Chrysanthemums for Wide-Eyed Ghosts

Two Japanese poems shall be quoted in the course of this review. The first, translated from a haiku, reads: ‘No one spoke/The host, the guest/The white chrysanthemums’. What moment did this poet, Ryōta, capture in these lines? Was it a funeral, a visit to a grave? Silence is evoked here; the silence that reaches for the timer in your heart and stops you. Or perhaps the haiku is relatable to the line in Echezonachukwu Nduka’s collection: ‘I know how language shrinks spaces between strangers’. Is silence what is left after the estrangement death causes between the bereaved and the departed? And how does the poet, perennially tortured by a burden of memory, cope with this question? It’d seem that Echezonachukwu Nduka is in this position in Chrysanthemums for Wide-eyed Ghosts.

In ‘Inside the Old Room’, the second poem in the collection, Nduka tries to reach for the memory of his Grandpa through the latter’s belongings: ‘Grandpa’s chair bears forbidden histories/from his weight, the rust on its metal arm/and one lost leg which now makes it a/three-legged artifact’. He asks further later in the poem, ‘How does a name reconcile with its bearer who now breathes dust?’ Nduka may grapple with this question; we may too. But as you read his collection further, you sense Nduka’s desperation to an inverted celebration of grief. (He invests in a way to look at grief from another lens, through a periscope perhaps.) To death, sour tales of love, to beer bottles, to life. And the celebration of music.

In this journey through grief there are quite a number of poems to pick. So let’s start with ‘Cycle’: ‘A lady learns what it means to leave/the stage too early, armed with her script/and an unwritten song lying somewhere/at the corner of her heart’. (Silence is evoked here, too.) So when she leaves, the poet writes, ‘This, here, is where the cast of the eternal show is auditioned’. In ‘Grief In Two Movements’, we read, ‘You ask if he hears the voice of God/and he answers with a whisper/He reaches down into himself to pluck/a voice he never owned . . . How does a child say his name when he doesn’t know he’s got a voice?’ Here, the poet grieves about a starving boy begging in the street, whose God from Sunday school hasn’t sent a morsel of bread. The boy tears off the Book of Job from his Bible, wears no shirt for days, starves and calls his situation fasting, ‘until his ribs threaten.. to tear his skin’. Nduka asks, ‘Do angels sing in monotones to a boy on an empty stomach?’ In ‘The Blind Pianist’, there’s Nduka’s inclination to grief, too: ‘There is a blind pianist/who plays all night in my street’s only bar/His coat smells of tobacco and history’.

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‘I will awake only to the tolling of bells from St. Benedicts belfry/to find my way to church cemetery where bones of saints speak/through black ants processing on tombs, through scents of flowers decorating/the dead, or through the gentle passing breeze that whistles a sad tune’: In these lines Nduka is still trafficking in death poetry, evoking the immanence of grief, loss. This excerpt is Part IV in the first series of the poem ‘Where the Road Leads’, which is divided into The First Road, The Second Road, and The Third Road. By now you should know that Nduka is loquacious. His oeuvre is not preoccupied with condensed language; he aspires to fluidity rather: his poetry arrives on the page straight from feelings, unfettered by any struggle of style. More to this, you can say his poetry evokes the oral form of African traditional poetry: ‘To search your eyes is to play a game of numbers, counting/backwards and asking God to raise the dead again’.

Or you can say his poetry is suitable for performance: ‘I have learned to walk out of my dreams when strangers/intrude to recount how they don’t miss their stay on earth’, or ‘. . . There’s only one way to/upset a stranded ghost: whistle back when you hear a whistle at night’. I took the painstaking task to count the lines in this particular poem: 54/56. The title is ‘Living Near St. Vincent De Paul Cemetery’. Reading it on the page is the first movement of a classical piece; watching it performed is all the movements completed.

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Nduka’s profession as a classical musician interferes in his creation of imageries in some places. In one poem, angels at the gates of light ‘write a new chorale/under pressure like Salieri scoring confutatis in Amadeus’; in another, ‘I have often lost myself in the first verses/of song I detest . . . and the tenth attempt at playing a page/of Chopin’s polonaises’.

Enter love and heartbreak: ‘Dry petals, broken filaments and anthers/Make mockery of my balcony/These flowers tell poignant tales’; ‘When love storms the hearts of men/What weathers it?’ Nduka chooses to write only on his heartbreaks (c’mon, man, what about the butterflies?) But when he does this, his persona is not celebrative, as with grief. The broken-down, inner man reveals himself more. The title of one of these heartbreak poems is revealing: ‘Say Me Well To My Long Lost Love’; quoted above is from ‘Love Is Death’. There’s almost a hopeless lad here: ‘It wasn’t the peck on my left cheek/That brought tears to my eyes/Rather, the loudness of your silence/when my heart yearned for your words’. So if Nduka is more inspired to write about loss, does it mean his persuasion as an artist is reconstructive, seeking to rebuild, or recreate with the imagination, the lost, as a way of exorcising self from the burden of memory, attachment, like perhaps, as a classical musician, he’d traffic in music with these capabilities?

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If I was to choose my best poem, it’d be ‘Sister’s Song’, a 12-line poem about a girl who finds out that hoping to find her first love may not be as Dami Ajayi puts it, the American movie we all aspire to. Nduka situates the poem within the language of music: the girl in the poem, Sister, sings of love she hopes to have at eighteen, but in the morning (metaphor) after she experiences a bad tryst through the night (metaphor), washes the nightmare off. ‘In the shower she sings better than Beyoncé’ (Adele’s Set Fire to the Rain?). Her love is rather in ‘her womb tapping at the wall/which births this song that kills my poem’. To Nduka, ‘Sister’s Song’ is better experienced as a piece of music to heal the hurt it bears upon his mind and how it best describes the mood the poem carries. In the last line he tells her, ‘Don’t sing again’. 

But what are ‘chrysanthemums for wide-eyed ghosts’? This title is reminiscent of Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, when you consider that both deal with the ritual of using flowers to mourn death. The title is taken from one of the poems in the collection, which is a poem of mourning: ‘What I have not told you is that the man/in black is the newest funeral home in town . . . I learnt to say farewell/in dialects spoken by exchanging chrysanthemums and/listening to Liszt’s liebestraum . . .’. However, in the second Japanese poem I quote, chrysanthemums bear a different meaning: ‘The white chrysanthemum/Is disguised by the first frost/If I wanted to pick one/I could find it only by chance’1. The serenity captured here is arresting. To one poet in a different time and place, chrysanths are for wide-eyed ghosts, while to another they are for serenity and nature’s beauty. Both usages evoke silence. Both are saying something to us, telling us how language shrinks spaces between strangers, building bridges of communion. But Nduka’s preoccupation through the collection is to build a bridge across the sea of grief. He does this by imagining grief as a forerunner, departures as ‘doors opening to new dreams’■

Note

1. By Japanese poet Ōshikochi No Mitsune (c. 900), quoted from Kenneth Rexroth’s One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. The first Japanese poem quoted in the beginning of the review is also from Rexroth’s.

WATCH THIS SPACE FOR REVIEWS BY CARL TERVER, OF THE LATEST POETRY COLLECTIONS FROM NIGERIA. Up Next: Review of Umar Abubakar Sidi’s The Poet of Dust. Previously published was review of Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún’s Edwardsville by Heart

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