The Po­etry Of Joe Ushie

The Guardian (Nigeria) - - THE GUARDIAN LITERARY SERIES 51 - By Ro­manus Aboh

ONE of Nige­ria’s finest writer-schol­ars, Joe Ushie was born shortly be­fore Nige­ria’s in­de­pen­dence to his agrar­ian par­ents at Ako­r­shie, Bendi in the Oban­liku Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment Area of Cross River State. He be­longs to the group of Nige­rian po­ets gen­er­ally re­ferred to as “third-gen­er­a­tion” po­ets. His agrar­ian back­ground later, in myr­iad ways, shaped his lex­i­cal con­fig­u­ra­tion as ev­i­dent in his pre­pon­der­ant use of na­ture-based im­agery. A prod­uct of Cal­abar and Ibadan uni­ver­si­ties in Nige­ria, he cur­rently lec­tures at the Depart­ment of English, Univer­sity of Uyo in Akwa Ibom State. Ushie is re­mark­able for his crit­i­cal un­der­tones on the so­ciopo­lit­i­cal con­di­tion in Nige­ria and safrica. His back­ground ex­erts in­flu­ence on his works, which are ex­per­i­men­tal in terms of lin­guis­tic ex­plo­ration of dis­course-prag­matic fea­tures, which, them­selves, draw from his im­me­di­ate so­ci­ety.

Be­sides demon­strat­ing a good mas­tery of the use of the English lan­guage, and dis­tin­guish­ing him­self in both lit­er­ary and lin­guis­tic cir­cles, Ushie is one Nige­rian aca­demic and poet who has been in­volved in cham­pi­oning the cause of the or­di­nary man. Nige­ria’s Cross River State hon­oured him for his ex­cep­tional con­tri­bu­tion to the growth and sur­vival of African lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture in the Mil­len­nial Cel­e­bra­tion of 2000.

A mem­ber of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Nige­rian Au­thors and a diehard when it has to do with the con­cerns of the “or­di­nary” man, Ushie’s ac­tive lead­er­ship roles both at the Univer­sity of Uyo Branch and at the na­tional ex­ec­u­tive level of the Aca­demic Staff Union of Uni­ver­si­ties (ASUU) led to fric­tion be­tween him and the man­age­ment of his univer­sity. In spite of this and as one who be­lieves that the hu­man­i­ties must not lose its hu­man­ity, he has con­tin­ued to serve his univer­sity in many ca­pac­i­ties. Be­cause of his lin­guis­tic cal­i­bra­tion of ideas and en­gage­ment with hu­man is­sues, Ushie’s works have en­joyed a gamut of schol­arly crit­i­cisms both by stu­dents and es­tab­lished aca­demics within and out­side the coun­try.

The bulk of the dis­cus­sion on Ushie’s po­etry has con­cen­trated on how he cap­tures the de­plet­ing eco-sys­tem. While this is jus­ti­fi­able in the sense that some of his po­ems (par­tic­u­larly the col­lec­tion Hill

Songs) are con­cerned with how hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties de­stroy the ecol­ogy, it can also lead to un­jus­ti­fi­ably neg­a­tive con­clu­sions about his writ­ings. There are di­verse themes that are given due at­ten­tion in Ushie’s po­etry. So it will not be very ap­pro­pri­ate to re­duce his writ­ings to ec­o­crit­i­cism. It can equally well be ar­gued that his pre­oc­cu­pa­tion in po­etry goes much be­yond eco-crit­i­cism.

Ushie is an eru­dite, pro­lific as well as polem­i­cal poet. His writ­ings ad­e­quately mir­ror his unshakable de­ter­mi­na­tion to lib­er­ate his peo­ple from plun­der­ing so­ciopo­lit­i­cal ar­range­ments in his coun­try and Africa as a whole. Since his po­etic ex­pe­di­tion in the early 1990s, Ushie’s po­etry has con­tin­ued to la­ment the sys­temic cor­rup­tion and abuse of power which causes the gap be­tween the rich and the poor to widen even fur­ther. From his de­but poem,

