I first read JK Anowe’s Ikemefuna Tributaries last night, three years after its publication as the first chapbook in the Praxis Magazine Online Chapbook Series, after I’d just finished perusing his most recent work, A Sky Raining Fists.
After these readings, the reader quaintly perceives JK Anowe’s vision to seek truth in its primordial form. In Sky Raining Fists, he reflects this need to ask, and to question, even when answers may never come. In Ikemefuna Tributaries, we see the bourgeoning of this need – to know – even if it means an immolation of a part of himself. He confronts the principalities, mutters prayers to gods that he does not trust; and his saints and angels are often as broken as he feels.
Ikemefuna Tributaries: A Parable of Paranoia is an 11-poem collection that speaks to society; it paints the human situation in its greyish, smoggy setting. The title re-enacts the tragedy of the unlucky lad Ikemefuna in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart who is killed by Okonkwo, his guardian, to fulfill a ritual of appeasement. Ikemefuna’s story, like other subplots in the tragedy of Okonkwo’s life, is often ignored, except for his role as sacrifice in the war of blame between the people of Umoufia and Mbaino, and his influence in the life of Nwoye, Okonkwo’s first son. Where this chasm exists—the untold tribulation faced by Ikemefuna, Anowe investigates. He takes us beyond the death of Ikemefuna, into the afterlife, before his arrival in Umuofia, into the motivation and the consequences of his shed blood, as well as the question of the peace his death supposedly brings.
The first poem ‘War gongs’ laments about the wars humanity suffers, even as Ikemefuna’s sacrifice is supposed to have brought peace. In this place, Anowe compares Ikemefuna to a failed sacrificial lamb – another King’s Horseman who fails in his duty. But unlike Soyinka’s horseman, this saviour fails not because he could not fulfill his duty but because he is not “the Christ.” He has no sacrificial credentials: ‘your blood cries louder than abel’s/ yearning for the eyes of God’s ears . . .’
As a Nigerian who has experienced the inadequacies of government, and a witness to how narratives change and shape truth in history, Anowe is a chronicler of history in the poems; he compares the hypocrisy of government to that of the people of Umuofia and rejects its position to be lorded over by its law.
In the second poem ‘Sheep’, we are faced with the poet’s anger at the injustice of history on the victim – the many faceless men and women on the downside of society. ‘Our fathers are unforgiving’, he says, and he castigates wars that divide and wipe out families. To escape all this, Anowe implores to Ikemefuna:
intercede for us
for naked gods
cannot clothe us.
The question now rises: who does Ikemefuna intercede to? If the gods are deaf and have become naked, which higher power receives Ikemefuna’s intercession? As the gods fail the human race and are no longer relevant, Anowe expresses spiritual dissatisfaction. In ‘Communion’, he says,
crumb for crumb
love is dead
as are the gods
deaf with fear.
Anowe uses language with a hand of mastery, not to paint pictures for the sake of beauty; his verses claw your palates until you feel his innermost emotions, as the last two stanzas of ‘Wolves’ shows:
pray for us
kneel for us
that the devil
may not be sent
to do God’s work.
You don’t this read and pass. Instead, you stop, sit up and think on it. What does it mean for the devil to do God’s work? What is God’s work? The line whispers to the book of Job where Lucifer asks God for permission to torment the eponymous protagonist, Job. Anowe makes his words memorable in this regard just as it makes it timeless.
Ikemefuna Tributaries can be read as a criticism of the politics of the day. Ikemefuna is seen as witness in some places, then an intercessor; a victim of fascist aristocrats who ruin the sanctity of life in their pursuit of power. In its rendition through the length and breadth of a country’s shame and wars of blame, Tributaries is the story of a man who sits with a friend and tells the friend that since he left, nothing has truly changed – and in leaving, he achieved nothing. Anowe presents this man to us to castigate society for its failings, and to all of us, including himself, and the gods, for the roles that we have played in ensuring that atrocity remains perpetuated.
14th Nov. 2019
About The Author:
Oka Benard Osahon is a Nigerian writer. Though known for his poetry, he has ventured in recent times into short story writing. He writes for self-therapy, to say the things he cannot speak from his lips and to paint pictures of the society he lives in. His poetry can be found in literary spaces like Brittle Paper, African Writer, Kalahari Review, Grotesque, Kikwetu, Praxis Magazine Online, among others. His first book, a collection of short stories is forthcoming on Praxis Books.