By Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera
I first met with the poet, Chijioke Amu Nnadi, in May, 2017, in his office in Port Harcourt, shortly after the publication of “a field of echoes”. I had begun the year reading his previous collections, “through the window of a sandcastle” and “a river’s journey”.
Reading the books followed a spell of anticipation from reading the excerpts of the poems he posted on Facebook and hearing a number of appraisals about the collections as a whole. I remember the poet Chibuihe Obi mentioning somewhere that “through the window of a sandcastle” was a classic.
On the day both books arrived Asaba, I was just returning from my hometown in Egbuoma, Imo State, where I had travelled to spend the Christmas and New Year holidays with my family. I collected the books and headed straight home. It was a cool evening and the neighbourhood was quiet and bore that sleepy demeanor by townships at the beginning of the year which, exhausted by the frenzy of the festive season, was yet to fully awaken to the economic activities of the year.
I settled down in my room after freshening up, and on my bed, I began to read “through the window of a sandcastle”. The book proper, opened with the poem ‘arlington’, which reads, “autumn grows old on me/weary leaves, cold sidewalks/and creaky trees leaning on bent canes/i grow old with it, weary from running mile/after mile, my head crowned/with its changing hairs like/ this city…”
I was drawn into the book and the atmosphere around me was reorganized in the language with which it was written. And by the time I had read the first few poems, it was as though the world had become quieter, and the water dripping from the tap in my bathroom into the bucket had become louder. There was a bit of change in the state of things, as though I’d been briefly divorced from the world and, returning to it, I was struggling to recognize my environment.
It was not the first time I would have this experience with poetry. I am sure it would not be the last. All good poetry, like good music, has the power to reorder our perceptions and redirect their trajectory. So great a hold do they often have at the workings of our minds that the memory of those times when we first encountered them is often tied to that poem, or that music. We hardly struggle to remember the first time we heard a favourite song, or read a particular poem. Far from remembering the date or the day, we are connected to the moment, the place and time and they (in the mind’s perception) are preserved in the heart.
And so the calm evening of the 5th of January, 2017, is forever etched on my memory. I encountered the Amu Nnadi’s poetry in its full glare, particularly the words of the poem, ‘arlington‘, which still rings true in my head. For hours I read as much of the poems as I could and I continued for the rest of the week. And then I was done. But, the poetry was not done with me. I would return to the poems occasionally over the months. Then in May I visited Port Harcourt, on my way to see the Biafran Museum in Umuahia with a group I’d met on social media.
It was during this trip that I met Chijioke Amu Nnadi for the first time. We sat in his office, with its sizeable space, with its magazines and books, which incidentally, included “a field of echoes”, his newest collection, on the shelves. It held an amber table, across which we both sat from each other. The walls were painted cream; on it were some A4 papers on which some excerpts of his poems were written, in block letters, a deviation from the normal small letters with which Amu Nnadi is well known.
We began our discussion with how I had a good time reading his two previous collections of poetry. The early part of our discussion, I recall, had bordered around my question on if he studied anything related to physics in school. He answered in the negative and was curious as to why I asked. A summary of my explanation was that one of my favourite poems off “a river’s journey” was the melancholic poem titled ‘sorrow’.
The poem begins thus: “there is a grave loneliness/ about a heart seeking love/ more acute than open nerve/ raw, starved and tinctured/ where rotten tooth is broken, the navel of being lies exposed/ and a painful hole abides…” A gorgeous performance of words over which eight stanzas, Amu Nnadi explores the theme of sorrow and its accompanying solitude, with haunting imageries, metaphors which are nothing short of ethereal.
But it is the third stanza which reminds me of optical illusion under wave in elementary A level physics, a favourite topic of my first year in the university. It reads: “ahead, mirage forms a coy pool/ wings beating harder, harder still/on renewed gusts of longing/ lonely hearts find no succour in roads/ all hard and metallic, all pitiless/ trembling with heat and deception/ on which lie casualties of dreams…”
In the university four years previously, before I fell in love with poetry for the second time, which would lead me into the world of language forever, I was in my small room reading the concept of total internal reflections and how drivers on the highway during the intensity of sun often come across the illusion of non-existent rivers at the other end of the road. It truly intrigued me. And here was poetry presenting to me in another light, through the power of language, the deception of this illusion as an arbiter of sorrow, longing and an unending futile search for succor, on whose unfertile head, dreams die.
Amu Nnadi had of course not admitted to any intimate knowledge of physics, and his simple explanation was that he read widely and had a curious mind. This was further strengthened by his background in mass communication, a field which encouraged its adherents to read widely. This answer did not satisfy my curiosity, typical of an artist, to get to the bottom of the secret of how great arts were created.
