By Bestman Michael
When Robert Pinsky says “the art of poetry is in the sound of words”, it introduces the degree of aesthetic effect that comes with the creative mixture of form and content in art generally. An exposure to a sort of mastery of language and to what poetry should or should not be at a material given period. It is from this basis that Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto’s poems from the perspective of language, its musicality, style, themes, structure, and how they are intermittently weaved, appeal to the human senses of sight, taste, feelings, smell, and hearing.
The chapbook, a collection of 19 poems, centers around the effect of loss and love; war and death; terrorism; domestic violence; social reflection on economy and politics; familial bond; women oppression and sexuality; single parenting; suicide and depression; and equally, the quest for what home should be and the search for the self.
Narrated from an interior monologue point of view, it is fused with certain dramatic and stylistic elements that takes the reader around the journey of his life, his environment, and presents his thought either in rhetorical, paradoxical, or emphatic rails for the readers to reflect on.
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First, with an introductory poem titled “And for these past weeks”, which offers a guide and background to how other poems should be read, perceived, and visualised. And structured into 21 lines, it introduces the reader to the state of mind of the writer, his intended narrative pattern and the sharp epiphany that begins the chapbook itself: “And for these past weeks/ I have been unravelling the wrong person… the day my father died, I left the boy I was for the cap I didn’t grow enough to fit / How do I define the things that I cannot have and become? Or the ugly things that keep drawing me towards them?”.
But, while agreeing with Olisa Eloka in the foreword about the impact on the writer, of losing one’s father, especially at a tender age, the entire collection centers more on women and motherhood, the pain they undergo in times of war, abuse, marriage, and the motherly roles they have played, side by side its effect on the child, in a male-dominated tyrannical society.
Here, these repeated thematic elements constantly appear in poems like “A Handful of Memories”, “Mother thinks I Do not Remember Her”,” A Page from my Diary”, “A House so cramped God could barely Squeeze in”, “The Teenager who became my mother” and “Home”. And where “father” appears, it becomes a complimentary retrospection to the things lost or what the poet misses: “My father shares a piece of unfunny jokes with me in my dreams”; or how much wilder father can become as an instrument of a failed state: “A bang races you downstairs to find your mother, with patches of red, before the sink. Your father sits on the dining table, a bottle of alcohol dangles in his burning blood and fists”.
Meanwhile, the word, “mother”, appears with an image of horror, suffering, guidance and hopes, which in one way or the other, is sharp.
The writer owes much of his survival to the roles “mother” clearly played in the entire collection, both in prayers and in direction. For instance, in “A Handful of Memories”, he asserts: “I know my mother’s stares wear and point me away from the sea” and in “Mother Thinks I don’t Remember Her”, the poem tells the reader about how “home is where mother plaits her worries, and whose prayers are invincible halo over my skull”; not to mention how “I remember you” is emphatically repeated.
Creatively, Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto’s chapbook widens the gap between imagery and abstract noise. Like Robert Hass in twentieth-century pleasure, “imagery does not say this is that, they say this is”. And the collection is written in a simple, witty and highly figurative manner; with choice of words that absorb the reader not only in its musicality of lines but also in the experiences that comes with it, either reactionary or revolutionary.
Although the poems grieve and suffer from so many horrific and harsh experiences, the writer was able to find a sense of musicality even at a point of death and hope which acts as a backbone to how the message is absorbed and perceived even with time—past, present, or future.
Especially with the unusual use of figurative like “The way I drink now I think my mouth may someday become a portrait of an old woman knitting a napkin for an unborn grandchild.” Or, “A home is a place that knows the geometry of your body/ a home is a place your heart yearns to return”.
The heavy use of paradox, repetition, sharp rhythm and rhyme, punctuations, and grammatical structure as seen in “A House So Cramped that God could Barely Squeeze in” and “The Things I Can Say of This Place” which takes an unusual style and structure where the poem is read from right to left as a creative and intentional way to address and conceal the political rottenness in the country.
Notably, the writer shows a deeper command of language which produces a set of effects both metrically in sound, visually in image, and philosophically in thematic content. In “I Set Up a Table and Have a Dinner with Pa”, we are introduced to a couplet with an alternate metre in how emphasis is intentionally placed: “a pint of happiness/ a dragging emptiness.”
Rhetorically, the poet manages to draw his philosophical and social arguments in the collection: “how do I define the things I cannot have and become? / Or the ugly things that keep drawing me towards them?”; “if I stand long enough in a place, will I become its memory?”; “can you see how the moon is still the sun?”.
Equally, the repetition of “mother”, “home”, “pint”, “body”, “graveyard”, “bullets”, “house”, “memory”, ” father” etc., takes a sort of effect that is echoed throughout the poem and virtually forms a basis to how the thematic content is built.
Surprisingly, the word “death” is only used twice in the entire collection and you can imagine how the poet manages to graphically present his message without losing the solemn and reflective mode it carries about it.
Importantly, it is noted that most titles in the collection are directly linked with the first line of some poems to create a continuity of thought; thereby, producing a material connection between sound, mood, and tone. An example can be drawn from the first poem in the collection “And for these past weeks” with a connecting immediate line that starts the poem, “I have been unravelling the wrong person”. Same goes with “I Crossed the Lane filled with People”, “The Fire Burns out and the Story My Cousin Told”, etc.
Therefore, the material maturity of how the writer has been able to connect his individual experiences with the reflected rottenness that comes with war and terrorism, not only in a place as Nigeria but in the world at large, is highly commendable. How a socio-political and economic framework, which breeds suffering and allows some few individuals to amass wealth, should be condemned. How “thieves steal and get rich…—the politicians/…people see(s) them and praise(s) them”. Yet, we can only “poke from a distance”. Also, it raises the plight of children and how terrorism and war have affected their childhood where the only place to play is in their dreams as “playgrounds turn graveyard”.
But, in all of these horrors and harsh experiences, the writer believes there is hope and there is home and wishes that “dawn will someday/ Bring a new smile upon my home: / Where people will grow to age/ and love will flower/ and fire will never grow for all things to die”.
So, Chinua Ezenwa Ohaeto’s collection “The Teenager Who Became My Mother” is duly optimistic, instrumental and helps provide the reader with a narrative they can equally connect with both historically, socially, politically, economically and materially. And how in pain is the reflection of light, love, and hope.