The poetry of Joe Ushie
One of Nigeria’s finest writer-scholars, Joe Ushie was born shortly before Nigeria’s independence to his agrarian parents at Akorshie, Bendi in the Obanliku Local Government Area of Cross River State. He belongs to the group of Nigerian poets generally referred to as “third-generation” poets. His agrarian background later, in myriad ways, shaped his lexical configuration as evident in his preponderant use of nature-based imagery. A product of Calabar and Ibadan universities in Nigeria, he currently lectures at the Department of English, University of Uyo in Akwa Ibom State. Ushie is remarkable for his critical undertones on the sociopolitical condition in Nigeria and sAfrica. His background exerts influence on his works, which are experimental in terms of linguistic exploration of discourse-pragmatic features, which, themselves, draw from his immediate society.
Besides demonstrating a good mastery of the use of the English language, and distinguishing himself in both literary and linguistic circles, Ushie is one Nigerian academic and poet who has been involved in championing the cause of the ordinary man. Nigeria’s Cross River State honoured him for his exceptional contribution to the growth and survival of African literature and culture in the Millennial Celebration of 2000.
A member of the Association of Nigerian Authors and a diehard when it has to do with the concerns of the “ordinary” man, Ushie’s active leadership roles both at the University of Uyo Branch and at the national executive level of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) led to friction between him and the management of his university. In spite of this and as one who believes that the humanities must not lose its humanity, he has continued to serve his university in many capacities. Because of his linguistic calibration of ideas and engagement with human issues, Ushie’s works have enjoyed a gamut of scholarly criticisms both by students and established academics within and outside the country.
The bulk of the discussion on Ushie’s poetry has concentrated on how he captures the depleting eco-system. While this is justifiable in the sense that some of his poems (particularly the collection Hill Songs) are concerned with how human activities destroy the ecology, it can also lead to unjustifiably negative conclusions about his writings. There are diverse themes that are given due attention in Ushie’s poetry. So it will not be very appropriate to reduce his writings to eco-criticism. It can equally well be argued that his preoccupation in poetry goes much beyond eco-criticism.
Ushie is an erudite, prolific as well as polemical poet. His writings adequately mirror his unshakable determination to liberate his people from plundering sociopolitical arrangements in his country and Africa as a whole. Since his poetic expedition in the early 1990s, Ushie’s poetry has continued to lament the systemic corruption and abuse of power which causes the gap between the rich and the poor to widen even further. From his debut poem, Popular Stand through Eclipse in Rwanda to Hill Songs – his well-received collection, the theme of man’s inhumanity to man has been the core of his poetic discourse.
The poem “Homo Sappers”, for example, questions injustice in human society: My sword of words unsheathed, I ask/Saddled with restless testicles/When has the dog strangled his loved one? Being outspokenly involved in the affairs of the mass majority, the dehumanization of the people by the state and its coercive forces of oppression and the pitiable wailings of the people thereof, naturally becomes the pond from which Ushie fishes and constructs his poetic vision.
In the attempt to tell us how he is typically concerned about the unending suffering of the mass majority, the poet writes:
From every street I can hear the cry of the widow
from every street I can hear the wail/ of the orphan
from every street I can hear the groan of the weak.
As the above cited poem progresses, Ushie’s use of language becomes quite pragmatic, as it shifts from merely “recording” the various wailings of the people to resenting “those gourmands” who delight in the pleasure of inflicting hardship on the people. The poet’s semiotic configuration of ideas becomes inexcusably tendentious, a vestige of the decadent and treacherous politico-economic arrangement that is nudging his people to the brink of annihilation. Following the poet’s point of view, it will be morally out of place for any creative exercise to ignore the suffering of the people, hence in “My Head,” Ushie asserts his determination to be the spokesperson of the people. He tells us:
My head is a vast kingdom pregnant with revolutions … because she bears the brain that weighs our street’s woes.
We are made to see how his “head” becomes the weigh that measures the peoples’ hardship, hardship informed by man’s continuing callous disregard for follow man. It the can be said that the people’s agony has left ineradicable traces in his writings. Hence, any poetic endeavor, so far as Ushie is concerned, is counterproductive if a poet’s composition fails to reflect on the predicament of the people. It becomes obvious that any convincing explication of Ushie’s poetic use of language must be done in line with the context of human issues from which they emanate. This is connected with the fact that his poems are primarily concerned with the plight of the agonising mass majority.
Stylistically demonstrating how language and literature are mutually reinforcing, Ushie uses lexical truncation to capture the grim existence of the people in “The Exchange” thus:
Beneath the lush foliage of the sand mango tree, we take our turns- old men, old women, ladies; then babies, each brand-ishing a broken fem-ur, a shattered le-g bone, a col-lasped shoulder joi-nt, a tensed shine bone, a twisted ankle- all ready for the bonesmith’s anvil of palms.
The significance of such neologism or verbal resourcefulness is its cinematic presentation of the people’s dismemberment from the commonwealth. The poet’s lexical truncation therefore captures in a far reaching manner a systemic effort by the oppressor to shatter the dreams as well as the aspirations of the masses.
Evidently, language functions as an armoury of ideas which Ushie relies on to rail against the king-ruler and his agents of domination who impose a rigid vision on the people. Ushie’s unapologetic determination to use his poems to free the people from the straggling grips of the oppressor makes him in the poem “Song of Sisyphus” to express his total commitment to engage his poetry as a channel to confront injustice and suffering in every nook and cranny it is heard.
