Harry Garuba

By Ndubuisi Martins Aniemeka

I had met Harry Garuba in bits before the real first and closer, but still virtual meeting. I first caught a glimpse of him in one picture, perhaps, in one literary magazine or one of the dailies, (in the absence of the internet) then, that I often read to keep pace with literature, writers and events in the arts industry, in general.

Both in the image and in person, I would be certain, if I said that no one would stay blind to Garuba’s unmistakable comeliness, accentuated quickly by the spectacle worn by him, which popularly, almost everyone in South-West Nigeria, would quickly connect as typically “Akada” looks. I peered beyond that speakerly icon which told me half-stories of the genius, Professor Garuba, who is now cold in body, but active in spirit.

I read a poem of his; the title of which I cannot readily recall among a number that I later read of him. Without at first matching that picture with a poem in one anthology stumbled on, I can barely also remember the exact title now, he taxed my formative literary appreciation skill. It was deep and refreshing, the kind you think of an unfamiliar but tasty dish.

But then I wondered, in my early adult mind, if humans alone wrote poems, for Garuba appeared as some extraterrestrial writer to me. I thought him (even when I had scanty details of him) immediately unique, uncanny, intractable, perhaps the most symbolist, amidst the many poets that I followed closely at the time.  A second meeting would be in scholarly texts, of course in more poems and essays and a more recent encounter that came close to being real, oddly virtual, yet more impressionable.

His many sides and works

In all of Garuba were many things: rare intellection, grace and generosity and some distinctive humour, apart from his other personable qualities. All these are often reported about him, but I saw traces of these in my mentors and some other contemporaries of his that I have met. Prof Garuba’s academic fervor in the wide oceans of literatures, especially for African and African Diaspora, is remarkable. As I find to this claim, in particular, his thoughtful flicks of culture, theory and redoubtable scholastic offerings, and all seem to easily resonate in many literary quarters.

The first absorbing piece I curiously read of him was Mask and Meaning in Black Drama: Africa and the Diaspora. Garuba, while recognizing traditions and transformations in black aesthetics, conducted us through a new landscape of fluid dramatic genre discourse and critical thinking against some narrow, soulless, dramatic windows of criticism, perhaps, unmatched to date. It was then I heaved a sigh with such religious resignation: like into your hands, I commit my scholarly journey.

My adult, larger thirst for beautiful poetry got fired upon reading Christopher Okigbo, Michael Echeruo, Syl Cheney Coker, Dennis Brutus, Derek Walcott, Wole Soyinka, Niyi Osundare, Okinba Launko, Remi Raji, Afam Akeh and many brilliant others that keep my love for poetry high and unquenchable. But Garuba, by some watts of relatable imagery deployed in his poetry, was a different stock. He sculpted lines from anything richly embodied in certain meaning-pregnant signs that you don’t figure would penetrate deeply and easily until you chew them and then again Harry hits your imagination; there you think in symbols and speak in deft figuration.

Who writes for him?

Harry probably becomes your patron poet, less or more than Tchikaya U’tam’si can be for some of us. You love poetry, you love the outstanding grace and gift that Garuba exudes in his writing.

Now, who writes a poem for Harry, the poem that befits him, the type that ferries him home, properly? I had, in very recent times, torn some poems, not only because they were so badly conceived and crafted. But because Harry Garuba was on the mental list of some phenomenal poets, who occupied my consciousness as having unbeatable poetic talents. The kind I consistently then aspired to reach but never quite coming close to the height of brilliance. Echeruo and, most significantly, Utam’si, had the impossible strings of poesy around them and that gave me some big fears that I might never write exceptionally remarkable stuff.

There was, for us, who were either not born, or that we were in our early childhood years, the chance that we saw, witnessed or heard the narrative of Ibadan as the Mecca of literature in Africa. There are a number of us that pitched tent with and through living back in time, in the glorious heydays of Poetry Club that Harry Garuba along with his contemporaries, formed and kept active till the structural adjustment programme caused the dispersals of these iconic scholars

Garuba and his ilk have made Ibadan ubiquitous in our memory. No wonder the University of Ibadan became a fanciful place for me to come for a master’s degree. At least, then I was really eager to meet with Professors Raji-Oyelade, Obododimma Oha, Ademola Dasylva, Nelson Fashina, whom I reckoned, must also possess the milk and honey, I need for my sharper, literary maturation.

