The task of poetry review is a very daunting one for me for two reasons. Since I claim to be a poet myself, there is always the tendency to get too critical of bad lines or even too charmed by good lines. Words, or the collocation of words as poetry, must do at least one of three things: either excite, ignite or depress. The second reason is that too many poems emerging in collections and anthologies around us tend to depress and disappoint because they are yet half-baked matters, stillborn in the urgency and race to get published. I am persuaded that for a young literature like ours, more poetry publications are still desirable just as many more readers are needed, and many, many more honest criticism is in want. Therefore, when a good work appears, it is dutiful to take the opportunity of pointing at its significance to others as a way of encouraging the art of the Art.
This book is intelligibly titled Ilorin Praise Poetry, giving the direct, if not misleading, sense of an anthology of poems dedicated to Ilorin as city and Ilorin as people. But it is actually a single-authored volume of poetry by Abdul-Rasheed Na ‘Allah, himself a distinguished scholar and teacher of African oral literature among other sub-fields of literary and performance studies. In his "Introduction" to the book, the author puts it bluntly: Ilorin Praise Poetry is the first of my trilogy for Ilorin, the place of my birth…What I have attempted to do in the first volume is to honour my city and celebrate name, values, family, ancestry and lineage" (xiii).
What I will attempt to do here is to give the experimental tradition a name, however tentative. The other intention is to examine briefly the extent and the quality of the honour paid by the author to the city of his birth. In so doing, it is appropriate to cause you, the reader, to imagine this book as part of a developing cultural (auto)biography of a metropol.
Over time, Nigerian poets have reflected on places; the most memorable example of such poetic reflections on a known, identified, acquired or adopted place of being is J. P. Clark's "Ibadan". There have been other less known single compositions on geographic places (Obudu, Kano, Port Harcourt, Umutu, etc) by other authors. In Ilorin Praise Poetry, the tradition becomes extended and revised that it becomes more significant, and in need of a name, as a sub-tradition in modern Nigerian poetry. The poet elects for himself the duty of the lettered rancoteur, a literary griot who exchanges the voice of the traditional poet for the nib, or pen or stylus of the scribal author, and composes a series or network of poems in honour, reflection and evocation of a geographic site.
This is what I shall call the bio-topos (or Ortsdichtung, to rework a German term), that is any poem or collection of poems about the life of and about a place. The bio-topos poem is essentially a unified invocation of the spirit of a place or location, either countryside or metropol, appropriated in the imagination of the poet. The poetic quality of such a composition will not be determined only by the subject but, more so, the significance of the Ortsdichtung or the bio-topos text can be deduced through the measure of the aesthetic inventiveness of the poet. The only other collection available as reference to this tradition of poetry of place is Odia Ofeimun's Lagos of the Poets (2009), an anthology of poetic voices reflecting on Lagos as the chronotope of their poetic imagination. There is also the multi-genre book Ibadan Mesiogo (2001), edited by Dapo Adelugba, Remi Raji, Omowumi Segun and Bankole Olayebi, which contains poems about the city of Ibadan. But Lagos of the Poets and Ibadan Mesiogo are anthologies, not comparable with a single-authored collection like Ilorin Praise Poetry.
Ilorin Praise Poetry is a medium-sized collection of thirty poems carefully wrought in praise of personages, places and phenomena related or associated with Ilorin as urban centre. By its very history and geography, Ilorin is a metropolis of hybridity, the legendary example of the complexities of oral narratives of origins and migrations.
The collection is written in the lavish style of the traditional praise singer, court poet, the troubadour, more popularly referred to as griot in West African oral literary tradition. The difference here is that Na'Allah is a modern-day, literate, postcolonial, Western educated author making use of the oral resources of a traditional poetic form.
In the two opening poems – "Ilorin Afonja, Geri Alimi" (3-5) and "Ojaalorin, Ilorin's Market" (6-7), the reader is served with the status of the mightiness of the city as well as the image of the city as a cultural melting pot. A discerning reader will also note that these poems were composed while the author was thousand of miles away from "home" giving proof that the poet carries the legacy of his beloved city in the pocket of his brain, everywhere.