Popular stand through Eclipse in Rwanda to Hill Songs – his well-re­ceived col­lec­tion, the theme of man’s in­hu­man­ity to man has been the core of his po­etic dis­course. The poem “Homo Sap­pers”, for ex­am­ple, ques­tions in­jus­tice in hu­man so­ci­ety: My sword of words un­sheathed, I ask/sad­dled with rest­less tes­ti­cles/when has the dog stran­gled his loved one? Be­ing out­spo­kenly in­volved in the af­fairs of the mass ma­jor­ity, the de­hu­man­iza­tion of the peo­ple by the state and its co­er­cive forces of op­pres­sion and the pitiable wail­ings of the peo­ple thereof, nat­u­rally be­comes the pond from which Ushie fishes and con­structs his po­etic vi­sion. In the at­tempt to tell us how he is typ­i­cally con­cerned about the un­end­ing suf­fer­ing of the mass ma­jor­ity, the poet writes:

From ev­ery street I can hear the cry of the widow

from ev­ery street I can hear the wail/ of the or­phan

from ev­ery street I can hear the groan of the weak.

As the above cited poem pro­gresses, Ushie’s use of lan­guage be­comes quite prag­matic, as it shifts from merely “record­ing” the var­i­ous wail­ings of the peo­ple to re­sent­ing “those gour­mands” who de­light in the plea­sure of in­flict­ing hard­ship on the peo­ple. The poet’s semi­otic con­fig­u­ra­tion of ideas be­comes in­ex­cus­ably ten­den­tious, a ves­tige of the deca­dent and treach­er­ous politico-eco­nomic ar­range­ment that is nudg­ing his peo­ple to the brink of an­ni­hi­la­tion. Fol­low­ing the poet’s point of view, it will be morally out of place for any cre­ative ex­er­cise to ig­nore the suf­fer­ing of the peo­ple, hence in “My Head,” Ushie as­serts his de­ter­mi­na­tion to be the spokesper­son of the peo­ple. He tells us:

My head is a vast king­dom preg­nant with rev­o­lu­tions … be­cause she bears the brain that weighs our street’s woes.

We are made to see how his “head” be­comes the weigh that mea­sures the peo­ples’ hard­ship, hard­ship in­formed by man’s con­tin­u­ing cal­lous dis­re­gard for fol­low man. It the can be said that the peo­ple’s agony has left in­erad­i­ca­ble traces in his writ­ings. Hence, any po­etic en­deavor, so far as Ushie is con­cerned, is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive if a poet’s com­po­si­tion fails to reflect on the predica­ment of the peo­ple. It be­comes ob­vi­ous that any con­vinc­ing ex­pli­ca­tion of Ushie’s po­etic use of lan­guage must be done in line with the con­text of hu­man is­sues from which they em­anate. This is con­nected with the fact that his po­ems are pri­mar­ily con­cerned with the plight of the ag­o­nis­ing mass ma­jor­ity.

Stylis­ti­cally demon­strat­ing how lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture are mu­tu­ally re­in­forc­ing, Ushie uses lex­i­cal trun­ca­tion to cap­ture the grim ex­is­tence of the peo­ple in “The Ex­change” thus:

Be­neath the lush fo­liage of the sand mango tree, we take our turns- old men, old women, ladies; then ba­bies, each brand-ish­ing a bro­ken fem-ur, a shat­tered le-g bone, a col-lasped shoul­der joi-nt, a tensed shine bone, a twisted an­kle- all ready for the bone smith’s anvil of palms.

The sig­nif­i­cance of such ne­ol­o­gism or ver­bal re­source­ful­ness is its cin­e­matic pre­sen­ta­tion of the peo­ple’s dis­mem­ber­ment from the com­mon­wealth. The poet’s lex­i­cal trun­ca­tion there­fore cap­tures in a far reach­ing man­ner a sys­temic ef­fort by the op­pres­sor to shat­ter the

dreams as well as the as­pi­ra­tions of the masses.

