Revisiting Pius Adesanmi’s The Wayfarer and Other Poems
Although his The Wayfarer and Other Poems appear to have aged very quickly, Pius Adesanmi’s poetry collection remains an important cultural document signifying a literary response to the ambiguities of oppressive power during military rule in Nigeria. There is the possibility of reading The Wayfarer and Other Poems as a text seeking to unsettle the mythology that exile existed solely for Nigeria’s third generation of writers as a space of greener pastures. Indeed, as Harry Garuba suggests, the volume articulates an image of the poet of Adesanmi’s generation as a nomad, traversing the liminal and chequered spaces of home and exile. The contours of Adesanmi’s poetic oeuvre can be mapped within the broader thematic preoccupation of that generation of writers, which includes the mobilization of poetic imagination in the resistance of the dominant military culture of the 1990s.
While the second generation of Nigerian writers, including Femi Osofisan and Niyi Osundare focused on the existential agonies of life during the military years of the 80s and 90s by invoking styles from oral traditions embedded in a Marxist vision, Adesanmi and his generation grappled with an economy of structural adjustments and displacement that forced many cultural producers to exilic locations. Adesanmi’s intervention, unlike those of these earlier poets, was, therefore, less concerned about the seriousness and inscrutability of poetic language, foregrounding the importance of mobilities to the formation of diaspora and a transnational consciousness.
Even when his own poetry uncovers these qualities, it is evident that Adesanmi the poet has an ideological mission to write for everyday Nigerian subjects burdened with postcolonial anguishes and antinomies, as well as the oppressive normativity of dictatorial power by the military establishment. If a nostalgic voice and an exilic imagination are the recurrent thematic valences in The Wayfarer and Other Poems, it is exactly because of this personal commitment to archiving the legacies of a personal and sometimes flawed journey of self-discovery imbricating with the burdens of national becoming. Even more, there is a sense of feeling that the lyrical narrative of the wayfarer is a metaphoric sojourn that stages the cycle of the wearing and endless journies of the protagonist, famously embodied by the spirit child of Yoruba spirituality, Abiku.
The question of identity and dis/placement is a central theme in The Wayfarers and Other Poems. For instance, in the poem, “University of Ibadan,” Adesanmi is invested in a chronicle of his generation of writers and the form and formation of their poetic sensibilities at the University of Ibadan. The poem details the gathering of these writers described as “weatherbeaten survivors on the campus of Ibadan where they first had the chance to “spread the first mat of knowledge,” dreaming dreams yet uncracked by “the radar of the SSS” (Adesanmi 20). The poem may also be a revelation of the panoptic presence of the Nigerian state in the proscription of artistic consciousness across the country.
That writers such as Adesanmi survived what the persona in this poem identifies as “the radar of the SSS” underscores the determination of a generation’s commitment to literature despite the surveillance of military dictatorships. One gets in the poem the sense of censorship from the military governments that sought to regulate cultural productions and creative expressions in Nigeria during the period Adesanmi writes about.
Adesanmi, invoking Soyinka, therefore wonders in this poem if Nigeria’s third generation of writers is a wasted generation pushed away from the country by a hostile climate of “thorns and thistles” (Adesanmi 20). The poem is a critical commentary on the diminishment in the quality of literary and cultural expression facilitated by the economic and political climate that forced writers out of the country, hence, the writers in Ibadan also gathered at “the cemetery of Ifa’s doomed venture” (Adesanmi 20). Invoking a central reference point in Yoruba oral tradition and ontology, Adesanmi’s persona in the “University of Ibadan” positions himself as spokesperson of a generation, undertaking an apologia for the reluctant exile of himself and his compatriots.
In light of this last point, Toni Kan Onwordi is right to observe that Adesanmi’s collection is personal and public “in the same tone that is part satirical and part serious. The lines are wont to excite laughter, which teases out tears, but these are not wholly tears of joy. Onwordi’s location of ambivalence in Adesanmi’s work is an affirmation of how the poet deploys satire to critique the Nigerian condition. The satirical impulse that undergirds much of Adesanmi’s recent nonfiction works can be traced to similar experiments in The Wayfarers and Other Poems. There are other poems in the collection that demonstrate the poet’s exploration of this ambivalence, with Europe, for instance, positioned in contradistinction with Africa, as a location of knowledge.
Evident here is a politics of spatiality in which Africa is depicted as a hostile place that forces its subjects away from home, while Europe is conceived as an enabling space for those “in search of knowledge.” This intersection of Adesanmi’s personal disillusionment with the Nigerian state and the liberating encounter with Europe is apparent in several celebratory lines in the volume, particularly towards the end of the collection. For instance, the persona in “You Plumed My Arms with Francs” admits that “[w]hen Aso Rock skewed [his] potentials, France plumed [his] arms with Francs for “the anxious flight/in search of knowledge (Adesanmi 89). With these lines, the reader finds a reason to sympathize with many in Nigeria’s third generation who left the country for the proverbial greener pastures, while celebrating the epistemic impulses of that generation’s flight.
While the speaker’s voice is probably Adesanmi’s, the way the persona echoes the voices of many others in Adesanmi’s generation accentuates the poet’s positionality as an exilic postcolonial writer asserting political agency through poetic verse.