A systematic reading of Ilorin Praise Poetry reveals that there are three identifiable sites of the poet's focus in the collection, viz the place, the people, and the spaces. There are poems dedicated to "the place" itself, the natality of the author, the city of Ilorin as the locus of the poet's imagination. These include "Ilorin Afonja, Geri Alimi" (3-5), "Ojaalorin, Ilorin's Market" (6-7), "Oja-Oba, the Emir's Market" (9-11) and "A Gidan Ilori" (77-78). There are poems dedicated to people, usually scholars, royalty and the creative artist. These include "Talba" (13-14), "Aafa Adama, Al-Ilori" (17-20), "Mufti Ilorin" (23-25), "Agbarigidoma" (27-30), "Ajongolo" (39-40), "Dogo Onisuuru" (65-67), "Odolaye Aremu..." (85-90), and the "Ta'ala Bami Gberu Mi Dori" poems dedicated to Wahabi Orelope and Alhaji Alabi Labeka (93-102). Then, there are poems devoted to the marked "spaces" in the place, particularly the marketplace (Ojaalorin and Oja-Oba) which emphasise Ilorin's history of migration and connection as essential character of the place; the network of streets (as poetised in "From Okekere, 57-59) which gives a sense of belonging and rootedness, and in the triumphal processional space and ecstasy of moslem pilgrims who just returned from holy sojourn to Saudi Arabia ("Eroo Makka, Hajj Pilgrims!", 43-46).
In all these intimations, one constant impression is the symbolisation of Ilorin as a land of spiritual and religious knowledge, the land of Koran. In "Mufti Ilorin", the poet says:
Led Ilorin scholars to the dawn of our new century
Honouring kewu and iwe! Akewukewe
Warrior among the pupils of Taj-Adab.
No lantern has the glow of moonlight.
Aafa Agba, turbaned:
the grandfather of oye! (23)
Ultimately, Ilorin is poetised as the site of knowledge, the place where the scholar is father or superior to the king. In the homage to Agbarigidoma, the poet invokes:
You are stately in seeing and royal in [speaking!]
A royal sheikh, not because you're born into the King's palace,
But because all kings lean how to speak like you!
In Ilorin, all Kings follow Aafa! (28)
Abdul-Rasheed Na'Allah has produced a remarkable literary praisesong, a volume in which he combines the voices of the court poet, the spiritual scholar, and the traditional singer. His offering includes the popular folksong "Dan Mali Yo, Mali Yo" (61-62), the praisesong "Elenu Meji Won A S'Eko" (63-64), the gospel song "Gbigba f'Olorun Nisinmi" (82), the personal oriki "Omo mi Asabi" (105-108) and the courtly praisesong to the Ilorin monarchy, "Sulu Gambari" (119-121).
Coupled with the palpable consistency of focus on his subject, the poet achieves aesthetic distinction by his turns of metaphors and images, its heritage of chants, and a certain clarity of symbolic and iconic expressions which give significant hue to the collection.
While writing its blurb, I summarized what I considered as the substance of the book as well as the essence of the author's poetic imagination, viz "Rasheed Na'Allah captures the times, legends and spaces of the city in the mellifluous tone of a court raconteur; Ilorin is the rational hybrid of cultures, its praise-song steeped in the invocation and evocation of indigenous, oriental and western traditions. Written in English, Yoruba and Hausa, the poems are carefully stringed in short spurts of epical quality." To extend on this, what the poet has done creditably well is to trap the trademark sonority of the typical traditional singer in the "cold complicity" of the written word. As a scholar-poet, Na'Allah is privileged, working conveniently and almost effortlessly both as translator and transporter of images from one tradition to another.
However, I will like to draw attention to what I consider two short slurs or low points of the collection. First, there are the problems of orthographic clusters and errors of wordage arising from misspellings and the absence of tone marks to resolve the pronunciation and meaning of Yoruba words used in the collection.
This orthographic dilemma is graphically evident in the poem "Gambari to fe Fulani" (p. 69), an otherwise inventive re-writing or overturning of the ethnic stereotype of the cultural affiliation that exists among the Hausa and the Fulani. The other point worth questioning here is the poet's attempt to re-write or over-write the history of migrations and cultural relations of Ilorin with Yorubaland by the stroke of one folksong ("Dan Mali Yo…"). Beyond revisionism, Abdul-Rasheed Na'Allah's "Ilorin" is undoubtedly a multicultural, microcosmic Nigeria by the very evidence of its complex history of cultural connections. To do justice to the question of "Ilorin's Malian ancestry", the poet must give us another text to sustain the proof of that narrative of origin and migration.
Na'Allah is yet the only one Nigerian poet who has given us a truly multilingual volume of poetry, and his offering is as fresh as it is alluring. Yes, overall, Ilorin Praise Poetry is a work that should be read with a hovering sense of performance. It is a matter of our literary history that Na'Allah's book is a pioneer of the tradition of the Ortsdichtung in Nigerian poetry.