Ecstasy and measure

From Keter unto Malkhut.
    The seventh day of rest.
The naming of Creation.
    No, this is not a test.

The rustling wind in forests.
    The stars just out of reach.
Crude scribbles in a cavern.
    The rudiments of speech.

The Sephirot of Kabbalah drapes all creation with the intersected lineaments of the creator's will, from the utter abstract divinity of Keter to the mortal appendage of Malkhut.  The latter manifested such hazard to geometric universal order as Elohim created the genera of species mounting to humanity that he required rest on the seventh day.  Gnostics of almost all religions including Kabbalists conceive the journey from common flesh to immanent numen as the very communication of these divine lineaments within the human mind, a reversal of the journey from godhead firmament to man to fallen man in the primitive allegory of Genesis.  From a modern perspective we see a similar progress in our scientifically attested, aeons-long development from cavemen braving their everyday dangers to fix on their glimpse at the infinite in the stars.  This inspired the myths and scribblings about myths that evolved into culture and religions and, some would claim, enlightenment.  Lehr's poem is a series of collages that wave into this theme.


Among the many celebrations of Richard Wilbur's 90th birthday earlier this month I caught his poem "Teresa" in The Atlantic blog.

After the sun’s eclipse
The brighter angel and the spear which drew
A bridal outcry from her open lips,
She could not prove it true,
Nor think at first of any means to test
By what she had been wedded or possessed.

Not all cries were the same;
There was an island in mythology
Called by the very vowels of her name
Where vagrants of the sea,
Changed by a word, were made to squeal and cry
As heavy captives in a witch’s sty.

The proof came soon and plain:
Visions were true which quickened her to run
God’s barefoot errands in the rocks of Spain
Beneath its beating sun,
And lock the O of ecstasy within
The tempered consonants of discipline.

The paradox of St. Theresa lies in how ecstatic manifestations in her flesh were revered as signs of divinity.  Even in religions that encourage monasticism the lure of the orgasm is an irresistible magnetism, so what a great windfall for them to have found a lady in whom they could package both parOxysm and temperance.  What a great lesson for the church to seize upon in its quest to put the Malkhut genie back into the Keter bottle, though doctrine, through dogma, through the rod of discipline.  Wilbur expresses the ambivalence of St. Theresa by connecting it to Eëa, Circe's island, throwing in a Kabbalistic touch of his own by seizing on the vowels (which represent the very nature of mystery) distilled from "Theresa" into "Eëa".  Odysseus famously lingered a full year on the island where he, as Ezra Pound put it:

Observed the elegance of Circe's hair
Rather than the mottoes on sun-dials.

Those mottoes of course connecting back to our scribblings in quest for divinity—the lexical power of Alpha and Omega.  But Odysseus was drawn from discipline by the immediate tangling of man and woman, the elegance of Circe's hair.


The cosmology of the Igbo has a much less schizophrenic attitude towards divinity and the realized elements of nature, including flesh.  In the Weblog Odinani: The Sacred Science of the Igbo People, you can find many explorations of such characteristics of Igbo cosmology, set in contrast to Western systems of thought.  Among the Igbo, life itself blends ecstasy and measure in utter braid, and discipline is decreed by connectedness to nature, rather than by institutions seeking removal from nature.  To quote Odinani, "We once understood the oneness of the Source/Creator (Chineke) with Creation and our relationship with Nature (Ani)."


One of my own missions in poetry is to work with the traditions that better reflect this continuum, seeking excitement in the tensions between my Igbo traditions and the foreign philosophies that have colored so much of my life.  I'm wrestling right now with a poem, "Nchefu Road," that I first wrote as a teenager and seem to return to and refine every decade or so as knowledge and experience within my own life expand its bounds.  To quote a key passage:

So how fitting that here in Port harcourt
Where the river shunts to infinity,
I found the bald temerity to pose
Questions of the cosmos, to shun humility
Decreed by Lao-tze; whose "Chi"
Spelled cosmos as mine spells my soul,
So I should need less Brahmin casuistry
To venerate my slice of godly role.
But the river knows that Gao law
Sparks market riots in Igbo land
And that deadly poison in Bamako
Is sweetmeat in the Samarkand.
So Nchefu Road will lead me clear
From splendent-robed enlightenment
To wisdom of its opposite science
To naked bath in firmament.
To a Niger poet's rock of
Hippopotamus contentment.

