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By Femi Osofisan

The war then was no longer an abstract rumour; it had become a palpable wound. The dying were no longer just numbers or faceless names on the radio; they were known acquaintances and intimate friends.

Okigbo, who hated war, and swore he could not withstand pain, had yet gone into battle, and fallen, like those romantic poets they had studied in school! What tragedy would come next? 

In a kind of tribute, JP, then editor of The Black Orpheus, brought out a special edition, in which we found Okigbo’s last sequence of poems, which everybody thought had been lost with his untimely death. And we read, with astonishment and pain at his uncanny prescience, how much, in these poems entitled Path of Thunder, the poet had attempted to warn us about the approaching catastrophe: 

 

The smell of blood already floats in the lavender-mist of the afternoon.

The death sentence lies in ambush along the corridors of power;

And a great fearful thing already tugs at the cables of the open air,

A nebula immense and immeasurable, a night of deep waters-

An iron dream unnamed and unprintable, a path of stone…

[Okigbo, ‘Come Thunder’, Labyrinths: 66] 

There is even some foreboding about his own imminent fate: 

If I don’t learn to shut my mouth I’ll soon go to hell,

I, Okigbo, town-crier, together with my iron bell. (…)

O mother, mother Earth, unbind me; let this be my last testament; let this be 

The ram’s hidden wish to the sword, the sword’s secret prayer to the scabbard-

THE ROBBERS are back

(Labyrinths:71-2)

 

In‌ ‌‌that‌ ‌‌issue‌ ‌‌too‌,‌ ‌‌JP‌ ‌‌published‌ ‌‌myself‌ ‌‌and‌ ‌‌Saro‌ ‌‌Wiwa‌,‌ ‌‌giving‌ ‌‌us‌ ‌‌exposure‌ ‌in‌ ‌‌an‌ ‌‌international‌ ‌‌journal‌ ‌‌for‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌‌first‌ ‌‌time‌.‌ I ‌‌had‌ ‌‌just‌ ‌‌come‌ ‌‌out‌ ‌‌of‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌‌Higher‌ ‌‌School‌ ‌Certificate‌ ‌‌(‌HSC‌)‌ ‌‌class‌ ‌‌that‌ ‌‌year, and‌ ‌‌had‌ ‌‌met‌ ‌‌Okigbo‌ ‌‌at‌ ‌‌Mbari‌.‌ ‌‌And‌ ‌in‌ ‌‌a‌ ‌‌sudden‌ ‌‌act‌ ‌‌of‌ ‌temerity‌,‌ ‌‌which‌ ‌‌surprised‌ ‌‌even‌ ‌‌me‌ ‌‌afterwards‌,‌ ‌‌I‌ ‌‌had‌ ‌‌walked‌ ‌‌up‌ ‌‌to‌ ‌‌him‌ ‌that‌ ‌‌afternoon‌ ‌‌to‌ ‌complain‌ ‌‌that‌ ‌‌I‌ ‌‌did‌ ‌‌not‌ ‌‌understand‌ ‌‌his‌ ‌‌poems‌!‌ ‌‌To‌ ‌‌my‌ ‌surprise‌,‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌‌great‌ ‌‌poet‌ ‌burst‌ ‌‌out‌ ‌‌in‌ ‌‌prolonged‌ ‌‌laughter‌.‌ ‌‌Then‌ ‌‌he‌ ‌‌put‌ ‌‌his‌ ‌‌arm‌ ‌‌round‌ ‌‌my‌ ‌‌shoulders‌ ‌‌and‌ ‌‌asked‌ ‌me‌ ‌‌to‌ ‌‌follow‌ ‌‌him‌ ‌‌for‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌‌explanations‌ ‌‌I‌ ‌‌needed‌!‌ ‌ ‌

That‌ ‌‌was‌ ‌‌how‌ ‌‌our‌ ‌‌friendship‌ ‌‌began‌.‌ ‌‌In‌ ‌‌those‌ ‌‌few‌ ‌‌months‌ ‌‌before‌ ‌‌he‌ ‌‌left‌ ‌‌for‌ ‌‌Enugu‌ ‌‌for‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌last‌ ‌‌time‌,‌ ‌‌“‌Uncle‌ ‌‌Chris‌”‌ ‌‌would‌ ‌‌drive‌ ‌‌on‌ ‌‌various‌ ‌‌evenings‌ ‌‌all‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌‌way‌ ‌‌to‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌‌GCI‌ ‌compound‌ ‌‌at‌ ‌‌Apata‌ ‌‌Ganga‌ ‌‌where‌ ‌‌I‌ ‌‌lived‌ ‌to‌ ‌‌pick‌ ‌‌me‌ ‌‌up‌,‌ ‌‌even‌ ‌‌as‌ ‌‌young‌ ‌‌and‌ ‌‌naive‌ ‌‌as‌ ‌‌I‌ ‌was‌,‌ ‌‌and‌ ‌‌we‌ ‌‌would‌ ‌‌drive‌ ‌‌out‌ ‌‌to‌ ‌‌talk‌ ‌about‌ ‌‌poetry‌!‌ ‌‌But‌ ‌‌how‌ ‌‌much‌ ‌‌could‌ ‌‌I‌ ‌‌learn‌ ‌‌in‌ ‌‌such‌ ‌‌a‌ ‌brief‌ ‌‌time‌?‌ ‌ ‌

