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Jide Badmus’ “Obaluaye” Is a Paradox of Chaos and Harmony

Jide Badmus’ “Obaluaye” Is a Paradox of Chaos and Harmony

Obaluaye by Jide Badmus - Afrocritik

The continuity from one poem to the next is constant, but what gives novelty to this constancy is not the loss and wail and recantation in the poems, but the acceptance that comes at the end, of a constantly changing truth that death can also be an antidote.

By Isaiah Adepoju

The poetry collection, Obaluaye, is more an invocation in its vividness and charged air than it is a book that nags. But an invocation to who and for what, begs the question of from what motivation – so to speak – has the Nigerian author, Jide Badmus, written the book, since its guiding metaphor, the god, Obaluaye, in the Yoruba mythology — like Ogun, Esu, Soponna, and Sango — is paradoxical: good and evil, beauty and decay, construction and annihilation, and so on. 

In poetry, replicating paradoxes in harmony calls for careful observation, and in a case as this, where the poet begs for goodness only after the songs sung through the poems have ended, requires the poet’s introspection and cynicism, in the very meaning of the words, because the poet can become suddenly lost in his own emotions. Badmus loses himself midway through this collection but finds himself again. If this is intentional, as a result of wit and imagination, then he does not lord it over us. 

From the first poem to the last, his style is innuendous, ironic; his themes move from lofty to commonplace to comical. His language is precise and titillating, simple and affecting. The mood is sombre, but also playful and reminiscent; his tone builds up from immense anger and frustration to a stern-faced propitiation. The continuity from one poem to the next is constant, but what gives novelty to this constancy is not the loss and wail and recantation in the poems, but the acceptance that comes at the end, of a constantly changing truth that death can also be an antidote. The journey then of this discovery, from here to there, from this to that, is worth grabbing a chair and listening to. 

(Read also: Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s When We Were Fireflies Examines the Primal Questions of Life and the Afterlife)

Obaluaye comprises five sections confined within sixty-five pages, with each a section of ten, eight, thirteen, eleven, and seven poems respectively, and each succeeding section adding to the previous and precipitating the next. 

Obaluaye Jide Badmus - Afrocritik

Of the many misfortunes of an artist criticising one’s country is the consciousness that he is aware of his condemnation. In “Wind Without Mouth”, the first section in the collection, the voice in the first poem, “Cliche”, is aware of its own charm, while depicting the endlessness of strife and war, of a renewing song after a night of bonfires, the constant sexualisation of destruction, the death of beauty and the birth of children in salvage times. “Running” elaborates this through imageries of a sun setting, smiles taunting at the seams, and the co-occurrence of death and birth. A co-occurrence which permeates not only “Wind Without Mouth.” At once the voice turns elegiac, drawing you in with simple, striking lines, as in the poem, “Broken Throttles”:

Sun in a coffin, you

needed a miracle to rise

In the second cantos, you and the writer’s voice go in deep communion, of the living and the dead needing faith, and the cantos ending in recrimination as sharp as a cut. And onward there is sensate submission to gloom, with strength seeping out of the body, as in the poem “Brim”. But in this descent, there is also a glimmer of hope.

My soul is parched & my body aches.

So I fill this bathtub to the brim—

I need a full dose of life. 

(Read also: Chidiebube onye Okohia’s Of Dark Tides and Darkling Times Is a Philosophical Exploration of Life)

Replete with tragedy, the writer’s voice nonetheless acknowledges its own self-mortification and umbilical connection to home. An image which precipitates the next section, “A Poem Haunts Me”. The recurring images here are bleary darkness, a hollow house, the voice of a narcoleptic eternally waking and screaming; night, imagination, and how they interact as terror and sad wonder, constant and mutually affective. But even these definitions are never static. For example, although fear is used as synonymous with night and terror throughout the section, it is also implied as the time of creative impulses, and, as the poem “Release” reads, of: “a paroxysm of poetry… of words rushed onto white lawns.” But even the words, on the instant they become a titled poem, are like “stillbirth songs” — they feel futile. And then, the poet’s intuition becomes a false anchor. 