Ev­i­dently, lan­guage func­tions as an ar­moury of ideas which Ushie re­lies on to rail against the king-ruler and his agents of dom­i­na­tion who im­pose a rigid vi­sion on the peo­ple. Ushie’s un­apolo­getic de­ter­mi­na­tion to use his po­ems to free the peo­ple from the strag­gling grips of the op­pres­sor makes him in the poem “Song of Sisy­phus” to ex­press his to­tal com­mit­ment to en­gage his po­etry as a chan­nel to con­front in­jus­tice and suf­fer­ing in ev­ery nook and cranny it is heard. He asks: How can I change my song/ when the claws of that leop­ard/ on the throne are deep in the/ flesh of our clan’s sheep still/ ad­min­is­ter­ing a tiered death? The poet makes his mes­sage clear: if there is any­thing worth “singing,” it is to frontally con­front the bru­tal king-ruler with bru­tal lin­guis­tic ex­pres­sions: “claws of that leop­ard,” “tiered death,” “cursed hands,” “gods of war,” “pests,” “rav­age” and “swords”; and em­pa­thy-laden lin­guis­tic items: “flesh of our clan’s sheep,” “our throats,” “our green fields,” and “our nat­u­ral shield,” to shed light on the peo­ple’s des­ti­tu­tion. This abil­ity to nav­i­gate be­tween two ex­treme di­vides within a tight semi­otic space is one fea­ture of lin­guis­tic crafts­man­ship that has marked Ushie out as one of Africa’s finest post-in­de­pen­dence po­ets.

It is im­por­tant to note that as “that leop­ard on the throne” con­tin­ues to lux­u­ri­ate in the grandeur of ab­so­lute power at the grave ex­pense of the mass ma­jor­ity who wal­low in un­ut­ter­able poverty, the poet’s re­solve to re­sist the beas­t­ial­i­sa­tion of the peo­ple be­comes much more force­ful. Again, in “Song of Sisy­phus,” the poet con­firms that: I can­not stop crow­ing aloud this song/ un­til the cock pays its ter­mi­nal toll to na­ture. / I will sing, I will sing, I will sing same song life­long (13). The care­ful han­dling of na­ture-re­lated im­agery makes the poet’s mes­sage much more sim­plis­tic and com­pre­hen­si­ble. It is worth men­tion­ing that as the tyrant de­vises strate­gies to re­main in power, Ushie’s lin­guis­tic con­fig­u­ra­tion al­ters in or­der to ably por­tray such an­tics.

Against this back­drop, the worth­less­ness of lit­er­a­ture (po­etry in this in­stance), be­comes ob­vi­ous if it fails to reflect on hu­man prob­lems as well as prof­fer so­lu­tions to the iden­ti­fied prob­lems. While it will be­gin to seem as though the poet’s pri­mary aim of po­et­i­cis­ing is to pro­voke the pop­u­lace to take rad­i­cal and vi­o­lent ac­tions against the state, Ushie, in the poem “Verse, not blood” suc­cinctly tells us, through ef­fec­tive han­dling of ad­ver­bial clauses and terse de­on­tic modals, of his po­etic vi­sion which is pri­mar­ily to el­e­vate the bro­ken spirit, en­cour­age the weak, bring peace to the trou­bled, and give hope to the hope­less:

I’ll spill, all ways, verse, not blood when hunger haunts when penury taunts/ when health goes gaunt (75)

In an apt prag­matic util­i­sa­tion of the re­sources of lan­guage, Ushie suc­ceeds in re­it­er­at­ing the ex­is­ten­tial role of the poet: the moral barom­e­ter, the con­science of so­ci­ety, the voice of the voice­less and the bearer of light to ar­eas of dark­ness. The poet is also an archive. Hav­ing in mind the moral re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of po­ets, “Town Crier” dis­ap­proves of po­ets whose po­etic en­gage­ments work to sab­o­tage th­ese pri­mor­dial func­tions: Haba, town crier. how much is your gain? / We watch your tongue, a river-bed for the/ gush­ing flood of end­less dou­ble-talk. / How much is your pain? / How much is your gain? (14) Need­less to say, while other po­ets com­pose with the mo­tive of mak­ing per­sonal gain at the ex­pense of the peo­ple’s se­vere pain, and given the fact that he pitches his tent with his pri­mary con­stituency, the peo­ple, Ushie, in “Po­etry on ex­ile,” in­ti­mates us that his ra­tio­nale for writ­ing po­etry is his de­sire for po­etry: to beam down its rays/for man to find his path (77).