Strangely I'm only today realizing that for the most part I'm following the four-beats accentual pattern of Pound's Mauberley.  No surprise, of course, as Pound is a long-standing influence of mine.  I suppose I'm always looking for that discipline of measure to express rather than to suppress the constant ecstasy of my own complex mind and experience.

Quotīdiē ❧ Whose Country? Is it Each One's?

walking by the waters,
down where an honest river
shakes hands with the sea,
a woman passed round me
in a slow, watchful circle,
as if I were a superstition;

—from "In My Country" by Jackie Kay

Poetry is as much a mirror that reflects the reader as a window to the writer.  It's very interesting to read a poem that captures so well some facet of my own existence, but then reflects a reaction thereto that's a complete opposite of mine.  I've always reveled in my otherness, whether I was in the US, the UK or in Nigeria at the time.  I'm hardly above little venal flourishes, an over-emphasized accent here and there; and my favorite technique for getting to know others is to focus on serious questions of their own heritage and identities.  But Jackie Kay does take me to the riverside in her poem, and opens into my own sense the cold tap of her own feelings as she finds herself probed by a stranger.
I have no idea why (it's certainly not toward from immediate logic) Kay's poem should bring me so to mind of a bit of Hopkins's "Carrion Comfort".

...whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one?...

What great force of hap flings us, dashed like broken china, to half-borrow a trope from John Pepper Clark's "Ibadan," among the continents, those seven great hills rearing out of the oceans?  And what gathers assorted locals around, fascinated by the shattered pieces of our identities?  By the way, as heavily anthologized as it is, Clark's iconic poem is always worth another look.

Running splash of rust
and gold-flung and scattered
among seven hills like broken
china in the sun. 
—"Ibadan" by John Pepper Clark

I'm a sucker for a volume of poetry that features a glossary of Scots and another of Igbo, especially when there might be but one in the species, Kay's Fiere, a lyric counterpart to her memoir, "Red Dust Road."  She wrote these books throwing a light upon her quest to understand her Scottish birth mother and Igbo birth father.

Many poems in Fiere (Scots for friend, mate, companion) grow out of the experience Jackie Kay had tracing her birth-parents, as chronicled in her memoir Red Dust Road. But this collection of 44 poems has a stronger focus, one which draws on Kay's unusual personal story but grows into a celebration of what it means to be close to someone.

I've just ordered the book, so I can't comment in-depth, and Kay is new to me just today, but already she gives me an impression of a poet I'm likely to appreciate through shared understanding, like an Okigbo or even Catherine Tufariello, rather than for its distant brilliance, like say the work of Eliot.

In Nigeria, she sees a road "stretching/ perhaps into infinity/ to a foreseeable future/ and back to/ lost time".

Which reminds me of a work of my own, "Nchefu Road," which has loomed large in my notebook for 2 decades, but which has struggled to work its way to a finish.  Igbo, journeyings and the inchoate.  With such common threads clear upon the fringe, I look forward to pulling at the warp of Kay's work.

Quotīdiē ❧ Tincture of tigritude

Who Fears DeathOne of my favorite quotes is from one of my greatest idols, Nigeria's great writer and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka: "A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude. It pounces." This tiger of a story [Who Fears Death] definitely pounced on me without proclamation or warning. I'm glad I was ready for it.

—Nnedi Okorafor—"The Tigritude of a Story"

Soyinka's famous quote, made in response to the Négritude movement of Senghor, Césaire, and other Francophone African writers has always resonated with me as well.  Afrocentrism that spends most of its time contemplating its own plumage was perhaps inevitable in those early days, so soon after the colonial yokes had been thrown off.  But having been immersed in our own reality, having, as Nnedi also mentions, endured wars of desperation such as the Biafran, having lived to see our resources squandered and the legacy of revolutionary leaders turned despots, we're past time for preening.  If we plan to survive, it's well past mealtime.  We'd better pounce.

