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Movement and Reclaiming Humanity from Historical Pain: A Review of Romeo Oriogun’s Nomad

Emmanuel Esomnofu



In the poem “Cotonou” first published in the New Yorker,  Romeo Oriogun meets a character, Trolley, “named for his expertise in flinging humans across borders,” which means he facilitates that life-changing activity called migration.


Nomad (Griots Lounge), Oriogun’s second collection of poems, won the 2022 Nigerian Prize for Literature. It interrogates movement and also asks pertinent questions about history especially how it spills into everyday life. Indeed, borders hoist the narrative anchor and personal inflections within this sprawling body of work, advancing poetics Oriogun showed in his debut volume, Sacrament of Bodies


That book established Oriogun as an important voice in that cross-cultural relationship between Africa and the Diaspora. Poignantly rendered, its images were colourful explorations of queer life stamped into memory through Oriogun’s lucid language. More than anything, it revealed Oriogun’s growing detachment from the voice in his work as a perceptive observer rather than an active presence. In Nomad, he’s at his most observational, a condition occasioned by his traveller status. When novelty replaces the familiar, one learns to ask questions to seek existing stories of one’s present location.


His debut chapbook, Burnt Men, was inspired by the gruesome killing of a gay man in Southwest Nigeria. Then working as a Federal Road Safety Corps Marshall, Oriogun at the mercy of bad government roads. Those poignant poems won him the prestigious Brunel Prize, which, in turn, led to the publication of his second chapbook, The Origin of Butterflies, in 2018.


Nomad opens with “The Beginning,” a poem that references the “weight of a country.” Oriogun charts the journey of leaving one’s home. The atmosphere is pensive and recalls the urgency of Kwesi Brew’s masterful poem “The Mesh,” We have come to the crossroads/And I must either leave or come with you. Here language wrestles with trauma, and considers the “sudden silence wherein an old world is lost,” and in its place,  a “new world is created and in leaving we seek the unfurling of new wings, the naming of new cities.”


Why is it important to name cities? Perhaps it’s the sense of familiarity that comes with knowing that important detail, or it could be a stab of curiosity, but for Romeo, it’s weightier. As he moves deeper in his journey within West Africa, history emerges from the unfamiliar. Face to face with people and places, humanity’s shared tragedies are laid bare before the poet. He is compassionate, but he’s also truthful. When suffering is represented, it isn’t with the removed gaze of confronting an ‘Other’. Indeed, he notes that “so much terror depends on movement,” as he writes in the opening verse of “The World Demands from Us Our Existence.” Much like Teju Cole in Black Paper, he observes how people trudge on in the wake of catastrophic events, personal or communal. Even with Oriogun’s glorious perspective, there’s yet a devastating atmosphere running through the poem, with images like “the lone bird perched on a lamp” which precedes the realization that “the river is empty, yet mercy lives in its currents.”


“Still,” writes Oriogun, “I love this life, our broken roads”. He’d rather share the burden of knowledge rather than live without the kinetic joy of movement. Much of Nomad grapples with this awareness even as he frequently questions the ethics of his claim to the stories of other people. In becoming a credible character, Oriogun brings up his mother’s birthplace in present-day Edo state, but within the ruins of the great Benin kingdom. He explores the riveting association with its ancient spirituality from the credible standpoint of a progeny.


Urban landscapes are evoked, as in “Late December in Abidjan” where “loudspeakers [are] blaring the latest song from Tanzania,” a free-handed commentary on the continental intersection of sounds, moving in a continuum because we’re the same people after all. But it is the continent’s far-reaching geography that gives Nomad its peculiar edge, not the pop culture references. Water unifies Africans both as a specific reference for the colonial occupation and for its spiritual significance. In one poem, he remembers the “River Ethiope and its bed filled with mirrors thrown in by women who walked miles to ask for joy.” Ships also form an important anchor for the poet’s consideration of the seas, a recurring image in his work. Like buses and his own feet, it’s an extension of the book’s obsession with movement. In the last stanza of “Cotonou,” the word ship appears twice: first as a precursor to “when ancestral masks weep, when rain bears witness to bodies thrown overboard slave ships” and later Oriogun declares: “Even in tears of origin, there is no atonement enough to restore a people lost to a ship’s belly.”


Oriogun often turns to research to evoke details. The book’s early parts richly pair observation with historical information. His mission is to showcase the collective trauma of cities and how much pain is disguised by facades, refracting into the lives of its inhabitants. Where Sacrament considered the after-effects of colonialism through the contemporary manifestations of religion and its bias against queer people, Nomad directly interrogates the language of violence. Violence becomes a propulsive force in the book, uniting Africans underneath the umbrella of postcolonial pain. But pain isn’t depicted for just its sentimental value; there are moments where it becomes a mirror for Oriogun to reflect on his own struggles, the philosophical restlessness that leads him onto the welcoming arms of roads. “Sorrow,” he writes, “lives at the beginning of love, at the beginning of our freedom.”


From Bamako to Timgad, Kolmanskop, Aba and of course Benin, the lively cities within the book works to amplify its amble poise of a travelogue. Freedom emerges from Oriogun’s peregrinations within Africa where the characters he meets are his tour guides - portals of entry. In Nadoba, they meet a “drunk man [who] sang to us of terror” and as the poem progresses, his peculiar loneliness assumes universal relevance because “when the man sings, he is mourning his ancestors, he is mourning his children [and] he is mourning love”. Ancestors, children; the past carries as much pain as the future, Oriogun seems to say.


When he moves close to Nigeria, the poems acquire a visceral reaction to events Oriogun shares a more direct relationship with. Living in Ikare and Nsukka before he announced himself on the poetic scene with Burnt Men, those places inspire poems of their own. Considering its genealogy of the Biafran War, southern Nigeria carries particular significance in Nomad.


