Conjuring magical memories of childhood in Ogaga Ifowodo’s ‘Augusta’s Poodle’

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By Anote Ajeluorou

CHILDHOOD is a precious time in everyone’s life. Looking back, it seems fleeting but the memories it engenders are legion and could be sweet or bitter depending on how it was spent. When childhood is sweet and memorable, it is the stuff of great poetry. And Ogaga Ifowodo, a poet of no mean stature, has conjured his own childhood and its bitter-sweet, but mostly sweet, memories in lyrical poetic narrative that lingers in the reader’s mind. Armed with the power of poetry, Ifowodo has reached back to his very beginning as a child just becoming aware of his environment and beginning to feed his fertile imagination on the flora and fauna of his Owhe, Isoko-land, to proclaim to the world the near-paradisiac beginning of his journey on earth. Ifowodo’s Augusta’s Poodle (Bookcraft, Ibadan; 2021) is in three parts – First Residence, which was the Second, Second Residence, which was the First, and Random Recollections.

Half-orphaned before he could discern light or colour, his dear mother Augusta would become the single parent who would raise him until his Fourah Bay College-trained uncle steps in around the age of Primary 2, eventually adopting him fully upon entry into boarding school at Federal Government College, Warri, a school choice he had made for him after causing him to repeat Primary Six for the purpose of attending that or King’s College, Lagos, or the nearby Government College, Ughelli. It is these first 11 years of his childhood when he’s still mummy’s poodle, as the snake-charmer who live d opposite the primary school, who terrified him, preferred to call him that mainly form the bulk of Ifowodo’s aptly entitled latest poetry collection. Other aspects like going to college and the crucial influence of his civil servant uncle, a surveyor and disciple of Jesus, are also part of the delightful reminiscences. Although born in Oleh, his father’s early death would necessitate his mother relocating to live among her people at Owhe to raise her son. So Owhe is his second home and the first place where he becomes conscious of his surroundings, particularly the profuse orchards of his great uncle, Pa Ukuevo, bursting with all kinds of imaginable fruit trees, the endless delight of children and adults alike. The sheer profusion of nature all round, its soothing ambience, the exuberant flora and fauna and how all these seem in communion with the people make the poet’s persona’s second home paradise on earth, a place to be, as he writes in XV:

‘If you stood still and opened your heart as
the rising son shined its light on this humble
patch of the Tropics, a pretty pattern
would greet you: . . .
There is a world here as world elsewhere,
and if you stood still and looked with your heart
round this landscape of plantains and mudpaths,
tin-roof tenements and unsteepled churches,
you might find yourself face to face
with the highest common factor of all lives.’

Earlier in Section V, he establishes beyond doubt the pristine nature of his homeland when he says: ‘Ekreze: The clan’s deep loam acres / of farmland and freshwater fish ponds, . . . / The path / to this Eden was of cool earth / cooled perpetually by the year-round rains, / and tangled leaves and branches of tall trees / that tamed even the February sun.’
Having established his inviting paradisiac maternal homeplace, the poet goes on to give the historical account of the founding of Owhe and why the clan has scattered settlements, unlike most of its neighbours settled in one place, like his father’s hometown, Oleh, or its other neighbour, Ozoro, that borders Owhe’s first outlying town. As is often the case with such historical accounts, a great personage looms large in the story. In one Oneroha came to be coalesced all the warrior powers meant for the three sons of Onomivwo after he swallows three gourds of powerful medicine prepared by a juju priest, making him too powerful for his own good. One after another, fellow descendants began to move far away from him to find peace, as he ceased to know brother from enemy, friend from foe as, drunk on his new-found powers, he terrorised any that crossed his path. Uruovo, which would later be renamed Otor-Owhe, would then witness the dispersal of kith and kin: ‘And he swelled with the strength of seven warriors . . . / a breaker of men, Achilles without a soft heel. … None spermed by man and born of woman / Could hurt him: hubris proved his fatal flaw . . . / The first scattering / of the sons of Azagba began then . . .’

Augusta’s Poodle consists of untitled movements within the three parts, and it records how the child-persona is wonder-struck at the enchanting beauty of his environment, the faces that people the place with their myriad concerns. As he becomes more and more aware among his maternal people, he begins to observe closely their customs, their attitudes, their mode of worship; particularly, the rites of communion with the ancestors through the ‘ọvọ’ totem, and how that provides a mysterious and wondrous moment for the child whose mind is ripening to the realities of his surroundings. This he aptly captures in XI:

‘Some things glow still in the darkrooms
of memory, clear and dear only to my soul!
The world was new to me and the wonder
of discovery was enough. And I wondered
that four sooty sticks, shorter than a forearm, . . .
caused such veneration,
had the head of the clan as old as the sky
hold them with worshipful awe as he commanded:
Wa r’ọghọ ke Ọvọ Ekrẹzẹ!
’Do honour to the symbols of our covenant!’

