On Richard Ali’s The Anguish and Vigilance of Things
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We could not imagine danger beneath the silver moon
Shed on virgin beach sand in days when the moon as totem
Kept the evil eye at bay . . .
My friend Larri says he doesn’t trust poetry reviews because reviewers play dice in interpreting poetry. I have felt this way, too. This is seen in mainstream criticism where semi-literary critics skirt around interpretation and indulge in bravura and biographical criticism. Poetry is condensed language—and indeed elusive, so half the time we pretend to understand it, but with charm, as we do over classical music. But the enthusiast is not dissuaded. Take, for example, the lines quoted above:
The moon is given the quality of a totem, symbolic in its role—its light, “a silver,” connotes the shiny quality that brightens the world beneath it, and an assurance of its purity to stay evil. Under the weight of the words “We could not imagine danger beneath the silver moon,” therefore, is an anxiety of the destruction of the moon’s protective powers—the trepidation in the poet’s voice is communicated to us. But this is luck. Richard Ali’s language in The Anguish and Vigilance of Things is not always accessible throughout the collection.
The Anguish and Vigilance of Things by Richard Ali, published in 2017, as a twin to Umar Abubakar Sidi’s The Poet of Dust—the first published works from Konya Shamsrumi—is a meditation over the words, “anguish” and “vigilance.” It has two parts: World: Poems, broken into sections Songs of Light, The Woman God and Songs of Darkness; and Otherworld: Other Poems; forty-three poems altogether.
In Songs of Light the lover in Richard Ali shows himself: a poem for a Fulani girl talks about a “Veil of jasmine” over her face, where “Destiny whispers to dawn.” Her name is Djarabi. In “She-shell,” his willingness to pursue amor leads him to “close my eyes and melt into her dream.” There’s an intimacy with the word “fever,” which Richard Ali applies frequently to his moods and sensations. In A Heart is a Seeking Thing, where he sees the “profile of a girl . . . through a glass window,” and later on “The wind runs through and her body is a chime,” a fever eases his feet away. In Making It Again, about breakups, he writes: “We shred a year and say it’s just numbers / Yet here I bleed blue from yesterday’s clouds.” He uses “fever” again when he says, “I invoke fever in the creaking of swings, thinking / Of Jesus Christ . . .” but his lover has gone to the devil.
Richard Ali’s language is a mixture of Derek Walcott, like clear water, and Wole Soyinka, with the aura of corrugated zinc roofs. We glimpse the former in lines like “Her scent is a cloned idea of New York,” and “Gay butterflies that dance without care / Smear themselves on windscreens”; and in the latter in lines like “Hunger is an arm stretched across the sea, there’s a distance / Over which words will not keep, including formulae.” In the section The Woman God, the poems depict a woman, or girl, as the deity in relationships and reveals man’s supplicant and reverent role to her. In “Flame Lines,” Richard Ali truly adores a certain woman: “This is our place, womb of our story, occult place, primeval / I’m your sole worshipper, my dhikr is yours, my madness yours.”
R.A.’s brooding on anguish begins in the section Songs of Darkness. The first poem is “Suite of Blues”; in it, he grieves over a spell of devastation, feeling helpless at an evil world he cannot right, the last lines, his testimony: “I am not here, I am not. Where I used to be / Rows and rows of dead tulips weep in the sun.” There’s more anguish in the next poem, a dirge, Watching a Girl: for a niece he lost, “Dusk came between times, left a relic”—her memory he lives with. So eight years later he still sees her seesawing on the swing he pushed her on; but there’s more “Demure than I remember . . . her scars are a wall between us.”
“Maybe Things” sends echoes, in the mood it creates, to “Since this breeze began to blow” in Ahmed Maiwada’s 2008 collection, Fossils. Both poems brood on the weight of cities on youthful life. R.A.’s 18-lines poem is vigilant over the lure of dreams promised by the city, the sacrifices to fulfil them and the futility of their pursuit. The wealth of imagery in the poem is unmatched by the other poems.
