instance.

                Maiwada’s poetic prowess is manifests in abundance in this collection which is in itself a single poem numbered from 1-71 with occasional subtitling. It is not unusual for works of this nature to be unconventional; it is in fact in the nature of experimentalists to be deviant with their art. For the purpose of this inquest this writer’s interest is limited to two intriguing components of the text: aesthetics and semiotics. Maiwada in order to achieve a sturdy aesthetics appeal employs certain literary elements to further that goal. The text uses these elements to dominate the reader’s consciousness, some of these elements include: anthropomorphism, concrete/visual poetry, experimentalism and symbolism. Through these elements the reader is able to appreciate Maiwada’s deep sense of poetic aesthetics. The text presents an interpretive dilemma in the sense that the text does not yield easily to external attribution of meaning. In other words, We’re Fish does not readily avail itself to external interpretation, as a consequence, the beauty of the work is only perceived through the aesthetic elements identifiable by the reader. The text therefore comes off as an experiment with formalism. Jakobson asserts:

Poeticity is present when the word is felt as a word and not a mere representation of the object being named or an outburst of emotion, when words and their compositions, their meaning, their external and inner form acquire a weight and value of their own instead of referring to indifferently to reality. (Jakobson in Hans Bertens 2014:31)

            In We’re Fish, meaning is elusive; it is present only in the constituent part that makes up the poem. Anthropomorphism comes through in the attribution of human characteristics to ‘fish’ and ‘sea’ and all the other inanimate representations such that they become embedded in the subconscious mind of the reader as having life. For example, the following lines of poem number ‘5’ collaborate this assertion: “The River says, in the tongue of water/To the drums in the road ear/ “You’re ninety percent rock/Like the blue is green/Ninety percent,” Thus,/The hard one and soft (de)parted.”(5) Meaning in the text is subsumed by its literariness and the effect created by the words. Thus, the text is better appreciated within the ambit of a formalist ideation. Hans Bertens provides a better elucidation:
The literary text distinguishes itself from other texts because we must see it as a message that is primarily oriented towards itself- its own form- not towards the outside or its potential readers. Although a literary text will usually also have other orientations- it generally will refer us in one way or another to the real world- this orientation towards itself, its poetic function, is dominant. (Bertens 2014:44)
         Concrete/visual poetry, according to Marvin A. Sackner, as those poems in which only letters or words are utilized to a visual image, whereas visual poems constitute those in which images are integrated into the text of the poem. In other words, in this type of poetry images are created with words which directly or indirectly represents the foregrounding emotion or ideas being expressed by the poem.  We’re Fish aptly fits into Sackner’s explication, thus it suffices to say that text is a work of concrete/visual poetry. Sackner’s definition further strengthens the earlier point that the text does pretend to avail itself to clear semiotic configurations. For example, larger portions of the poem if not all take the forms of various shapes and images that are difficult to identify. And because of their structural complexities, examples cannot be replicated here fully, but only in excerpts. Some of the glaring examples of concrete/visual poetry in the text include: poem numbers “11, 15, 16, 30, 37, 39, 59, 60, 61, 62, and 69.” Although the collection is supposed to be a single poem it is however extended by division using the numbering system as have just been listed, this suggests that the poems can also stand as individual poems.  The third poem, “3 (swimmer remix)” reads:   


                                                                                                                       Pull We’re
                                                                                                                Here in the rivers
                                                                                                        Swimming Gametes in se
                                                                                                    men Headed for the ovum Fis
                                                                                                 h in the river We fly the plane
                                                                                             of all sperms and fishes horse a
                                                                                            nd carriages we fly water Ou
                                                                                          r minds at sea level migrant
                                                                                         s We flee water unsalted Ne
                                                                                     et-infested Frof-tormente
                                                                             d bank-const
                                                                                ricted W
                                                                             e flee
                                                                      rn wat
                                                                       er We
                                                               flee the
The poem-image above is perhaps one of the few obvious examples of concrete/visual poetry in the collection. It suggests a sperm cell of a swimmer gliding in water, even though the semiotic of the words are lost because of their deliberate disintegration. The example is also an affirmation of the meticulous and technicality required in order to achieve complex aesthetics. Colin John Holcomb in his article Experimental Poetry, asserts that “concrete poetry is one in which the typographical arrangement of words is as important in conveying the intended effect as the meaning of the words…” Holcomb’s assertion applies to the example in focus. Some of the classical examples of subgenre included: George Herbert’s “Alter’ and “Easter Wings”, Geofrey Le vogue’s “Fate”, e.e Cummings’ “O Sweet Spontaneous Earth”, Dylan Thomas’ “Vision and Prayer”.  

