When Dreams Dance…And Love Will Not Be Buried

Professor Femi Osofisan


By Femi Osofisan

 Ladies and gentlemen,


I consider it an honour, and a privilege indeed, to have been called upon to review this book today. Especially before an audience of such eminent personalities. I shall try not to tremble too much.

Dreams Dance: My Journey Through Life, is the 8th book to be authored by our apparently indefatigable friend, distinguished professor of cell and molecular biology, novelist and poet, Professor Mark Nwagwu, the one whom we all address fondly and familiarly as “Mark”.

Now, if I guess right, the burning questions right now in your mind must be—Why such a title? How do dreams dance? To what music? Who beats the drums for this dance, these dreams? And of what import?

My task will be to attempt to answer these questions. But I think the sub-title itself is already an indication: it says, My Journey through Life. Obviously then,  if we stretch our imagination, we can infer that Dreams dance, when a poet journeys back into his past, and the narrative becomes an excursion through metaphor and other figurative expressions into the furtive archives of remembrance. For our author, dance turns out to be the most plausible metonym for the exercise, because for him his autobiography thus far has been like a pre-determined sequence of fortuitous choreography, of movements conceived and created beyond his own will or volition towards a goal of perfection.  “My Maker, my God,” he says in his Introduction, “at my birth dealt me a great hand, and left me to play as I knew best.” (p xxvii)

Obviously then this is not an ordinary or casual work. Our friend Mark, or Marcellinus, or Marcelli, or Linni, or Mark Linus—take your pick—is one of the remarkable minds of our time, one of those who qualify without argument to be called a “Renaissance Man” of our contemporary times.

Now, for those who may not know—who must be very few indeed in this glittering audience—a Renaissance Man is one of these rare individuals who, by a combination of talent and education, have  become proficient in a wide range of fields. But not only are they amazing polymaths, they also carry their knowledge with sophistication and grace, untainted by arrogance.

Our friend, as we all here can witness, exemplifies such a cultural hero: he is unarguably one of the few scholars around who have succeeded in earning laurels for outstanding achievement in both the sciences as well as in the arts.

So, it should be no surprise when I tell you that reading his book will be akin to embarking on a pleasurable cruise with several icons of enlightenment on board as fellow passengers. Again and again as you lift the pages and travel along, you will find yourself engaged in intimate, exciting dialogue with famous scientists as well as creative artists, all through, and because of, the author’s numerous and ecumenical allusions.

But I anticipate.

Let me pause here first to acknowledge that this occasion of today is also one of a double celebration. As we are launching a book, so also are we celebrating the author’s 85th birthday, which came some three weeks ago. This is therefore no trifling moment.

Those of us who live in Nigeria at least know how significant a milestone it is for a person to arrive at a venerable age, which we put at any age beyond 70 years. And Mark is 85 plus!  In a continent and at a period saturated with news almost hourly of chaos and dire events, of manifestations everywhere of senseless rage and brutality, it has become no mean feat indeed for anyone among us to survive to old age. That is why we gather around such a person in awe and wonder, and celebrate their birthday boisterously with drum and fanfare.

We crowd round them to feast and rejoice; but also, perhaps more importantly, to glean words of counsel and wisdom that might drop from their mouth, in the expectation that such words would empower us, their admirers, with the secret of living well and living long.

I very much suspect that it is in response to this eagerness for advice and admonition from the old by the younger generation that the practice began, whereby celebrants gift us with their auto/biographies on such occasions. Hence, nowadays, we have come to expect it as a part of the ceremony, that every birthday celebration by older persons will be accompanied by the simultaneous presentation of the celebrant’s published memoirs.

Which is probably why nobody reads them any more.

Because, so commonplace and so factitious has the practice become nowadays, that it has turned into just another empty ritual for the burnishing of egos.

Oh yes, of course we still troop out to these presentations and announce extravagant donations to “launch” the books, just as many of you will definitely do today. But sadly, however, we know that it is hardly ever with the intention of reading the books. More truthfully, we come mostly as a gesture of friendship, respect, or solidarity with the celebrant/author—to express gratitude for some past assistance or act of generosity; to luxuriate in the sunshine of their success;  to show sibling pride in their accomplishment; and so on. So many noble reasons—but certainly, for the vast majority of us, not to read the books! Perhaps, at best, to use them afterwards to decorate our living rooms.

