Literary Shelf

Gabriel Okara: A Study of His Three Poems

The Mystic Drum, Once Upon a Time, You Laughed and Laughed and Laughed

The Mystic Drum

The mystic drum in my inside
and fishes danced in the rivers
and men and women danced on land
to the rhythm of my drum

But standing behind a tree
with leaves around her waist
she only smiled with a shake of her head.

Still my drum continued to beat,
rippling the air with quickened
tempo compelling the quick
and the dead to dance and sing
with their shadows -

The Mystic Drum by Gabriel Okara is one the best dance-songs, love-songs ever composed by Okara symbolic of African art, motif, myth and mysticism, landscape and scenery, countrified greenery and forested tracts where the indigenous Nigerian communities live in, where the tribesmen beat the rhythms in their space and free air. The Mystic Drum is but a song of Nigeria, a dance song of Nigeria charming us to our core and we feel swept away with its cadence of music and wording. But it has also the other side which the poet has not told it, how fraught with.

The mystic drum, he refers to is the folklore drums sounding, beating rhythmically and the people dancing to the tune of songs and dances and romances, religious rites and practices in order to celebrate and to their jubilation; the mystic drum, he talks of is the Nigerian folk myth and motif, the African signs and symbols and he is putting his signature over as an spectator of all. A spokesman of his tribe belongs to, he seeks to present the rhythm of life as it pulsates in, as has seen it from his childhood and has lived within its circuit as an insider feeling the warmth and vitality of it. But instead of that one in course of time naturally gets split in between sticking to the roots of nativity and the modern global culture to his realization that to balance is perhaps the best one.

The mystic drum is inside him and he keeps hearing the beats of it, the musical sounds doing the rounds, toning up the self. Hearing it, the fishes danced into the river waters flowing, men danced on lands, animals too danced, means to say that such is the impact of it and in mythology it happens, as it appears to be. Tribal painting, clay baked terracotta plates, folk dances and songs and folk things but take us to a different plane of thinking and consciousness, to the country, the woods, hills, rivers and rivers, a landscape, so natural and full of exotic flora and fauna.

But someone from the tree, lying behind it and with leaves around the waist lies in watching and waiting. She admires it all with the shaking of the head as a nod from her in admiration. And he keeps beating and beating the drum, enchanting it all. The spirits of the dead turn they alive again and seem to dancing with as the shadows in company with which but she smiles to see it with a nod.

Beating the drum, the tune takes to the lowly, strikes the things of the locale indicative of realities and the track changes it. Fishes turn into men and men into fishes as a topsy-turvy picture, a swap in images, a reshuffling. The eyes of the sky, moon and river gods are invoked, things stop to grow and the music silences a bit, seem to be stopping. Even then the same nod of approval is given by the stranger standing behind the tree.

The mystic drum stops to beat inside him and the fishes return to be fishes and men to be men. The moon, sky and the river swing back to their positions and the dead too vanish away to be in their positions and places. Things start to grow it again.

But the woman remains it here behind the tree finding herself in a different situation, roots appear to be sprouting from her feet, leaves growing on her head and smoke issuing from her nose. What has happened to her? Why are lips parted in smile turned cavity belching darkness? The lines are mythical and mystical, full of motifs, symbols and images.

The mystic drum beating and Okara is hearing the music, the music of Africa, the music of the country and the community, the indigenous people of the world, the African diaspora and woods inhabited by exotic fauna and diverse flora. They too must have a representation of own as art symbols. His African music has really lured us, consoled the distraught soul. His myth is the myth of Africa, the myth of Nigeria, human life and the world. His motif is the motif of Africa, of Nigeria and the whole of mankind which has its roots into nativity, locale, natural landscape and ancestral village houses. On reading the poem, there grows a desire to see folk painting, handicrafts, art symbols; a desire to hear the folk songs and dances and the dancers and singers performing in their own folk attire and costumes. The drum of Okara is not the drum of his, but the drum of Africa, the drum of Nigeria and the tribesmen dancing and singing in hilarity and the music overflowing the woods and the river-banks and the villages.

And behind the tree she stood
with roots sprouting from her
feet and leaves growing on her head
and smoke rising from her nose
and her lips parted in her smile
turned cavity belching darkness.

Then, then I packed my mystic drum
and turned away; never to beat so loud any more.

