To celebrate the launch of Iquo Eke’s collection of short stories, Efo Riro and other stories we publish a review of her collection of poems, Symphony of Becoming.
Every young writer, except for a very exceptional few, labours under a cloud as s/he sets out on a literary career. This cloud is one of anxiety and influence.
Respected academic and critic, Harold Bloom wrote a whole book on this. His 1973 publication, “The Anxiety of Influence: A theory of Poetry” written seven years before Iquo Eke was born, rings true today as it did then.
Bloom’s thesis is simple; “ the poet in a poet” is inspired to write by reading another poet’s poetry and will tend to produce work that is derivative of existing poetry, and, therefore, weak. Because poets must forge an original poetic vision in order to guarantee their survival into posterity the influence of precursor poets inspires a sense of anxiety in living poets.”
Bloom’s views are not new or original. TS Eliot had made the same case in his essay “Tradition and Individual Talent” written in 1919 and published later in the book, Sacred Wood. Eliot’s argument is that a poet to really become must embody the tradition of poets who have gone before him. As he puts it “the most individual parts of his (the poet) work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.”
There again, comes the anxiety of influence, the haunting footsteps of the works of those who have written before us.
This influence is palpable in the 49 poems that make up Iquo Eke’s debut collection of poems. Her influences range from poets like Lola Shoneyin, in the unabashed sassiness of some of the poems to Angela Nwosu, in her feminist and very socially conscious concerns to a male poet who shall remain unnamed whose influence is evident throughout this collection.
To return again to the realm of literary theory, Mikhail Bakhtin in speaking about the novel as a contemporary art form used a term called Heteroglossia, which transliterated means a multiplicity of voices, to describe the interplay of the author’s voice, the character’s voice and the narrator’s voice in a novel.
We find that same sense of a multiplicity of voices in Iquo Eke’s poetry. There is the sedate poet of the first section; which is aptly titled “Reflections”. There is the socially conscious and patriotic poet in the second section “Of nationhood”. Then we meet the sassy, saucy and sensual poet of the third section, “Heartbeat” before we encounter the assertive poet of the final segment, “Praise Songs”.
The multiplicity of voices, the constant switches from one persona to another help provide the collection with depth and thematic range. These are not poems written to a set agenda. These are poems that address many issues and which reflect an urgent engagement with diverse topics and themes.
The poems are thus at once public and private testaments, reflections and assertions, wishes and declarative statements.
In “I set Sail” the first poem of the collection, Iquo writes:
“I set sail
Borne on waves of
Small beginnings and endless possibilities
Alone with my paddle
I wade through the water”
This is the self assured statement of intent of a woman embarking on a journey of discovery, or as the title suggests “of becoming.” And becoming in Iquo Eke terms is at once symptomatic of departure and arrival, beginning and completion even though it is in the present continuous tense.
The early poems are unsure and tentative, filled with regret and often times questioning. They are marked by a rash of ifs and shalls.
In “Nature” she writes:
“If I perceived your serenity
This night would be reminiscent
Of blissful meadows and undulating planes”
And in “The Caged One” a poem that reeks of regret and unrealised potential we read:
“I am the butterfly that never broke forth…
The moth, never seduced by the flame
I am the caged bird with wings clipped…”
Self assertion happens slowly but surely and it is the ascent of a woman who hitherto did not realise what power she can wield. Realisation dawns in these lines from the poem, “Of Becoming”:
There is a thin line between day and night
In the brief glimpse of dawn
Is where the seed is sown
Awaiting the chance once again to be.”
The poems which make up the section “Of Nationhood” are the least realised in the collection. They are strident and lack control as they veer towards propaganda in the poet’s attempt to remain socially conscious and relevant.
It is only in “Chosen” that the poetry shines through.
“You are called upon
To re-write the elegy that entangles
In the confused dance of uncertainty…”
We may not know who the “Chosen” is but we are gladdened by the tone of hope that emerges.
“It is you on whose lips dirges become ballads.”
The sassy, saucy and unabashed Iquo is a delight. She is flirty, flighty, sensual and unapologetically sexy.
In “Nostalgia” we read:
“My yearning is measured in heartbeats
One for every time I yearn to see you…
Five more for each craving to taste your lips
Ten for every memory of your complete snare…”
The sassiness and sauciness is evident in the poem “This Is No Love Song” where Iquo, seemingly no longer enamoured of love, takes a not too subtle dig at Cupid.
“For this is one heart sorely stricken in love
Whose sores will not be tended
By a fabled toddler’s strike.”
“Say My Name” which is without a doubt, Iquo Eke’s most popular poem delivers on the page with the same evocative aplomb as it does when she performs it on stage.
“Say my name in soft monotones” she coos.
The assertive poet emerges in “I am”, the poet that opens the last section.
Here, the journey “of becoming” is nearing completion tracing her journey from childhood to adulthood as wife, mother and poet.
I tease you with my words…
For my poetry is
And this brings us to another issue. This is a rage filled book. The word occurs over 20 times in 73 pages. The poems in this collection as we have mentioned earlier, are intensely personal poems that pulse with pain and rage. But it is not gratuitous rage. It is rather catharsis at work as a young woman battles to navigate a life that is overwhelming and it is gladdening to read at the end that she has found her way home.
In “Home At Last” we read:
I was the lonely branch by the river banks
Swept by its tides
In my never ending fright
I am proud Amaryllis
Bouyant with radiance
Firm in the certainty of life.
The Symphony of Becoming is finally complete.
Iquo Eke, Symphony of Becoming, Image Books, 2013, 73 Pages
Efo Riro and other stories is available on Amazon, Okada book and major bookshops across Nigeria.