(Actually, to be frank, I am in sympathy with this prevailing attitude to these “birthday books” because, really, a vast proportion of them nowadays are not worth decent attention. Many of them are just plain disingenuous falsehoods: public relations stuff by hired hack writers meant to shore up the profile of well-known public scoundrels, political turn-coats, etc.)


But all the same, and happily for us, not all these titles are pretentious fustian. Some of them indeed are not only prodigiously rich in content but are also masterpieces of literary composition. In these exceptional biographies, we discover both enrichment and delight: as the writers feed our hunger for relaxation and knowledge, so do they nourish and expand our imaginative landscape.

Mark’s Dance is, I am happy to report, one of such books.

Its intriguing title is in fact not meant to be intimidating. Rather, it is the author’s ingenious way of signalling to us that his work will not be the usual humdrum chronicle that is normally served to readers in the common market of proliferating memoirs. Boldly, colourfully, It dares to announce to us in advance that, far from being the usual self-exonerating hagiography, this work is aimed instead at something more aesthetically ambitious, and more profound.

And to a large extent, trust me, it succeeds. Everyone will of course judge for themselves, but I want to assure you that Mark’s book largely meets its lofty aims. Dreams Dance is indeed a good and gripping read. Moreover, as professors Anya O. Anya and Olajide Ajayi affirm in their powerful Forewords to the book, it offers a pleasant moral landscape, a mirror of what any of us can aspire to achieve by dint of assiduity, personal integrity, and faith.

Structured into twenty-seven chapters which are grouped into seven Parts, the entire story can in fact be summarised into a few sentences. Here is a boy born in the small and remote village of Obetiti in the eastern part of colonial Nigeria, but who grows up at the dawn of Independence in Ibadan in the west of the country, and then becomes a successful international scholar and a renowned figure in scientific circles in Canada and north America. In the process he finds a lovely spouse and starts a family. Then, subsequently, upon retirement from formal teaching at the university, he turns his interest to creative writing, and becomes an outstanding poet as well.

Thus, as you will see, Mark’s story is more or less a familiar one  cast, broadly speaking, in the typical outline of the examples we have read so far by other members of the country’s current gerontocratic elite. Of course it does have its own expected individual peculiarities, since no two lives, even of twins, can be exactly the same. But even furthermore, you will see that the story’s narratological structure retraces the well-known trajectory of, (as the cliché puts it}, a protagonist’s rise” from grass to grace”, that is, of a hero’s arrival at the summit of fame, wealth and success in spite of mean and tawdry beginnings.

Mark does not start out from a poor background of course, considering the social status of his trader father. But somewhere in his youth the father’s business crashes, and Mark’s education is almost aborted but for the intervention of the community’s traditional insurance process. But there is no need to go into further details here in this brief review. All I want to point out is that even the tableaux of obstacles and challenges, frustrations and compensating joys, that Mark recaptures here are, for those accustomed to this genre of writing, not in the end unusual or extraordinary, nor is the adoption of a regular chronological sequence, where the chapters are correlated according to the calendar occurrence of events.

Thus the book opens with Mark in his childhood days with his fairly well-to-do parents at Aba, living at no 168 in the quaintly named “ Hundred Foot Road”. From here we follow him to his secondary school years in Calabar at the famous St Patrick’s College; then to the University College Ibadan; and then on to graduate days abroad, till the story finally takes us to his adult years as a research student, husband and father, and professor in various institutions at home and abroad.

Thereafter his work becomes so successful that he attains international acclaim, with all its rights and responsibilities. But his wife unfortunately does not last the trip and succumbs after a long but courageous battle with cancer. However, this is not a story of sadness or bitterness; only of grief, of mourning. Mark survives, convinced that some benevolent deity is always there, pulling the strings in favour of his triumph.

It is thus a story that most readers here will easily follow and identify with. So, as I said, I will not linger in this review on these banal ingredients of the autobiography, with the risk of blunting your keen expectation. Instead, I want to proceed to something I believe to be more rewarding,  which is to try to highlight some of the qualities that make Nwagwu’s book stand apart and, in my opinion, make him a worthy author and friend.

