A renowned poet, Tanure Ojaide has won major national and international poetry awards, including the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for the Africa Region (1987), the BBC Arts and Africa Poetry Award (1988), twice the All-Africa Okigbo Prize for Poetry (1988 and 1997), and also twice the Association of Nigerian Authors' Poetry Prize (1988 and 1994). Ojaide's poetry publications include: Labyrinths of the Delta (Greenfield Center, NY: Greenfield Review Press, 1986), The Eagle's Vision (Detroit: Lotus Press, 1987), The Endless Song (Lagos: Malthouse Press, 1989), The Fate of Vultures (Lagos: Malthouse Press, 1990), The Blood of Peace (Oxford, UK/Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1991), The Daydream of Ants (Lagos: Malthouse Press, 1997), Delta Blues & Home Songs (Ibadan: Kraft, 1998), and Invoking the Warrior Spirit (Ibadan: Heinemann, 1998).
His poetry has appeared in many anthologies, including The Henemann Book of African Poetry in English (1990), Border Lines: Contemporary Poems in English (1995), Poesie d'Afrique au Sud du Sahara (1995), Rainbow Voices (1996), and Poetry 2000 (1996). In addition to two books of literary criticism, Poetic Imagination in Black Africa: Essays on African Poetry (1996) and The Poetry of Wole Soyinka (1994), he has published a memoir, Great Boys: An African Childhood (1998). Invoking the Warrior Spirit: New and Selected Poems is forthcoming from Africa World Press, Inc, New Jersey.
For Tanure Ojaide, "the creative writer is never an airplant, but someone who is grounded in some specific place. It is difficult to talk of many writers without their identification with place. Every writer's roots are very important in understanding his or her work." He has read from his poetry in different fora in Africa, Britain, Canada, Israel, Mexico, The Netherlands, and the United States. Some of his poems have been translated into Chinese, Dutch, and French. He is currently a professor of African American and African Studies at the University of North Carolina.
Poems by Tanure Ojaide
"Wherever we dug for safety, we dug into corpses." (Donald Hall, The One Day)
"Wherever we dug for safety, we dug into corpses."
Whatever we hid in our guts, he found and wiped out.
Wherever we fled, he sent his lightning envoy to strike us.
We could not shrug off this vicious head from our lives.
Shreds of intellectuals hang from branches of baobabs,
bones dissolve into the lagoon to assault us with bad breath.
We have dug up arms from distant farms
and wondered if the whole republic were a boneyard.
All the evaporated faces found solace in the soil,
all the spear-tongued critics fed roaming hyenas.
Every year raises the chiefs fund of machetes;
winds smother wails and rain washes the topsoil.
From the beginning Ogiso chose cost-effective means
to exterminate the bugs that would ruin his rule;
he found beggar hands to implement blood without stain.
He enlisted assassins from churches and mosques.
For him the long arm of state reaches everywhere
and he circles the land with pointed steel.
The executive wields foreign-forged axes and rifles,
the human-hooded snake steals in to bite dissonant tongues.
Thousands of executions prove his inaugural boast
of peace as an array of still bodies,
a cemetery with a busy stock exchange,
a bloodpool chlorinated for a bath.
His rule a great safari of poachers,
a vast ward of diseased consultants,
and a free market of dismembered bodies.
Ogres parade the streets in smart uniform.
Every day lingers with his infinite arm,
everywhere throws up freshly savaged flesh,
everyone yawns from the blood-laden air.
"Wherever we dug for safety, we dug into corpses."
Back home to here na long long way.
The picture of here from home is so different
from the wilderness I de see night and day.
This na America with homeless for every corner
that I think I de a numberless world?
Where all the fine fine things in that picture:
everybody dress kamkpe that I think
na angels, Hollywood Heaven they misspell?
Now I work standing so te for minimum wage,
get dollars for one hand and give them out for the other.
I come back from work so dead I can't eat or sleep
and before dawn I don get up to begin another slave day.
When I reply their letters from home saying
here no be what they think they see for their minds,
they no gree with me and call me lie-lie man:
"You de already there and you no want us to come."
I know my people hate me for telling the truth.
Wetin they see geographers de call am mirage--
America na big photo-trick to me.
If say big thief no boku for home
and they no give man chance to live softly,
America no be place to live for one whole day.
The streets de explode kpa-a kpa-a like Biafra,
dead body no de fear anybody;
you no know whether the person saying "Hi!"
want to shoot, rob, or rape you.
Neighbour no de, friend no de except them dog;
you de for your own like craze-man de pursue dollar
which no de stay for your hand--they say na capitalism,
when dollar de circulate, circulate without rest.
When somebody don naked for you for daylight,
nothing de the big boast of beauty
for the cloth e take cover crawcraw and eczema.
No be as e be for the picture they don retouch--
beggar, thief, poor poor, all dem de boku.
