There’s “a dark and wild region” in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and also in Ucheoma Onwutuebe’s “Ise!”; but while it is Satan that languishes through that void in Milton’s epic poem; in Ucheoma’s collection, it is the girl child that is offered to it on a platter of consecrations. As far as the poet’s vision is concerned, this platter is not made of the tangible. In fact, it is not made of the degradable. It is neither raffia-cradle nor skin-shawl. No. This platter is made of sound and song, crafted in the burrows of incantation and libation; and as it is set forth “to traverse / The dark and wild regions / Of this green earth”, its delicate occupant is imbued:
“We anoint your tongue
With the gift of gab” (16)
Ucheoma’s beginning verses tell the story of childbirth. The poet herself is Igbo, and her stanzas echo the infancy rites of her tribe. An incantatory voice in A Child Leaves Home and Childbirth projects facets of African philosophy. The first poem is a bundle of supplications for a newborn. The sentences are idyllic, each syllable so inundated with will, it contests any doubt in the mind that these utterances aren’t the sum of a knowing performance: the naming of a child.
We seal upon your forehead
The mark of our clan (7)”
In some parts of Igbo land, there is a myth which many communities hallow. That myth is that until a child is named, he/she belongs to two kingdoms: that of the living and that of the unborn. Such a conservative hypothesis, however, is not peculiar to the Igbo. The concept that organic entrances, like those of babies, are the sacred outcome of a journey from some other area of consciousness is one of a number of doctrines upon which numerous forms of human faith feed.
A Sikh names the child from the first letter of the hymn a priest sings to reclaim the new being. In Shinto tradition, the child is named in a family shrine to consolidate unsettled essence. Hindus co-opt deity names for the child to ward off evil from the fresh soul. Buddhists do same. In Muslim and Christian cultures, names attributed to God and to religious characters are bestowed upon the child to secure a covenant of salvation on behalf of the gift-in-flesh. Hundreds of Native American tribes conducted naming rituals to bind the child to Nature. Even a medieval Roman Catholic legend once held that if the child died before its parents could pay for its baptism; it was doomed to roam the earth as a firefly or some other bug or beast.
However absurd the epithets of human dogma may be, the common intimation with accepted myth is that babies are travellers, and when they arrive, they must be marked so that they may prosper in a new and different void. And, yes, a name does this. A name grounds.
In A Child Leaves Home, a name is a blessing and “Child” is sealed upon the forehead. The setting is likely to be the compound of the infant’s father, as it is the father that announces the name of the child when the time is right among the Igbo. He says:
“We plant in your hands
The power of enterprise
Begin a season with an ear of corn
And end it with a barnful of grains (22)”
He carries the child with one hand and carries palm wine on the other. He pours libations on the ground, and as he prays for and blesses the child, the people present respond with shouts of “ISE!”, a response equivalent in bearing to the Amen or Amin that is heard after the Christian or Muslim prayer.
Since the images in the first and second work in Ucheoma’s collection make strong references to original village childbirth practices—in the second, we find a provocative anachronism, where a girl child, as opposed to the traditionally touted Boy Child, is revealed and celebrated—it is possible that the poet has written them under a nostalgic burden of memories. In a cosmopolitan world which she is now, presumably, a part of, a world in which the village recedes, she tries to recapture the myth and mirth of birth in evocative rhythm.
Her cosmopolitan stature is evidenced by subtle allusions to Biblical texts in writing her incantations. “We seal upon your forehead /The mark of our clan (7)” is reminiscent of the Seal of God in Revelations, a sign of faithful obedience that marks the forehead of the righteous. “We anoint your tongue (15)” comes from a prayer of the Psalmist David to God. “Serendipity/Shall be your cloud by day and good fortune/The fires that warm you by night (56)” borrows from the imagery of the story of the Israelite journey in the wilderness, where God dwelled with the people as a pillar of cloud by day and as of fire by night. In another place, if the Child dashes its feet against a rock, the rock shall turn to gold. Satan urged Jesus to throw himself down a pinnacle, for the angels will save him, lest he dashes his foot against a rock.
It is tempting to describe “Ise!” as a book of prayers, but it is also a purveyor of missing values. The voice we hear in Childbirth is defiant and resolute, extolling the girl child. For a dare, “may she be provoked to intellectual heights, read till she spews knowledge like her mother tongue.” Ucheoma believes that the gender of a child does not sully the capacities of its mind, and she orchestrates a coup de reality—in the grand celebration of a baby girl—to cement this fact.
Other poems are prayers for seasons of harvest, war, and spite. My Brother Has Erred Me illustrates the superiority of dialogue as a noble means to conflict settlement, as opposed to battle. But if battle proves inevitable, War Song pleads good fortune after grievous fighting. While God of the Harvest is a call to communities to bear each other’s burdens, A Beseechment is a call to Chukwu, the Supreme God to guide the natural course of the world.
A good-natured posture in stride with the delight and darkness of the human condition, without contestation, the incantations and libations in Ucheoma Onwutuebe’s collection can revive societies and, if prayers are answered, humanity can be born again.
Painting source: eatprayandblog.info