JP Clark: The Weeping Poet Passes On

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The death of a poet provokes once more the problems of a country in search of its soul. Nduka Nwosu writes of his personal encounter with J.P. Clark, his works and worries for his dear country

Iremember Kiagbodo. Andy Akporugo had asked me to proceed to Kiagbodo his maternal home where his great grandfather Chief Bekederemo was known for his interaction with the white man in the slave trade era.
The relics of that expedition would be part of a museum designed for tourist attraction, he argued. This was part of the subject of a family reunion and the adoption of that name by the larger family. I was to cover the event for The Guardian exclusively. My first contact was Chief E.K Clark and later JP who invited me to his country home across the Kiagbodo River. The canoe man was right on time for the visit. The fascination was the location, a countryhome by the river in a thick forest. The library was rich and the architecture of the one storey building simple. JP warned me to beware of dangerous bees that stung to submission a curious British journalist insistent on waiting to see a resident python that lives in a hole inside the compound, some benevolent spirit, that is.

All through my years at the University of Lagos in the 1980s, I followed JP Clark the same way I followed WS, Achebe, Ike and a host of other literary giants. Dele Giwa had created a column called Art/Life in the Daily Times for literary discourse with me, Ama Ogan, Richard Ikiebe, Coker Onita as regular contributors. JP and his wife who was a head of department at the Faculty of Arts became my regular beats. When his play The Boat was showcased at the Unilag Arts Theatre, it provided an evening delight for students. I was at his home, office and the Pec Rep, his regular theatre at the Museum Centre sponsored by corporate Nigeria. His Fulani Cattle kept me guessing who JP was until I met him. I had to visit an abattoir to follow d journey of a cow to its ultimate demise. When JP acquired a home at GRA Ikeja, I was there to interview him on a project in the works. We eventually lost contact but the memory lingered. JP Clark has been described as d most lyrical of Nigeria.

JP Clark has been described as d most lyrical of Nigerian poets for his celebration and characterisation of Africa’s physical landscape. His critics say his works exhibited a strong presence of classical Greek literature, a characterisation anchored on unrealistic stage structures. The JP School argues by such eclectic devices he leaves the audience to complete d act through a combination of d foreign and d homebred, creating a synthesis, the third point of d triangle which is a unity of purpose. I have searched to find the literary equivalent of JP on the global literary sreen to no avail. Did he share a few things with the great Vaclav Havel who dominated Czech literature while an active writer and active participant of the Prague Spring or the Russian short story writer Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn. These two were largely social crusaders who took part in one revolutionary change compass or the other. Interestingly Arise television featured JP hgely at a time the Nigerian youth is on the street in the style of Occupy Nigeria under President Goodluck Jonathan asking for change which the ruling party promised but has failed woefully to deliver.

There is something in the literature of JP that advocates for change without the change mantra. His demise at this crucial moment lends a cautionary tale to our problems as a nation in searh of actualization. What are the feelings of average Nigerians who experienced the Civil War?
They would probably share with Clark-Bekederemo feelings of anxiety, unhappiness, loss, and desolation in relation to the death and destruction consequent to the bloody fratricidal war of thirty months.
And already
They are a cache certified it
For hurling at the ogre
They all see in the dark
Night falls over us
And already
They are a cache certified it
For hurling at the ogre
They all see in the dark
Night falls over us
And already
They are a cache certified it
For hurling at the ogre
They all see in the dark
Night falls over us
And already
They are a cache certified it
For hurling at the ogre
They all see in the dark
Night falls over us
Expectedly, a literary giant from the black race, Clark has been the subject of scholarly dissertations from critics and admirers. Aderemi Bamikunle for example wonders between drama and poetry, where has JP been more effective in addressing societal ills and proffering solutions. Drama made Clark popular on the big screen, he argues, whereas his poetry is more striking as an artist. That is from the lens of one man. However poetic relevance in addressing the issues of the day may well be a reason the critic would pitch his tent with Clark’s poetry. Pre-independence his collection of works as a poet were primarily vested on colonial concerns and the quest for freedom. Many writers and poets of his time were exploring the impact of colonialism on the once dark continent.

While the politicians like Agostinho Neto using his Movement for the Total Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and his poetry in the Song of Hope or Leopold Sedar Senghor of Guinea a distinguished poet of his time who with others proposed the philosophy of negritude, were in the trenches fighting for independence, the likes of Clark, Soyinka, Achebe et al became avante gardes of African literature all addressing the ugly side of colonialism. That partly explains why post independence JP became a visible fighter with an inky pen hugely reflected in his popular A Reed in the Tide while in Casualties the pre-colonial and post-colonial issues of independence and Republicanism mutated into a larger issue of the black race not able to manage its freedom to the advantage of the hoi polloi.In resolving these contradictions, JP’s Ivbie A Song of Wrong could be seen as a narrative of resolution between the past and the present. He wonders loudly how a so called colonial master will bring light to its defined dark continent when it has destroyed the culture of the people in preference to Christianity with a Bible in one hand and on the other a group of adventurers with guns and intent to loot the commonwealth of the conquered native who has abandoned his religion and like Solomon taken to the worship of a foreign God.

The whipping headmaster turns to his downtrodden race asking where this rainfall started beating them. So your god cannot fight for you because he is a clay footed god, recaptured differently by Bruce Onabrakpeya in Igurube, the return of the benevolent spirit? Could it be the African failed to obey his ancestors when he started wining and dining with these colonial masters, accepting their Phoenician gifts, too tempting to be ignored?
While he flogged his kinsmen with unrelenting indictment, Chinua Achebe characterized the wisdom of the native when Ezeulu in Arrow of God sent his son Oduche to understudy the white man’s culture just so that some day it may be the path to glory. The first white man sighted in Umuofia was killed since it was abominable to the gods seeing such a figure in the land.
It is also arguable if the native, the waterside man in this context, abandoned his gods. New religions, cults and clubs have since emerged with all the imprimateurs of Molech, the god who accepts infant sacrifice for dinner, like Okonkwo sacrificing Ikemefuna to the gods.

Thus where the western style of education stopped, the native looks up to his gods to steer him along the turbulent path of life. JP himself proceeded to America to acquire further knowledge. We remember at this time America, Their America, a travelogue on his terminated fellowship at Princeton. It is interesting JP presented to Chimamanda Adichie Thisday’s Woman of the Decade award. Chimamanda in her acknowledgement said: “JP Clark’s poetry means a lot to me – and to my character Obinze in AMERICANAH! Thank you to Thisday Newspapers for naming me ‘Woman of the Decade’.

As Bekederemo Pepper Clark returns to Kiagbodo, his ancestors are waiting to celebrate his huge presence in the literary landscape while here. His exit leaves WS as the last of the titans, the three musketeers-Achebe, Soyinka and Clark in the Nigerian literary space. May be, just may be, JP had the Nigerian space in mind when he wrote The Fulani Cattle. Could this be a personification of Nigeria, a cautionary tale, to a nation in search of its soul? We may well reflect on this having Nigeria in mind as we read a few lines from the famous verse:
Contrition twines me like a snake
Each time I come upon the wake
Of your clan,
Undulating along in agony,
Your face of stool for mystery:
What secret hope or knowledge,
Locked in your hump away from man.
Imbues you with courage
So mute and fierce and wan
That, not demurring nor kicking,
You go to the house of slaughter?