To be fair, Négritude never really took off in Anglophone Africa.  In "Christopher Okigbo," Sunday Anozie quotes a letter sent to him by the great Nigerian poet.  In 1966 Okigbo had been invited to the Negro Festival of Arts in Dakar, where his poem Limits was awarded first prize.  Okigbo wrote:

About Dakar.  I did not go... I found the whole idea of a negro arts festival based on colour quite absurd.  I did not enter any work either for the competition, and was most surprised when I heard a prize had been awarded to Limits.  I have written to reject it.

As Anozie says, "This sums up Okigbo's whole attitude to the color stress in Négritude."  Soyinka's reaction was of the same kind.  Anozie does actually surprise me by going on to claim that Okigbo's objections are ultimately shallow, and Soyinka's "cynical."  To be honest, I find a lot that annoys me in Anozie's book, overall, but he also does more to plumb Okigbo's depths than anyone else I've seen, so it's still well worth a read.

But I do think Okigbo and Soyinka are right to shrug off the totems of tigritude, I think we're seeing a generation of African writers come into their own through the urgency of the modern African reality I describe above.  I look forward to reading Nnedi's own testament, which UPS delivered yesterday.

By the way, Nnedi says:

Amongst the Igbos, back in the day, girls who were believed to be ogbanjes were often circumcised (a.k.a. genital mutilated) as a way to cure their evil ogbanje tendencies.

I had heard of female circumstances in parts of Igbo land, but I hadn't heard of its use as a counter to Ogbanje.  I wonder whether that custom was widespread in Igbo land (as for example destruction of twins was a custom more in the far south than elsewhere).  Time to ask our elders some straight questions.

Kambili? O bia la ozo?

No, Kambili is not back, but the genius behind that wonderful character has obviously not been resting on her laurels. The buzz about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's sublime novel Purple Hibiscus finally compelled me to find an (alas!) rare spot in my schedule to read a novel last year. I won't soon forget the rewards. Not only does Adichie possess rare craft in prose, but her characters are vivid and sympathetic. Even the antagonist figure, Kambili's father, was rendered with the sensitivity you would expect from a seasoned storyteller. This was a first novel? Almost impossible to believe. Throw in the fact that the descriptive prose evoked so many wonderful memories of South-Eastern Nigeria, and especially of Nsukka, where I spent three years in University, engaged in a frenzy of intellectual, social, and even political activity. On a sad note she describes the terrible decomposition of the town and University of Nsukka, a process of which I've heard plenty from other Great Lions and Lionesses. I'm hardly the only one to marvel at Adichie's accomplishment. Her reviews have been effusive, and her novel won or was short-listed for an armful of awards. More importantly, it did a respectable trade, which is rare for a book of literary merit in this day. Furthermore:

Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus may soon become Nigeria’s most widely translated work after Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The author told Sunday Sun that the book which won both the Hurston Wrights and Commonwealth Prizes and made the Orange Prize shortlist and the Booker Prize long list has been translated into nine European languages -- French, German, Lithuanian, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Polish, Dutch and of course Hebrew.

--Nigeria's Daily Sun tabloid

Imagine, then, how my ears perked up when I was listening to the Foley Flap show (a.k.a. today's All Things Considered on NPR) and I caught in a story relieving the political firestorm a reporter trying gingerly to pronounce Adichie's name. It turns out she has a new novel. It's not more from Kambili, which is in a way too bad, because Kambili is a character I hope to encounter once more. Then again every writer deserves the emancipation of their choice from their own characters, who can sometimes act as jailers. Besides, this time, Adichie has taken on quite a setting: the War for Biafra. This war is as important in the minds of most Igbos as the six-day war is in the minds of most Israelis, despite the fact that we did not enjoy the same successful outcome. (Indeed the fact that Israel was one of the only nations to support Biafra is one of the reason so many South-Eastern Nigerians have a strong pro-Israeli tendency, although some of the unfortunate recent power politics in the Middle East is beginning to test that loyalty among Igbos I know). I've read my share of novels and memoirs of those times, but as I've remarked to my father (who was an officer in the Biafran army), I think it won't be until my generation takes up the story that the episode will receive the literary and historical treatment it deserves. I'll definitely start on Half of a Yellow Sun as soon as I can, to see if Adichie is the one to prove me right.

