I cannot blind myself
to putrefying carcasses in the market place
pulling giant vultures
from the sky.
Nor to these flywhisks:
how can I escape these mind-ripping scorpion-tails
deployed in the dark
with ignominious licence
by those who should buttress faith
in living, faith to lamplights.
And how can I sing
when they stuff cobwebs in my mouth
spit the rheum of their blank sense
of direction in my eyes
… who will open the portals of
my hope in this desultory walk?
But I cannot blunt my feelers
to cheapen my ingrained sorrow
I cannot refuse to drink from
the gourd you hold to my lips
… A garland of subversive litanies
should answer these morbid landscapes
my land, my woman.
© Odia Ofeimun
To sing in this context connotes a celebration … of joy, a state of mind and high spirit suggestive of a fulfilled or satisfactory life. In this case, the poet does not see anything in particular that could evoke his high spirit.
The post-colonial reality of an African state that surrounds the poet embodies decay “putrefying carcasses” (line 12): corruption that stinks to the high heavens, attracting foreign scavengers “pulling giant vultures from the sky” (lines 3&4) and their local collaborators call for no celebration; or corrupt leadership “flywhisks” (line 5), characterized by its deadly tricks, subterfuge and violent brutality “mind-ripping scorpion-tails” (lines 6), instead of being an icon of light that shows the way, does not call for a celebration either.
The poet is himself a victim of the reckless, visionless regime. He belongs to the brutalised class, the masses, “when they stuff cobwebs” in the poet’s “mouth” and forced him to “drink from the gourd” of bitterness held to his lips. Therefore it cannot be in the character of the writer in a post-colonial African state who possesses the consciousness and level of commitment of this poet, to pretend not to know or feel with the masses. This explains the reasons for his high sensitivity and why in line (1), the poet “cannot blind” himself, or in line (17), why he “cannot” blunt his “feelers”. Besides, the land being devastated by the cabal, the socio-economic incubus, is his country also, “my land” (line 23). Similarly, “my woman” (line 23), shows the extent of the poet’s affection and passion for his beloved country, a husband/wife genuine love. The conflictual situations mirrored in the poem call for an urgent intervention of patriots like the poet to forcefully fling open the gate to national progress, “open the portals” (line 15), a necessary action capable of re-establishing the hope and aspirations of the society, propelling the people to a fulfilled existence.
In lines (21-23), the poet resolves to tackle the situation the best way he knows, using his art. The underlying irony, however, is that a true hero deserves a befitting garland in appreciation of his heroic deed(s). In the case under consideration, the causative agents of decay, and injustice, etc are nothing but antiheroes and villains who the poet believes deserve an unusual garland, “subversive litanies”.
Litanies are special intercessory prayers to the saints or the Holy Mary with a call-response structure by the priest and the congregation, respectively. By implication, the poet intends to assume the role of a priest taking the lead in the subversive art (litanies) while the mobilised masses, “the congregation”, are expected to respond by rising to the occasion, and by effecting the pulling down of the existing unfavourable socio-economic structure, and replacing it with a more responsive and relevant socio-political structure.
(I) Odia Ofeimun’s “How Can I Sing?” is an extract from Wole Soyinka (ed.) Poems of Black Africa
(II) The commentary is lifted from Dasylva Ademola’s “The Writer and Ph(f)aces of Conflicts in Africa” in Oyeleye, L. & Olateju, M. (eds.) Readings in Language and Literature