Stephen Kekeghe’s poetry collection, Rumbling Sky, could not have come at a better time than now. Few months ago, Nigerians woke up to a volcanic outburst of a long simmering rage of the youth against the nation’s leadership. While the youthful ire streamed to the streets, broke exclusive boulevards and agitated the men of arms and their masters, it also reechoes a long thread of prescient poetic meditations. From Okigbo to Osundare, Ojaide and Ofeimun, Nigerian poets have been consistent in reiterating the gross discontent of the Nigerian masses to the malaise of misrule and outright impunity of the Nigeria’s ruling class. The Nigerian poetic culture has been dominantly coloured by societal angst against the jejune political leadership. Poetic creation, then, becomes a patriotic commitment. In this collection, Kekeghe has extended the depiction of the political malfeasance and general societal implosion with a lucid portrayal of various repugnant instances of a deplorable society.
Published by Kraft Books, Ibadan in 2020, Rumbling Sky is divided into three parts, each of which takes a hard look at various facets of Nigeria’s grim sociopolitical realities. The first part, titled, ‘… of Power and Wreckage’ starts off with a straight swipe on leadership failure in the country and the consequences that manifest in various horrific incidents that pervade the Nigerian landscape in recent time. Studded with ghoulish and nightmarish imagery, ‘Hovering Horror’, the first poem in the collection, succinctly depicts the dread and despair of the life of Nigerian masses. In the very first line of the poem, the persona laments, ‘We are in the hollow belly/ of the murky sky …’. ‘Hollow belly’ in this context connotes many and varied negative portraiture of the sky. The sky turns from its dazzling azure to a distasteful murkiness, not even a cloudy one with its possible connotations of some futuristic assurances. The sky is murky and hollow, clear proof of odious pessimism and menacing gloom. The outright result of all this is the anguish that weighs down on the shoulders of the persona. Images like ‘cemetery of dumb ghost’, ‘callous caretakers’ and ‘owls’ song’ provide the gory pictures craftily painted and the gross horror that permeate various facets of the society being depicted. The gloom and terror are clearly orchestrated by the nation’s rulers, who are obviously the ‘…hovering predators/ that prey on insects/ in search for survival/ on crooked trunks’. The use of the parasitic relationship between predators and preys to define the relationship between Nigerian leadership and its followership conjures a frightful feeling that robs hope and establishes fear at the centre of Nigeria’s transactional politics. While this can easily be seen in the way public fund is gleefully squandered and diverted, the common sight of hefty gun-wielding men, boisterous fierce-looking security agents, armed to the tooth in the presence of men of power appears to be the most obvious instance of this relationship. In other words, the author illuminates the intention of the Nigerian ruling class to always extend its self-preservatory tendencies to the arrogant and total disregard of the basic welfare of the masses.
The involvement of the downtrodden themselves in perpetuating such rancorous system is what the author refers in the fourth stanza of the poem, “Hovering Horror”, as ‘A cavern of crazy demons/ where ballots are burnt by yoked youths/ who thug and waste away/ till eternity…’. This first poem clearly defines the tone and thematic preoccupation of the other poems in this part. For instance, the second title, “SteamofSorrow”, depicts the gruesome horror of the activities of the insurgents that have ravaged the Northern part of Nigeria for more than a decade now. The ‘haramers’ which are direct consequences, if not a clear creation, of inept and misguided leadership steal ‘our moon/ and gift us a sad sun’. Kekeghe clearly captures the misfortune of the presence of these horrendous marauders in the land. While “The herders”, proclaims a stiff condemnation of the persistent herdsmen and farmers clash, “Rumbling Sky” decries various streams of crass misdemenaour, cruel outburst of social malevolence and general social degeneration on the malfeasant leadership that has woefully failed to direct the conscience of the people. The failure of the Nigerian leadership in the forthright display of exemplary leadership, unquestionable integrity and charitable justice and fair play appears to be the fulcrum of the myriad of instances of social decay and obtrusive manifestation of various social ills. From “Their Pandemic”, “Parades of madness”, “The absolutists”, “The ballots”, “These Youths are lazy”, “An errand”, “This dance of a python”, “Face of prejudice”, “IDPs’ opportunists”, “Trump trumpets”, “The Colour and continents” to “Twilight of dreams”, Kekeghe gives a poetic breath to many sociopolitical realities of our contemporary time. He depicts the political duplicity of the ruling elite, the naivety of the misinformed masses and then historicizes some of the fast fading incongruous moments of our recent past.
