• Title: If Only the Road Could Talk
  • Author: Niyi Osundare
  • Publisher: Africa World Press
  • Number of pages: 126
  • Year of publication: 2017
  • Category: Poetry


Old, never aged,

Once golden apple of an Empire’s eye,

London never sleeps (but sometimes snores)

Still methodically English, with some brown now

In the watermark of its Union Jack…

 – London (p 106)

Of all African poets writing in English today, without a doubt Niyi Osundare is in the very first rank for sheer fecundity, felicitous musical range, epideictic aplomb and humanistic heft. One can count on this poet to open up fresh vistas on what it means to be a maker of verbal music and a keen eye on the ways of women and their men. Right from the start of his publishing career, he struck out for a distinctive voice which has remained (with the exception of Moonsongs) a steady and steadying flagon in the mostly inebriated gusher that was angry Nigerian poetry that came to the fore in the thick of military rule.

In this latest addition to his poetic oeuvre, the poet befriends the road. The road is the protagonist of his peregrinations in the way that the sea is the protagonist in John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea. It is easy to see why the road is central to this volume of poetry if one takes into account the poet’s Yoruba worldview. Often, tales of peregrination privilege the traveller immeasurably above his paths. In those other tales, the triumphalist veni, vidi, vici is quick to issue from the conquistador. The will to roam (a Roman streak?) is only bested by the bragging right it confers on the nomad. Not so for this poet. The road, as well as other characters which every journey reveals, are treated with respect.

An account the poet shared of his first trip outside the land of his birth illustrates this almost diffident attitude toward the road. Broached in the preface to this volume and reiterated at a public lecture he delivered at the University of Ibadan in June, 2018 titled ‘Nature, the Ultimate Metaphor: Literature and the Ecological Imperative’ –  the poet recalled how, when he had told his mother of the journey he must undertake overseas for further studies, his mother had lifted up her gaze to span the road in front of both of them and, after a little pause, pronounced that the road which is taking her son away will surely bring him back. It must have stamped itself sufficiently on his consciousness to prompt recall these many decades afterwards.

The itinerary of the poet in this volume covered Africa, Asia and Europe. This order of rendering is significant. Genomic science suggests, very strongly, that humanity issued forth from Africa, into Asia and onward into Europe. But I couldn’t help asking myself why the poet’s travels in other regions of the world didn’t make it into this volume. I certainly look forward to what the poet’s mind reflects of Australia, Oceania and the Americas.

With Niyi Osundare, it is fairly easy to follow where his gaze travels. Just pay attention to what the poet apostrophises and what he prizes in human experience emerges. We learn that the poet is a lavish lover of the manifold terrain that makes up Africa, a percipient observer of the ideas and ideologies that now shape Asia and a worthy inheritor of the legacy of Aesop when he must tell Europe a home truth or two. In the Tŷ Newydd Poems, for example (a sequence out of Wales), the poet can be observed at work at a subtle clip, his capacious knowledge of history cluing the reader up to pertinent benchmarks and landmarks.

The tones and syntax of the poetry in this volume are a delight to follow. If the world is a market and many roads lead into it (and out of it), the poet has chosen a delightful route for himself indeed. We follow him and get to rest-stops (mostly at crossroads) when we overhear the road talking to itself. We are not far from what I call the concentrated musicality of The Eye of the Earth (…the rocks rose to meet me…) which is moored at Ekiti, even as we are freed to explore the multifarious avenues of an expanded geography. Volubilis is cemented into a Sahara we ignore to our peril as both history and the present but the genius of Osundare is that through verbal music, we break through imposed silence over many topographies into a wealth of eloquence we would otherwise have missed.

The poet always manages to sound like himself but once in a while one trope of Gerard Manley Hopkins or Thomas Dylan or John Pepper Clark are left on the trail to make a heady synallagmatic mix of moods and meanings which make the signature blend of true poetic baristas. The poetry in If Only the Road Could Talk are motile in a way that takes the hearer or reader into what the Hausa call the ‘lungu’ of meaning, hidden street corners and archways of lyric potency. Follow the voice of the poet and you might find a fornix of fluency as fine or feral as you want it.

If a review is about reckoning with the merits of a work as well as the flaws, I would say the volume is overwhelmingly weighted in favour of the merits. There are typographical mistakes which can be corrected in a fresh print run. I do have a real axe to grind, though, with ubiquitous notes on musical accompaniment to the poetry and of one particular movement in the book, that of Europe. Whereas I could readily agree with the accompaniment of highlife music to the poems out of Africa and of wind instruments to poems of Asian peregrinations, the carte blanche of musical company for the poems on Europe are something of a distraction, in my view. There are two reasons for this and one of them is that these suggestions take something away from the mellifluent voice of the poet. Secondly, there is a problema when, for example, Brecht or Prague or the battlefields of Europe are heard in the poet’s voice against background music even from Chopin or Tchaikovsky. I read this section in the early morning hours and the purity of insight, to my mind, would suffer from accretion were any other musical source added. Read with me, if you please, the last stanza of a poem titled ‘At Bertolt Brecht’s House, East Berlin’:

Last act:

Photo credit: Sebastian Niedlich

            So here you rest, in your bowered backyard

            In the midst of pundits and philosophers;

            Flowers grow tall above your sleep

            Petals bloom into smiles so reminiscent

            Of your parting lips;

            Here you rest

            Now that all the world is your stage. (p 83)

Whereas highlife and the flute are both outdoor and field instruments, there always has been a cloistered character to classical music. I would gladly take the poet’s voice and the accompanying silence above a yoked rendering of these lines with piano music. In any case, the reader is at liberty to ignore musical footnotes and directions.

The road is metonymy and mantra in this volume, it can be roguish or roughish but it can as well be revelatory and rewarding. Propitiate it by pondering it and profit from it as the poet does. The poet in this volume is a consummate guide and a mind aware of the world such as it is today, he promises nothing the road itself wouldn’t promise and ever so gently exhorts the reader to consider adventures of his or her own. There is place and there are places here, there are persons and peoples. We meet them, nudged a little by the poet, on terms generally conducive to wandering and wonder. We enter the book and are a wee bit taller when we exit it. ‘I want to touch the world’ a younger Niyi Osundare wrote in an earlier volume. Reading this book, we can tell that he has had his wishes profitably granted. He has grown even more profound and if we follow him, we also will.

Tade Ipadeola, a Nigerian, was born in September 1970. He has three published volumes of poetry – A Time of Signs (2000), The Rain Fardel (2005) and The Sahara Testaments (2013) – to his credit. He also has other published works such as translations, short stories and essays. In 2009, he won the Delphic Laurel in poetry with his poem ‘Songbird’ in Jeju, South Korea. His third volume of poetry, The Sahara Testaments, is his latest work which won the Nigeria NLNG Prize for Literature. Tade is the immediate past President of PEN (Nigeria Centre). He lives in Ibadan where he practices law.

Cover photo credit: La Fuerza Informativa