Writer writer writer

Once‌,‌ ‌‌seeing‌ ‌‌tha‌t‌ ‌I‌ ‌‌w‌as‌ ‌‌e‌xasperated‌ ‌‌by‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌‌numerous‌ ‌‌corrections‌ ‌‌he‌ ‌‌had‌ ‌‌made‌ ‌on‌ ‌‌my‌ ‌‌manuscript, ‌ ‌‌Okigbo‌ ‌‌decided‌ ‌‌to‌ ‌‌take‌ ‌‌me‌ ‌‌one‌ ‌‌night‌ ‌‌to‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌‌office‌ ‌‌at‌ ‌‌Mbari‌.‌ ‌‌Then‌,‌ ‌as‌ ‌‌I‌ ‌‌sat‌ ‌‌down‌, ‌ ‌‌he‌ ‌‌gave‌ ‌me‌ ‌‌some‌ ‌‌paper‌ ‌‌and‌ ‌‌seized‌ ‌‌his‌ ‌‌typewriter‌, ‌‌telling‌ ‌‌me‌ ‌‌that‌ ‌‌we‌ ‌were‌ ‌‌both‌ ‌‌going‌ ‌‌to‌ ‌‌spend‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌‌night‌ ‌‌writing‌, ‌ ‌‌and‌ ‌that‌ ‌‌in‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌‌morning‌ ‌‌we‌ ‌‌would‌ ‌‌compare‌ ‌notes‌!‌ ‌‌It‌ ‌‌was‌ ‌‌an‌ ‌‌occasion‌ ‌‌I‌ ‌‌will‌ ‌‌never‌ ‌‌forget‌.‌ ‌‌Of‌ ‌‌course‌ ‌‌I‌ ‌‌soon‌ ‌‌fell‌ ‌‌asleep‌.‌ ‌‌But‌ ‌‌in‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌morning‌,‌ ‌‌when‌ ‌‌he‌ ‌ ‌woke‌ ‌‌me‌ ‌‌up‌,‌ ‌‌there‌ ‌‌were‌ ‌‌several‌ ‌‌rumpled‌ ‌‌sheets‌ ‌‌on‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌‌floor‌ ‌‌around‌ ‌‌him‌,‌ ‌different‌ ‌‌versions‌ ‌‌of‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌‌poem‌ ‌‌he‌ ‌‌had‌ ‌‌composed‌ ‌‌which,‌ ‌‌when‌ ‌‌he‌ ‌‌showed‌ ‌‌it‌ ‌‌to‌ ‌me‌,‌ ‌‌had‌ ‌‌only‌ ‌‌four‌ ‌‌lean‌ ‌‌lines‌!‌ ‌‌Then‌,‌ ‌‌to‌ ‌‌further‌ ‌‌lengthen‌ ‌‌my‌ ‌‌horror‌,‌ ‌‌Uncle‌ ‌‌Chris‌ ‌‌took‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌sheet‌ ‌‌from‌ ‌‌me‌,‌ ‌‌tore‌ ‌‌it‌ ‌‌up‌,‌ ‌‌and‌ ‌said‌ ‌‌it‌ ‌‌was‌ ‌‌not‌ ‌‌good‌ ‌‌enough‌!‌ ‌‌And‌ ‌‌at‌ ‌‌that‌ ‌‌moment‌,‌ ‌‌I‌ ‌understood‌ ‌‌his‌ ‌‌method‌ ‌‌of‌ ‌‌careful‌ ‌distillation‌,‌ ‌‌his‌ ‌‌insistence‌ ‌‌that‌ ‌‌our‌ ‌‌concern‌ ‌should‌ ‌‌be‌ ‌‌for‌ ‌‌“logistics‌/‌ ‌‌Which‌ ‌‌is‌ ‌‌what‌ ‌‌poetry‌ ‌‌is‌.‌”‌ ‌ ‌

 

Screen‌ ‌‌your‌ ‌‌bedchamber‌ ‌‌thoughts‌ ‌‌

with‌ ‌‌sunglasses‌:‌

‌‌who‌ ‌‌could‌ ‌‌jump‌ ‌‌your‌ ‌‌eye‌,‌ ‌‌

your‌ ‌mind‌-‌window‌?‌ ‌ ‌

 

And‌ ‌‌I‌ ‌‌said‌:‌ ‌‌

The‌ ‌‌prophet‌ ‌‌only‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌‌poet‌.‌ ‌‌