On resuming for MA and later reading the seminal doctoral thesis of Aderemi Raji-Oyelade, one of my teachers, mentors and consummate poets in and of Africa, and aptly finding out that Harry Garuba supervised him, I felt some uncommon nudge, imagining the spirit transference and possession that Professor Nelson Fashina harped on in one of the classes in ENG 766, Studies in African Dramatic Literature.

Professor Fashina, the theory-inclined would-be mentor of mine, had alerted us to spiritual presences and possible possessions in and around the Faculty of Arts’ Quadrangle, where some of these literary pantheons, living and dead ancestors— Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Mabel Segun and so on— nestled in the surrounding trees, defying time and space. With the knowledge that the iconic scholar-poet, Professor Garuba taught some of my distinguished teachers, I fit myself in his lineage.

Now, to me, Remi Raji carries in him, two brilliant selves: his pure genius and another extraordinary, kindred spirit of Professor Garuba. I retained the feeling I had met more than the leading lights which would serve me for a long time. If I recall again that Professor Izevbaye was part of the academic influence of Garuba, I might also quickly admit the possible, bigger debate that his literary lineage is wide and varied. No rehashing it. I just kept relishing the big boughs of literary influences, the near and the distant, that remained of the University of Ibadan gargantuan literary tradition.

Apart from Professor Pius Adesanmi, a different influence of a more visible public space, I had at least three names: Michael Echeruo, Nduka Otiono and most importantly Harry Garuba that I sorely longed to meet, to get some more tutelage.

So, somewhere, I still haboured the hope of a meeting with the man fondly called Harry G, by some of his acquaintances. I looked forward to a physical meeting and it did not come, although I strode in the “almost boundary dream,” that phrase drowning near misses for people who are sorely affected by the stone that never-kills-a-bird, when, in 2018, Professor Raji-Oyelade served us a virtual sight of him through a live chat, when we had a poetry evening to commemorate Garuba @ 60.

I carry the memory of April 8, 2018. That beautiful evening of poetry recitation when the Arts Quadrangle came alive with Professors Dan Izevbaye (I also learned supervised Professor Garuba’s doctoral thesis) Femi Osofisan, Niyi Okunoye, Odia Ofeimum, teachers, students and colleagues of the now-deceased celebrant, who was far away in South Africa, but connected with us at Ibadan, where he received the waves of the poetic gathering, the type he once curated.

I remember this meeting, the live chat, the second session that held at the Senior Staff Club, that gave everyone an opportunity to say a happy birthday to him, Harry Garuba. There at the gathering of poets and some great cultural icons, Garuba would be extolled by Remi Raji, the convener of the poetry feast under the auspices of the Ibadan Poetry Foundation. Professor Raji gave us bits and pieces of Garuba that would make big loaves for us. That day, seized by nostalgia, Professor Raji dug into dainty memories, and fed us with a lot to ponder about the rich life of inimitable Garuba.

We noted the fibres of friendship and fraternal mentoring that marked the days of yore, now almost missing in our ivory towers. Professor Hyginus Ekwuazi, a multiple award-winning poet, lent his experiential weight to such an infectious cultural, artistic friendship and fellowship of the ritual, Augustan habits of Garuba’s University of Ibadan. We broke down, at the instance, the historical fence of time, and at the end of it all, I was grateful for that alternative immersion. The experience still remained great and was worth it until a couple of days ago.

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The he died

The sad news of his demise came knocking me off; his death broke me, tearing the thinly-veiled hope of a face-to-face meeting. This is a personal loss for me and my poetry; this bird of grandeur which I regularly face-to-face rapped in my nest plays tricks on me.

Now, do I write a poem for Harry and bear the brunt of flaccid signs that many would call such names as claptrap, no-sense verse or even more demeaning tributes? I cannot find, at the moment, the images enough to encrypt Harry, this huge poetry and hovering soul of an undying symbol. I cannot weave him into my dull, unfitting garbs of a verse or verses, free or blank, as a soothing flight into the after-life.

He had too much of class above my station, so poetry written now would not go farther than the mid-air altitude and a crash on the horizon soon comes as ripples. I will, in the coming days, search sentient spaces and find something near good enough for this towering man of incredible letters.

Mr. Aniemeka teaches English, Communication and Literary Analysis with the Centre for General Studies, University of Ibadan.

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