          Concrete/visual poetry belongs to the larger concept of experimental poetry, and is an aspect of modernist and postmodernist poetry. Postmodernist poets are chiefly motivated by the desire to be different and esoteric. Colin John Holcomb states that “experimentation is one aspect of all modernist and postmodernist poetry, but experiential makes a special point of innovation, sometimes in the belief that current poetry is stereotyped and inadequate, but more often for its own sake.” Holcomb’s supposition gives credence to the opening assertion of this incursion.

         We’re Fish is also a symbolic representation of the delicate nature of life and its mosaic of meanings. Symbolically speaking, human beings are fish because they are susceptible to the same fate as the fish; they live, breath and die. Humans are the ‘fish’ and the ‘sea’ is the earth, the sea of man. Maiwada’s symbolic trope is accentuated in the poem, “10” in which the persona paints a clear picture of the similarities between humans and fish:
                                            We flounder in mud and in crystal.
                                             We speak in tongues. We talk rubbish.
                                             We are vegetarians. We devour our own flesh.
                                             Therefore, we’re fish. (11)

          The lines, “We devour our flesh./Therefore, we’re fish,” from the stanza above suggests the retrogression and death of humanity characterized by the ills all round the world today. The world is no longer a peaceful place because human beings have lost their conscience and human feelings; the consequence which is present in the chaos that has engulfed the world, further endangering humanity. This manifests in the meaningless wars and terrorism devouring human lives. The stanza also paints a bleak reality overtaken by the ambiance of dystopia. Meanwhile, in-between is the persona berates manifest hypocrisy of religionists as affirmed by the lines, “We speak in tongues. We talk rubbish,” (lines 2 and 3), many of the deaths are traceable to religious fundamentalism, as we seen in case of ISIS, Boko Haram and Alqaeda. “Speaking in tongues” (line 4) alludes to the religion- Christians are known to speak in tongues. However, according to the persona, “we talk rubbish”, which also suggests a contradiction with the sacredness of the tongue and resultant negative behaviour.

          The line, “We are vegetarians” is a paradoxical statement that further mocks man’s hypocrisy at piousness; at being considerate to the sanctity of the life of other animals which informs the belief of vegetarians. If all life is sacred why should man waste another life to satisfy his desires? Being vegetarians thus implies being rational human beings, but we are only pretending to be what we are not because “we devour our flesh” (line 5) by killing other human beings. The analogy of “fish” in the stanza is very ethically instructive. It is a fact that bigger fish like the Shark that feed on smaller fish. Hence, by comparing human beings to fish the persona is suggesting that humans have lost their faculty and reasoning hence have become fish that devour their own kind. The distinction between humans and other animals is the ability to reason and act rationally.

       The objective has been to deconstruct and demonstrate the aesthetic elements that enables the contextualization of meaning in We’re Fish. Thus, the writer has been able to argue that Maiwada’s text is unyielding to meaning, for its meaning is found within its structural formation. In other words, We’re Fish is text whose meaning is found in its aesthetics components some of which have been explored in this exercise. We’re Fish is a sturdy work of poetry deeply rooted in the fabric of postmodernist aesthetics and ideology. It is obscure even as it appears simple on the surface, and it is mythic, and metaphysical in nature, it defies a general place interpretation. It is symbolic and almost surreal. It is above all, it is an innovative piece of art, and it may not lay claim to originating its own style but certainly it will lay claim to its metallic utilization.

Works cited:
Ajayi, O.T. (2016) ‘Contemporary Nigerian Poetry in English: Context and Form’ in Journal of Literature, Languages and Linguistics, Vol. 26. (PDF)
Okolo, P. ‘New’ Nigerian Poets, Poetry and the Burden of Tradition’ (PDF)
Anthropomorphism., sourced on 18 September, 2019.
Bertens, H. (2014) Literary Theory, the basics (third edition), New York: Routledge.
Maiwada. A. (2017) We’re Fish, Lagos: Image Books.
Holcomb, C.T. (2015) “Experimental Poetry”,, sourced on 15th August, 2019.
Jakobson, Roman. (1934, 1987) “What is Poetry” in Hans Bertens (2014): Literary Theory, the Basics (third edition), New York: Routledge.
Symbolism. Htt://, sourced on 18 September, 2019.
Sackner, M. “Concrete/visual poetry”,, sourced online, 12th August, 2019.
 Paul Liam is a Nigerian poet, writer and literary critic. He guest-contributes to The Arts-Muse Fair