By Nehru Odeh
When bestselling writer Joan Didion lost her husband John Gregory Dunne in 2003, she took to writing The Year of Magical Thinking not just as a way of coping with her loss one year after but also to bring him alive on the pages of the book. And indeed Didion did not only bring him alive “magically”, she succeeded with the book on many fronts.
And as though a magic wand, the book turned the author’s misfortune into fortune, her loss into gain, and her obscurity into fame. It was immediately acclaimed as a classic about mourning, it went ahead to win the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.
However, What Didion succeeded in doing with The Year of Magical Thinking both as prose and non-fiction – the idea of bringing alive her late husband and immortalizing him – is what Saddiq Dzukogi has succeeded in doing with his latest poetry collection, Your Crib, My Qibla, a book which recounts Dzukogi’s experience of grief in verse, after her daughter Baha’s death.
The similarity between the books notwithstanding, the difference between them is clear. One is non-fiction, the other poetry. Dzukogi started writing the poems in the collection as a way of coping with the loss of Baha who died in December 2017, barely a year after she was born but also to bring her alive and immortalize her.
It is instructive here to note that loss, trauma and memory are three key tropes that run through Dzukogi’s work. The poet had a traumatic experience in 2017 when he lost Baha, his his daughter; a child that came with a lot of promise, and whose life was terminated at such a a tender age. That itself is traumatizing enough. Your face is still everywhere/even in the place he is not looking, the poet says.
Still, that unfortunate incident happened in the poet’s absence, which also in itself is traumatizing, considering the feelings of guilt that accompany such absences. That unbearable memory of loss keeps coming back to the poet, the memory of what was, no matter how traumatizing it is, the memory of what should have been but never was and the memory of what has been.
And the poet in order to shore himself against the ruins, as T.S Eliot said in The Waste Land, the poet had to start writing those poems. And what is left of the poet’s ruins, metaphorically speaking, are those reflections he has put on paper within seven months to bring the child alive and immortalize her. Dzukogi himself attested to it at the NNLG/CORA Book Party which held at MUSON Centre in Onikan, Lagos on 7 August 2022.
“As for me, writing the book, I wasn’t trying to make any great gestures towards art. I was just a father who had lost his child. And poetry has always been a way for me to interrogate not just the world but myself. And to understand some of the intricate relationship that I have with joy, happiness and even the world. And so when I lost my child I started reflecting every single day on a piece of paper and ultimately after seven months of doing that every single day,
“And I might read a piece to a friend and they were like ‘Oh this is would be a nice way to immortalize this child.’ So my book is just a physical manifestation of the child I had lost. I was a dad who was trying to understand the grief of a child loss.”
The book just a physical manifestation of the child? Of course. Baha, though dead, has not only come alive but she has been immortalized in this collection. But what grips the reader is the palpable feeling of loss, the biting emotions, which the poet expresses in a detached manner that reminds one of Didion.
The poet himself expresses his loss in the second person singular in a detached but poignant manner, and that makes the sense of loss more gripping and universal. The poet persona is not just expressing the loss of his child, referring to himself in the second person singular, but as though he is talking not about himself but about another person. With that sense of detachment, the poet is saying the poems are not about him but the daughter he has lost. What can be more instructive than that?
Still, a very significant aspect of the poet’s bid to immortalize his daughter is the way he has not only touched the reader with his feelings but has also touched the reader’s feelings. The reader is not just reading lyrical lines, he is involved in it, he feels it, and he is part of it. The reader knows that is the way he would feel if confronted with that traumatic situation in which the poet finds himself. The reader feels the poet’s pain in such haunting lines as the ones in the poem entitled Waterlog. When Mother whispered “What doesn’t kill you …”/ I replied, “turns me into a living corpse.”
In Your Crib, My Qibla, a poetry collection made up of 59 poems and divided into two sections, the poet speaks not about himself but also to our sensibilities. He is not just the one feeling the loss but the reader is compelled to relate to it. The unbearable memory of loss runs through every page of the book, as the poet tries to relive experiences of the past and create imaginary experiences of the present as though the child is still alive.
Dzukogi sets that tone of detachment and eternal presence laced with metaphors that run through the pages of the book with the first poem, Wineglass. When your mother found strands of your hair/ hung up in the teeth of your comb, / your father squirrelled them into a wineglass. / It bites him hard that your life happened/ Like an hour glass with only a handful of sand.
The poet goes further to express his grief, grief exacerbated by the feeling of the child’s constant and eternal presence. The poet feels the continuing presence of the child not only in the things that remind s him of the child bit with a steely determination to keep her alive. … Your face is still everywhere /Even in the place he is not looking. / He presses deep kiss on your grave, /on your forehead.