There are several things to know here. Who is the woman accompanying him and hearing the music going for so long? Why is she not coming into focus or the author bringing into light rather than keeping her in the background, under the curtain, purdah and hearing the music, making her stay erect by the tree as a myth, motif, symbol or a reader? If she had been disinterested, she would not have been. Definitely, she was and this too for how long? The other thing too is this that she is feeling fatigued.

The other from all these the woman may be a representation of Western culture and the impact of

industrialization and urbanization and the cutting of greenery and the depletion of exotic flora and fauna. The woman standing behind the tree may be his love for a Western beauty; the story of her annoyance or approval. Generally, the tribesmen like not to entertain the non-tribal guests and strangers during their dance performances held in the hamlets or the forest ranges. The other symbol may refer to Eve and her wrapping on with leaves to hide her guilt. A Nigeria with depleting greenery, bereft of natural scenery and forest landscapes may be also the other point of deliberation.

So many things are herein, the elements of song, dance, drama, love, sympathy, attachment, rite, ritual, myth, motif, symbol, thought, idea, reflection, faith, belief, system, society, art, culture, living, attire, costume, scenery, landscape, village-life, race, ethnicity, indigenous custom, sociology, anthropology, dark consciousness, nature mysticism, harmony, magic, pantheism, urbanity and realism. There is something of his nostalgia, something of innocence and also something of experience which but instructs as well as corrupts it all too in the end.

The refrain, the repetition of the stanza adds different meanings in different stages of the poem with the same nod:

But standing behind a tree
with leaves around her waist
she only smiled with a shake of her head.

It is a feature of tribal or indigenous dances that they like sticking the wild blooms and the leaves. Whatever be that, the poem is really beautiful to read. Music is as such alluring and alleviating and so is Okara under the impact of it. Okara reveals it not who the girl is, a foreigner Western one hinting towards colonial glitz and grandeur or a Nigeria bereft of natural imagery, flora and fauna. There is some doubt with regard to it.

The Mystic Drum of Gabriel Okara is an African myth, a motif, an art-symbol seen through the Nigerian eyes the whole panorama of life, society and literature; the mythic base of society illustrated through the pastoral images of archetypal villages, abounding with lands and habitats full of exotic flora and fauna and the indigenous communities dwelling in. The drum beat is just a medium of pursuing into; the incantation to rein in. The drum is an art symbol which has enough power to fuse in lyricality, verve and potentiality. The poet touched by nostalgia, childhood and memories tries to look and strike it again and the music comes overflowing, overpowering him and the around. But who is the girl hearing the music? Who is she watching from being behind the tree? Who is hidden under leaves, we mean wrapped around her waist? Is she symbolic of Eve? Is she a Western girl? Or, the beloved of Okara, attached to and withdrawn from? Or, the tribals do not allow the non-tribals during their community performances?

Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time is one of the most representative poems of Gabriel Okara, the great Nigerian novelist and poet who is famous world-wide for using African myth, motif, imagery, thought and folklore in his creative works. Apart from his attempt to grapple with African culture and Western culture, he has tried his utmost best to use the archetypal things to locate himself and map the areas geographically as well as linguistically as he cannot discern the African things, the Nigerian stuffs from his corpus and these account for his output.

The opening lines too are very attractive, full of so much vitality and warmth of communication, lively talks held, a narrative rarely expressed in poetic idioms:

Once upon a time, son,
they used to laugh with their hearts
and laugh with their eyes:
but now they only laugh with their teeth,
while their ice-block-cold eyes
search behind my shadow.

I do not know if there is a poem like this, if the poetic expression can be as such, so impressive and impelling from within, it is not a poem, but a talk, a lively conversation done with so heartily, shared with so jovially without any air of ego and hypocrisy. This is just a matter of time, just a change in temperament and in a very lively tell-tale style of deliberation says he a poetic story of life and the changing times. What was it yesterday, how is it today? How were the things then? How have they now? Whom to say? Who to hear it? It is matter of age and generation gap not all the time, but of the changing time. Tennyson has really, The old order changeth yielding place to new. Times have changed; days have changed. Now the people think in their own. The people of the old times thought they in their own way with the problems of their own. But here the context is one of change in behavior and temperament. Addressing the son, he lightens it the burden of his heart.

There was a time when they used to laugh heartily, shaking the hands warmly standing vis-a-vis, face-to-face, holding the hands in firm grip, letting it not go, but that very hand-shake and laugh are missing, which the writer expects it even now. That very joviality, glee is almost gone now. Everybody is concerned with himself. Now shake they not the hands and even if they, search the empty pockets with their left hands.

