Garuba finds his ‘port of death’

Harry Garuba is the finest Nigerian poet writing in English since the 1967-1970 Nigeria-Biafra civil war. He is the greatest natural talent in all Nigerian poetry in English since Christopher Okigbo, the national bard who, fighting on behalf of Biafra, perished in the war in 1967. Together with the Ghanaian Kofi Anyidoho — especially the Anyidoho of A Harvest of Our Dreams (1984) and Earthchild (1985) — Garuba may also be the best poet to emerge from English-speaking West Africa since the 1970s.

Garuba is no less socially or politically conscious than Anyidoho. “Surely the poet is/ estranged who cannot share/ his people’s fount of being”, Garuba says in Estrangement: Kano ‘78 from Shadow and Dream and Other Poems (1982), his début published by New Horn Press. He deploys the lyric form to mediate the effect of history — slavery, colonialism, civil war — on the contemporary period. Some of the poet’s recurring motifs are wounds and scars that symbolise historical trauma, the legacy bequeathed to the present. In To all Compatriots, he declares:

“We are all in the dark/ a dark cave from which despair threatens/ we will braid these cobwebs/ into tiny fingers of scars/ and long threads of tears/ a lacework of struggle and suffering.”

Okigbo is the leading light of the first generation of Anglophone Nigerian poets ­— including Gabriel Okara, John Pepper Clark and Wole Soyinka — who emerged when Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960. Garuba is the brightest star of the second generation — which includes Pol Ndu, Odia Ofeimun and Femi Oyebode — that emerged, post Biafra, to tackle the legacies of the civil war as well as the failures of independence.

Garuba died on the night of Friday, February 28, aged 61. He had been ill and, since December, in a medical facility in Cape Town where he was undergoing treatment for leukaemia.

His poem My Body Sings, from his other collection Animist Chants and Memorials (2017), offers a sombre presage of his final illness and death as, in couplet after non-rhyming couplet, he tracks the inexorable process of ageing, lamenting that “my body sings now only in lower case …” rather than, as previously, in upper case of youthful vigour or vitality:

“i grow old, one ache after the other, the termites 

of time congregate in the house posts of my bones

and, like an invading army, ransack the territory of my body,

ravaging its holy places, desecrating its sacred groves, 

looting its temples, stealing the staff of its strength and

rending asunder the ark of the covenant of body and spirit 

i grow old, one slowed limb after one flailing arm,

one hollowed cheek after a stooping shoulder

the beating heart slows to the speed of a lizard’s nod, 

beating to a different time, dancing to a different tune

i watch as the once well-oiled, muscled engine of youth

turns into a poorly-articulated wagon of woes. 

i listen as my body sings the melody of time and transition. 

i learn to dance to its tune of homage and humility.”

The link between decline and mortality is made even more tangible in The Ordinary Day Enchants, another poem from the collection:

“this is no time to think the pain 

that travels through vein and artery

or ageing flesh that sets out on a creaky vessel

for the port of decay and death

this, the ordinary day is time,

for the wide-eyed enchantment of a child.”

These lines anticipate the poet’s defiant refusal of despair in the face of decline and pain, his bravery and equanimity in spite of a death sentence hanging over him, his desire for the normality of an ordinary day enchanted by childlike innocence.

Leaving Home at 10, which the British poet and writer Carol Rumens featured on Poem of the Week, her weekly online blog in The Guardian, on Monday, June 11, 2018, is memoir of childhood, rite of passage, journey of discovery and quest motif all at once. In its zeugmatic evocation of alienation and yearning — “My tears and the car held through the journey/ Through the pothole in my heart and the tear on the road” — it reminisces on the day in January 1969 when his father drives him — “the departing son leaving the embrace of home and hearth” — in “an old Peugeot 403” from their home in Warri to Government College in Ughelli in Delta State, Nigeria, to begin his secondary education as a boarder.

And yet Biafra, which was raging by January 1969, is not apparent in this poem; Garuba makes no attempt at historical incorporation, which might be deemed unseemly. Nevertherless, he grew up in the shadow of Biafra. He had an itinerant or nomadic childhood; he lived with his family in different towns in Nigeria’s old Midwestern region, in places such as Benin (now the capital of his home state of Edo), as well as Agbor and Warri, while transferring from one primary school to another. 

The poet was born Harry Olúdáre Garuba in Akure, in what was then Nigeria’s Western Region, on April 8 1958. His mother, who hails from Auchi in present-day Edo state, was a primary school teacher and retired as the headmistress of a primary school in the state. His father, the dedicatee of Animist Chants and Memorials, hailed from Uneme, also in Edo state, and was an inspector of schools. (Uneme is also Garuba’s native tongue, a so-called northern dialect of Edo.) After secondary education at Government College, and A-levels at Edo College in Benin City, he worked briefly in television in the latter city while awaiting his higher school certificate.

In 1975, aged 17, Garuba gained admission to Nigeria’s University of Ibadan where his work appeared in, among others, Opon Ifa, the Ibadan poetry chapbook series. He graduated with a BA honours degree in English in 1978. From the same department of English, he gained not only a master’s degree in 1981 but also, in 1988, a doctorate, making history as the first person to attempt a comparative study of the three leading playwrights from Africa and the black diaspora — Wole Soyinka, Derek Walcott and Amiri Baraka (the former LeRoi Jones) — in Mask and Meaning in Black Drama: Africa and the Diaspora, a groundbreaking research into genre and technique in African, Afro-Caribbean and African-American drama. 

From 1981, he lectured in the department for several years and was a member of the editorial board of The Post Express, the Lagos-based newspaper, now defunct. 

He migrated to South Africa in 1998, first teaching English at the University of Zululand (1998 to 2000) and, from 2001, teaching both English and African studies at the University of Cape Town, eventually becoming a professor.

Garuba might not have been as prolific or as garlanded with prizes as poets like Tanure Ojaide and Niyi Osundare, but he was more gifted and more influential than either. As a purveyor of late modernism, Garuba wrote poetry shot through with sensitivity and tenderness, wit and wisdom, loss and longing, interiority and spiritual fragmentation, irony and pathos. He addressed the tragedies and traumas of history and the human condition in lines of uncommon grace and originality. 

During the 1980s, as founder of the University of Ibadan Poetry Club — a forum for poets or aspirant poets to present their work, listen to critical feedback, share ideas — and as editor of Voices from the Fringe (1988) — an anthology of contemporary Nigerian poetry — he served as midwife of, and spiritual guiding light to, the so-called third generation, many of whose poems he included and introduced in that anthology. 

One of those poets, his friend and former student Sesan Ajayi (1959-1994), whom Garuba appointed the first co-ordinator of the Poetry Club, once acknowledged Garuba as “my teacher, friend and prop in the dark days of distress” and paid homage to him in poetry:

“Brother, the word is echoed

in your bridal chamber —

of the one who sings well,

who loves well,

who cares much,

who sees well;

i sing for you

brother, teacher, poet, prophet —

may distances never

weary your strides.”

The death of Harry Garuba is a tragedy beyond language. We have lost a beautiful human being — full of love and laughter, humour and compassion — and one of the world’s finest and most innovative poets.As well as his mother and remaining siblings, Garuba is survived by his widow Zazi and their two children, Ruona, a second-year undergraduate of politics and anthropology at UCT, and Zukina, a teenager in secondary school. He has an older son, Mayowa, by the Nigerian poet and novelist Lola Shoneyin. 

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