Sometimes I cry my eyes red for night in bed.
Wetin my eye don see for here pass pepper
make me de prepare to go sweet home.
If God de, make e punish them
wen drive me from Africa come hell.
(Washington, DC/Reading. March 30, 1997)
The first fruits of the tedious season
blossom beyond the pale of public eyes.
The wind, excited from a spiced carriage,
blows the fruitful tidings with zest.
The savour already fills the palate
with draughts of unprecedented smiles.
Each day adds more gold to the robes
that the land sweated to procure from industry;
each vision is filled with fields of fertility.
Though the yield cannot yet be measured,
the grim army of famine that unleashed sadism
already turns its back and flees--
the bruised land breaks its skeletal mould
into a hand-groomed idol of a hundred million.
Those who mocked our naked hands for lack of industry
will be ashamed of their ignorance of palmistry,
those who jeered at our play-punctuated warsongs as idle songs
will join us in the proud anthem of survival,
those who saw our bonfire as a conflagration of kinsmen
will witness the blood bond of our brotherhood outlive hearsays,
those who saw a landscape riddled with bones of pain
will see the transience of hopeful tears,
those who saw death in the assault of monsters
will clap for the good luck of small ones.
In our time the patient sun tunnels
through mountain clouds and a vast obsidian night
into the fresh radiance of a cheerful dawn.
A childless mother draws tears
from the cemetery of her mind.
In her face I see the bed that
the river hasn't covered with sheets.
Even the singing bird that loses its voice
still loves to bathe in the stream
where its feathers will explode into colours
that relieve silences of a dumb creed.
For her who in prayer rubs her breasts with saliva,
for her who sings lullabies to a doll,
for her who in dreams plays in after-rain puddles,
I sing this song:
every womb's a gate--ahead,
an evergreen livery of singer birds,
last fruits of the season,
so dearly priced.
To the visionary of time-toned images
I return to gather my share.
To the memory god I return
to imbibe clarity
from his perennial stream
after revolutions of suns and moons.
Divine Sorcerer who captures
every day in its light and dark,
unwind your spool.
I will follow the sure lane of your thread
to cultivate correspondence.
I will follow to the farthest.
I want to rake your gift
from every nook and night.
I will be at the beach
to welcome the waves
you ride through and be splashed with tales of blue.
I will scale the mountain
for your secret of elevation.
I want your measured rain
to wash off chronic dust
and to bring a record harvest.
To Aridon I must return.
A Verdict Of Stone
You fled this island in a bark,
breaking free from my embrace,
your soul shaped like a prow.
The island shrinks daily, the sea
closer by every step on land.
As I walk down the ruin of old blocks
into homes built on dead bones,
I know you were
Ayayughe of the tales,
gathering firewood after every storm;
pounding yam for the little ones.
No doors open where you weaned
a dozen mouths who swung you here and there;
no windows watch the cherry-tree
(its fruits have lost their savage taste).
There allis abandoned,
except the soil God keeps for His testament.
And here I empty this bottle from my travels
over your head; the ocean deepened our love.
Since you broke faith with flesh,
rags sewn to dress you,
I discern dirt piling and piling up
at the beach, the line between us.
In your flitting twilight, you called
my name with your last breath,
and I held you; but you were already
irrevocably possessed for the endless journey.
Today I call your name, Amreghe,
with an elephant tusk;
the island vibrates with your music.
*Amreghe was my maternal grandmother who brought me up.
The Abibiman Saga
"Hunter, back from night,
where's your wild game?"
they taunt him
as he drops his bag
Nobody asks him about
his vision of daemons
and trials with death.
to practice his craft
on him, and so the palmist comes
to read his blistered hands.
Abibiman shows faint scars,
which means that his past
was wounded, tear-logged.
But that's not the glory,
the gory epic of victory
that the world acclaims.
"Where are your victories,
where are the monuments of your manhood?"
they question him.
And none is satisfied
with his silence of an answer.
from his myths
firebrands of forebears
who knew the sword
but would only slaughter
bulls and not the lame.
From his archives
of oral transmission,
handbooks of business
that would earn him millions,
but he remains human
rather than a tortoise--
to deny himself taint
of evil genius,
he renounced magic;
believing no reforming
will ever absolve the conjurer
Sleep has no muscles,
yet it subdues warriors.
Wealth need not be
a crammed self of material
but how much human...
* * *
It's not enough to talk
of those who left alone
might have aged on stone days of nativity
without savouring the spices of progress
or might have leaped faster and further
than a herd of deer in the savannah.
It's not enough to talk
of the night that might have lingered
without flickers of fireflies to see ahead
or the outburst of a black sun
that would have given light
different shades of knowledge.
It's not enough to talk
of deserted forests and flooded dunes,
of plants that might have fruited
in unearthly seasons
or ghosts of known people
who might still have been alive.
There's much more to do now.