The first of these qualities, as I have hinted above, is the writer’s felicitous command of language. With simple words and uncluttered structures, Mark’s prose demonstrates an ease for the manipulation of lexicon and syntax, and a control of the waves of tension and relief, as well as of the sense of the dramatic. Hence his accounts are never boring, and episodes that would be tedious in other writers move the pages fluidly along.

But definitely more striking than even these attributes is Mark’s extraordinary power of recall. The evidence is in almost every page, as he confidently recollects past scenes and events, and names the identities of participants. Titles of films and books, lines of poems, the mannerisms of old teachers, the feats of sportsmen, film stars, musicians and composers, the cognomina of old school mates, and so on—all are reeled out with uncanny, breathless ease. And needless to say, this helps to strengthen verisimilitude and further seduce the reader.

With this kind of ability firing the narration, one can see why Mark’s chapters on the old days of UCI would rate as possibly the most vividly enchanting of the accounts that we have. As we know, several people before Nwagwu have written about the early days of Nigeria’s premier university, describing them in rapturous terms, like Mark’s fellow alumnus Prof David Okali for example does in the blurb, as Ibadan’s ‘halcyon days.’  It is Mark’s version here, however, of those I have read so far, that I can say is the most sumptuous, profuse with details that will make any current student swoon with envy.

Listen for instance to the following description of life in Kuti Hall:

“There were twelve of us along a corridor all living in single rooms each….we shared four bathrooms and four toilets… breakfast, and all meals, were self-service. Trays of akara, moi moi, eko, boiled yam and stew, and bowls of pap were laid on the table…. Dinner was jollof rice, beans and dodo and beef.” (pp 96-101 passim)

The UCI, according to Mark, was simply the “most exciting place to be in Nigeria.” (p 122) The students lived a flamboyant social life, represented by the escapades that Mark exhumes of legendary ‘rascals’ like Chris Okigbo, Ben Obumselu, Ralph Oparah, Mike Echeruo, Abiola Irele, Frank Ukoli, Chinua Achebe,  JP Clark, Abiola Irele, and so on, not to forget the social clubs like the Music Circle, the Sigma Club, Wole Soyinka’s Pyrates Confraternity, or  the insidious, menacing presence of the students’ rag, The Bug… How many shall one recount? Mark recalls them all with fervour and such touching nostalgia that you cannot but agree with him that ”…more than academics, UCI was also a garden of culture.” (p 123 XX)

It was there in this “garden of culture” that Mark, like other students who were to play prominent roles afterwards in the country’s political life, developed what I described earlier as a Renaissance consciousness. UCI raised them all to be widely read citizens, able to roam mentally without prejudice across disciplines, and to cultivate friendships easily across geographical and racial frontiers. Above all, they developed a robust gregariousness, a healthy epicurean taste, and a wallet of libertarian ideals.

The book goes on to show us how these talents come in useful in the author’s later life, particularly as he builds a career and sets up a family of his own. Read properly, the way I believe the author wants us to, the book will stand as a metaphor for the resilient life of our country, a parable of our aspirations and failures and the withering of hope, countered at the same by the promises latent in multiple nurseries of renewal, the courage to “turn the dull prose of life into heroic verse.” (p 370). For, as he states, “We all dance to different tunes of music, but we dance… man’s ego (is) the fountainhead of human progress.” (p 268. My emphasis).

I must end the review now. But you would not have got a complete taste of it if I do not discuss, however quickly, three important  factors that the ever-insightful Prof Anya O Anya (see the Foreword) mentions as the “triple helix” that embellish Mark’s life. These are: the love of God, the love of science, and of course the love of Helen…

I will try to talk about them now as quickly as I can as I wrap up this review.

