A poet’s lamentation of a nation’s dystopia
A review of Emman Usman Shehu’s book, Icarus Rising by Paul Liam
Emman Usman Shehu’s poetry collection, Icarus Rising, is a metaphorical portraiture of a nation’s dystopia. It is a collection shrouded in the consciousness of a poet attuned to the social conditions of his people and the dysfunctional state of a nation heading for the abyss. Dystopia is conceived as a community or society that is undesirable or frightening. It is regarded as “not good place,” which is a place that is not desirable or unfit for habitation. It is the opposite of Utopia, an ideal place or society of peace and tranquility. Nigeria, at present, can only be likened to a dystopia, an undesirable society and a place bedeviled by inanities and dehumanisation. This ugly reality underscores the significance of the volume which couldn’t have emerged at a better time than now.
The 64 poems and 89-page volume exudes a rhetorical opulence akin to the classics of the modernist tradition, proverbial, witty and lyrically inducing the poems flow effortlessly conveying grave messages that tugs at the conscience of the reader. The poems bewails, mocks and berates the complacent inactions of the polity, towards the conundrum of impoverishment occasioned by the maladies of political and leadership ineptitude forced on the land by opportunistic few bent on commercializing the soul of the nation for self-gratification.
In the opening poem entitled “Avian Sketches,” the persona philosophises on the politics of being and the hypocrisy contrived on the altar of falsehood. The persona’s bewilderment is succinctly captured in the fifth stanza thus: “Every time I hear the cock/crow a third time at dawn,/I wonder who is taking their turn/at a hollowed altar,/receiving sacrament of betrayal/by one deemed deeply loyal.” (14)
The persona in the poem “Sandscape” bemoans the estrangement of hope in the land and expounds in details using images to buttress the degree of the quagmire that has engulfed the land. Clearly, the smaller animals in the poem represent the helpless masses entrapped in the state of confusion. The persona symbolizes suffocating power with the hyena whose “canine smile is frozen but sly” and “And the crickets orchestrates/the sonata of doom.” The darkness which pervades this poem is made clearer in the last two stanzas: “The dying birds echo grim refrain,/we wait for rain/in this land of pain,/and plummet into bleak terrain./ The desert has encroached/beyond our imagination.” (34)
In an unusually prosaic rendition, the persona in the piece, “My Country” (dedicated to Justin Magaji), highlights the retrogression that mars the country he itemises the negatives that constitute the unfortunate state of the country.
Icarus Rising is an elegy befitting of a nation that continues to wallow in abject poverty and underdevelopment in the face of quantum opportunities and possibilities. This unfortunate degeneration is an offshoot of a rotten system permeated by the indigenization of corruption perpetuated by the political class and encouraged by the docile mien of the masses who watch in awe, with hands akimbo as their destinies and those of their future generations are devoured by the ilk in customized regalia.
Perhaps, it is a characteristic of socially conscious poets to relinquish the power of self-redemption to the people by calling on them to stand up to inhuman governments, responsible for their underdevelopment. It is true that the pen is mightier than the sword but the pen cannot wield itself, therefore, the people must summon the courage to wield the pen and defeat their enemies. It is perhaps, this logic that informs the persona’s declaration of comradeship spirit, a feeling of newness in the poem “Pharaoh”. In the first stanza of the poem the persona debunks the impression that the masses are oblivious of the deceits perpetrated by their elites. He announces: “We are not a country of the blind/for you to be so unkind,/unleashing flawed wisdom/of the fabled one-eyed king./we know what you will bring:/another season of pestilence.” The persona goes on to assert in stanza three thus: “We are not a country of the blind,/tolerance is no longer our virtue,/endurance has reached breaking point,/hindsight has steeled our resolve.” (43)
The poem “Sinking Sand” asks a series of rhetorical questions, one that seeks to inspire genuine reflection in the reader’s mind so to realize the doom that has ensnared the land. The land itself is a rhetorical question that appears never in haste to answer itself by providing answers that would redeem her from the shackles of retrogression that she currently swims in. the person asks: “Head in sinking sand,/how can we understand/the rape of our land?” (45).
In conclusion, Shehu, a seasoned poet of great talent, has given the world yet another remarkable volume of poems that is fragile and yet frugal both in its freshness of language and its esoteric-simplistic style of delivery.