What do we mourn when we mourn the death of an individual to whom we had an enduring, personal attachment? Is it merely the perceived or actual cruelty of the manner of passing that wounds us? Is it the relative brevity of the life, the fact that death arrived the right address at the wrong time? Is it the irony that assails us, the poetic injustice inherent in dying in the prime of one’s life and career? Is it the fact that a febrile intelligence has been silenced, quelled? Is it perhaps that a good father, brother, friend has gone bravely into that good night when there was so much else that he could give, say, do, be? Why, we ask, should the name of Ikeogu Oke have become musical in the mouth of death just when it had become, finally, justly, “musical in the mouth of fame?” Ikeogu Oke was unafraid of death.
Ikeogu Oke was a dear friend of mine for twenty four years. Playful, ironic, philosophical, he loved poetry and music and art. He had the gift of acquiring friends and keeping friends. He was deeply loyal. He was capable of acts of casual and unhesitating generosity. He sought the tonic of company, the consolation of laughter; he retreated into tonic solitude and the fruitions of silence. He was a thinking man and an acting man. He was gregarious and he was solemn. He felt things deeply, and was led by principle. He was politically conscious and politically unambitious. He had a lyrical mind and a technical hand. He had a lyrical hand too: I mean the actual script, cursive and elegant, an artist’s calligraphy. He felt it was his obligation to honour the various traditions of verbal expression to which he was heir. He knew it was his duty to challenge and remake them. He wrote in English and he wrote in Igbo; for children and for adults. At various times, in various places, he was a technician, scholar, UN consultant, university administrator, newspaper editor, senior ministerial adviser, publisher, author, poet. Like St Augustine, he wrote as he progressed and progressed as he wrote. Like Fuentes, he believed that “we have not finished thinking, imagining, acting”. Ikeogu Oke was large and contained multitudes.
THE WORLD IS WHAT IT IS
He was a believer in fate, providence and also in -human agency, in the power of the individual to shape and direct that fate. There was an occasional strain of fatalism in his talk. Once, in 2012, he came to Lagos on a ministerial delegation and was staying at The Oriental. He asked me to join him for dinner. Our post-prandial conversation went on for hours and ranged over many matters and he let drop that he was making some investments on behalf of his young daughter. His motive, he explained, was that in the event of his possible but not imminent death he wanted her to be provided for, and to know that her father had loved her. His work then involved a lot of road and air travel, and he believed that every journey was fraught with peril. I could not tell whether these were just the arcane intimations of mortality that came with having a poets- eye-views of things or whether he was being a cold- eyed realist. He embodied, always, both attitudes. They are not, anyway, contradictory. In the years when I knew him, he was not conventionally religious, allergic as he was to hypocrisy and cant, averse as he was to groupthink and the idea of piety asa spectator sport. Yet he was intensely spiritual, sensing everyday the mysterious and the divine. Ikeogu Oke had the courage of his convictions.
He was a dreamer, and he understood that “in dreams begin responsibilities”. For twenty -seven years he wrote and re-wrote his epic poem. The Heresiad, obsessively honing, with lapidary care, every possible syllable. He loved language, and we who knew and treasured him had hoped that he would stay to inflect himself in the present continuous tense.; that he would express himself wittily, proverbially; that he would address us, again, in the first person lyrical; that he would remain the subject of our admiration and not become, as he has, the object of our grief. He had elemental hungers and thirsts: we ate Isi-ewu together in Calabar and danced to soukous on Bar Beach. His cultural interests were eclectic: he listened to Mozart, and read the Bhagavad-Gita. He wanted to write great poetry. He wrote great poetry. He had always intended to turn his hand more fully to prose fiction. It was not surprising when, two years ago, he called to announce that he was sending me the manuscript of a novel, titled, provisionally, The New Jerusalem. He was a true pater-familias, loving father to Eresi, Chibuike and Nadine. Ikeogu Oke was more than the sum of his virtues and flaws.
Because he could be bloody-minded, because he would not give aid and comfort to rogues, because he was a witness, but never accessory to wrong doing, he paid a heavy price , repeatedly. He was that very rare thing, the possessor of a conscience. He could not, would never be a pawn, a tool, an automaton. For this reason an account of his working history invariably reads like a series of bureaucratic accidents in which he always seemed to be the designated, the intended victim. In 2000, after fifteen years of service with the renamed NEPA, and at the unimaginably young age of thirty- three, he was retired. There were other names, of course on that fateful list of retirees, but his inclusion could only have been an act of official malice at its crudest. As if the original injury to his livelihood were not enough, he lost the entire sum of his gratuity when the Federal Government shut down Savannah Bank. This was double jeopardy in an existential and perhaps even in a legal sense. Ikeogu Oke was bloodied, but remained unbowed.