The first, that is, the love of Science, should be obvious, I suppose. After all, it is the career that our friend embraced. What is remarkable however is the passion he devotes to the profession. In fact, enamoured is he of his research that, again and again, when he talks about his work, he forgets his audience, and slips unaware into professional jargon, as if he was at a seminar or lecture room. Listen to him: “…Ted Hall provided me with monoclonal antibody, mAB3D5, specifically developed for the Plasmodium falciparum antigen…” (p101)… “Palmer taught me the technique of immunoblotting, whereby an antigen of unknown characteristics, separated by electrophoresis on a gel was blotted on to a monoclonal antibody (mAB), developed in mice in specific response to a given antigen…” (P313):

And so on! Now, what is the ordinary reader to make of this? I would say that it shows a certain professional arrogance, which is not uncommon to specialists, a refusal, in those moments where he discusses his scientific work, to pander to the illiteracy of the ignorant.  Undoubtedly therefore, It is to the enlightened, that these pages will offer a challenge, except that some of such readers may even find the challenge exciting as I did. This is principally because the author presents us, perhaps for the first time in our Nigerian context, with the enunciation of a clear, if disturbing, ideology in his approach to scientific research. This is what Mark declares, aligning himself with Howard Roark, a character in one of Ayn Rand’s movies:

“Throughout the centuries, there were men who took first steps down the roads armed with noting but their own vision. Their gods differed, but they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed. The great creators—the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors—stood alone against the men of their time…. This thesis by Roark formed the fountainhead, the mantra, of my  research programme at Brock…” (pp 269 – 270)

And to clear any ambiguity, he puts it more succinctly:

“…To me, the immediate objectives of research in the area of experimental biology are not the solutions of specific problems of human welfare but rather the fundamental questions of cell structure and function. Thus, when I go into my laboratory, I am not motivated in my work by a sense of devotion to human welfare and social advancement but rather by an innate, insatiable urge to elucidate cell function…..(because) man’s ego (is) the fountainhead of human progress.” (pp 268-9)

There is no time, unfortunately, to dwell longer on this perspective here. But it certainly makes Mark’s subsequent development really interesting when, years later, after he had already achieved an assured status as a researcher, he became an adherent of Opus Dei, the famous catholic Christian sect whose doctrine, as proclaimed, is one of dedication to God through service to humanity,

This conversion, you will read, came about from the patient but relentless pressure from two people close to him—first, his friend, Rev Father Louis Munoz, who was a professor at the Modern Languages Department in Ibadan as well as chaplain of the campus catholic church; and secondly, from his wife, Helen. Mark became a devoted votary of Opus Dei whose teaching principally is that “Christ is always passing by in the humdrum events of our existence,” and “there is grandeur in the ordinary circumstances of everyday living.”(pp354 & 364).

Is this a contradiction then, akin to a Pauline shift, from his initial insistence on the purity of scientific research outside the demands of social relevance, or is it in fact another inevitable motion in the unplanned dance of his journey?

The question is unanswered in the book. But, we get a hint where he confesses: “I truly wanted to be a friend of God. What better way to be a friend of God than to seek hm in Opus Dei? …” Then, very significantly, he concludes: “Thus, seeking God flowed naturally to loving and attending to Helen exquisitely…” (P 359: My emphasis)

Helen! I have deliberately put that last part of the quotation in emphasis, because it brings us at last to the third, and irrefutably the most important, component of the “triple helix” mentioned by Anya—Helen, the woman who became Mark’s wife and companion.

Reading this autobiography, It is fascinating to discover how much of Mark’s adult life was, and continues to be, totally woven around the figure of Helen, even now that she has passed away. Indeed, he openly admits, she was, and continues to be, the single source of his inspiration as a writer, the one whom, since he began to publish, he has devoted virtually all his poems, either directly or by inference.

Perhaps that was inevitable, for it was love at first sight, a meeting with destiny, an ‘’epiphanic transcendence’’ (p 395), as he calls it. Hear him: “Nothing in all of my life had prepared me for the spectacular sight that engulfed all of me… I was dazzled by her brilliance, her elegance, her beauty. I stood for what must have been eternity transfixed on this unbelievable vision that wrapped my soul.” (P 160:)

Again and again throughout the book, we hear Mark singing like an enraptured youth of how Helen “captures all of creation, all the universe in her eyes and I shall spend all my days singing songs of her eyes. Yes, her eyes led me to poetry. (362)

Strangely enough, as if in a prepared script, the attraction was mutual. Collaborating his statement with Helen’s testimony at her own Inaugural lecture many years later, Mark reminds us here how, although that first meeting between them was totally accidental, the two of them decided right there and then, and without the other’s knowledge, to be the other’s spouse! It was a divine tryst therefore, a spectacular fairy tale, whose narrative plot and aftermath would span the next five decades and a half, enduring through the strains and tensions of marriage and childbearing, exile and displacement, storm and bliss, illness and grief.

