In his recently launched 121-page book of collection of poetry titled, Dispossessed, James Eze urges his readers to look inwards for the solution to the myriads of problems facing the world. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Looking more combatant in his attire – a red baseball cap, black t-shirt, black jeans trouser and black sneakers – than sporty, James Eze settled down for an interview.
Wasn’t that, after all, why he was in Lagos that Friday, January 17 afternoon? Indeed, it was all part of an uninterrupted publicity blitz trailing the recent high-octane public presentation of his poetry collection, dispossessed (that’s right, in lower case) on Saturday, December 14, in the Anambra State capital Awka.
Subtitled, “poetry of innocence, transgression and atonement”, the 121-page book contains 76 poems and derives its title from one of the poems in the collection. Penning down the verses was, for the former literary editor of a Lagos-based tabloid, a channel to finally break his silence. For a long time, much of his experiences in Nigeria, the pains of his people, their anguish and what he calls “dispossession” have been deeply inscribed in his consciousness. Through being nourished in silence, they have gained enough strength to easily lend themselves to verbal expressions.
“So, the time to break the silence finally came and then I am out in the market square singing,” he declared, waxing poetic. “My song is the clarion call …not only to Nigerians, not only to my fellow countrymen and women but [also] to the world at large. I am asking for more introspection, for more self-examination for us to pay more attention to the things that bind us. What are those things that make us human?”
On the title poem, dispossessed, he disclosed that it had been persistently gnawing at his conscience for the past 15 years. Looming somewhere in his subconscious mind were the horrors of the Nigerian civil war along with the full-blown genocide that preceded it. “Biafra was inflicted on a people who didn’t want any war. It must be understood that my people went to war against their will. It was an attempt at self-preservation, not necessarily self-determination.”
Self-determination, he further argued, only became a necessity, because the people of the then Eastern Region of Nigeria were being hunted all over the country and killed like animals. “They decided, OK, since you don’t want us, maybe we should find new land; a place where peace and justice will reign; a place where we can be ourselves without any fear of extermination from our neighbours.”
To the poet, no Nigerian or African, or indeed any human being, of conscience would remain unfeeling when confronted with “the agony of a people that were murdered in large numbers while the world slept, while the conscious world slept”.
His musings on Biafra dissolved into a critical look at Nigeria. Here was a country, which during its immediate post-independence years, had every reason to look forward to a rosy future. “We had some of the most brilliant leaders,” Eze argued, citing personalities like Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the Sarduana of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello as examples. “So, we had every reason to succeed as a country. Unfortunately, we did not manage that promise well. So, dispossessed looks into what Nigeria had done with the promise of immediate post-independence. How come that from such a pedestal what we have as leaders in Nigeria today is a far cry from what used to be. Have we made any progress forward or are we regressing into a stage far worse than the pre-independence era in Nigeria?”
Moving on to Africa, the poet agonises over the fact that the continent seemed worse off than Nigeria. He alluded to the presence of China, which he accused of making a bold claim on Africa. He specifically decried the fact that “some countries in eastern part Africa are almost facing a serious threat of being taken over by China because of debt”.
Hence, aspects of the poem “dispossessed” beam the spotlight on Africa, asking how well the continent has managed its affairs and chastising it for allowing a recolonisation in the 21st century. In yet another segment, the focus shifts to the rest of the world, as he asks questions like: What is the condition of the black man in the world today? Where is the black man at home today?
In the fourth segment of Dispossessed, he writes: “We have split the atom and conquered the stars/ but not enough tenderness to mend a broken heart/ the black sin is like a wet dream for racists/ madiba and martin spoke into shut ears/ the world has no need for prophets/ how much is a black life worth?/ we need another emancipation proclamation/ the negro is a victim/ but where is the black man truly at home?/ neither in Africa nor in the diaspora/ racial justice is a homeless cloud/ illusionary like a shadow on the wall/ conquest is the only aphrodisiac of the superpowers/ killing and destroying they lay waste our world/is lady liberty the peaceful face of war?/ has the pursuit of happiness become ruination and sadness?…”
Indeed, the threat of war looms over mankind. Ironically, the “lady liberty” – an allusion to the Statue of Liberty, which in the poem symbolises the US and mankind’s quest for freedom – continually fans the embers of this war. Before the unabashed quest for self-interest, peace flees and hides in horror. Prophets emerged from among the people, proclaiming their messages of peace. But, the world paid no attention to them. It is back to the Hobbesian state of nature, where might is right. Still in the poem, the poet says: “we can ignite an inferno and incinerate the world/ but we have no clue how to prevent a mere storm.”
Of course, dispossessed is not just about identifying problems. It also proffers solutions. The reader is urged to search deeper and regain his lost humanity. Eze believes that all Nigerians are dispossessed irrespective of the ethnic group they belong to. “The lot of the average man is the same. All we need is chisel out a workable politics, a humane leadership…A system that puts the human being first, regardless of where he is from.”
Ethnic politics or politics of exclusion, he added, ultimately hurts those who play it. Besides the fact that the system revolves like the musical chair, there is also the danger foisting mediocrity on the people. “Dispossessed is a call for more stern introspection, firmer interrogation. Let’s look inwards.
The solution to our problems is not outwards, they are inwards. We need to tell ourselves the truth.”
Eze hinges his choice of poetry on the fact that he deems it “a potent medium”, not only because of its ability to carry emotion but also because “it delivers its message very quickly, pointedly and poignantly”.
He had written the poems in the entire collection, alongside their titles, in lower case. Explaining why he favours this style, which he traces to E. E. Cummings and his avant-garde experimentation, he said: “I adopted it because it is a telling way to pass along my belief that a life of simplicity, a life without clutter, without the weight of pomposity and arrogance is a life I admire.”
Talking about poetry, his romance with literary genre dated back to his secondary school years. This was when he was first introduced to Gabriel Okara’s “The Call of the River Nun” by his now-deceased English literature teacher, Ikechukwu Odo.
Fast-forward to his years as a journalist in Lagos after his graduation from the Enugu State University of Technology, where he had studied mass communication. His meeting with Nduka Otiono and AJ Dagga Tolar, among other kindred spirits, as well as the inspiration from such poetic luminaries as Christopher Okigbo, Thomas Stearns Elliot, William Butler Yeats, Pablo Neruda, Odia Ofeimun, Niyi Osundare and Ezra Pound, became his literary turning point and the nudge he needed to stomp into the world of literary fame.