on Chidi Anthony Opara's
"Degenerates Pound Our Polity Polluted"
Beautiful. Sad. Moving. Poignant.
I find the last two lines particularly striking:
Cruise in our capital city,
We supplicate in shackles."
The image of kidnappers "cuddling" ransoms rings out in its suggestion of tenderness. Yet, in a manner that suggests the ludicrous, it contrasts with their characterization as kidnappers.
The kidnapper is characterized through the action of "cuddling" the proceeds of their kidnapping. This correlation of the physically, psychologically and socially violent criminal action of kidnapping with the tenderness evoked by "cuddling", evokes a conception of poetry as transgression, as semantic and linguistic transgression.
In the name of Jesus Christ, how can kidnapper "cuddle" ransom money? Why is the kidnapper being pictured in terms of a sensitive behavior normally related to tender moments like cuddling a child, a small, sensitive being to whom one feels affection?
The poet transgresses because he/she dislocates our conventional expectations. He/she breaks up what we understand as normal and carries us into an un-normal place, where we are forced to see with the transgressive eyes of the poet.
In a sense, the poet kidnaps us from our conventional world of relationship between language and ideas and takes us forcefully into another world, where things are distorted or reshaped from the world we knew. We cannot really return to the world we used to inhabit because that world is not complete for us anymore or does not even exist anymore.We become homeless and have to make a new home in the new world the poet has abducted us into. The poet kidnaps us, collects ransom from us and in the process, destroys our old world.
The poet extracts from us a ransom of perception. The ransom is in our being forced to see with the eyes of the poet. Yet we are not free. The poet is a kidnapper who collects ransom and yet does not free the kidnapped person. Interestingly, the kidnapped person can never be free again no matter what the poet or the kidnapped person may do.
If someone shows you a secret about yourself that you did not know before, can you return to your former innocence? Can you successfully wish you did not have that new knowledge? You cannot. That is similar to the kidnapping and ransom, the transgression and eventual participation in transgression, which the poet inflicts on his or her audience. We become, not only simply recipients of the act of kidnapping, but participants in the transgressive experience the kidnapping involves.
The potency of the appeal of poetry may be described as consisting in the mental shock the audience experiences from being inflicted with that transgression. We are jolted from the customary frames of reference through which we categorise and therefore respond to the universe.
It is these juxtapositions, evoked by the poet, and as stated by William Empson, apprehended and mentally resolved by the audience, even as the incongruity continues to delight the mind, that is the poetic core.
Of course, the kidnapper will "cuddle" the precious fruits of his dastardly work. It is what he has wrought such pain on others and taken such risks to achieve. Why should he not cuddle it? With it, he will be able to enjoy what other people work to achieve through jobs done in the honesty of moral daylight.
But, really, who are these kidnappers? Are they simply those who abduct people and demand ransom? Are there other kinds of kidnappers, more insidious and perhaps contributing to or acting as catalysts to the emergence of the brazen kidnapper, the cruder version of the other kind of kidnapper who kidnaps your freedom, your right to justice, your right to fundamentals of civilized existence, all orchestrated in terms of the structure of a social system, so that everyone within that system is kidnapped?
Is this not the image that Zablon Zeus, Chidi Anthony Opara, is evoking for us in this poem, a situation where kidnappers are part of and their activities constitute much of the social system of whatever country he is alluding to?
Is that not what is suggested by the concluding line
"We supplicate in shackles"?
My God! Fusing sacred action, supplication, appeal to a higher power, with an image of bondage, being "in shackles." How may one convey a more potent image of wretchedness?
The idea of "supplicating in shackles", in my view, takes this poem beyond the level of social and political criticism into a metaphysical realm, in terms of questions in the philosophy of religion.Karl Marx famously described religion as the opium of the masses. Adapting Opara's lines, one may also describe religion as also capable of being the shackles of the masses, shackles they place on themselves or which others place on them, in the name of supplicating powers which represent a focus on illusion, an abdication of human responsibility to divine figures who will never do what the human being can do for themselves, and whenever these goals are achieved through human effort or chance, the intervention of these gods of questionable existence and ability is credited.
As Jorge Luis Borges puts it in Labyrinths "I brought out a revolver and I killed the gods!".
In relation to the context of countries where the poverty rate is highest, it has been argued that such countries are particularly religious. So Opara's evocation of supplication and shackling may take our minds to the various higher powers, spiritual and secular, that people are shackled to, supplicating to them, not for freedom but to further enable that bondage by letting the victims share in the crumbs falling from the higher powers or appealing to join those powers.
A system that encourages the seeking of government contracts in contrast to demanding infrastructural development so that everyone should have good roads to use instead of a few riding Mercedes Benzes on bad roads; scrambling for bags of rice given away by the First Lady instead of organizing a drive for food justice for the nation, for policies that will ensure that as many people as possible have easy access to good food; scrambling for political appointments instead of demanding the development of a thriving economy, among other approaches to supplicating in shackles, as Opara puts it.
I am not implying that seeking government contracts or government appointments is necessarily negative. I am suggesting that a system that is heavily tilted towards the government as the central source of economic empowerment is not healthy and could place people in bondage.
I am also not suggesting that any country should be defined primarily in terms of its negative points. One needs to do a comprehensive analysis and also take note of positive developments. One has to observe those parts of the country where roads are being built, educational services improved, observe and assess developments in the cultivation of a democratic system, among other valuable initiatives.
The poet puts our nose to the grindstone to justify the opportunity to take part in the great enterprise of building human communities. The poet is watching closely. The poet is poised to skewer with words tipped with with beautiful poison any slacking from standards of humane existence