This is something I would later come to realize I share with Amu Nnadi, when, over a year later, he told me the best way to read is not just to understand what is written, but to ponder on how it was written. From my conversation that evening with Amu Nnadi, and as is obvious from his works and the themes he explores, I established that he was a poet who simply wrote his poems as a continuous conversation with, and about, everything which affects him; both intrinsic and extrinsic. It is not at all peculiar.
Most of his poems, for instance, border on love and grief, in the bracket of his encounters with himself, other people and nature. These encounters are themselves embedded in the very itinerary of the life of an artist. He writes love poems as metaphors of his encounters, as an expression of the feeling of love which mostly drives his muse, as well as of the residual melancholy known by all lovers. Also, he writes as a sad memorial to places.
“I am hardly happy,” he told me, “when I am away from Nigeria.” Then he tells me a story of one of his times in Barcelona, a city he has, in retrospect, come to love. And how he had written the poem, ‘sara‘. He had been feeling homesick, because he struggled to enjoy the training which brought him to the city, by virtue of his affiliation with the NDDC. And then, he met the lady, Sara Morales Bolivar, who was a poet too. They both spent time reading poetry, especially that of Pablo Neruda, whom they both love.
The very first stanza of the poem bears witness to this story. It begins by striking many beautiful familiar imageries: “today for you, pedrables is a rare resort/ through tree-lined streets, sun saunters/ a smiling tourist with clicking shutters/ carrying shopping bag laden with rays/ on treetops, fire of flowering pheromones/ like the wine glass of sonnets at sunset/ which we shared, devotees of a love god/ with whose name stars forged a diadem…”
The poem is beautiful, perhaps, one of the finest Amu Nnadi has written. But it is beautiful in a way only few of his poems are not, because of its misleading simplicity. It is written as a love poem, but it is not really a love poem. It is an exploration of an encounter, using love as a metaphor. For this reason, the poem appears in the section titled “encounters“, instead of “blossoms“, where the love poems appear. This, according to Amu Nnadi, has frequently been a source of misunderstanding to readers who have often come to him to know why some ‘love poems’ do not appear under the session of love poems.
There is beauty in Amu Nnadi’s poetry. And for different readers, it differs what this beauty is. It is, for me, the amazing imageries in which the experiences are presented, on a heightened level of language. Some of them are capable of bringing to mind familiar experiences in renewed beauty. The line in ‘sara’, which says “through tree-lined streets, sun saunters” reminds me of the long evening walks on the pedestrian paths, lined with dogonyaro trees, which, when trying to clear my head of tumultuous thoughts, I often took in my undergraduate days at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka.
But, this time, I am arrested by the memory, because it appears more beautiful through the eyes of poetry. The effect of the poem brought to mind the words of Philip Pullman, the British writer of the trilogy, His Dark Materials. He once said that poetry is like an incantation which changes its reader. Indeed, one is drawn to Amu Nnadi’s expressive style of writing, which uses picturesque images posing as affecting metaphors, often bearing a musical strain to their quality.
Amu Nnadi’s habit of writing poems as a relay of his mental relation to everything around him is evident in his admiration for T.S Eliot. “The Beautiful thing about T.S Eliot,” he tells me on our first meeting, “is that Eliot developed his poems so much that his poems became a conversation about everything.” He had, about a year later, in one of the editions of the Port Harcourt Literary Society open mic events, where he is the poet-in-residence, admitted that he admired Pablo Neruda because he wrote odes to everything. These latter influences might account for the reason he writes poetry the way he does.
Amu Nnadi has some interesting views on how readers who want to be good writers should read. A year and half later, when we have another personal meeting at the café of Elomaz Hotel in Asaba, he tells me: “I often find myself pondering on how a thing is written, more than what is written. When a sentence strikes me, I go over it again and again to see how it was come about.” And for him, it did not have to be a poetry collection for a poet. It could be a novel. He confesses going over many sentences in novels like William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude and Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters, pondering: “How did a mind conceive such thoughts.”
Our discussions have not failed to reveal his love for classic literature. In our first meeting, he had told me: “What makes a work of art profound is that one hundred years from now, you pick it and when you read it, it is still profound. And how do you write such works of art? It is by continuously writing, reading and studying the great writers and how they accomplished it.” I find that these words have in some ways influenced how I read writers, particularly classic writers like Hemmingway, Greene, Orwell and others who have either their lifestyle well recorded in their diaries or had a great deal to say about the books which inspired them and how they managed to make of the art of writing a lifestyle.
