UCHE PETER UMEZ’S ARIDITY OF FEELINGS
By Nnamdi Anumihe, PhD
Wednesday, September 28, 2011.
Poetry, especially modern African poetry, has proved most effective as an instrument of social criticism. This role is exemplified by Uche Peter Umez’s collection titled Aridity of feelings, in which the poet presents facets and slices of experiences that depict the human condition in contemporary Nigerian society. The young poet does this with an intensity of diction and impressive figurative texture that capture aptly the depths of his emotions about his society. This paper follows the poet’s creative beacon in order to explicate not only this role, but the quality of his work: his themes, technique and style, as a social critic.
Poetry, undoubtedly, is the cynosure of creative writings. Because it encapsulates thoughts and feelings in condensed verse forms, yet clothes their meanings in flowery diction that appeals both to our intellectual and emotional sensibilities, its impact when used as an instrument of social criticism is always tremendous. The South-African anti- apartheid poet, Dennis Brutus, the Ugandan born Okot p’Bitek of the Songs of Lawino and Ocol fame are good examples of poets whose works are acutely critical of their social milieu. Back home, J. P Clark, Wole Soyinka, Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimum, Tanure Ojaide and the late Ezenwa Ohaeto amongst many others have also engaged their poetry as instruments of social criticism.
In recent Nigerian poetry, Uche Peter Umez has emerged a new voice in the poetry genre that has embraced the ideals of social criticism with great creative skills and unrelenting patriotic fervour. He is fast becoming the “sensitive point” of our contemporary Nigerian society. Right from the poem he uses as the epigraph of his collection titled Aridity of Feelings(2006), Uche Umez, whose collection won the 2004 ANA modern Poetry Award for Imo State, declares not only his anger and angst at the despoliation of mother earth and by extension, the human society with particular reference to his country, Nigeria. He equally identifies the causes and the culprits and does not spare them in every instance. At the same time, he gives us great insight into the scenario, making us feel, as he does, the bitterness of our failed nationhood. Thus his poetry is an incisive, highly imaginative commentary on the realities of social affairs in contemporary Nigerian society. The epigraph poem reads:
the egg is broken, the yolk has spilled:
the earth cries for our love, not for polluting,
the earth is ours for care not for plundering.
This is a heart-rending lamentation that leaves goose-pimples on the flesh of any sensitive reader. The frustration is clear, the causes are listed: there is destruction of the core essence- the inherent resources of mother earth. At once, the devastation and despoliation of the oil- rich Niger-Delta region registers in our minds. Their environment is desolate, devastated like broken egg in which the rich yolk, its core essence, has been destroyed. Equally our society is polluted by bribery and corruption, by heinous crimes that dehumanize society and render victims and non-victims miserable wretches. In his view, we are all victims in one way or the other. Uncountable incidents of variegated crimes: kidnapping, armed robbery, rape, human trafficking, ritual killings, extra-judicial killings, police brutality and high profile killings are rife –the whole gamut! Our treasury is continually being looted, our economy plundered and purloined by those we collectively elected and trusted to oversee the affairs of our nation. We are left with frustration and hopelessness, wondering where the rain started to beat us, as Chinua Achebe would say.
A selection of poems in this collection shows the poet’s propensity to cry out not only at the devastation of the environment but also at the dehumanization of the human psyche through these acts inimical to the well- being of citizens and the progress of the country. This commitment situates his themes within the domains of eco-criticism and gives him an environmental vision to observer, record and analyses the despoliation of not only the Niger-Delta landscape but the entire Nigerian society. Cohen, a foremost eco-critic, opines that a committed eco-critic writer owes it as a duty to capture and project the nature, the activities and the peculiar experiences of his socio-cultural environment. This is exemplified in the very first poem in Uche Peter Umez’s collection titled “I Sing My Thoughts”, where he invites us to share the privilege of experiencing slices of his creative vision which conceive of the entire society as victims of inept leadership and bad governance, inordinate ambitions, perverted desires, immorality, bribery and corruption, unscrupulous quest for sensual and material gratifications:
I sing my thoughts, which spawn
in my head
and like motley butterflies
flit across my vision
His song, as well as his vision, indicts the perpetrators of our afflictions- the leadership of the country and their ilk who occupy positions of responsibility yet fail abysmally to live up to our expectations. Umez describes them as:
the greed-toothed hearts of crooks
on our hallowed stools
There is a paradoxical ambivalence in the juxtaposing of that which is sacred and that which is despoiled, for instance, our sacred institutions inhabited or occupied by unworthy corrupt people. As a social critic and an advocate of the exploited masses, the poet is bound to condemn them:
But I choose to sing
to sing in pain
for the hunger-gnawed bowels.
This is why the poet’s song, though melodious, is one of pain and bitterness. Indeed, the poet admits this in the next poem, For Her, For Me. Here, he joins the desecrated earth mother in weeping tears of pain:
is a melodious song of pain
her tears are flowing hot lava
The theme of pillage and plundering of our resources is equally found in “Wolves Amongst Us”. The poet traces the beginning of pillage of Africa’s resources to the advent of the European colonialists and their missionaries who facilitated the plunder through indoctrination, intimidation and conversion of the natives into the Christian religion:
Africa of rich blackness
frothy with life
to other lands and men
her rare treasures of gold
but there were tawny breasted men
that plundered riches
they prowled about smiling, a bible in one hand
and a sjambok in the other hand
Significantly, the poet reminds us that the exploitation did not end with the colonial masters but was continued by our own kind who succeeded them in power, a situation Ngugi Wa Thiong’o describes in Devil On The Cross and in Matigari as thieves and robbers that facilitate neo- colonialism. Umez calls them Neo-puppets while Frantz Fanon calls them conduit pipes of the departing colonial power structure and their multinational companies. This is the theme of the poem titled “Neo-puppets”
hungry cheetahs have crouched together
in the hallowed court
and empowered a rabid black jackal
to hold sway over my groaning land!