Because he was single-minded in his devotion to literature and society, because he was gifted to the point of genius, he was rewarded for his work, increasingly over the past year. Ikeogu Oke would have kept on thinking, imagining, and acting.
My favourite of his poems, “A Prayer to Love”, was written in Calabar after a singularly bitter romantic quarrel during which his vocation as a writer had been demeaned, and his very qualities as a man called into question. He told me a few days after it was composed that the words had come to him almost spontaneously, flowing electrically from his mind to the page. Plaintive in tone, deliberate in cadence, reaching for grand, cosmic metaphors for the wounded self the poem begins:“Please, love, do not restrict me. Let me be an oak in whose far flung boughs, heavy with leaves / A vast association of ideas can find perch and succour”. In a very real sense, poetry was his way of responding to the world, one way of being in the world. The writing of this poem, the sequence of incident and response, was a lesson in the mutation of trauma into memory, and memory into art. “A Prayer to Love”is a lyrical pearl created from the salt of abuse and censure. For Ikeogu Oke, writing was his breath, his life, his testament.
In Calabar, where we became friends in the 1990s, Ikeogu Oke had a proper writer’s room: book-lined, furnished with a large writing desk as well as a collection of classical music tapes. In those medieval days before the mobile phone became a bodily appendage, one could always tell that Ikeogu Oke was at home, if one arrived unannounced, by the strains of Beethoven or Mozart wafting from his quarters. He kept his place impeccably arranged- he was finicky about order and hygiene. Once as we were stepping out of the house, I remember him turning back wordlessly from the door to properly replace a book I had casually flung on the coffee table. His enthusiasm was endless. In our undergraduate days at the University of Calabar, he always seemed to be praising, to me and everyone with whom he shared a coincidence of obsessions, if not of intensity, the precocious wisdom of Achebe’s novels, the glories of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the beauty of Tagore’s poetry or the rhapsodic heights afforded you by Mozart’s music. In those irrecoverable days he was a bearded young bard, avuncular, assiduous, worldly, mischievous, a teller of ribald jokes, a sonic fount perpetually spraying stanzas. Sometimes he would have in hand the latest issue of Unity magazine, which had been publishing his work since he was twenty- one. There was no affectation in all of this. Ikeogu Oke was who he was.
Umbilically and in temper, in bearing and in sinew, Ikeogu Oke was an Ohafia man, gracious in peace, forceful in war. In earlier times he would have been oracle, scribe, soldiersovereign of the tribe. In recent years he had taken to giving his poetry readings arrayed in traditional Ohafia ensemble, complete with a goatskin and a sheathed sword. This may have been sparked not just by his keen sense of theatre but by a desire to evoke his origins, to rehearse in his person the ancestors whom he has now gone to join. His highly acute sense of right and wrong, of propriety, was of a piece with his innate Ohafia ability to stand his ground, and to speak up for others. One day about seventeen years ago, he was walking along he came upon a young girl in tears. Out of curiosity and concern, he asked her what the matter was? Apparently, she had just been extorted by a lecturer, made to pay in order to pass. Incensed, Ikeogu Oke marched with her in to the offending lecturer’s office. Once there, he calmly and sternly inquired from the startled man if the girl’s claim was true. The reply was affirmative. What the man needed to do, Ikeogu stated matter–of-factly, was to return the girl’s money, immediately .The man complied. Ikeogu Oke acted throughout without hope of applause or reward, without fear.
FEVER, DARKNESS, DUST…
Several years ago the extinct newspaper, Next, published my essay, “What is a writer for?” Shortly afterwards Ikeogu wrote me a letter saying how much he had liked the piece. At the time he was Standards Editor of Next, and he seized the moment to state also that in spite of his admiration he took issue with some of my assertions, and well as, here and there, my syntax. He was alerting me to the possibility that he might write a rejoinder. His working title, echoing a line from the essay, was “And since the world is what it is?” He never published it, if indeed he wrote it. What did it matter? There was always so much else to do. From early on, amid all the deciduous blooms of literary talent, in spite of all the harmattans of malice and indifference,he stood out as a perennial. It was historically inevitable that he would become celebrated. Could we have guessed, all those years ago, how prematurely he’d be taken from us? Could I have known, in September 2017, when we spent an evening together at my hotel lounge in Abuja, and he complained about his abdominal fat, that the matter was far more insidious and malign? Could we have foreseen, any of us, how in the cruellest of plot twists, he would be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the very year when the world seemed keenest to lay its laurels and its praise at his feet? Fever, darkness, dust. Ikeogu Oke: the world is what it is.