There was a time indeed
they used to shake hands with their hearts:
but that’s gone, son.
Now they shake hands without hearts
while their left hands search
my empty pockets.

Whenever he gets a break from his routine life, busy schedule of things and goes to see them, they greet him for once or twice, but for the third time never rises it again. So as a result of that he has learnt many things in life; he has come to feel in the likewise manner as time has ordained it otherwise. So, he too has changed himself when available in the office, at home, in the market or any place it may be. The pose remains the same, the same mechanical portrait pose.

And I have learned too
to laugh with only my teeth
and shake hands without my heart.
I have also learned to say, ‘Goodbye’,
when I mean ‘Good-riddance’:
to say ‘Glad to meet you’,
without being glad; and to say ‘It’s been
nice talking to you’, after being bored.

The poet has learnt to laugh with the teeth, not from the heart as the man who laughs from his heart is misunderstood now-a-days. The friends remain it not friends, they too change with time, what to say of them, the relatives too change it with changing time. If they have some purpose, they will come and if do not have, they will not.

Even of the talks bore him, he says with exclamation that it is time to see you. Now with the changing time he has tried to say goodbye. Even if he wants to get rid of, he has but to say, he is glad to meet him. What a time has it come!

The poet asks his son to believe him as he sharing with his frankly. He used to be as he was and the same he wants to be back with. But the lamentation is this that they have not remained the same which they used to be. They have changed over the years and this but the law of nature. The warmth which they used to show in handshaking is now almost gone now.

The way he addresses his son as the audience, the listener charms us to the core. His poetic narration is as such that it seems Walter de la Mare’s Martha is telling stories to the children and John Masefield about the ships sailing and the call of the sea in Sea Fever.

It is rare to find a poem of such content where there is so much of hilarity, joy and expression. There is nothing as that of to be tense and laden. Laugh a hearty laugh; share you a joke. There is much to learn from it too. In this age of sick hurry and divided aims, we have no time to laugh and to share with heartily, but instead of that Arnoldian dictum, Okara tries his utmost best to regale us through his poetic lines.

The concluding lines with an address to the son is an exercise, an attempt to regain the lost glory and innocence of childhood which he lost it in course of time aging and growing with:

But believe me, son.
I want to be what I used to be
when I was like you. I want
to unlearn all these muting things.
Most of all, I want to relearn
how to laugh, for my laugh in the mirror
shows only my teeth like a snake’s bare fangs!

So show me, son,
how to laugh; show me how
I used to laugh and smile
once upon a time when I was like you.

The last four lines, ‘So show me, son, how to laugh to once upon a time when I was like you’, though a bit communicate it more. The stanza speaks of the loss of innocence and joviality, cheerfulness and merry-making, the warmth of goodwill, staring from ‘But believe me, my son to unlearn all these muting things’.

You Laughed And Laughed And Laughed

You Laughed and Laughed and Laughed is one of those poems of Gabriel Okara which are again a call back to Africa and African landscape doing the rounds with their populace, mannerism, language, way of life, culture, tradition, society, dance, rhythm and musical beats. To understand him is to understand the man, the culture of the place, the environment and Okara is no exception to it. As his poems are, this too is a song of Africa, of Nigeria, the black space and he putting before the psychic things, the stories of sun-burnt earth and the Dark Continent. A black man he tries to put before his black thoughts, what it in his consciousness, but in a hearty way without doing differentiation or discrimination. In a very light way, he says all these things harmoniously. He is sure of that the things will remain as they are and we cannot the shape of things. Instead of there must be an attempt to interpret and re-interpret the same for a comprehensive understanding which the wide world may not be aware of. A writer of soliloquies, he tries to carry the discussion with the white listener, who keeps hearing as well as smiling and laughing and this adds to the poem and here the reader-response theory lies it implied within. Okara as a poet is of the beats, the beats of Africa, the musical beats and dance dramas and poems generally carry in the music of Africa and their vibes. To share the things of his race, caste, class, society and the country is the focal point of deliberation. What is it in black culture? What is in white society? How do they think? How do they go by? What is that binding them all into a whole? The things of interaction he seems to be carrying it forward through his lively poetic talks, conversations and dialogues. Outwardly, these are not at all solid poems, but are simple ones of representational poetry, representing the art, culture, society and landscape of Africa, more especially Nigeria, the indigenous society and trend of it. The poem too forms a basis of black literature, but the poem if we compare with William Blake’s The Black Boy, the latter will excel it. Something it is of his persona and something it is of the white people which he came to learn while living in their contact. So all those things of colonialism, post-colonialism, modernism, post-modernism, race and racism, living time-spirit, movement with time, human thought and development are inherent in him and these extend him a poetic vision of own widening the spectrum of his thought and idea, image and imagery. One from the Ijaw community of Bayelsa State of Nigeria, he is a recipient of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for 1979, Pan African Writers’ Association Honorary Membership Award for 2009 and so on.

