At any time, it has been an interesting exercise doing a study of Nigerian poetry, rewarding for anyone who appreciates the genre, because, no matter your taste or expectation, you are sure to find a poet that caters to it. You only need to pick a poet or period. Here is why Kelvin Kellman catches our attention: to sample his work will expand our understanding of contemporary Nigerian poetry.
To begin with, we must locate Kellman within the literary tradition he inherited, between the 1950s and 1980s, the period that signalled modern African and Nigerian poetry. Poetry was basically a vehicle of decolonisation and radicalism for poets disenchanted with colonialism and the failures associated with postcolonialism: leadership corruption, military interregnum and general social decadence. Texts such as West African Verse (1967) edited by Donatus Nwoga, Labyrinths (1969) by Christopher Okigbo, Poems of Black Africa (1975) edited by Wole Soyinka, The Poet Lied (1980) by Odia Ofeimun, Voices from the Fringe: An ANA Anthology of New Nigerian Poetry (1988) edited by Harry Garuba cannot be forgotten. They have become touchstone marking those times and beyond. But since the year 2000, following the military handover of power to civilian rule in 1999, the new millennium has provided a new context for Nigerian poets, inspiring entirely new themes in addition to reinforcing older concerns. Of course, by the middle of the second decade of the millennium, an indisputable canon had emerged, The Sahara Testaments by Tade Ipadeola, as espoused by the foundational critic of Nigerian literature, Dan Izevbaye.
But what is more interesting about this new phase in Nigerian poetry is how it resists being pigeonholed despite the fact that literary awards in the country seem to favour a particular type of poetry – or rather, theme. Two decades have now come full circle, and w have more notable names in the field writing about a myriad things, but not necessarily – or directly – about the failures of the postcolonial nation, such as Dami Ajayi, Peter Akinlabi, Adeeko Ibukun, Sadiq Dzukogi, Kola Tubosun, Romeo Oriogun, et al. (The lack of female names will be made up for in another essay.)
This rich tradition is the inheritance of Kelvin Kellman, one of the new and exciting poets to look out for. He accretes and reinforces it in a tender and fierce way. His poetry has got depth, his language direct and commanding reminiscent of J P Clark. He does not have a full collection yet, but there a number of his poems are accessible online via reviews and magazines published mostly abroad.
I will begin with “Survival”, published in Hawaii Review, because it might be called the poet’s manifesto. This is a poem that complicates the definition and locations of racism. He opens it by ushering in two chokehold images that suggest bondage:
I could name the many things that bind us like an
anchor to deep waters, like a mongrel tethered to an
inert shaft, so that we run and howl but linger within.
He reveals that the locus of such cruelty is America, ironically a place touted as the land of the free. These menacing images arrest your attention early on, trapping the air in your larynx, reducing your shout to mere muttering, for this is exactly how it feels to fight for equality. This irony gains prominence as the poem progresses, making a mockery of the core ideas of America, with words like shelter and other receiving the right kind of stress.
But prejudice against skin colour is not limited to America, Europe or Britain. It can also be felt and lived in the Americas, and even the newly risen China, as if discrimination against blacks is one of prerequisites or rites of passage for becoming a superpower:
Now in Mexico, folks Mexicans
by right of birth and years, are being deported to a
Haiti they’ve never known, for the curious offence of
looking like Haitians.
This might seem fictitious but Kellman says he was prompted by news of black Mexicans deported to Haiti just because of that simple fact: “I wrote that poem when I read somewhere that some persons of my hue who are Mexicans and have been all their lives, were rounded up and deported to Haiti for looking like Haitians. It was a really curious thing to read. How do Haitians look other than the obvious? The irony is that Mexicans are racially profiled and are subjected to horrendous racist injustices that perhaps only persons of our kind have endured.”
The condemnation of this injustice is at the centre of Kellman’s poetic practice. To make it, he frequently turns to history. He weighs the ingot of history and finds it worthless, tainted with too much impurity.
The location of the poem again shifted dramatically; the third and final location, after America and Mexico, is now Africa:
All the more so, in Africa, the
savage dividends of a long awful history with others
wear several overalls on the body of our sensibilities
irrespective of time.
This is where Kellman contrasts racism with the postcolonial failures of some African societies, because the political lords to whom colonial government handed over power over are no different from their masters. For an African, his situation is really no different from his comrades in America. This conflation, he argues, is not far-fetched as there is one underlying feature to black people everywhere:
it means only one thing to
be us; only one thing to be black: the title of this poem.
Survival. This profound précis of a racial predicament, couched in just one simple word is a poignant climax that also shows the poet’s economical handling of language – such moving and succinct clarity – to drive home this theme effortlessly. In a way, the poet proposes a camaraderie among blacks across space; he canvasses for support from fellow Africans so that neither he nor they will feel isolated from the struggles of their ilk.
The theme of racism and colonisation is ever present in Kellman’s work. He returns to it in poems such as “Civilisation”, and “Body Count” published in Rigorous Vol. III Issue 3. In the former, his voice is bitingly ironic as he satirises the supposed civilisation and religion handed down to the natives. In the poem’s afterword, he reveals it was the preposterous claims of colonial explorers that inspired the poem.
Mungo Park, a British explorer on whose trails colonialism incursion into the coast of Africa followed, claimed to have discovered the spring of the Niger River, known by the locals in precolonial times as The Djoliba. Her Imperial Majesty Queen Victoria also gifted Mount Kilimanjaro on the Kenya-Tanzania border to her grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. These thoughtless acts by Mungo Park and Her Majesty are vain attempts at rewriting history for the in order to justify annexing their territory. “The sheer arrogance of these acts is disturbing,” Kellman laments in his afterword. As a matter of fact, he is not the only poet to feel disgusted by this. It was also a topic of satire by Tade Ipadeola in his poem “Giving the Mountain”, published in the 2005 collection. Ipadeola indicts British intellectuals who seem to have condoned such acts:
Tennyson kept mute. The moon
Had kissed royalty
And this occasion would be
For others to make into verse.
It rings true in Kelvin Kellman’s “Civilisation” as the poet assertively identifies with the other who would further lampoon this act in a bid to rescue history from the grasp of imperialism.
Finally, like many of his contemporaries, who turn inward in their poems, writing about their body, family, identity, sexuality, etc., Kellman’s poetry, too, can be confessional. This is most evident in “Picture Imperfect”, also published in Rigorous Vol. III Issue 3, in which he chronicles his family, animating a photograph of his parents’ traditional wedding ceremony to explore themes like betrayal and guilt. As he writes himself into a moment before he was born, he claims their narrative as his, too.
Locating Kelvin Kellman within the Nigerian literary tradition is a double blessing: he has a rich corpus into which one might dig into for inspiration and purpose. Like African poets before him, wrestling and restoring the dignity of Africa from the violence of colonialism is one of his aims. Kellman recognises that racism is a wicked and murderous, longstanding tradition handed down to posterity with full institutional backing, and he attacks it with as much eloquence as passion. In “Body Count”, he writes:
It is a story of men donning
police badges whose fathers burned crosses.
Kellman is a contemporary Nigerian poet who commands instant attention by the clarity of his language and his keen ironies. His poetry benefits from the literary traditions he inherited. The emergent themes that pulsate in his work range from racism, colonialism, police brutality to familial bonds and generational angst. It would be interesting to see how he carries them through in a full-length collection.