Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo O. R. Dathorne - Essay

O. R. Dathorne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] process of transformation is the key to all of Okigbo's verse—how can human beings grow again into gods, how are they to regain their pristine state of spiritual innocence and yet retain their own sensuality? In order to deal with this problem Okigbo has forsaken the commonplace world and has chosen instead to reenact the entire cycle of birth, initiation and death. Because of the nature of his quest, his images tend to dwell on the disparity that exists between man's ambition and his puny attempts at becoming God.

Okigbo's verse shows man in the process of striving towards a god. The poet does not speak with an individual voice but with choral utterance, insisting on the infallibility of the statement and its divine nature. The five sections of Heavensgate demonstrate the technique. If Okigbo's poems are about anything, then Heavensgate attempts to work out the initiation into and the evolution of a religion. (pp. 82-3)

The five sections into which Heavensgate is divided clearly emphasize a striving—PASSAGE, INITIATION, WATERMAID, LUSTRA and NEWCOMER…. PASSAGE takes the reader to the childhood of the world and of the protagonist; it is both a time of 'dark waters of the beginning' and 'when we were great boys'…. The next section, INITIATION, rescues this vision of chaos 'in a symbolic interplay of geometric figures'. Here the angle, orthocentre, fourth angle, square, rhombus and quadrangle all suggest that a certain kind of order has been imposed; they form the series of intimations which the protagonist has had towards a complete harmony with himself and his world. The next section, WATERMAID, introduces the intercessor—a figure who is a mixture of a classical muse, the Virgin Mary, and a local priestess. She is described both as 'maid of the salt-emptiness, sophisticreamy, native' and as 'wearing white light about her'. At the end of this section the protagonist finds himself in a state of cosmic aloneness; he is completely alienated from everything he knows…. (p. 83)

LUSTRA suggests with appropriate Christian as well as African pagan imagery that there is hope which comes through a redeemer who is neither Christian nor pagan…. But the dra-matic quality of the poem is spoilt by the last four pieces called NEWCOMER which are irrelevant and do little for the continuity of the piece. They are verses for the poet's teacherfriend and his niece, and were all written in a single afternoon. They betray a weak side in Okigbo, his tendency at times to be so very personal that there seems little room for any universal message.

The method of Heavensgate is to combine traditional African and modern modes and to fuse them into a synthesized whole. Both traditional oral and western forms of verse are used. In addition the poet deploys imagery so that African and non-African elements build up into a whole. The result is the invention of a personal style and creed, personal because it is intensely subjective, although meaning accumulates from various references that belong to the common store of all...

(The entire section is 1278 words.)