That sense of the child’s eternal presence comes alive in poems such as So much Memory, The Fruit Tree, Marshmallow, Shoes, Measurable Weight, Learning about Constellations etc. In the collection, one is confronted with lines that speak of Baha’s eternal presence. For instance, in Learning about Constellations, lines such as Today Baha is not dead, she is twelve years old, /sits beside a flower vase, presses her thumb to the clay rings true. And in Marshmallow, the poet sings: Today Baha is not dead; she is six years old, / forcing marshmallow into his mouth. / Says I’m grown enough to feed you, Abba, / with the future…
Didion also makes use of that technique, that “magical” thinking, in the way and manner she doesn’t want to give away Dunne’s shoes, as he would need them when he returned. Didion believed her husband would return someday. Just as Didion believes her husband is not dead, as he will return someday, so does Dzukogi feels his daughter Baha is not dead and that she is still growing, with the hope that she will take care of him in future. I’m grown enough to feed you, Abba, /with the future, the poet says speaking in his child’s voice.
However, apart from the sheer lyricism of the poems in the collection. Dzukogi’s strength lies in the way he has been able to be disciplined with his lines and still makes them sound musical. As one reads the poems, the musicality of the lines, their lyricism, is so enchanting that it pulls the reader along on a pleasurable journey – what Roland Barthes, the French Post Structuralist, calls, the Pleasure of the text.
The lyricism of the lines as well as metaphors in a poem like Measurable Weight dot the pages of the book. In your hand, Baha, your father stands / Watching the world. Each cock crows the path/until it blossoms. He thinks of the unwanted roses/Living alone in grandmother’s backyard. A river/roots a flower, a cave cradles a sacred place, / bares a cider orchard, flower spots.
Still, the pathos in Dzukogo’s poetry not only rings true it is also palpable. The collection is not just about a poet grieving the loss of his child, but a poet betraying strong, haunting emotions, which the reader senses line after line, metaphor after metaphor and imagery after imagery. And the memories that keep bopping up again and again and the sense of loss grip the reader so well that they also feel the poet’s pains and trauma.
A salient feature of the collection is its polyphony, its multiplicity of voices, the striking manner in which the poet gave his daughter voice in the second section of the book and makes it dialogic. The book is not just about a poet expressing his own feelings but also about how he makes it dialogic, democratic and interactive by making his daughter, who is still alive though dead, express her own feeling.
That liberalism, the idea of man meaning to man (as the poet and scholar Professor Niyi Osundare puts it) is indeed the essence of poetry. In the poem, She Begins to Speak, which marks the beginning of the second section, the poet’s daughter actually begins to speak. I am shimmering behind a wall, / like a flame in a lantern/ Hold me / down in your body. Everything / in my life is a fragrance.
And in the next poem, Journey Home, the poet responds: On the road from Kaduna to Minna, / over the phone, I begged my mother/to ask father to wait. Not to bury you/ in my absence. I cried. I yelled at my aunty / when she asked what difference it would make / whether I was there or not …
The dialogue between the poet and his daughter continues in subsequent pages. In Still Life, Baha speaks: Sometimes memory is more than a knife / cutting moments from my past/into sizes that fit the present. At the edge / of what doesn’t seem like paradise / a myrtle had risen past a skyline. The dialogue continues in another poem, Measuring the Length of Grief by the Length of a River. It goes thus: In the sovereignty of night I relive / the days of being your father. / I court the urge of sliding into a dream, / indulging that fantasy of fatherhood.
The father-daughter dialogue goes on and on till the end, which according to the poet is the beginning, as there is no end. The poet states in the poem entitled One Year After: Today is a year since the earth / opened its mouth to the size of your body / and swallowed. Like a ghost / I am learning to walk the earth / without my body – regret, a rosary wrapped around / my wrist leads me away / from the universe’s favor. If death is truly everywhere / on earth, where could I have hidden you / from its grasp? …
Dzukogi’s collection of poems, Your Crib, My Qibla is indeed a journey not just into lyrical sound but one laced with strong metaphors, haunting lines that are milestones filled with palpable imageries. The poet’s sense of detachment itself, the overflow of powerful feelings and his involving the reader, thus making him (the reader) relate to the poems are strong points that cannot be overemphasized. I recommend the book to everyone who truly wants to enjoy good poetry.
Nehru Odeh, author of The Patience of an Embattled Storyteller, writes for TheNEWS.