Ikeogu Oke is a Nigerian poet, writer and journalist. His poetry and short fiction have been published in the United States, the UK, Nigeria and India since 1988. In 2010 the Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer selected Salutes without Guns, his second collection of poems, as one of her two Books of the Year for The Times Literary Supplement (TLS), describing him as “a writer who finds the metaphor … as perhaps only a poet can.” His fifth poetry book, The Heresiad, was shortlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature for 2017.
From Canto One
And a monarch stirred up a row against a scorn
As he flared and blew his loud, belligerent horn:
‘Ah! That’s a mortal stepping on my toes,
Whose pride impels to take sides with my foes.’
And he charged his Faithful with a stern dispatch:
‘Go! Turn all the kingdoms patch by patch.
Dig him out and fling him down to hell
While still dripping with my acid spell:
It’s not our custom yet to spare a man
Who dares to glean our faults as best he can.
Such – a man of learning? Strike him dead!
And bring before my throne his upright head!
Ignore his soul or what may prove its luck:
Rather lose a lamb than forgo all the flock;
For such a man, if left to thrive on earth,
May void our honour and enforce our death.
Yes, death’s the proper fate that awaits him.
I charge you now to move and quench his dream.
Ungracious though I know this is, let Zumba die!
I’ve marked a valley where his corpse will lie.’
* * *
Thus with lightening in his eyes, thunder in his voice,
The king dispatched his Faithful, yes, his boys.
* * *
Speaking thus, for all who cared to hear,
The ears of men began to twitch in fear;
And the monarch, having sensed their dread,
Made his visage glow more red and red.
* * *
At once, the Faithful, numbering five, with arms,
Left their kingdom, wearing sundry charms;
Up – towards our realm4 – and up they marched:
The sky was stormy and the earth was parched!
* * *
Said Doom: ‘We shall drag him down alive,
But not before I’ve cut him up in five:
The apostate that runs our master down,
And (with slander) strives to smear his crown.
He has flung all caution to the dogs
And must die rewarded by the logs
That burn with fury and a ceaseless fire,
There, beside our king’s infernal mire.’
And he paused and thumped his hairy chest,
And let his voice collapse, as if depressed;
And looking up a slope, along their way,
Doom, the Faithful, went ahead to say:
‘This same man escaped our wrath before;
Yet he taunts us with his newfound lore.
What a strange event it’ll be indeed
If his head survives his new misdeed.
Yes, we’re meant to get him by and by,
Though his spirit may ascend the sky
To that illusory realm of pulchritude
For those who strove on earth for rectitude.
Down with that his pride, his heresy!
With that his learning, his apostasy!
Down with that his famed temerity
That impugns our faith’s authority!’
And Doom, the Faithful, licked and smacked his lips,
And then his speech was pregnant for its tips:
‘A fly in the lair of a hungry spider:
What can save it? Not fate. Not strife either.’
* * *
And brash Avenger promptly took the cue:
‘How glad I’ll be to watch his pieces stew –
A sumptuous dinner for some monster’s table:
Clad with quilt and carved from snow-white marble.’
And he paused, and coughed, and shook his head;
And lumbering, yes, and bilious, went ahead:
‘He’s good for monsters’ meat who must incur
The wrath of all of us with pride, and more.’
And now – as if his breath-supply was low,
But mindful not to let his distress show –
Avenger paused, and raised his iron spear,
And pulled across his face a veil of cheer;
Then his blotched, ironic tongue pursued:
‘Mischance incurred for truth need not be rued.
And so I beg to keep his life, and well,
The rest of which is better spent in hell:
Where there’s excess flame to ignite his ire,
And surplus brands to light his pen’s desire,
And still support we drag him down alive
In mangled pieces less than all but five
And stew him in a cauldron for the lord
That rules perdition with an iron sword;
For I’m sad, so sad, to think he’s bound to die,
Who will let no glum Cerberus lie.’
Ikeogu Oke won the 2017 Nigeria Prize for Literature with The Heresiad, is book of epic poetry. His poems and other writings have appeared in journals, anthologies and other publications worldwide. He has performed his poems at various fora in Nigeria, South Africa and the United States, including as a special performance poet guest of Brown University in 2014. He graduated with a BA in English and Literary Studies from the University of Calabar and an MA in Literature from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In 2010, Nadine Gordimer, the winner of the 1991 Noble Prize in Literature, selected Salutes without Guns, his second collection of poems, as her Book of the Year for the Times Literary Supplement.