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Poetry Meets Popular Culture: A Review of “Waterman”, by Echezonachukwu Nduka


Reviewed By Daniel Chukwuemeka


Saturday, November 7, 2020.

 

Echezonachukwu Nduka’s sophomore collection of poems, Waterman, is a litany of artistic supplication affirming the reliability, durability, and longevity of his creative prowess. Following the evolution of his creative practice, Nduka’s oeuvre so far establishes him as one of the new crop of African writers, the third generation African writers described by Harry Garuba and a few other critics as more global than national, more cosmopolitan than ideological.

Take poems “Mahler” 1 & 2 for example. Here, the referent character Mahler, a petrol station attendant, seems to be an African living outside Africa, who longs to associate himself with Africa. When Mahler “talks about a Kenyan friend who designs machines”, you will think that Mahler will be pan-African in disposition until you find out that his knowledge of Africa panders to the long Eurocentric notion of African otherness — Africa being a place where “drums and afrobeats, giraffes in jungles posing for photos / and men in flowing gown the size of a bed sheet”, are found. He distances himself from the Kenyan friend he talks about, preferring to keeping record of events in his immediate environment, and focusing mainly on his job as a petrol attendant rather than cultivating a proper memory of Africa.

Mahler reminds us of the typical Afropolitan — that cosmopolitan figure who, like Julius in Teju Cole’s Open City, will rather wander endlessly in an unmitigated global mobility than settle for any kind of identity formation that they may consider in terms of parochial nationalist ideology. Surely, it is not a coincidence that much of Open City reflects on Julius listening to Mahler (the composer), making the reference in the name interesting and persuasive. Mahler’s actions feed into a kind of popular culture defined by Barry Brummett as involving those aspects of social life most actively involved in by the public. Taiye Selasi’s Afropolitan—a character embodying both European affect and African ethos — a new and popular kind of African migrant, who is more global than national, and more cosmopolitan than ideological in their approach to identity politics.

It is not just the Afropolitan figure that embodies this configuration in Waterman. In “On the Niger,” the popular notion and controversy surrounding the issue of whether Mungo Park should be acknowledged for the discovery of Niger River becomes less ideal in the scheme of contemporaneity, as Onitsha, the city most associated with the river, “craves to flow with the currents / of the Niger”, to immerse itself in the emerging global order — “journey northwards”. However, as with Mahler’s “emptiness” and spatial displacement, the emergence of a cosmopolitan Onitsha is deemed inadequate to “wash away the horrors of history”  of imperialism.

Nduka’s Waterman contains some other instances where poetry meets popular culture. In the collection, thematic and formal features of poetic engagement converge in a clash of contradiction and multiplicity of thought, resulting in a habit of thought that privileges levity over gravity. Levity, here, is not the direct opposite of seriousness; instead, it is the juncture at which serious subjects are artistically complicated in such a manner that liberalises the literariness of the poem and reminds us of the possibility of its intersection with popular culture. Such is the case in “Permutations.” Here, the popular idea, among most humans, I will say, of relishing the sound of raindrops atop the rooftop denotes a sense of fleeting inspiration to a music composer. But we find that the solemnity of the kind of moment—such as inspirational or epiphanic flash—invoked by the sound of raindrops atop the rooftops soon metamorphoses to a new connotation in which the persona, a “failed composer,” now exploits the historical development of sound in the spheres of technology to emerge as not just only a composer, but one that is “both performer and audience,” “jury and competitor”.

While penetrating the trajectories of popular culture and its poetic permutations, what we should not disregard, however, is the intractability of Waterman despite subtle echoes of some popular derivations in the collection. The title poem itself is as impregnable as the persona — a metaphoric body of water that resists boundaries and “will not stop flowing through closed spaces”. Perhaps the poet is telling the reader to make of the poems what they will. Yet, the cohesive force I identify in this collection is the pervasiveness of what I call problematic paradox in which contradictions become or yield multiple complications instead of a traditional, binary understanding of opposing forces, of good and bad or white and black, for example. Interestingly, I must add, this sense of multifariousness demonstrates the difficulty and enigmatic code inherent in grappling with existence and humanity in their entirety. Therefore, Nduka’s poems may materialize as difficult and complex, but such is the intricacy of encounters with literary language in the task of artistic representation of reality.


Waterman, by Echezonachukwu Nduka

Publisher : Griots Lounge Publishing

Language: : English


Daniel Chukwuemeka is a doctoral student at the University of Bristol, UK, and Macquarie University, Australia. He can be reached at daniel.chukwuemeka@bristol.ac.uk

A Review of “Waterman”, by Echezonachukwu Nduka

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