…As captured in his “State of the Union”
By Osa Amadi & 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 gone/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.
J.P CLARK’S CHILDREN SPEAK
I miss his colourful endless stories – Elaye Clark, son
It is difficult to talk about the final days/moments I spent with my father. I can’t. It’s too painful, and I don’t want to remember him that way. I’d rather talk about the moments shared which I’m going to miss.
My father and I could talk about everything. My relationship with him was very close, especially as I grew older. We talked about politics, arts and culture, football, etc. Nothing was off limits. We argued as much as we agreed. But he always respected my opinions, even if he didn’t agree. I’m going to miss all that.
I am going to miss his laughter, his mischievous sense of humour (especially when he was criticising my football team. He knew he could upset me and I seemed to always fall for it), he was frank to the point advice, his colourful endless stories about things he’s done or seen. It’s an endless list. My father was the most principled person I’ve ever met. Sometimes it infuriated me, along with his habit of asking me to do something and expecting it to have been done yesterday.
I am going to miss him. It hurts that he won’t see me get married, or my children. But I know he is watching over me, his wife, my siblings, and his grandchild, and we’ll see him again together with the Almighty. Dad, I love you and I’ll miss you dearly.
My Dad and I were very close –- Ema Clark, daughter
My Dad and I were very close. He was close to all his children and to his wife. My father held on to the hope that he would still soldier on even in his last days. Nevertheless, I knew he had a premonition that he was going when he said to me one day “I have held your hand all your life. It’s the way your mother and I brought you up.” We left it at that but now that he’s gone, I now realise he was saying good bye.
JP Clark was a giant on the literary stage – Prof. Akinyemi
Reactions have continued to flow on the passing of Africa’s literary icon, Professor John Pepper Clark who died Tuesday at 85. In his tribute, Nigeria’s former External Affairs Minister, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, described J. P Clark one of Nigeria’s literary giants Nigerians would never forget.
According to the former External Affairs Minister, “I mourn the passing into eternity of Professor J. Pepper Clark, one of the giants in the literary stage of this country. Professor Clark, though famous for his literary prowess, was more than that. Nigerians will remember him as one of the triumvirate that visited General Babangida to plead in vain for the life of General Vatsa.
“But there were other critical and sacred (not in the religious sense) times in the life of this country, which must still remain hidden where Professor Clark was an actor.
My family was close to Prof and his wife (Auntie Ebun). We wish him a peaceful transitional trip to wherever writers go to continue their struggle. Prof, please do not go gently into that resting place. Continue the struggle where you are. Do not forget the movement.”