This explains why, in all his works, Mark has done virtually nothing else than sing of his Helen. We now see how all of his actions and decisions while she was alive were in obeisance to her spell. Even his addiction to the staff club, to good company and to wine, became in the end only a temple to further heighten his adoration: “Above all else,” Mark tells us, the University of Ibadan Staff Club “provided a congenial atmosphere of serene splendour for my wife and myself to get to know each other better and better, day by day exploring ourselves and the world we see and know, and live in the joy of each other’s company… I got to know my wife anew every day we were together at the Club.” (pp 236, 237, 395, passim)

In book after book then, Mark has celebrated no one else than Helen, or found some other topic of interest. Since he retired from formal teaching at the university of Ibadan some twenty years ago and began writing and publishing, Mark has brought out four whole volumes of poetry, and they are all entirely on and about Helen—a fact that, as practically every critic has noted, is unprecedented in our literary history.

No poet before that I know has been this prodigiously obsessed by the love for a woman. In fact, in our culture here in Nigeria, the tradition has always been for men, especially grown-up mature men, to be highly reticent about the subject. Until our contact with Europe and the Romantic Poets especially, (whose works Mark consumed avidly during his school years), it was considered a sign of weakness and effeminacy in a man to come out gushing aloud about his affection for a woman. But, to our astonishment—and, for some, even embarrassment—Mark has repeatedly and unabashedly defied that tradition and continued openly to serenade his Helen!

As it is to be expected them, a large part of this book is a pean to Helen, expressed sometimes even with the maudlin sentimentalism of adolescent kitsch: “Helen… … (with) uncommon, unsurpassable and stupendous love and affection,  immersed herself deeply into my soul, with the charm, allure, affection, intimacy and unparalleled love of a mellifluous soulmate…”(p 310)

In another instance, we are informed that “this enchanting girl … would immerse herself into me, and me into her in an inseparable bond, where we would both be one, like a flame, flared passionately. Her air flowed all over me and I danced my dreams with the joy of Helen, magnificent, marvellous and mellifluous.” ( p 311).

Some time ago, reflecting on this strange besottedness, I concluded that it must be a desperate, Sisyphean rite of exorcism—a pitiable and sympathetic exercise by the poet to rid himself of the obsession, but which continuously fails and has to be continuously recommenced. But if so, what penance would be at stake here and for what infraction or hubris? Well, as I think of it now after reading this book, I am beginning to fear that Mark’s apparently helpless, interminable ardour may in fact have grown out of something more precarious—that perhaps what our lover yearns for is not cleansing after all but the BEATIFICATION of his beloved.

But if so, then the implications are potentially tragic—it means for a start that, since the fulfilment of this yearning is beyond the poet’s personal power or capability, than even that of any of us his mortal companions, any expectation for this book to bring closure or relief would be futile. Rather, instead of being the poet’s last dirge and expulsion of grief for his departed wife, it will be just another stopover in an unending dance of mourning that the poet Remi Raji, in his insightful review of Mark’s most recent collection {entitled Time Came Upon Me), described as a process of “lov(ing) a woman forever.”

In conclusion therefore I earnestly urge you not only to buy this book but also to read it. Mark’s adventures are exemplary: they will enlighten you about the complexities of the human being, about our capacities for evil or sainthood, courage and cowardice, and the inevitable burdens of love and loss that we each must carry in life. Besides the publishing is excellently accomplished, with hardly a typographical error and unusually clear photos of memorable moments.

Thank you, Mark, for writing this memoir, and for giving me this opportunity to review it. A happy birthday once again, and many joyous returns!

Thank you all for listening to me. Goodbye for now.


*A review of MARK NWAGWU’s Dreams Dance: My Journey Through Life by Femi Osofisan, FNAL, NNOM

Poet, dramatist, and Emeritus Professor of Drama,

University of Ibadan.