And‌ ‌‌he‌ ‌‌said‌:‌ ‌‌Logistics‌.‌

‌‌(‌Which‌ ‌‌is‌ ‌‌what‌ ‌‌poetry‌ ‌is‌)‌..‌.‌ ‌ ‌

[‌’‌Initiations‌’‌,‌ ‌‌Labyrinths‌:‌ ‌‌9‌]‌ ‌ ‌

Okigbo in his house

I‌ ‌‌knew‌ ‌‌I‌ ‌‌had‌ ‌‌to‌ ‌‌mourn‌ ‌‌him‌,‌ ‌‌with‌ ‌‌a‌ ‌‌poem‌.‌ ‌‌At‌ ‌‌that‌ ‌‌time‌ ‌‌I‌ ‌‌had‌ ‌‌not‌ ‌‌known‌ ‌‌JP‌ ‌‌at‌ ‌‌all‌,‌ ‌

except‌ ‌‌from‌ ‌‌a‌ ‌‌distance‌.‌ ‌‌But‌,‌ ‌‌to‌ ‌‌my‌ ‌‌pleasant‌ ‌‌surprise‌,‌ ‌‌he‌ ‌‌published‌ ‌‌my‌ ‌struggling lines:

The favourite month is here again

The month of flowers

And the gathering of in smiles

But the month has come with no corn

And the harvesters

Crowned with laurels last season

 

He lies now under a bleached tree

Corpse among corpses

With only lead in his skull

With no emblem of remembrance, he lies

In‌ ‌‌a‌ ‌‌hidden‌,‌ ‌‌hollow‌ ‌‌

Corner‌ ‌‌like‌ ‌‌a‌ ‌‌dead‌ ‌‌clock‌ ‌‌now‌:‌ ‌ ‌

 

mother‌ ‌‌of‌ ‌‌seasons‌,‌ ‌‌save‌ ‌‌us‌

‌‌help‌ ‌‌us‌ ‌‌to‌ ‌‌remain‌ ‌‌faithful‌ ‌‌

to‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌‌cause‌ ‌‌he‌ ‌‌served‌ ‌‌

when‌ ‌‌his‌ ‌innocence‌

‌‌was‌ ‌‌yet‌ ‌‌ignorant‌ ‌‌of‌ ‌‌guns‌

‌‌and‌ ‌‌his‌ ‌‌stirring‌ ‌‌voice‌ ‌‌

was‌ ‌‌incapable‌ ‌‌of‌ ‌‌curses‌.‌.‌.‌ ‌ ‌

 

But‌ ‌‌that‌ ‌‌another‌ ‌‌season‌ ‌‌shall‌ ‌‌come‌ ‌‌

When‌ ‌‌we‌ ‌‌have‌ ‌‌left‌ ‌‌our‌ ‌‌

Hate‌ ‌‌at‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌‌public‌ ‌‌kiln‌ ‌‌at‌ ‌‌last‌ ‌ ‌

 

And‌ ‌‌other‌ ‌‌wiser‌ ‌‌cultivators‌ ‌‌risen‌ ‌‌

Like‌ ‌‌cotyledons‌ ‌‌on‌ ‌‌

The‌ ‌‌compost‌ ‌‌of‌ ‌‌our‌ ‌‌hating‌ ‌‌and‌ ‌‌killing‌ ‌ ‌

 

Mother‌ ‌‌of‌ ‌‌seasons‌ ‌‌O‌ ‌‌be‌ ‌‌with‌ ‌‌us‌ ‌‌

At‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌‌new‌ ‌‌harvest‌ ‌‌

With‌ ‌‌our‌ ‌‌fresh‌-‌washed‌ ‌‌sperms‌ ‌‌and‌ ‌‌your‌ ‌virgin‌ ‌‌

Fidelity‌ ‌‌of‌ ‌‌responses‌.‌ ‌‌Stay‌ ‌‌with‌ ‌‌us‌

‌‌In‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌‌resonant‌ ‌‌silence‌

‌‌Of‌ ‌‌guns‌ ‌‌and‌ ‌‌the‌ ‌‌looters‌’‌ ‌voices‌.‌ ‌ ‌

JP Clark, A Voyage

JP‌ ‌‌had‌ ‌‌lost‌ ‌‌a‌ ‌‌companion‌ ‌‌and‌ ‌‌fellow‌ ‌‌traveller‌;‌ ‌‌I‌,‌ ‌‌a‌ ‌‌mentor‌,‌ ‌‌uncle‌,‌ ‌‌and‌ ‌‌friend‌.‌ ‌ ‌

Excerpted from JP‌ ‌‌CLA‌RK‌‌–‌ ‌‌A‌ ‌‌VOYAGE‌, Osofisan’s biography of JP Clark, published by BOOKCRAFT, Ibadan, 2011.

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