p.s. It was fun to hear the NPR reporter pronounce "Igbo" as "Ig-boh", with the "g" and "b" clearly pronounced in separate syllables. No labial-velar plosives in the NPR pronunciation cheat-sheet, I guess.

p.p.s. I also recently bought Helen Oyeyemi's Icarus Girl, about which I've heard wonderful things. I surprise myself in the degree of possessiveness with which I eye my Nigerian middle-class peers. I'm not surprised that all the intellectual belligerence, curious creativity and dogged resourcefulness I remember from my teens is fueling a new generation of Nigerian literary accomplishment.

p.p.p.s. I also ran across an interview with Adichie in Nigeria Village Square , from which:

...religion in Nigeria has become insular, self-indulgent, self-absorbed, self-congratulatory. Churches spring up day after day while corruption thrives as much as ever and God becomes the watchman standing behind you while you seek your self-interest at all cost. God loves you more than others. God wants you to be rich. God wants you to buy that new car.

Boy did I feel that in my recent trip back home. It's rather creepy.

[Uche Ogbuji]

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Want a Slave Trade tour? Don't miss Arochukwu.

Excuse me, please, but I need a moment of pidgin.

Na wah oh! E be like say ndi-Arochukwu don vex well well. Them say "all the Akata dey go Ghana, dey take their dollar go Ghana, say na slavery history tour". We, nko? We no get slavery? We get am plenty. I beg bring your dollar come make slavery tour". Ah beg. Dis one don pass man.

I read it in Naija Blog:

The Nigerian Tourist Development Commission's website has a page on an hypothetical slave tour for Nigeria. They write that "Arochukwu has a distinguished reputation as a source for the supply of slaves." I wonder if the good people of this town would like to be considered in this way. I'm not sure its quite something to be that proud of.

OK, to be sure we don't treat the history of the slave trade as gingerly in Nigeria as we do in the U.S. An old girlfriend of mine was from Arochukwu, and when I wanted to tease her (which was often) I called her "slave trader". She'd call me "bushman" It's all good. Of course I didn't dwell on the fact that my Mom is from near Calabar, where the Aros would typically sell all the slaves they'd captured in their raids on the Igbo interior (where my Dad is from).

But even for those of us who can be that relaxed about it all (easy enough when your forbear was not the one shuffled off in a coffle to Calabar for a ghastly journey and a ghastlier existence abroad) the idea of building a tourism industry around all that sounds potty. Then again, I remember once traveling to New Orleans with a bunch of my Norwegian friends. They were dead set on going to see a plantation museum (I rememeber the flyer laid it on thick about "witnessing the slave's experience"). I recoiled from the idea and excused myself from the expedition, preferring to sleep in the car, but they came back all a-twitter. I guess there might be some logic to the whole thing. The same logic that keeps Mme Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors and the Torture Museum in Amsterdam going. I also hear that many Black Americans visit Goree in Senegal and Ghana's coastal slaving fortresses, and that such tourism is supposedly Ghana's largest source of hard currency.

It's all about the Benjamins. Especially when Benjamin used to be named "Baneji".

And oh by the way... Whoever designed that Nigerian Tourism site? And whoever paid for it? I got something fo' dat ass. I don't remember the last time I saw anything that garish on the Web. It needs to be in a bad design competition.

[Uche Ogbuji]

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"Ogbuji": those good ol' labial-velar plosives

I read in Serendipity about the new IPA phonetic symbol (first new one in twelve years).

It is a phoneme in several African languages, among which Mono.

This got me to thinking that I didn't know how to put my own name in IPA. I learned how to use IPA in various adventures in language-related Usenet newsgroups ten years or so ago, but for some reason I don't remember having hunted down the various sounds in Igbo that are fairly rare in other languages.