In “We no longer weep”, the poet situates the plunder squarely in the Niger- Delta region where multinational oil companies have so devastated the land that all life in the environment is threatened with extinction. The poet laments not only this affliction but also captures the frustration of the inhabitants who initially are resigned to their fate, ruing the abject neglect of their lot by the leaders of the country:
We no longer weep:
empty baskets, thread bare nets, glum fishermen
niggling waves, tattered children, restive youths
groaning bellies, drooping breasts, parched faces
lament for the plenteous past?
protest against the pestiferous present?
moan out elegies for our forlorn future?
our lives are Shell-ed
stalks of shriveled sap.
The coinage “Shell-ed” is vintage Umez, creativity per excellence because it captures and conveys imaginatively, the devastating impact of exploitation carried out with ruthless abandon and military precision by the oil companies in the Niger- Delta area. It is not difficult therefore to understand why their youths, suffering from this want and deprivation, should be restive. Indeed, the Amnesty deal is not enough compensation for the years of deprivation and exploitation of their homestead, considering again the scenario in “A Village Smothering”:
The village choked on the dry black smoke
stoked up by the youths
that nurtured green dreams-
Dreams of a tomorrow wholesome
and free from plundering paws
and men prowling the oil precincts.
In “Ashes” as well as in “I am a Stranger to Garbage”, the poet explores the themes of poverty - both of material means and of spiritual being. He finds us suffering from aridity of both. That is his sentiments in the title poem: Aridity of feelings: “The milk has dried; the breast is barren of feelings”. He observes that many citizens live in slums, surrounded by the putrefaction of accumulated and un-disposed garbage. But the squalor metamorphoses from that of the environment to corruption in the lives of individuals and society. That is simply spiritual aridity in the polity. The poet puts it thus:
Acrid odours of pedestrians moving about
dark stench stabbing at the air
black smoke blocking my breath.
Ugly heaps of filth
are as common as corruption
in my land
Here garbage pulses
through the lives of a fast city-
its people no stranger to garbage.
It is the same sentiments that the poet expresses in “Slum House”:
so low is the ceiling in that crude room
your head could touch it if you were 5’ 9’
the blowing fan grates in your ears
& the odour of dirty clothes in that homely hole
strains your lungs with lukewarm air
& just one crooked window
of a child’s outstretched arms- breath
for a family of five who live within
these hot white-washed walls no wider
than a 14 seat bus.
While Umez employs theme in passing across his feelings: the frustrations, the anger and angst, he equally deploys technique and style as instruments that stir not just the intellect but also the emotions of the reader. Indeed, the impact of his figurative language in the poems gives additional quality-uniqueness, significance and expressiveness- to his themes. One of the unique qualities of his technique is the terseness of his lines. He combines precision of thought with conciseness of articulation and appropriateness of tone. By so doing, he creates not only the appropriate scenario but also the right attitude a reader needs to adopt in order to interpret correctly the significance of the poet’s message. Thus the creative manipulation of figurative language gives his diction a distinctive style and his verses a compact and condense form with an economy of expression that is truly creative. Most of his poems are single paragraph verses and their lines hardly exceed eight to ten words in a line.
Like the 19 century American poet, e e cummings, noted for his disregard for the use of upper case syllables, Umez also affects that style. A great deal of his verse start and end with lower case syllables including, in some cases, proper nouns and adjectives. Indeed, the way he writes his name: uche peter umez exemplifies this style. But whereas cummings does this deliberately as a deviation from the norm and as an advocate of the primacy of technique and style over meaning, it is doubtful if Umez has such intentions.
Beyond this, the use of imagery by the poet is instructive, lucid and stimulating. His images call up pictures of the landscape in such a way that the reader perceives and associates meanings to the themes. For instance, A Village Smothering calls up the picture of a place set ablaze as a result of attack by militants:
The village choked on the dry black fumes
Stoked by the youths
Paradox is another figure of speech which Umez employs effectively. In this poem, he employs the paradox of the hope and the reality of the existential frustration, the dreams denied”. "nurtured green dreams/ Dreams of a tomorrow wholesome”. Green is the colour of life and a healthy environment but this dream is denied the youths of Niger-Delta, hence they resort to militancy. Other images of despoliation include “Grey clouds’, “the guffaws of guns” “shadows of militant men”. In this regard, the poetry of Uche Peter Umez is good example of eco-poetry; his concern with the environment typifies the tenets of eco-criticism the new thrust of literary criticism in cotemporary African Literature.
Furthermore, the use of the Bible and the sjambok is the paradox of Europe’s relationship with Africa since colonial times. It is equally the paradox of the carrot and the stick. With one hand they brought us Christianity and Western Education, with the other hand they chastised us with whips (sjambok), keeping us subservient to their wishes even in our present milieu. Because of that fawning allegiance, we mortgage our conscience, our sovereignty. The poet laments:
Africa of rich blackness
Frothy with life
To other lands and men
Her rare treasures of gold
Inspite of these afflictions, Umez still nurses hope of regeneration of society. He enjoins us to persevere because as he observes in the closing lines of Aridity of Feelings:
Life moves on….because “we are accustomed to misfortunes.
From the fore going, Umez can rightly be described as a social critic, a patriot, with a high sense of commitment, who uses his poetry in the service of his motherland. However, Umez does not proffer solutions to the problems he unearths as the sensitive needle of his milieu – the observer and recorder of societies frailties. In this Umez has company for hardly any poet in that guild ever proffers solutions to suit their perceptions and exposé of social ills.
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