Amu Nnadi has some almost revolutionary ideas about poetry. At first, he wrote poetry with small letters and without punctuation. In an interview with Uche Peter Umez for African Writer magazine, he cited the reason for this as his belief that the artist does not fully own his art, as they only come through him, and so cannot claim full ownership. He has often cited that his first poem came to him in a dream. This philosophy is the school of thought behind Amu Nnadi writing his poems in small letters.
He also rejects the tag of African writer, because of his belief that art is too transcendental to be defined by race, geography, gender, time and epoch. Here, I have often disagreed slightly with him, not because of the philosophy, but on the politics of identity. Perhaps, in the near future, African writers of repute would have a more serious conversation about this politics of identity and of its importance.
However, in “a field of echoes“, the first section is titled “invocations“, a section containing 16 poems, spanning 38 pages, native in their perception and how they are written. The poet pays homage to his African roots and origins more than he has ever done. Kufre Usanga has written a very fine review about this section of the book. And like his other collections which I have read, there are other sections in the book: “kaleidoscope“, which contains 26 confessional and melancholic poems, partly exploring the theme of solitude.
There is “home and homeland” with 20 poems exploring deserting home, with its resulting nostalgia and emptiness; “encounters”, which pays homage to distinguished artists who have inspired us, like Nadine Gordimer and Maya Angelou. It is also here that the homage to Sara is contained. There is also the section titled “blossoms”, which contains the poems exploring the beauty of love, and the last section, “sighs and signs” with their denotation of love and regret.
Amu Nnadi, like every good poet who has plied his trade steadfastly over the years, has been influenced by many poets. In turn, he has influenced many poets. But it would seem that in the past few years, the influence of the poet, Pablo Neruda has gained a very prominent weight on his art. In “a field of echoes“, poems like “i wake up loving you” and “i love you without reason“, bring this fact to life. Indeed, “i love you without reason” is particularly reminiscent of Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet xvii.
In the love poems one sees the use of horticultural metaphors typical of the poetry of Carribeanean heritage with which Pablo Neruda, in his deeply musical and declarative love poems, created a Spanish atmosphere for his art. Amu Nnadi does a good job in adapting most of these metaphors in creating beautiful love poems. In some instances, he introduces Igbo elements into the love poems, giving them that African authenticity.
So great is Pablo Neruda’s influence on Amu Nnadi that his next collection, due for publication in the second half of 2020, is a collection of 100 love poems titled, “the love chronicles“, in the footsteps of Pablo Neruda’s 100 love sonnets. Amu Nnadi’s collection, unlike Pablo Neruda’s aren’t sonnets, which makes use of one of the traditional metres of poetry. They are love poems written in free verse, the form which Neruda’s poems take on when translated into English.
He has fed a generation of readers with love and has often, in his poems, shared in their anguish. It is, therefore, no surprise that he is one of the most read poets of his generation. Although an argument could be made that in the mainstream, attentions are shifting towards the uprising confessional generation, but true art, like what Amu Nnadi strives to create, transcends generations.
Amu Nnadi is not an easy poet to write about. He has probably published more poems in his six collections than most poets will publish in ten collections. The poems are often divided into sections of reoccurring themes, the styles evolving and the use of imageries and metaphors gaining a new skin. Perhaps, it is easier to review the collections, in parts like Usanga did to “a field of echoes“. However, the mastery of his art and its evolution has been laid bare from “the fire within” (2002), his first collection, to “a field of echoes“, and will further be unveiled in “the love chronicles” and “eucalyptus“.
There is a lot to feed off Amu Nnadi’s art, and its undisputed capacity to feed its reader with the delight of language. Nowhere is this seen more than in the myriad of young poets who count him as one of their influences. I have certainly gained a lot from reading him. I have also found in my discussions with him that same thing which one finds in every artist worth his salt; the hunger and passion to create art which transcends what has been created. One always finds great inspiration in these kind of encounters, just like Amu Nnadi has done in his encounter with his predecessors: Maya Angelou, Gabriel Okara, Christopher Okigbo, Nadine Gordimer, Pablo Neruda, T. S Eliot and so on. He passes it to his readers.
For what is art, but a continuous stream of the beauty of the world, encapsulated in language and visuals, passed across to great minds and eyes and also passed down the ages for the unending relish of humanity? The poet Amu Nnadi has done his bit in poetry, showing us the light, in a topic the generation before his, and indeed, his, has had little time for; the beauty of love and the headiness of personal grief.