On Afam Akeh’s “Letter Home & Biafran Nights”

January 13, 2024
3 mins read

by Chielozona Eze | With thanks to xOkigbo

Saturday, June 1, 2013.

Such long a

Afam Akeh is one of the better known names among his generation of
Nigerian poets. He is not known for many volumes. In fact, his literary fame
rests solely on his only collection of poems to date, Stolen Moments,
published in 1988. Based on the mastery displayed in it though, the African
poetry community eagerly anticipated his next volume. Letter Home &
Biafran Nights is worth the long wait. Like the smell of mango freshly
plucked from tree, the first stanza caresses your sense with its rich lyrical
and philosophical sweep.

Where the largeness of the dream

is touched by the smallness

of one’s footsteps

there is travel guilt shed

like loose feathers

or discarded skin

This is
easily one of the most remarkable beginning stanzas of the poems I’ve read in
the recent past. Exposing a contrast between an individual and the universe
that is symbolized by dream, the first stanza announces the overarching theme of
the collection. One imagines the lone traveller’s paws against the infinite
magnitude of the world that does not really care.  It is against this
backdrop that this pilgrim, who might have seen himself as a prodigal son,
suddenly sheds his guilt. The instinct for survival in a foreign environment
takes over the rein of his life. This is, indeed, what most of the poems in
this collection are about. A heart torn between loyalty to the land of his
birth and the land he has taken refuge in, between personal survival and duty
to the larger world.

The first
poem, “Letter Home,” is divided into four sections that relate the narratives
of four African exiles in the West. Their heartbreaking fates are linked to
their home by the trail of the letter. Another of the poems, “Letter to
Soyinka,” is a retort to what might have been perceived as Soyinka’s failure to
understand why many children of Africa have fled the continent. It is biting in
its direct, too direct, address to the Nobel laureate.

Is it the wine, weather

or women;

the gods that failed?

What potion

has your name on it?

How exit a love

that lays claim

on one’s life?

What talent

in your beard

is counsel for my fellows

this day of doubt?

But the
anger of these lines is a mere expression of the speaker’s frustrations at not
being in the land he loves and at being misunderstood by none other than Wole
Soyinka, one of the best minds his country has produced. The speaker’s
generation has been excreted from the land by the failures of the Nobel
laureate’s generation.

The African
immigrant experience in the West is not necessarily gloom. The speaker in
“Dream Christmas” appears to delight in “seeing the world/white at Christmas, a
dream of childhood.” Nor are the poems just about the fate of African
immigrants. “The Living Poem: Manifesto for the Public poem,” is the poet’s ars
poetica, the artist’s definition of what good poems should be about. Poetry
is no longer a thing for the elite few; it is not an esoteric speak. Rather
poetry should be “shaking hands with normal folk/not proud and poor like a
listed building/leaning on public pity”

To me, Akeh
comes to life most in “Biafran Nights.” In it, one feels the weight of history
and of a people nearly decimated by genocide and the war that should have been
avoided. In “Biafran Nights,” Akeh returns to the Nerudean lyricism that
distinguished the “Letter Home.” It is a style of noble lyricism that seeks to
marry heaven and earth in a single breath. In this poem, memory becomes a
“master griot” that is “stubborn with tales.” And, as if to warn us that those
who ignore their history are bound to repeat its mistakes, or perhaps that we
cannot wish away our past, the ultimate griot reminds us of our “network of
neglected moments.” It is all about a “land imperiled imploding like a myth.”

Nights” is, thankfully, long and in three parts. I wish it were even longer.
Each stanza is a cache of precious imagery, allusions, metaphors that leave no
doubt that a master is at work. The whole poem is as soulful as the prayer of a
truly humble believer in the infinity of the universe and the smallness of man;
it is to be savored. See, for instance, how the second part begins: “Not a
litany of events, history is human smells/and sounds, private motives in public
spaces.” There could be no better wisdom than this, no better note of caution.
Indeed, poetry, as the manifesto spells out, shakes hands with normal folk.
Akeh is best as a philosophizing lyricist, who tends to make extensive,
wisdom-packed statements. It is perhaps in respect to the depth and richness of
the wisdom of these words that he chose to be as lucid as the biblical

Every once
in a while one wished he had balanced the lyricism with more narrative and
imagistic details. More descriptions. This is, however, merely a philosophical
question that does not detract from the beauty of the collection. Letter
Home & Biafran Nights is a literary success.

Afam Akeh, Letter Home & Biafran Nights. London: SPM Publications, 2012. Price: £9.95

Chielozona Eze is Associate Professor of English
and Postcolonial studies at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago. He also
runs a blog focused on African literture, African Literature News and Review.

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