Author: Muhib Aslu
Reviewer: Olu Jocobs
Before he was forced to commit suicide in 399 BC for impiety and corrupting the youth, Socrates reminded his accusers that, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Sheikh Umar Dada Paiko seems to have reached the same conclusion in aphthongs, his first poetry collection. It is a finely crafted work, part warning, part epitaph.
The book looks at our lust for life, the lies and illusions and vanities we pursue with such vigor and how they attenuate our vision, and concludes that we are on the path to perdition.
I am immediately reminded of Shakespheare’s Macbeth in that famous soliloquy over the death of his wife, the infamous, irredeemable Lady Macbeth, when he said, all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Aphthongs so apt
I was initially surprised by the title of the book, aphthongs, for as you know, aphthongs are letters that form part of the spelling of words, but not part of the pronunciation. They are crucial in forming the words, and without them these words are not viable entities, and will lose their meanings, their importance. Yet they cannot be heard, because their power, their eternal verities, lie in their silence. If you attempt to call them out, you bring them, and yourself to ridicule.
It is easy to think they are surplus to requirements, our friend aphthongs, like a third wheel. I mean, why add them to the spelling if no one will ever hear them called, right? Wrong.
I have gone on about this because it is the pillar of Sheikh Dada’s philosophy in aphthongs: Is silence important or not? if a tree falls in the forest and there was no one there to hear it, can we then say that tree did not fall?
So apparently, our blind desire to promote ourselves in this country, our constant feeding of the ego, the cacophony of our querulous voices everywhere, is making reasoning impossible, and war perhaps inevitable. As Henry David Thoreau says somewhere, “Tragedy begins not when there is misunderstanding about words, but when silence is not understood.”
In other words, the title aphthongs is not a word but a metaphor for silence. Indeed, metaphors are the basic building blocks of the Sheikh’s conceptual framework. They are the brick and mortar of his, to borrow a trite phrase, poetic architecture. So many of the poems in this collection deal with silences, absences, shadows, illusions, mirages, things not seen. They are there but like aphthongs they remain unseen and unheard, even unheard of, therefore unknowable, until we can learn the ability to look at them properly. In sum, the solutions to our problems, our salvation, is within reach if only we know where to look, how to look.
It is hardly surprising therefore that the first poem in this collection is titled ‘Look.” This is very important because ab initio, the poet persona tries to teach us how to look, not just at the world but at the poems in this book, how to read the messages, how to see below the surface of words, of things.
“look into the world/not just at its face…look, not with your eyes/ (but) with the eyes that walk those eyes/…look, not as mortals eyes do/but as the immortality of blind eyeballs.”
And it is only when you use this formula to look that you will discover the truth, which has been hidden from kings and fools throughout the ages. Because too much of what you think are important are, according to Shakespheare, shadows not substantial things.
If you can really look the way Sheikh wants you to, using your mind’s eye, here is what you will see: “…the whore called earth/…her lure of the phallus/ how she funnels libidos down her trap/ muddles their erection/ shoots them back as boomerangs/ diminished yet burgeoned like seafoam.” You know the goddess Aphrodite is the patron god of sex and prostitutes and her name actually means seafoam.
In other words, you will discover that this world is like a whore, a prostitute who will deceive you to give her your very essence and in return spit you out like a husk, an empty shell, a pompous fool.
The concept and the execution
The poems in this collection are conceived of as a series of homilies on life and the tragic consequences of living like a hedonist, without rhyme or reason. It is the experience of a lifetime distilled into verses. The authorial voice is sometimes that of an acolyte who is humble about his means and willing to drink from the fountain of knowledge like in Muse Transfusion; and sometimes a brutal critic of blind conceit as in PAIGWO II. Perhaps the most recurring voice is that of one searching for the truth so he can relay it to his fellow wayfarers. So you will find that many lines begin with questions. In many instances, as in PRAYER II, he is a supplicant seeking the face of God, unafraid to admit that he has failed, that without Grace he is as doomed as the next man.
but I remember I was dust
return to which I must
And I smile at the miracle
that does our failure encircle
Written in the tradition of the finest iambic verse, each poem carries its message in language bereft of pomp, spare and lean. Although the frustration of the poet persona with the gratuitous stupidity that permeates everything is obvious, he is careful not to call for thunder or fire and brimstone but for a gentle rebuke, light as rain.
…but with your teeth don’t bite
with your wind, blow no roofs
your are a teacher, not a bully”
There are so many beautiful poems in this collection, and their syntax is as relaxing as rain, which is probably the most overused word in this book. It seems the poet carries his love for rain, both as the most vital ingredient for the growth of crops, and as a healing balm to sometimes excess levels. This is forgivable considering what the rains means to a Gbagyi man, how his life depends on it. There is no prize for guessing that August, which is the king of the months of rain, is used nearly a dozen times.
There is a lot of knowledge in this book and it is obvious that the writer is of an intellectual bent. But there are a lot of confessions here for those who know how to look, a trove of very personal feelings and emotions. In some places I feel like a voyeur who stumbled upon the most private thoughts of a stranger, his love life, his privations, the deaths that he suffered, his insecurities and his astonishing bravery.
This poet persona loves his women quiet, their lips devoid of paint; he wishes that photographs show not just the physical attributes but also a man’s character, his true worth; he prefers to lead from behind and keep his council because there is too much treachery even in the houses of God; he finds the victims of marauding herdsmen culpable by their own obduracy; and although he is not afraid of death he is worried about the judgment of history.
This book, aphthongs is an attempt to have a say in what that judgment would be, to put a word in edgewise. In HOW TO REMEMBER ME, the poet persona speaks about his contribution to literature and hope his exertions would be found worthy.
“whether I stained or decorated it/
I am engraved thereon like a habit/…that I may live beyond mortality
In the hearts of souls I rejuvenate”
This collection has no fullstop anywhere in its pages so i hope that means that the conversation is not over and we eagerly await the next installment from Sheikh Umar Dada Paiko.