A year and half ago, I arrived at my mother’s house to find a visitor from Lagos. He carried a gift for my mother – an anthology of poems edited, and autographed, by Odia Ofiemun. I picked up Lagos of the Poets, intending to leaf through at the time and the book has not left my possession since then. It has never spent a night at my mother’s house. I think she asked for it once, I took it to her house and brought it back to mine on the same day. It’s good she understands how these things work because this book is mine. I thank the poet, Odia Ofeimun!
Sometimes, the possibility of a thing never crosses one’s mind until you behold it. And then of course!, an anthology of poems about Lagos seems the most natural thing. Because it has really existed all this time, not in this physical form but in the space of Nigerian literature, in the hearts of Lagosians. That Odia Ofeimun should edit this collection is fitting.
Ofiemun begins the introduction to Lagos of the Poets with:
“I came to Lagos from Benin City in 1969, projectedly, on my way to Ghana. I was nineteen years old. My greatest assets, by my own reckoning, were the handful of poems in my handbag… But as fate would have it, I never arrived until twenty four years later. It took me such a long time to get there because I was literally overcome and arrested by our city of the lagoon”
Again, from the introduction:
“If becoming a Lagosian is not about primordial sap, it is certainly about choice; you are only a Lagosian to the extent you no longer take other cities, other towns or domiciles as a primary definition of identity. At worst, it is about taking the city as the Archmedian standpoint for the dreams and pursuits of everyday life. Becoming a Lagoisian, therefore, I learnt to personalize the city. It became simply my city by the lagoon, as I would write in poem after poem. It gave back, in more than a winking measure, whatever I gave to her. Good times and bad times make hardly the difference. They inspired a peculiar loyalty, the kind that continues to make Lagos the place to stay, the place to go and return to, but not the place to get away from. As every Lagosian knows, both bounties and hardships impose on all-comers the need to prove loyalty to the city. After you are lagosed, wherever else you travel, the city tags along.”
Lagos of the Poets is a feast; 113 poets have contributed hundreds of poems covering various aspects and all manners of relationships to the city. I’ve had a hard time (as usual) selecting a poem to feature. So I decided: (1) to post two poems on two separate days and (2) to feature both an older and a younger poet.
I’ve chosen the editor, Odia Ofeimun, from among his cohorts of Soyinka, JP Clark, Okara and others.
A West African poet for today’s 21 Days/21 Poems.
There are nine poems by Odia Ofeimun in Lagos of the Poets. Initially, I wanted to post ‘Self Portrait of a Lagosian’ for its touching portrayal of a Lagosian against a backdrop of totalitarianism. It begins with:
“You, you traveled to your old Maroko of the mind
before the Slum Clearance Act overcame the seething swamps
with futurist architecture: you met the friend
that you have always been to yourself, wearing his knowledge
of your rise and fall with the finality of a fatwa”
And ends with:
“you may wonder whether the season is right for a feast
this feast your life was always consecreted to make a day for;
between fears turned into style and bad habits raised as song;
you may have to decide whether the season has ripened enough
to have a feast by yourself and with yourself. But have a feast!”
But I settled on ‘Lagoon’ for it’s hard to miss the Lagoon in both the city and the poems in celebration of Lagos.
I let the lagoon speak for my memory
though offended by water hyacinth
waste and nightsoil…
I still let the Lagoon reclaim
the seduction of a land moving
with the desire of a sailing ship
pursuing a known star
The Lagoon speaks
like a foetus remembering the future,
listening from the depths of formless song
for the Words that break
against the voyages of discovery
in the discovery of voyages
My Lagoon speaks!
gateway and storehouse; never dry,
in regatta floats hauling epic seasons
in floods that take over
the lordly garbage of our alleys
after the rains
have registered their pity
I let the Lagoon speak for my memory
to teach me how to scoff
at the lines drawn on water
to divide the earth
I let the Lagoon teach me
to forget street names
in order to gulp whole cities
like a glass of kola wine.
– by Odia Ofeimun
From Lagos of the Poets, edited by Odia Ofeimun, published by Hornbill House, Lagos 2010