Sunday, December 30, 2007

Poetry and the African Diaspora: EEL ON REEF, Uche Nduka

There is all the difference in the world between travel in the relative anonymity of white skin and male and middle-class privilege, and movement within diaspora. Linton Kwesi Johnson brought his dub poetry to England; now Uche Nduka, born in Nigeria, propels his innovative work from the Bremen, Germany. Written in English, without Johnson's deliberate orthography of difference, Nduka's poems in eel on reef invite at first a straightforward reading for the shape and taste of language in familiar form.

But Nduka pushes against his African background and gains a fierce energy from this resistance. He salts some of the work with Nigerian references ("do i mistake the scene / for the mudland irokos of agbor?") while pounding blunt rhythms and fragrantly familiar riffs (the same page of poetry ends with "the bite of bile widens the / jazz of his voracious nights").

Nduka is in fact a percussionist as well as poet and essayist. And the parallel with jazz throughout this volume helps to draw the less straightforward passages into a kind of improvisational music.

there are addresses in trees
where rains go to die.

there are spousal tents
where halo-seekers
wash their toes
and house their grudges.

you're moaning again.
no. i'm like a cat. i'm
purring. i'm happy.

The threats of diaspora's perils also come through clearly. This is from a night poem later in the volume:

brown hairs, black legs
under them,
bootprints bootprints.

There are no titles, no headings, few guidelines other than line breaks and page breaks, and I found the collection felt best to me when reading it as a sequence, a long dance in and out of the shadows. For instance, the next page includes "furtive massacres / amputated legs /swollen necks" and I connect the two pages via the kick of those legs.

Often sexual, always sensual, the lines climb in and out of daily life and its precedents in myth and history: "chibuzo oguekwe, / prepare the cassava / stir the bitterleaf sauce. // nobody crosses the knees / of streams anymore / or waits for us after / school, the way they did / when we were mornings."

Ah "when we were mornings." That's one of the gems here, and there are many.

Chris Abani is the series editor for Black Goat, an independent imprint of Akashic Books -- "The series aims to create a proportional representation of female, African, and other non-American poets." That's a long way from the 1988 formation of the Dark Room Collective, and even a giant step beyond the opportunities flowering from the grounds of Cave Canem. I wish this collection hadn't been freighted with the long and overdone explanation by Kwame Dawes at the start -- so I recommend skipping past those pages and plunging directly into the waves of the poems instead.


Kwame said...

Nice read of Nduka's collection, and I trust folks will enjoy it. I am with you on skipping the introduction--I rarely read introductions or reviews before plunging into a collection. But I do lke to read them afterwards. I trust that my introduction was not too much of an impediment to your pleasure.

One love


Beth Kanell said...

One of the things I particularly liked about Kwame's commentary in Nduka's volume was the attention he paid to the wave and water imagery. I'd have pursued this further in the review, but wasn't sure whether it belonged with the Nigerian aspect of Nduka's writing, or life "across the ocean," or the potent imagery we all nurture in terms of birth and passage. Thanks, Kwame, for giving such care to your foreword (which indeed is well worth reading AFTER the poems...). For those new to the collage of language and imagery in these forms, I think the foreword is especially valuable.