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The Poet Lied

A common Omotoso family tale is that as a 3 or 4-year-old I was notorious for being found in my father’s study pulling down books off his shelf. Some thoughtful person actually caught me in the act and captured the moment on camera. I couldn’t tell you where that photograph is now but it passed through enough hands for me to give up denying ever having done this. Although there are worst things to have been caught in the act of as a 4-year-old this one seems slightly obscure. I have no idea why I liked to pull the books off the shelf. Did I like the sound as they hit the floor? Did I like the space they left in the shelf? I don’t know, I can’t remember.

Uncle Odia

I do remember the writers that trailed through our home in Ile-Ife. A favourite one of mine is Uncle Odia. Odia Ofeimun was “Uncle Odia” to me and only later did I realise he was a poet and, in my biased but emphatic opinion, a great one.

Evening will be settling and Uncle Odia would arrive at our home in his light blue peugot 404. He had a massive laugh and something about him made up my mind that he was “wild”. It may have had something to do with his habit of not spending the night in Ife and travelling on to his next destination the following morning, but actually setting out on the road and travelling through the night. This reckless detail added to Uncle Odia’s mystique. I liked him.

Many years later, Uncle Odia was invited to Durban to the Time of the Poet Festival. My father, living in Durban at the time, bought me a ticket and flew me up for two days. I was 28 years old, an aspiring writer, and excited at the prospect of hanging out with both of them. There is no question for me, when the time comes I want to be Uncle Odia’s version of sixty and my father’s version of sixty-seven.

On my trip I acquired my first copy of one of Uncle Odia’s collection of poetry – The Poet Lied. The title poem I read often on the toilet seat, in between meetings and in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil. Captivated. I read it over and over again because it reminds me that I am fallible. And it reminds me that our leaders are human, fallible too. It seems to say that we sometimes find ourselves on the side we were opposing. We get caught. We belie our true nature and the impact is calamitous. Strangely, it gives me compassion. For leaders I would rather wipe my hands of, for countries dragged through too many wars, too many plunders.

The next time I see Uncle Odia I have a question for him. What next? What happens after the last stanza of his poem:

And because he tried to change

the exuberant colours of life

into sallow marks, relieving death

of its hurt, its significance,

the poet lied, he lied hard.

What happens after we acknowledge our own inauthenticity? Is there hope?

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