“Under The Mango Tree” opens with an account of Ben Okafor, a reggae musician who was twelve when the war started: the boys had their eyes dug out and were sent back to Biafra. The poem moves from the riveting image of a father trying to escape a war zone with his son tucked under his shirt. Years after the ingenuity of keeping the child in the safety of a tree branch, that same beneficiary of mental doggedness, the willingness to survive in any terms, asks: “What if those hands made soft by music were the same hands that held a boy during the war and shoved a bayonet in his eyes?”


The most transcendental of such poems is “Remembrance,” where Oriogun considers the Asaba massacre. As with the several instances of injustice meted out by the government against its citizens, there’s a realization in the consciousness of the present generation that Nigeria seldom qualifies in its desire to be called a country. Fractured by the spilling of innocent blood, its landscape is like a “door unhinged, cobwebs writing history on bare walls.” Pairing the predicament of cities, Oriogun creates a network of histories and parses them through the filter of his uncompromising language.


Nonfiction has an interesting relationship with poetry. Their primary sensibility is to bear witness and the poet’s immersion into language bleeds into the weight of his observation. Across its decades-long existence, Nigerian poetry has reflected some ideals of the form, turning realism on its head to make important statements on social realities. However, there have been few books as this one where the boundaries between poetry and nonfiction are blurred. Where his earlier books were more demonstrative of the body’s complexities, Nomad follows a primarily Western-established tradition where the external world holds central fascination for the poet. In this sense, it is a novel achievement in our poetry, but that’s a precursor to its flaws as much as it’s a strength of the poems.


In the book’s early parts, characterization is an important feature. Trolley, like many other characters, is important because he doesn’t embody perfection. Rather, he’s someone who would be considered morally bankrupt, as he’s a trafficker of girls who “suffers in the coldness of brothels”. And, not unlike a journalist would, Romeo asks: Do you feel shame? He answered, I desire beauty. In its pursuit, there is no end, only ruthlessness. It’s the sort of response that would be given by David Lurie, the protagonist of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace; aiming at the philosophical, but morally ambiguous. The poems in Nomad carry that ambiguity, the question being posed: Does the end justify the means? 


One poem tells us, in the intimate style of a trained observer, that “behind this market of oysters, there was once a market for flesh, in Ouidah,” which places a stamp on the voodoo-inspired animal selling that’s been reported in the historical kingdom in present-day Benin Republic. “At Lagos Polo Club” showcases that observational clarity, following the lives of horses and tracing them alongside the humans who’ve been here, and what the imagery meant for them. The serene language evokes the beauty of upscale Lagos, but there’s wildness in its stories, one of such being “colonial officers who rode the flesh of both man and beast.” Here there is no easy resolution.


As the poems lengthen, the imagery become weaker, and the depth which characterized the earlier poems is lost. In “The Gathering of Bastards,” a poem named after Oriogun’s latest collection of poetry, there’s the invocation of how “the sea mirrors the sky [and] a boat boy wolfs down his dinner,” which says little beyond an atmospheric coloring, while the attempt to depict danger through “the sun [which] has entered its slow sleep”— but the accompanying image — of “an eagle [that] has just left the sea” neither express any specificity of feeling nor an ambiguous purposefulness. And when Oriogun says “We are closer to death than we know,” it’s a hard-hitting sentiment which we’ll perhaps agree with, but that claim isn’t supported by the rest of the poem. Excluding some poems, especially those approaching the one hundred page mark, would have resulted in a tighter collection.


“All sentences are victims of time,” Oriogun writes. Insight into this perspective is offered throughout Nomad, but few poems explore this better than those where he turns to himself. He looks at himself in different ways; a traveler, a child of history, a poet, and, most importantly considering the book’s centering of cities, Oriogun is a child of Benin Kingdom. When he considers this, it’s with the recognition of how far he’s gone in the search for wonder, for the fullness of experience that is the hunger for roads and their destinations.


A personal favorite is “The Sea Letters,” where he writes from Tallahassee in the United States of America. “From the window sunlight pierce the bodies of clouds,” he writes in the first line, a poise that never departs from the poem. Bringing the natural world into view, each line progressively runs into the next, and the sensibility is tender, almost visceral. Consider this movement: “the trees/ too far for me to know their names/stand so slender/eyelashes in God’s eyes”. Beyond the slant cadence, the sea-like motion of the words, it’s the juxtaposition of not knowing and yet the poem becomes richer for it.


In “Mist,” the poet leaves home, where “on the hill of my birth, the houses [lean] into each other like old souls falling into the slow embrace of pity”. But even this restrained language doesn’t give him the joy he thought movement would be. He’s still conflicted, and he knows that something important within him has shifted. The language of departure is exacting:


At my departure I said goodbye, I said welcome,

I said nothing, and Edo turned its back at me,

becoming a stranger I will walk past someday

in a country beyond rivers, then turn

to wonder, where have I seen this face, this kingdom?

Where was my life taken from me?


To survive and indeed thrive through the cascading motions of travel, a nomad needs friends. He needs anchors which return him to the pristine place of his mind. Oriogun has such figures, mentors like Kwame Dawes and poets like Derek Walcott, the ever-present figure of his mother who the book is dedicated to, the warm alliance of his pet, Rouge. These breathing figures stand like monumental structures alongside the historical placement of the places he moves through, creating a communal feeling that counters the heavy atmosphere of what Oriogun describes as daring the ocean and “[moving] into the hands of time”. And even though the book’s last line is devastating —“I suffer, what else is there to do?" — it doesn’t hold the final conviction, because for Oriogun, looking into the eyes of suffering has always been a portal into reclaiming the glory of humanity.

 


 

Emmanuel Esomnofu is a Nigerian writer and culture journalist.

 

 

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