Following intuition ought to have gone well, meditative even, but depending on interpretation, becomes conventional and needless (as bad collections often become). But it is saved again by the last poem in this section, “Ghost of Light”, which makes an inference to sleeping and waking, and there is an opportunity for the observer-artist to catch light and symphony anew. 

For some, sleep is 

A lost song.

This paradox, however slight and concealed, is a motif in this collection. While the last two sections present the world of the poet as it is, “Silence Cookbook” plunges right into his response to this world. Silence in the face of tyranny runs through as a theme. Silence, not as an overlooking, but as a way to “speak to [one’s] anxiety” (“Red Eyes”; L. 2&3). In this aspect, Badmus succeeds in the irony he aims to achieve from the beginning, for example, by his double-entendres with sexual pleasures and worship, amongst others. 

Every ounce of the writer’s resistance is in this silence; his hoping against hope, his shouting into an echo, his disappointment at his country, his anger at his misery, his disappointment at the failed electoral promises, his rhetoric and his lampoon of political god-worship, his quiet solitude in the debris and the warm moonshine: 

[I’m] seated here,

Listening to the wind

Sing… (“A King Away”; L. 3-5)

His resistance to mind-wrenching despair and, as evident in the tenth poem in this section titled “Salt”, as a recollection of all the pain he has  allowed into his core: 

This memory breathes,

Unwanted, unloved—seed

From the devil’s loins,

Today’s proof of yesterday

& the war you succumbed to. 

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Jide Badmus - Afrocritik
Nigerian poet and author, Jide Badmus

This is not to say the echo of the voice in the privacy of a cabinhouse is futile and less trenchant than the thump and whump of the voice on the mountaintop. It is not to say that on the note that an echo is an echo, therefore it has no effect on the real. Or that the only thing it can offer and has offered is nothing but so much anger and little or no hopefulness. For in the poem, “Glass”, also in this section, what remains of the beauty that began Obaluaye is exhumed — however stilted, however trite. And at the end of this section, the poet, refusing to polish reality nor subdue it, has presented to us “an unopened bottle of forgiveness on the breakfast” and questions to echo in our minds: Who are we forgiving, and whose forgiveness is it? 

In the section, “Theatre of Absurd”, the writer’s voice says it is ourselves we always have to forgive. There is so much sorrow and angst and vice and hatred, like in “Skinsong”, “but the enemy now wears our skin—/the monster we fight now is within,” until there is a turning point. In “Bloodsong”, the idea of fighting the enemy within is pushed further. It contrasts hate and anguish with love and patriotism, asking questions of how one can function in the eyes of the other:

Can laughter breathe in a land submerged in blood 

—where silence is prelude to pounding metals & shattered bodies?

Can the earth grow souls from young bodies planted in them—

won’t hatred sprout from a field that once bred warmth?

(Read also: Khadija Abdalla Bajaber’s The House of Rust Is a Story of Myths, Fantasies and Quests)

But can one say that this collection is pacifist? Absolutely not. Because in the absurdity of it all, the poet has given us the choice to determine how we understand hatred and how we understand patriotism. In the last line of “Blood Song”, the word “field” functions in two ways, which personalises and generalises the message. “Field” as in our individual hearts, or as in Nigeria as a nation. 

The eponymous section “Obaluaye”,  is where the poet seems to find a mid-level, a negotiated ground, if you may, between the good and bad, beauty and decay, docility and rebelliousness. It is there the invocation is complete. The last three lines of the last poem in the entire collection which is also titled “Obaluaye” begs: 

The world is hungry for light.

The streets 

are dying for your healing sweep.

It invokes light from Obaluaye, the god of healing and infirmities; selfless activity from civil sleepers, accountability from the government, and from us all. It asks nothing, but presents the question of hatred and pessimism, or self-love and work. This collection refuses summarisation, and it cannot be, but can be read and re-read to feel the texture of its angst and to hear its melody. 

 

Isaiah Adepoju’s debut novel is out with Abibiman Publishers, UK, this year. A fellow of Ebedi International Writers Residency, and UNDERTOW Poetry Fellowship, London, he will present a poetry performance at Lipfest 2023. Reach him: adepojuisaiahgbenga@gmail.com 

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