This morphs into how the Isoko of the poet’s persona treat their dead who are buried among the kindred in the homestead and who become ancestors that still play a vital part in the life of the living. It’s why, the poet-persona postulates, the Isoko and many other Africans do not bury their dead in cemeteries that would naturally cut off communion between the living and the dead, especially that aspect of the living pouring libation to wet the throats of their ‘undead’ ancestors, something that would be impossible if the dead were to be buried in cemeteries far from the homestead. In ancient times, only those who were afflicted or believed to have lived reprehensible or tabooed lives were buried in ‘ahu’ or the evil forest, forbidden from communion with the living or a seat among the ancestors. So in XVII, the poet reflects on this continuing unbroken chain of existence between the living and the dead who are not really dead: ‘Folks grow / exceedingly fond of the aged / and count dwindling days under the same roof / burying them in their living rooms where libation / is best poured, the ancestors more quickly / summoned to communion, causes and quarrels…/Among them, the dead / are not banished to cemeteries, . . . /. . . their throats perennially parched . . . / among them, the dead are undead.’

The poet also reflects on the many moments of frolicking in his pristine paradise. Ẹtẹrobọ is the village stream or creek that assumes the status of a river to their young eyes, where swimming, bathing and fishing took place and their world seemed larger than it truly was. It was the place of adventure after school hours, where the poet first made his big fish catch to the admiration of his playmates, and proclaimed himself a ‘fisherboy’ as he recalls:
‘I made my first big catch as a fisherboy / in that river of our dreams. A warm wave / of air had swept the sky clean and bathed / Ẹtẹrobọ with afternoon’s radiant light softening / for evening’s longing arms . . . / . . . Both hands quivering, / I pulled out a glossy black snakehead / longer than my forearm. I was done fishing / or playing and with Isaiah still marvelling / at my luck, raced home in the setting sun.’

Raised by a widowed mother, the poet easily found approval among women, many of them also widowed, whom he holds in deep respect. It was also in the company of women that he first found his poetic voice to challenge a drunken uncle who provoked him to a poetic proclamation that would later set the tone for his social vision as a poet-activist who would protect other people’s injured rights.

‘I first found approval for words to soothe
a wounded woman that evening a drunk uncle
vexed a six-year-old into poetry. / Hailed
too eagerly, as mothers might, but how could I
have felt less than blessed among those women, my
first audience? ’Nne we viẹ hẹ. Omaha
gbe ti t’ọkpako?’ Mother, don’t cry.
Will the child not become a man?
As if I … could ever rise to Uncle Koro’s six-footer height
and avenge the blow. Poetry was my refuge
before I knew of something called poetic justice.’

But perhaps it is in XXIX where he pays tribute to a friend, Jonathan Ejime Okoro, who died in his fifties, that provides perhaps the most moving homage to childhood in its conjuration of a sweet and happy moment of play-as-work and work-as-play, for whom he would have poured a 41-year-old libation from pristine wine they brewed themselves. He remembers him through the triumph of coaxing sweet palmwine from a fallen oil-palm tree. So he writes, ‘Had we not found its sweetness delirious / and downed each harvest, had we let any ferment, / barrelled then bottled it, I would have poured / a 41-year-old vintage in propitiation / of the spiteful spirit of a world / that could afflict you with terminal illness / and for the repose of your gentle soul.’

The poet persona would later return to his roots, back to his very beginning, Oleh, his father’s homestead after departing years earlier with his mother grieving, unknown to him then, for a husband felled too early, and the returning son would be rapturously received by his kith and kin in a loud cacophony of renewed grief for the dead father and joyous ululation for his reincarnation in the son. The fresh rekindling of the sad memory of a hasty exit from the world that denied the boy a chance to behold his father’s face turns into a tumultuous reunion where he’s mobbed with love: ‘Wẹ ọmoza Aiziki-i? You must be Isaac’s son! / I remember the words that welcomed / me, at five or six, to where my umbilical / cord was buried. Two tales in one / utterance: question and confirmation, / recognition hot on the heels of doubt, . . . / I was mobbed / by a love that straddled crib and grave.’ Ifowodo is indeed Augusta’s poodle, two inseparable beings who suffered similar fate by being orphaned early as children, forming an unbreakable bond that knits mother and son together: ‘And they thanked / my mother for taking such good care of me, / warding death’s breath off the boy’s brow – / as if she could have chosen not to / once death cheated her of husband and hearth, / yet again, . . . / she who was orphaned before the moon stirred her blood.’

Indeed, many tones define Ifowodo’s locution in Augusta’s Poodle, tones that oscillate between happiness and sadness, playfulness (see Section XVI which recreates the hilarious spectacle of children playing at being soldiers fighting in the Biafran war soon after it had ended) and mournfulness (Section XXV, also solemnly evoked in sections XLIX and LI), excitement and anger, grief and all the other emotions that besiege human beings. In all these, however, there’s a measured, thrilling tone that carries through and makes the poems utterly memorable.

In Augusta’s Poodle, Ifowodo’s execution of pastoral poetry is at its most sublime, a genuine rendering through an enthralling ode to childhood. It is redolent and evocative of the rustic but charming dwellings of his humble and richly inviting beginnings. In it we immerse ourselves in the calming air of Nigeria’s villages and all rural places of Africa’s communal past fast fading against the rapid urbanisation and environmental despoilation, misnamed cosmopolitanism or progress. Augusta’s Poodle will provoke in even the most ardent city dweller the immensity of their loss, of missing the sort of immersion in nature and the adventures Ifowodo so movingly recreates, something only one who lived that experience that makes a child ‘screech with delight’ in his opening section can conjure. And, indeed, where else would a being of the 21st Century witnessing our earth on fire rather be other than the primal beginning of innocence that this collection so aptly teases out!

* Ogaga Ifowodo’s Augusta’s Poodle is among the 11 poetry collections vying for The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2022

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