The second part of this collection delves into one of the irresolvable paradoxes of the nation. Aptly entitled ‘… of boom and doom’, this section portrays the internal contradictions that define the illogical disaster of the oil wealth. While this has stirred intense poetic engagement among many writers, especially those from the Niger-Delta area of Nigeria, ranging from Gabriel Okara, Tanure Ojaide, Ogaga Ifowodo, Ebi Yeibo, Ibiwari Ikiriko and many others, Kekeghe gives a renewed and pulsating depiction to the gross neglect of the hazards of oil exploration in this oil rich region. The first title in this part of the collection, “The Boom” reveals the severity and the totality of the oil ruin. Here, the poet reveals the deadly effects of the activities of these explorers on the human and non-human inhabitants of this environment. According to the poem, ‘In the wilting mangrove,/ gas flares freeze your breath,/ darken your lungs and livers/ and crude crawls into your waters,/ meanders into your lands/to choke your fishes / and kill your crops’. While many writers focus on the environmental degradation of the oil rich delta region, no many take cognizance of the debilitating health risks directly imposed by the activities of the oil explorers. Kekeghe’s depiction in this part of the poem directly links two fast emerging areas of literary studies: Eco-criticism and Medical Humanities. Scholars interested in these areas of literary discourse will definitely find the book invaluable. Without losing sight to the gross mismanagement of the proceeds of the oil by rapacious politicians and ravenous oil merchants, the poet continues to lament on the burden, the scars on the environment in the subsequent title, “Black blood”. In this title, the allusions to the chilling murder of Ken Saro Wiwa, one of the foremost environmental activists in Niger-Delta, the ‘slain paupers’ of Odi, the quelling of Sapele uprising, and the shenanigans surrounding the handling of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) chronicles some of the recent brutal and maniacal attacks against revolutionary voices in this part of Nigeria. The poet’s recourse to metaphysical influences in “Darkening cloud” and “Tarrying tears” is a clear indication of frustration, some sense of capitulation or a retreat, at best. In “Tarrying tears”, for instance, the persona invokes fiery war gods of the Urhobo and the Ijaw people to avenge for the people as the voices of resentment from the people have been met with vicious suppression. In “When can we be sane?”, Kekeghe juxtaposes the rich oil fields with the abject poverty that coexist within the environment where the nation’s mainstay emanates from. In order to depict the palpable inhumanity and grueling injustice that inhabit in this quarter the poet identifies real places like ‘Erhioke Oil Field’ and the ‘broken huts’ that surround it, ‘Otorogu-gas plant’ and the ‘heinous hunger/ and decaying huts’, ‘Alakiri gas plant’ and the ‘wilting humanity’ and many others instances. In a determined intent to show hope amidst heart-wrenching pessimism, Kekeghe reassuringly insists, ‘In the mist of our tears/ shall beam the sunrise of smiles’ for his Niger-Delta compatriots. Through this way the poet has greatly enriched the bourgeoning literary tradition on the Niger-Delta as well as the fast-growing eco-critical literature in the poetic genre.
The last part of this collection deals with the general and variegated daily drudgery of every day existential challenges. Titled ‘… of pains and triumph’, the poet weaves a diver flurry of hope and despair, anguish and triumph, dense silence and chattering chaos that undulate in different spheres in the journey of life. In this last part of Kekeghe’s poetry collection, the first title, “Burden of being”, a poem of about one hundred and seventy lines, encapsulates the pains and anxiety of daily toils as man pushes ‘through the snaky tracks/in the cloudy climate’ of existence. Other poems in this category explore various themes of diverse interests. While “Abraka of broken memories” is a reminiscence of the daily challenges of the campus life, the hunger, the academic tasks that make student struggle from dusk till dawn with lean pocket, some other poems are sad farewells to friends that passed on in their prime. The last poem, “One day the will hear my voice” is a vent of hope, a rejuvenating reassurance that despite the exasperate realities of the present time, that the persona will rise from the ashes of the present moment.
The most reverberating emotion that runs through Kekeghe book is justified indignation. Devoid of Greco-Roman allusions and abstruse linguistic constructions, Kekeghe combines local colour, lucid and riveting imagery with elegant simplicity to bring his message straight to the heart of the masses. It is curious to note, however, that despite the diverse dimensions that these poems cover, that the melancholic give no room for merry. There appears to be a constituent gnashing of teeth in these poems that the tender feeling of love and the gleeful cheers of celebrations are hardly traceable. This evidently demonstrates the revolutionary temper of the poems which is bent on convulsing the public into a new awareness for them to take back their land from the barbarous rulers of the land. It is heartwarming that when the number of renowned poets appears to be depleting, especially, with the recent death of J.P Clark, the like of Kekeghe are forming the suckers, emerging fast and strong to replace them.
–Nnaemeka Ezema, PhD, writes from the Department of English, University of Ibadan