“Something is rotten in the state…” – Shakespeare
By Chukwuma Ajakah
Africa’s foremost poet, Professor Emeritus John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo captures pertinent contemporary socio-political issues in his 1985 collection of poems titled, “State of the Union”. The collection appears as a segment of select poems in J.P. Clark’s 2002 anthology published by Longman Nigeria Plc under the title, “The Poems (1958-1998).
The volume of 25 poems begins with a famous line excerpted from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Something is rotten in the state…” and a telltale dedication: “For all those who have died and suffered for her” which provides insight into its central thematic preoccupation. It features multifarious subject matters embedded in subtitles such as “Here Nothing Works”, “The Cleaners”, “Victoria Island”, “Of Sects and Fellowships”, “Song of the Retired Public Servant”, “Election Report”, “Song of the New Millionaires”, “Victoria Island Revisited”, “The Plague”, and “An Epidemic without a Name”.
Most of the works are lyrical poems that cover a broad spectrum of themes, hinging on prevalent socio-economic and political ills that bedevil the Nigerian society. State of the Union x-rays the country as a heterogeneous society from the perspective of an informed poet, who sifts through historical facts to prove that “something is rotten in the state”. The prophetic bard’s startling revelations are succinctly depicted in narrative-cum historical poems such as “The Sovereign” which exposes the fallacy of Nigeria’s claims to egalitarianism and being a country, whose people are united in diversity: It was never a union. It was at best/An amalgamation, so said, in fact,/ The foreign adventurer who forged it: Four hundred and twenty-three disparate/ Elements by the latest count, all spread/ Between desert and sea, no trace of one/ Running into the rest in two thousand/ Years of traffic…
Perhaps the most momentous verse in terms of relevance to the country’s present travails is the poem, “An Epidemic Without a Name” which captures the essence of the dread that envelopes the nation over the coronavirus pandemic and reported deaths of thousands of people from strange ailments. The following lines gleaned from the poem portray the theme of fear of the unknown: Another one went/It was never like this before/ Not when there is no war/ Or a dread disease widespread/ What feast among the dead/Calls them home at such a run?/ Fear beats the drum/Let them run who can/ Fear beats the drum.
In the poem, “Where Do They All Go?” the persona rhetorically queries the fate of the nation’s self-serving political juggernauts after they had left office: Where do they all go, the big wigs/In government, when by force or choice/ They leave service? Some we know/ Side-step into boardrooms and buy/Themselves a little time, while a few/ Ascend to thrones termites dispute/ But the bulk these characters/Who in their time manipulated/ Millions in the name of millions/Where do they go, when, willing/ Or not, they leave their posts on high?
The poet decries Nigeria’s inability to safeguard human and material resources many years after the civil war in poems such as “The Plague”, “Concerning ‘My Command’ by General Olusegun Obasanjo and Other Accounts of the Nigerian Civil War”, “An Epidemic Without a Name”, “Epitaph for Boro”, “The Patriarchs at the Return to Civilian Rule” and “Return of the Heroes”.
A dominant tune of pessimism cuts across most of the poems, revealing the poet’s attitude to the prevailing socio-economic and political setup, perpetuated by the mediocre leadership the country still grapples with decades after her independence. The poet deploys diverse poetic devices in exploring the various underlining thematic concerns which include: injustice evidenced by extra-judicial killings, high-level corruption, nepotism and ethnocentrism, widespread insecurity, religious bigotry, political instability, social inequality and intolerance, economic exploitation, self-aggrandizement, deceit and fear of the unknown. As instantiated in the poem, “Sacrifice”, the poet employs rhetorical question as a dominant device in linking the first five lines of the opening stanza: How shall I tell my children not/To love her to the point that loss/ Of life, limb and property is/ A sacrifice they cannot withhold/ If called upon to serve in her time of need?
The poet also diversifies the poems structurally, by presenting them in lines and stanzas of varying lengths. With the exception of “Easter 1976” which has nine stanzas, the rest are structured into short stanzas. The language of the poem is simple, except for the use of a number of figurative expressions such as metaphors which portray the poet’s message in veiled rhetoric.