Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Poet Who Is No Longer Here

By Reuben Abati

Abioye Aronke Taiwo, Fear Abides With Me Constantly. Lagos: The Aart of Life Foundation, 2008.


“The voice from the grave urges itself on our hearing”, Wole Soyinka writes in his foreword to the post-humous publication of Tahar Djahout’s The Last Summer of Reason, under the title, “A Voice that would not be silenced”. The ideological and evidential contexts are different but the same sentiments can be adapted in reviewing the post-humous publication of the poetry of Abioye Aronke Taiwo, titled Fear Abides With Me Constantly. Seven years ago to this day, Bioye Taiwo as she was known, was a 24-year old Nigerian lady, a student of the Nigerian Law School, looking forward to being called to the Nigerian Bar. She was born in the United States on December 3, 1977; and she had studied law and literature at the University of Stratffordshire in the United Kingdom.

She enrolled for and completed her legal practitioner’s course as a solicitor in 1999 and worked in the United Kingdom as a solicitor before returning to Nigeria in 2001 to attend the Nigerian Law School. She had in fact planned to go to the United States to sit for the New York Bar Exam, but then 9/11 occurred, and in the meantime she opted for the Nigerian Law School. Her profile reminds us immediately of so many young Nigerians who study abroad and who do well abroad but who eventually return home hoping to be part of the reality of their own beginnings. But this return for many Nigerians in diaspora does not always have happy endings. What they encounter at home, except they are absolutely lucky, are the pains of having to survive in a failed state which Nigeria became a long time ago.

Bioye Taiwo was at her parents’ Oduduwa Crescent, Ikeja GRA home one evening when two of her friends came visiting. They met her working on her computer, and although she did not feel like going out that evening, her friends convinced her to let them spend a few minutes down the road; a perfectly normal thing to do for young persons, so she de3cided to go out with her friends. Two minutes later she was dead. As the ladies got to the “notorious, dark, unlit” Sobo Arobiodu junction, by Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way, a lorry on high speed, with the driver not minding the road and the right of way ran into their vehicle. Bioye died on the spot, the only fatality in the accident. The story shook the town to its fundaments as attention was drawn afresh to the dangerous nature of Nigerian roads.

Bioye’s individuality and the circumstances of her death further drew attention to the fate of other Nigerians for whom death lies on the roads in various guises: a drunken driver running into other vehicles and causing tragedy, armed robbers lying in wait, trigger-happy Nigerian policemen killing innocent motorists and bystanders, potholes resulting in vehicle somersaults, the absence of traffic lights or the disobedience of traffic regulations causing fatal head-on collisions at roundabouts and T-junctions.

To preserve her memory and to conscientize society and government on the need to do good, Bioye’s mother, Chief (Mrs) Taiwo Taiwo set up The Aart of Life Foundation with the motto: “living for good to good”, an NGO that has been involved since its establishment in “road safety awareness, grief and bereavement counseling and youth development” activities. Chief Taiwo in a very moving introduction to the post-humous publication of her daughter’s poetry writes as follows “I have been her voice in the last five years and I am proud that the world has listened and heard, and continue to hear her.” A mother acting as her deceased’s daughter’s voice is to be understood within the context of the management of grief and bereavement and the individual and private tonalities of thanatos and thanatomimesis. Cemeteries and tombstones are places of desolation, but the living preserve the memory of the dead by encouraging a continuing dialogue with the departed. Seven years after her exit, Bioye Taiwo has remained a strong presence in her immediate and the public sphere.

But perhaps the more telling manner in which this voice from the grave impacts on our consciousness, and endures, is not through the traffic lights that the Aart of Life Foundation has erected, not the botanical gardens built in her memory, but the publication by the Foundation of her collection of poetry, Fear Abides with Me Constantly, through which she peaks to the world in her own voice, and the living, her readers and herself are engaged in a dialogue that is fraught with deep meanings. It is a dialogue that cannot be touched by “notorious, dark, unlit” traffic junctions, and cannot be extinguished by reckless lorry drivers - for it belongs to a realm of consciousness, the world of literature, where reason and passion are perfectly interfused at a higher order.

In a poem titled Voices, she had written “Exiled from their merry feast/I wield my pen like a sword/And corner those voices:/In my poems, they cannot mock me/Because I control them/They are my puppets, I am their master” (p.17). How prophetic. Writing and literature offer a power of control, and of immortality which being exiled from the “merry feast” of life does not affect. Bioye’s readers may well say of her, through this encounter, what she herself says in another poem titled “An Ode to One Who is no Longer Here”: “I never met you/ yet I feel your presence/Your warmth and joy/I feel you as a part of me/Though I never met you/I know that I shall never forget you…” (p. 12). One of the most rewarding harvests of the art of writing is that authors live far beyond their time, they speak to unknown audiences, they travel to unknown distances, with living voices long beyond their time.

Bioye Taiwo started writing poetry as a teenager, what has been compiled in this collection is the best of that effort. The publishers inform us in the copyright page as follows: “At the time of the author’s death on 19th April 2002, this collection, “Fear Abides With Me Constantly” was complete, but still needed a bit more editing. It was posthumously edited by Toni Kan Onwordi.” Toni Kan Onwordi, one of the bright lights of the emergent generation of Nigerian writers in the 21st century, and who has jut published two additional books, Song of Absence and Despair, and Nights of the Creaking Bed, attests that “Bioye wrote poetry. Her poetry bubbled from a private source (p. vii).” The editor has classified the poems into three categories: Intimations of Fear and mortality, Hearth-stone and Knots and Tangles, but thematically the poet seems preoccupied with the metaphysical themes of love and death, coming across in the process as a reflective poet, and in dealing with the subject of love, much of her individuality and passion is revealed.