He asks: How can I change my song/ when the claws of that leopard/ on the throne are deep in the/ flesh of our clan’s sheep still/ administering a tiered death? The poet makes his message clear: if there is anything worth “singing,” it is to frontally confront the brutal king-ruler with brutal linguistic expressions: “claws of that leopard,” “tiered death,” “cursed hands,” “gods of war,” “pests,” “ravage” and “swords”; and empathy-laden linguistic items: “flesh of our clan’s sheep,” “our throats,” “our green fields,” and “our natural shield,” to shed light on the people’s destitution. This ability to navigate between two extreme divides within a tight semiotic space is one feature of linguistic craftsmanship that has marked Ushie out as one of Africa’s finest post-Independence poets.
It is important to note that as “that leopard on the throne” continues to luxuriate in the grandeur of absolute power at the grave expense of the mass majority who wallow in unutterable poverty, the poet’s resolve to resist the beastialisation of the people becomes much more forceful. Again, in “Song of Sisyphus,” the poet confirms that: I cannot stop crowing aloud this song/ until the cock pays its terminal toll to nature. / I will sing, I will sing, I will sing same song lifelong (13). The careful handling of nature-related imagery makes the poet’s message much more simplistic and comprehensible. It is worth mentioning that as the tyrant devises strategies to remain in power, Ushie’s linguistic configuration alters in order to ably portray such antics.
Against this backdrop, the worthlessness of literature (poetry in this instance), becomes obvious if it fails to reflect on human problems as well as proffer solutions to the identified problems. While it will begin to seem as though the poet’s primary aim of poeticising is to provoke the populace to take radical and violent actions against the state, Ushie, in the poem “Verse, not blood” succinctly tells us, through effective handling of adverbial clauses and terse deontic modals, of his poetic vision which is primarily to elevate the broken spirit, encourage the weak, bring peace to the troubled, and give hope to the hopeless:
I’ll spill, all ways, verse, not blood
when hunger haunts
when penury taunts/
when health goes gaunt (75)
In an apt pragmatic utilisation of the resources of language, Ushie succeeds in reiterating the existential role of the poet: the moral barometer, the conscience of society, the voice of the voiceless and the bearer of light to areas of darkness. The poet is also an archive. Having in mind the moral responsibilities of poets, “Town Crier” disapproves of poets whose poetic engagements work to sabotage these primordial functions: Haba, town crier. how much is your gain? / We watch your tongue, a river-bed for the/ gushing flood of endless double-talk. / How much is your pain? / How much is your gain? (14) Needless to say, while other poets compose with the motive of making personal gain at the expense of the people’s severe pain, and given the fact that he pitches his tent with his primary constituency, the people, Ushie, in “Poetry on exile,” intimates us that his rationale for writing poetry is his desire for poetry: to beam down its rays/for man to find his path (77).
These lines, which sum up this operational conflation of creative morality and semiotic imagination, are similar to the colossal confessions of the biblical King David. In Psalm 119:105. David pays obeisance to the supremacy of the Word: Thy word is lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. Implicitly, poetry (word) is light that shines on the darkened paths of humanity. Thus, the luminous function of poetry to humankind can hardly be undermined. Ushie goes on to clarify that any attempt to underestimate the incandescent rays of poetry is to allow humanity to flounder in unending darkness.
While an analyst of Ushie’s poetry would be carried away by his wordsmith and linguistic calibration of ideas, the analyst must not undermine the ideological thrust of his linguistic practice. Ideologically, language, in any situation, must perform its liberating-moral function, and for language to do so, it must be written in simplistic and realistic manner. We should not, even in passing, underestimate or neglect the significance of the act of imaginative rediscovery which this conception of linguistic simplicity entails, especially in the face of callous abuse of power and purposeful domination of the people by an oligarchic institution. So doing, Ushie projects the idea that poetry, through the pragmatisation of language, is our most essential instrument in our organisation of experiences and memories. Thus, in “Verse, not blood,” he emphasizes the indispensability of poetry in interpreting our surroundings as we make associations and when we express our inner-most feelings; he says:
Some verse to store our tears
Hard though the times (75)
Besides entrenching the idea that poetry and experience operate simultaneously at multiple layers, the cardinal message communicated is that poetry is the handle of tomorrow.
Ushie’s poetic writings, therefore, offer capacious insights into the link between the writer’s imagination and the semiotic re-configuration of social reality, exemplifying the inseparable meeting point between language and literature. He has continued to show unrelenting interest in the things that concern the “ordinary” people. His acute examination of fear, extreme anxiety, restiveness and relative powerlessness of the people goes a long way toward humanising the daily struggles of many Nigerians/Africans who scavenge to survive in the midst of abundance. Ushie’s poetic sensibilities run the entire gamut of the tropes of the different generations of Nigerian poetry. His polyvalent voice echoes Christopher Okigbo as much as Wole Soyinka and John Pepper Clark. His identification with the oppressed recalls the indicting protest which pulsates in the poetry of Niyi Osundare. His eco-consciousness finds inter-textual links in the poetry of Tanure Ojaide. Ushie’s poetry is a mosaic of the Nigerian poetic imagination.
• Dr. Aboh teaches in the Department of English, University of Uyo.