The temporal setting of Christopher Okigbo’s poem “The Passage” – specifically, whether the events the poem describes are supposed to take place before or after Nigeria achieved independence from Britain in October 1960 – is not immediately clear from the text of the poem itself. Okigbo began work on Heavensgate, in which “The Passage” appears, shortly after Nigeria achieved independence, and he had completed the work in 1961. In other words, the poem was written after independence.
It is possible that the opening stanza of the poem is set in the post-independence period, although nothing makes this possibility unambiguously explicit. By the time we reach the second and later stanzas, which deal with the death of Okigbo’s mother, Anna, as well as with her funeral, it seems almost undeniable that the temporal setting is pre-independence. Okigbo’s mother died in 1935, and the final sections of “The Passage” seems to deal with that time period. This is especially true of the poem’s final lines:
O Anna at the knobs of the panel oblong,
hear us at crossroads at the great hinges
where the players of loft pipe organs
rehearse old lovely fragments, alone-
strains of pressed orange leaves on pages,
bleach of the light of years held in leather:
For we are listening in cornfields
Among the wind players,
Listening to the wind leaning over
Its loveliest fragment…
It is possible to argue, then, that the poem encompasses both the present and the past – beginning with the former and ending with the latter. At the very start of the poem, the speaker seems to be using the simple present tense; by the very end of the poem he seems to have slipped into the “historical present” tense – the tense in which past events are described as if they are taking place in the present.
It would not be unusual for Okigbo – known for the complexity and modernism of his verse – to present even time itself in complex and challenging ways.