Poetry does not always explain everything in an author’s life, and an author’s life may not explain his or her poetry. But a random factor analysis of the vocabulary of Bioye Taiwo’s poetry reveals a fascination with opposites, and the values of mortality. The dominant word use patterns include the following: helplessness, death, fear, winter, end, cold, emptiness, gone, worry, grave, love, live, tears. It is possible to assume that she probably had a premonition of her death, given her fascination with presences and distances, doubts and anxieties, fear and departures. But all of this may well just be the product of reflection, as in W, B. Yeats’s “An Irishman foresees his death” and Christopher Okigbo’s “Path of Thunder”.

Death and love represent two of the most fascinating subjects of modernist literature for they strike at the core of universal human passion. In the title poem of the collection, “Fear abides with me constantly”, Bioye Taiwo writes: “Fear abides with me constantly/When I sleep, I fear I may never awake/To look upon the beauty of another dawn/My thoughts are seasoned with the fear of death”.(p.3) She returns to the subject even more directly in “Life” where she mourns two of her friends, Sasha and Ramona, who had died, but it si also an occasion for reflecting on her own mortality: “My life is like a roller-coaster/I roll along, coasting to the end/I cannot tell where it will lead/I do not know how it shall end/So I make my descent/With perhaps more speed than I ought”. (p. 4).

The world of Bioye Taiwo’s poetry is one of doubt and anxiety about the nothingness of Being, there is no protest here, no raging anger, only reflection in the shape of questions. . In a poem titled “Gone”, she had written most instructively: “Shall I wallow in self pity?/Swaddled in nostalgia/For the life that we once shared?/Or shall I indulge myself?/And seek the sun burst of happiness/Content that she has found peace?” (p. 14) And in “Not Knowing”, she asks rhetorically: “Not-knowing is a killer;/Are we adrift or together?/Should my want become a need?/Should I stay or do I leave?/Is this a sprint or a marathon?/Do I linger or malinger?”

But this is not all about departures and distances, in the later sequences of the collection, Bioye Taiwo shows a capacity for appreciating the other side of the coin, the pleasures of living, the joys of life and particularly the enchantment and disappointment of love. In the love poems, we encounter the quality of her passion, her words speak to us directly, conveying meaning that are familiar in the sphere of relationships. Her subject is not physical love, rather she gives expression to the entire contours of the spirituality of love and loving: the exhilaration of genuine love and the fear and pain of betrayal. Read her “Unrequited Love” (p. 15)

When you turn your back and leave

Shall I cry? I think not.

Though I shall miss the spot

Where we often sat and you called me pew

Pew? What manner of man were you

With thoughts so rank and foul?

The table is turned and like a sad fable

My love for you is ended

Now when I think of your paws

Upon my tender cheeks, I frown

And think to myself o what a clown.

Or the more painful: “They Lied” (p. 31): “They both lied,/My boy friend and my best friend;/They left me for each other”. There is much in this section of the collection that sounds personal, we are introduced to the hearts of men and women and the games that passions play upon them. But the outcome is not pathetic. What is celebrated is the power of love itself as in “When you went away…” (p. 28) and the animality of it as in “Absence makes the heart fonder” (p. 26) and “They lied” (p. 31). So she tells us about what a woman feels when she falls in love, when her man is away and there are other suitors at the door, when a lover leaves or when the lover is taken by a woman’s best friend, or what it means for a woman to be tempted with material gifts. Her ideal love is unspoken love, love that speaks through deeds and she is wise enough to know that love can wear a different face, as evident in “Silent Love: An Ode to Daddy”, where she talks about “silent love capped with a lion’s mane” (p. 23), but she adds, “Remain silent in your love/For beneath the mane, we see the dove” (p.23)

She focuses not only on human love, but also divine love in the poem titled “Mama” (p. 11). Young as she was, she evokes in us seven years later, passions about the subjects of her poetry as we journey with her through delight, doubt, fear, anxiety and love. Here, the personal and the poetic, the passionate and the reflective mind are mixed. The consciousness that has produced this poetry is one, even at a young age, that was certainly aware of the various contrasting aspects of our humanity.

There is much realism in her words. Her words are ordered in a manner we cannot easily forget, for they carry meanings that matter to us, and although she speaks directly, her words maintain the beat of music. Had she lived and had she chosen to continue to write poetry and also publish, she could have emerged a major voice in Nigerian literature. But that promise was ended seven years ago by a drunken lorry driver on a Lagos road, and so we are left to mourn how a motor accident has robbed us of a potential voice in Nigerian literature, and to express doubts and anxieties about a Nigerian state that has turned “notorious, dark, unlit” road junctions into the most debilitating aspect of our lives. We take solace in the enduring pleasure of poetry and in this useful contribution to the Nigerian corpus, and in the un-silenced voice that speaks clearly from the world beyond from the pages of Bioye Taiwo’s “Fear Abides with me constantly”. It is well.


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