Th­ese lines, which sum up this op­er­a­tional con­fla­tion of cre­ative moral­ity and semi­otic imag­i­na­tion, are sim­i­lar to the colos­sal con­fes­sions of the bi­b­li­cal King David. In Psalm 119:105. David pays obei­sance to the supremacy of the Word: Thy word is lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. Im­plic­itly, po- etry (word) is light that shines on the dark­ened paths of hu­man­ity. Thus, the lu­mi­nous func­tion of po­etry to hu­mankind can hardly be un­der­mined. Ushie goes on to clar­ify that any at­tempt to un­der­es­ti­mate the in­can­des­cent rays of po­etry is to al­low hu­man­ity to floun­der in un­end­ing dark­ness.

While an an­a­lyst of Ushie’s po­etry would be car­ried away by his word­smith and lin­guis­tic cal­i­bra­tion of ideas, the an­a­lyst must not un­der­mine the ide­o­log­i­cal thrust of his lin­guis­tic prac­tice. Ide­o­log­i­cally, lan­guage, in any sit­u­a­tion, must per­form its lib­er­at­ing­moral func­tion, and for lan­guage to do so, it must be writ­ten in sim­plis­tic and re­al­is­tic man­ner. We should not, even in pass­ing, un­der­es­ti­mate or ne­glect the sig­nif­i­cance of the act of imag­i­na­tive re­dis­cov­ery which this con­cep­tion of lin­guis­tic sim­plic­ity en­tails, es­pe­cially in the face of cal­lous abuse of power and pur­pose­ful dom­i­na­tion of the peo­ple by an oli­garchic in­sti­tu­tion. So do­ing, Ushie projects the idea that po­etry, through the prag­ma­ti­sa­tion of lan­guage, is our most es­sen­tial in­stru­ment in our or­gan­i­sa­tion of ex­pe­ri­ences and mem­o­ries. Thus, in “Verse, not blood,” he em­pha­sizes the in­dis­pens­abil­ity of po­etry in in­ter­pret­ing our sur­round­ings as we make as­so­ci­a­tions and when we ex­press our in­ner­most feel­ings; he says: Some verse to store our tears

Hard though the times (75)

Be­sides en­trench­ing the idea that po­etry and ex­pe­ri­ence operate si­mul­ta­ne­ously at mul­ti­ple lay­ers, the car­di­nal mes­sage com­mu­ni­cated is that po­etry is the han­dle of to­mor­row.

Ushie’s po­etic writ­ings, there­fore, of­fer ca­pa­cious in­sights into the link be­tween the writer’s imag­i­na­tion and the semi­otic re-con­fig­u­ra­tion of so­cial re­al­ity, ex­em­pli­fy­ing the in­sep­a­ra­ble meet­ing point be­tween lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture. He has con­tin­ued to show un­re­lent­ing in­ter­est in the things that con­cern the “or­di­nary” peo­ple. His acute ex­am­i­na­tion of fear, ex­treme anx­i­ety, restive­ness and rel­a­tive pow­er­less­ness of the peo­ple goes a long way to­ward hu­man­is­ing the daily strug­gles of many Nige­ri­ans/africans who scav­enge to sur­vive in the midst of abun­dance. Ushie’s po­etic sen­si­bil­i­ties run the en­tire gamut of the tropes of the dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions of Nige­rian po­etry. His poly­va­lent voice echoes Christo­pher Okigbo as much as Wole Soyinka and John Pep­per Clark. His iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the op­pressed re­calls the in­dict­ing protest which pul­sates in the po­etry of Niyi Osun­dare. His eco-con­scious­ness finds in­ter-tex­tual links in the po­etry of Ta­nure Ojaide. Ushie’s po­etry is a mo­saic of the Nige­rian po­etic imag­i­na­tion.

•Dr. aboh teaches in the depart­ment of English, univer­sity ofu yo.

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