“No Dancing in the Sudan,” once published in a forgone anthology, The Sky Is Our Earth (2015), appears in The Anguish… as “Song of Girls for the Moon in Darfur,” an elegy about the Darfur conflict that till today haunts the Sudanese people, spilling into acts of war and terrorism. It is this uncertainty and dreariness of life in Darfur that Richard Ali bears his words to with the voice of a girl. (The opening lines of this poem are quoted at the beginning of this essay.) Special criticism is given to the atrocity on women’s body, depicted in visceral imagery: “Satan has cast a spell on all that was certain, scattering / Feet of girls by the weight of guns aimed between our thighs . . .”
Between a woman’s thighs is the passage of humanity’s continuity. It is also an intimate part of her body and assumes the place of the sacred. Richard Ali captures this predicament, inviting us to account for the desecration of this sacredness; almost in a scenario where God asks Adam, “Where are you?” Where are we today in the world, why destroy this gift, woman? For God, religion, power? Why do we steal her dance? This nods to our special situation in Nigeria, where we keep saying the names of girls to a government that harbours no love.
“Maybe you’ll be a rasta someday,” ends Buddha Child, the first poem in the second part of the collection. In it, R.A. uses inversion for a theme that lures an amateur to raise clichés of poverty porn; instead R.A. humanizes the situation. We see a child beggar but his wretchedness is not on display. Rather, he is a child who watches a “fleeting cinema of urban feet,” where he sits “forlorn on a city pavement” in a Buddha squat.
By now we already get the theme, or point: most especially, that the poems in the second part bear the weight of anguish. In The Hourglass of the World, “men shall always be here, but with each cycle, less of them.” In Insha Allah, which references the tension between the British government and the Sokoto Caliphate in the late 1890s that led to a series of military clashes, a son cries for his father: “Their moment came and my father rode out / With a fire in his eyes that never said to me / Insha Allah, I shall return.” This, of course, points to the beginning of the decline of the once great Caliphate.
More poignant is “Now Maiden Spirit Mask,” about the Benin Bronze Head, whose extinction and misfortunate history of its sculptors Richard Ali broods:
When the English soldier
Beheld your grace and grabbed you off our walls
You did not blind his eyes or wither his arm, you were
Pliant, like your sister, Yemoja, who let black slaves pass
Now you sit glassed amidst relic totems . . .
Elegiac in tone, it mourns the extinction of things. Here R.A. ponders on spirituality’s service to humanity. Such scenarios, like the powerful Edo gods relaxing their vehemence to allow invaders—the British—destroy and loot its kingdom, in the Punitive Expedition of 1897, is a conundrum to many Africans. Was the foreigner inoculated from the wrath of our gods? And Yemoja, did she allow safe passage for the slave traders carrying her black children? These concerns, and others, are the weighty anguish, and vigilance, of Richard Ali’s ars poetica in this collection. In a more elegiac tone is his voice over anguish and defiance to the oppression of faith in the last stanza of the poem:
I feel this and know the deep sorrow of descendant fingers
That sculpted you in ivory, and I spit. I’ll go to hell
Damn the old and new gods and fie, uneasy in my knowing
Gods become relics too, refuse and rubbish, as all else.
The last line is a deep cry for the dehumanization of Africa, helpless with its gods during the exploitative years of slavery and colonization; Africa, just as gods, have become a relic, refuse and rubbish, as all else.
There are many allusions and intertextual references: from Remedios the Beauty, to Europa, Hagar’s Mason Dead, a Tamil naiad, Oedipus, Prometheus, Sisyphus, Yemoja, and more. This gives us a window into Richard Ali’s cornucopian mind for great literature, and how this affects his poetry. Is too much knowledge dangerous for a poet? Emmanuel Iduma confesses in his 2012 Gambit interview with Ali as being “knocked down by the weight and compulsiveness of his [R.A.’s] erudition.” Richard Ali’s indulgence can make his poetry so metallic—“Amid synaesthenics, I raise my arms, spanning space / Colours spin like love, my demons hitched like horses”—that he becomes obscurantist. Because of this some of his lines move in a less fluid flow, creating annoying stops. But this doesn’t stop R.A. from arresting us with beauty, too:
This stretch of lines seeks a spell to capture
Private nostalgia of the sun who once saw
A dream lily . . .
Yet, Richard Ali is the last of his kind in our space today. His poetry in The Anguish… elevates itself to the place of an extreme highbrow readership; few readers will have the patience to go beyond the first pages. His voice, however, is important: it provides diversity in a wholesale assessment of contemporary Nigerian poetry♦