Compelling verses on colonialism, exile and man’s inhumanity to man: A review of Romeo Oriogun’s “Nomad”— Olukorede S Yishau
A review of the NLNG winning collection
From the onset, Nomad, the Nigeria Prize for Literature-winning collection of over sixty poems by Romeo Oriogun, shows something striking, a trend that continues almost till the last poems: travel experiences, colonialism, exile, and man’s inhumanity to man dance from one poem to another. We see memoirs in verses. A number of them are historical, excavating stories from our past, from our ruins, from our regrets, from our excuses and from our lamentations.
The poet drags us along his journeys through Cotonou, Abidjan, Togo, Quidah, Bamako, Isla, Dakar, Verde, and around Nigeria. He also takes us with him to the United States. We see Harvard, we see Iowa, Boston, New York, with its imposing buildings and subways and we see much more.
Oriogun tells his stories sometimes in the form of confessions and other times in the form of testimonies. We see guilt, we see a troubled conscience and we see agony. We see the stress associated with irregular migration. His voice radiates some sort of burden to offload his experiences in the journey of life. With the poems, he drags us along to heaven and hell and because of his skills we seem to thrive in both worlds.
His disturbing encounters are rendered with such artistic grace. Take for instance the poem titled “Mist”. In it, the poet laments that “the doors to my country have been closed to me/the canvas of my mind torn into shreds”. The poem suggests a traumatic parting of ways between the poet and Edo, the state where he lived before becoming a stranger to it.
This artistic grace also shines through “Everyone I Love is Alive Tonight”, which laments among other things the passing of Ofure, his first friend, “who died crossing the Mediterranean”.
In Late December in Abidjan, we see a city both awake and brooding. The poet uses imagery that portrays him as an outcast. In one line, he croons: “We who the world has ushered into the wilderness.” He also writes about “the shadow of life” and “leaves brittle and dry”.
In Cotonou, Oriogun writes about buses spilling out humans tired of journeys, about a human trafficker called Trolley, about this man’s escapades in Bamako, Tripoli and Mauritania and about his ruthlessness in accomplishing his task. He also writes about girls who are victims of life, who have to dance even when sad, who have to give their bodies and souls to get a place in the world. He hints at his addiction to nicotine, which he seems helpless from.
In “Advertisement”, the poet describes exile as “the dying voice of a wounded angel”. In another poem, he says “there is no peace for those thrown out of a country”. This line brings to mind the words of Poet Maik Nwosu about exile.
Nwosu said: “At a certain point, you will realise that no matter how long you live in America, you will always be a Nigerian. And when you come back to Nigeria, people will say that you have been away for too long. So you are no longer fully Nigerian. Before you know it, you will begin to have an in-between existence that is neither entirely Nigerian nor entirely American.”
“The classical trajectory of migration is departure, passage, settlement and return. But the return almost never happens.”
Oriogun also writes about the evil of wars, one of which is the possibility of a war veteran going crazy from hearing a thousand women wailing in his head.
The poet, through “Voices”, returns to the motif of exile and describes it as “a murmur crossing rivers and seas”. He also tells of drivers and their relationship with roads, wondering what language they will speak if they can communicate.
“Hotel Du Chirugie” is a heart rending piece, which recalls slavery and how Africans sold Africans for bottles of gin. Brothers helped to chain one another and herded one another into pens and later into ships for transfer to slave fields in Europe and America. The poet addresses the “commodification of flesh”. This theme continues in “Saudade”, in which the poet talks about ancestral guilt associated with “bodies thrown overboard slave ships” and “people lost to a ship’s belly”.
In “Ouidah”, Oriogun returns to what he aptly tags “the violence of history” when he writes about a man who came to Africa from Michigan in search of his roots. This, in a way, is a return to the slavery as well as the theme of exile.
People who find themselves overseas as a result of slavery are in permanent exile, which at times, they strive to escape one way or the other. Ouidah, from which the poem derives its title, is also known as “Door of No Return”. No wonder imagery of whips, clangs and chains and blood find expression in this poem.
Slavery also dominates “An Old Song of Despair” in which the poet hums about the ruins of history. It tells of how slavery brought us poverty and the other changes it forced on us, such as the neglect of our culture, our architecture, our languages, our songs, and how we now speak the “language of defeat”. The poem also recalls the sad role of the mirror in slavery and colonialism.
In “Waiting for Rain”, the poet returns to the evil of colonialism. He takes us on an historical voyage, reminding us of the evil the British wrought when they invaded Benin and killed men and women and stole statues upon statues, which adorn their museums and private homes till this day.
Some have been returned and many are on their way back.
He pays tributes to the men and women who faced the intruders and paid with their lives. The theme of colonialism also drenches “At Lagos Polo Club” where colonial officers ” rode the flesh of both man and beast” and “declared through constitutions that we were half-humans”.
This theme also resonates in “Postcard From Abandoned Places”, in which the poet sings about the “yoke of Germany declared by streets named after the Kaiser, heavy with ghost voices of White men who had travelled there to search for diamonds”.
As if intent on dealing colonialism as much blows as possible, we are also treated to its evil in “For Lewala”, “The Discoverer of Light”, a poem about the person believed to have discovered diamonds before handing it over to the European credited with this precious find. This poem brings to mind historical fallacies such as Mungo Park being credited with discovering River Niger, where people along its banks had fished long before he decided on his voyage. The poem also recalls how colonial masters destroyed “cities that raised their heads”.
“Killing the Condemned”, a poem about men the White men hanged in Oron and Eket, also treats the evil of colonial rule.
In the poem from which the collection derives its title, the poet sings about asylum, about journeys through water, about losses, about roads and crossroads, and about creating new worlds in a strange land.
In the last poem in the collection, “It Begins With Love”, we are told of the connections between love and a labourer kissing his pregnant wife’s belly, a child struggling with his clarinet, a newborn seeing colour and the beginning of the day.
Romeo Oriogun’s poetry is a study in displacement, race, strange and known terrains, home and exile.
He is a discerning poet who through lyrical lines dishes out wisdom about a world that we will continue to try to come to grasps with but which will continue to stun us at a speed too fast for us to meet.
-Olukorede S Yishau is the author of In The Name of Our Father, Vaults of Secrets and United Countries of America and Other Travel Tales