Okara contrasting the olden black indigenous culture of Africa with the white people bring to light the issues pertaining to racism, colonialism and post-colonialism, poor life and modern advanced culture in a very light way full of laugh and joke. The tales of Africa are different from those of history, culture and living of the white peoples. So, against the backdrop of all that, addressing the white fellow, the poet says it what in engages his mind and heart. The African tales, songs and dances to the white ear may be pleasing or may not be pleasing as because this is not their arena. His songs appear harsh and jazz, too much loud just like a motor car misfiring and stopping, seem to be choking. But hearing it, you laugh and laugh. To the western white people his appearance and walk may incite bizarre opinions, many make you burst into a laughter. The indigenous songs of Africa and the African peoples they may not understand it what the song says it, what does it mean. Again, he gives a magic dance and the drums start talking, so full of loud beats and human thuds, so vocal and vociferous and hearing it the western persona covering the eyes and having covered, smiles and laughs and laughs. The poet opens the song again in full which seems to echoing around. The white man moves into car and sits and laughs and laughs from there. With the beating and singing of songs, skies keep unfolding, many a door opening and the skies and the earth become one and he seems to be approaching with the mystic vision of own doing the rounds which but the foreigner cannot the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the native speech-dialects and their musical rhythms. The strange listener laughs at his song and dance and movement as well as at his inside knowing it not what it is within as it is quite intelligible to him and to his mind. But his too is a space, a diaspora, a platform to perform and to rehearse and to do the recitation. The earth is his theatre, the dancing ground, the sky with the stars the lookers-on, the fishes, animals and others all, the animate and inanimate objects partaking in that which but with western logic and reasoning cannot be understood the things of the heart. The Africans take the things in their way and the white people in their own way of scrutiny and reflection as far as traditions are concerned, racial, archetypal, indigenous and ethnic. Everything is but cold and dead with no room for earthly contacts and realities in the western world. They are lost in their gala and glitz, material prosperity and mechanical living.

The words, laughed and laughed and laughed add to the beauty of the poem and as because outplays the things of racism and racial discrimination and the western observer, friend or listener is but a friendly image of his just for a cultural share though there may be the points of differences to be cited before.

The starting lines just set the things going:

In your ears my song
is motor car misfiring
stopping with a choking cough;
and you laughed and laughed and laughed.

The lines themselves present the whole things for our pleasure and profit so full of observation:

And then I opened my mystic
inside wide like the sky,
instead you entered your
car and laughed and laughed and laughed

You laughed at my song,
you laughed at my walk.

Then I danced my magic dance
to the rhythm of talking drums pleading, but you shut your eyes
and laughed and laughed and laughed

The following stanzas tell of the gap between the western world and the African:

But your laughter was ice-block
laughter and it froze your inside froze
your voice froze your ears
froze your eyes and froze your tongue.

And now it’s my turn to laugh;
but my laughter is not
ice-block laughter. For I
know not cars, know not ice-blocks.

While deliberating upon the western viewpoint and the African viewpoint, the poet tells about the difference of viewing. If they are mod, sophisticated and developed, urban, mechanical and up-to-date, they have something to take in their way, but the tales of the Dark Continent, that is Africa will not be the same. There is difference in it all and these may not suit their modernity, urban life and living. But his is an open space of open living as has learnt live in communities in the villages and hamlets under the open skies without modern-day comforts and pleasures. But the western, white people have a world of their own.

My laughter is the fire
of the eye of the sky, the fire
of the earth, the fire of the air,
the fire of the seas and the
rivers fishes animals trees
and it thawed your inside,
thawed your voice, thawed your
ears, thawed your eyes and
thawed your tongue.

The poet says to him that this is the land of his where he was born; his ancestors lived and grew up. So, his is a special attachment which he cannot forgo the bare contact with the earth as he is a son of soil.

So a meek wonder held
your shadow and you whispered;
‘Why so?’
And I answered:
‘Because my fathers and I
are owned by the living
warmth of the earth
through our naked feet.’


More by :  Bijay Kant Dubey

Top | Literary Shelf

Views: 4078      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.