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The Portrayal of Place, Dream, and History in Tares Oburumu’s “Origin of Syma Species”

The Portrayal of Place, Dream, and History in Tares Oburumu’s “Origin of Syma Species”

Tares Oburumu’s Origin of Syma Species - review - Afrocritik

Oburumu’s engagement with his poetic devices is impressive, and although his poems in this collection possess chaotic characteristics, they portray the world of Syma as an interesting beginning, and they branch out interestingly to other worlds as it surrounds the poet.

By Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera 

Of all artists, it is generally perceived that the poet is more privy to being cryptic. More than any other art form is often poetry which defies subjective interpretation and gives credence the most to various human perspectives of seeing things. The works of a poet are not primarily meant to be objectively understood — there are other art forms for that. The work of a poet, with its use of imagery and description, capturing fleeting moments of the human condition that no other art form can hold — all through language — affords us glimpses into the world, or the mind of the poet, and takes the reader on a journey through that world, able to arouse deep emotions and even transformation.

In Tares Oburumu’s Origin of Syma Species, we are shown the world of a poet who writes looking from the window of time stationed at the moment, overlooking the past to which he often looks back, and headed to the present where he looks towards. In the past, there is his birth town, a riverine area named Syma, from where the collection gets its name. There is his childhood where he went fishing with his mother in Syma, and there is the relocation to Lagos where the poet lived with his family for a time. There is the birth of his daughter, Sasha, afterwards in Syma, and there is life afterwards, as shaped by these events.  There is the reality of life dawning on the poet, and him capturing the heart of his experiences in his poems. 

Origins of the Syma Species - Tares Oburumu - Afrocritik

Oburumu begins from the focal point of his experiences, as they stretch their tentacles towards a global lens. The poet begins from his personal experiences but is not limited by them. He  writes from a terrain that poets like Gabriel Okara and JP Clark wrote from, but he writes differently from them due to a different stream of influence.

In “Emerging”, the opening poem of the collection, Oburumu describes the heart of the events as they happen to him, which lead to the birth of the myriad of poems in this collection. “The night enters my solitude through the Romani clock on my wall;/ a warm circle of lamp gives light to the thousand words before me…/ The window opens a new river,/ a still bed accentuates the meaning of sleep at the far end.” Here, it illustrates how the poet’s surroundings speak to him and probe through memory to open a window which reveals a new stream. “My mind like fingers flips through the people,/ their historical facts, wars, the geography of love…” 

Throughout the collection, Oburumu explores the past, as a tribute to the present in which the poem is conceived. In “My Father’s Last Hope for Water”, the poet writes, “There is a pianist that understands how the river flows this rainy season,/…My father is the origin of all violins.” Here, the poet is preoccupied with the connection he has with his memory of his father and has a penchant for tracing his memorial footprints back to his paternal origins. When he looks back at the origin of his poetry originating from him as music, he looks at his father. When he looks forward, he looks at his daughter. The poet’s journey, marked by difficulties, is represented here by a metaphor of a dark tunnel as he emerges, foreshadows that of his daughter, as he muses about her journey. “What if there is no light at the end,/ will Sasha still call it a tunnel, or passage? That is the north we are indebted to/ the moon in the dream we have been looking for.” And although the challenges of his own life have influenced him, he is hopeful for the future of his daughter. Her presence in his poetry brings light. 

In the following poem, he writes about guiding his Sasha as they watch the movie, A Beautiful Mind, which tells the story of John Nash, the schizophrenic mathematician who won the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in Game Theory. “Star works overcome my daughter’s heartbeat,/ exulting the scream: I want my delusion, her cry.” Inspired by Nash’s madness which foreshadowed his genius, his daughter cries for her own brand of madness. This sends the poet to contemplate how the mix of Nash’s madness and genius correlates with one of his biggest influences, Vincent Van Gogh. He writes, “How do I put off the light from Vincent’s fame/ on the same subject, wondering how I could live with the question to the end, as did Alicia, till Stockholm rained the more artistic lights the fireflies bred from Princeton.” It is the mark of a poet to analyse issues, not by dismissing them for their absurdities, but by recognising that absurdity can be the starting point of a deeper meaning. This is what Oburumu does, he realises from his daughter’s craving for her own version of craze, the thin and worrisome trend in which he has observed in some of his heroes. And he doesn’t worry about his daughter, but about the level of struggle it would take to stand by her as Nash’s wife did in the movie.

Oburumu’s poetry also pays homage to his great influences especially Gwendolyn Brooks, from whose works, he seemed to have learnt the art of creating poetry from the struggles of the ordinary people which surround his life and illuminate the extraordinary experiences such people can have on the art of a poet. Also evident is the influence of the poet, Christopher Okigbo, and the incantatory quality of his poem. Brooks inspires the poem, “Acts of a Green House”, but in the poem, one can hear the drums that often accompany  Okigbo’s poetry. In part of the poem titled Acts 1:4, he writes, “Take my hand & give its map back to me,/ O precious Lord,/… Lead me not into the goodbye waters,/ man at the liquid bothers/ O baptismal flight…” Here the poet reproduces Okigbo’s imagery of being at the crossroads between River Idoto and Heavensgate and reciting the labyrinths. 

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The final poem of Origin of Syma Species, “Altar”, pays homage to Derek Walcott’s “Love After Love.” While Walcott’s poem, simple and moving, seeks to evoke the change in a person recognising and celebrating themselves, Oburumu’s poem explores the transformation through which one becomes an object of adulation, an altar. Perhaps, this is one of the flaws of Oburumu’s poetry, that as good as it is, it sometimes goes deeper into its subject matter than is necessary. Oburumu’s poem is more difficult to grasp than Walcott’s, it attempts to go in deeper, and yet is less powerful. 

In the league of his generation of poets from Nigeria, Oburumu is perhaps the finest cartographer of place and history. His subject matter borrows from simple subjects, yet they are not simple. In this way, Oburumu performs one of the foremost duties of poets; bringing out the mystical in the familiar. It goes without saying that Oburumu’s poetry could do with a bit more simplicity since they are often deeply steeped in stories. Stories that extend from the personal to impersonal, also bordering on socially conscious issues. 

Oburumu’s engagement with his poetic devices is impressive, and although his poems in this collection possess chaotic characteristics, they portray the world of Syma as an interesting beginning, and they branch out interestingly to other worlds as it surrounds the poet. They show the characters of the poet’s origin, in a stream of the poet’s consciousness, and also portray the toughness of gliding against the currents that accompany this stream. In “How to Love the Boats” he writes, “Swimming is the only give we have, the only way to write us/ out of shipwreck.” Here he notes that the act of writing poems, of being a poet, of capturing his experiences, is an act of swimming against the tides in his stream of experiences, and his poetry is evidence of his survival.

Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera is a writer and journalist. His debut novel, Loss is an Aftertaste of Memories is forthcoming in May by Mmuta Books. Follow him on Twitter @Chukwuderaedozi

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