A good example is my own last name (and Chimezie's, of course): "Ogbuji". I tell most people to just treat it like a silent "g", but that's really a bit of an ugly approximation. As an example of how different "b" and "gb" are in igbo, the word "ebe" with high tone on both syllables means "where" (as subordinating conjunction or interrogative). The word "egbe" means "kite" (as in hawk-like bird). You probably don't want to mix those two up. There are many other such cases.

When people really do want to try to say it rightly, (so, for example when Lori wanted to be sure she was getting her new last name rightly), I tell them that the "gb" sounds a bit as if you filled your mouth with air and forced out the air suddenly, as if saying "b", while at the same time making the "g" sound in the back of your throat. Hmm. Surely linguists have to have a better description.

After some very enjoyable browsing through the Wikipedia's IPA section (which is very well done), I quickly found Igbo "gb" filed under "voiced labial-velar plosive" (/g͡b/). The description in Wikipedia of how to pronounce it is like mine, but more terse:

The voiceless labial-velar plosive is commonly found in West and Central Africa. To pronounce it, try saying [g], but simultaneously close your lips as you would for [b].

"voiceless" above is a typo for "voiced". There is a voiceless variant, more about that in a bit. Many phonetic symbol entries in Wikipedia have audio clips so you can hear the sound spoken, but not this one.

So the IPA for my last name is /oˑg͡buˑdʒiˑ/ (all the vowels are half-long).

A related Igbo sound is "kp" ("okpo" with low then high tone = "shrine", "opo" = "leprosy") which is the "voiceless labial-velar plosive" (/k͡p/)

The voiceless labial-velar plosive is commonly found in West and Central Africa. To pronounce it, try saying [k], but simultaneously close your lips as you would for [p].

There are other Igbo sounds that don't really exist in English, such as the uvular nasal "n" (/ɴ/) and the closed (and nasal) forms of i (/ɨ/) and u (/ɤ/).

Uche Ogbuji

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Frères humains qui après nous vivez
N'ayez les coeurs contre nous endurciz,
Car, ce pitié de nous pauvres avez,
Dieu en aura plus tost de vous merciz.
Vous nous voyez ci, attachés cinq, six
Quant de la chair, que trop avons nourrie,
Elle est piéca devorée et pourrie,
Et nous les os, devenons cendre et pouldre.
De nostre mal personne ne s'en rie:
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous veuille absouldre!

François Villon--"L'Épitaph (Ballade des pendus)"

It's Tuesday again: French day. As usual I spent a good portion of my pre-matinal regime in French reading and revision to get ready for conversational practice this evening. I was feeling particularly fresh, so I wrote a poem based on the first two stanzas of Villon's (I ran out of time for finishing the third stanza and envoi). It's a near translation, and you can get much of Villon's basic sense from it, but I purposefully make some departures. If you want a closer translation, try Swinburne's "Epitaph in the Form of a Ballade", from Poems and Ballads. I shall say that Villon is almost impossible to translate faithfully. He was an incomparable craftsman, and used every resource of his native tongue. It's actually fairly easy French to follow (especially, for me, after Les Symbolistes), so if you paid attention at all in high school, give the original a try (you must read it aloud).

Anyway, the first half of my modest effort:

Brother souls who live beyond our days,
Don't turn towards us hearts of hollow stone,
For if you pity us, such wretched strays,
Goddess redeem indulgence you'll have shown.
You see a hand or so of us thus strown:
Bodies once well fed of ill-got gain
Now ravened by rot and beasts upon the plain
We, the bones who speak, turn dust and ash.
None should deign to laugh upon our pain,
But wish all ghosts kind Fortune's calabash.

--Uche Ogbuji--from "Epitaph (après Villon, maître)", 3 May 2005

The only real thematic change is from the European gallows to the "evil bush" of Igbo custom, reserved for criminals who have committed abominations.

I've been working on and off on getting Cara Musis, my literary site, back in shape, so I can publish some of my work. I think I'll have to make that a priority this weekend. «Aaaaïïïïïe, nooooon!», do I hear you say? Ah, hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère... Va t'en.

[Uche Ogbuji]

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