Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Prima Etade of Literary Ambition: The Struggle to Overcome the Word in Petrarch’s Canzone 23

Petrarch's Canzone 23 is a dizzying and dazzling tour de force of transformation. The reader is allowed no illusion of rest from the impelling dynamic of change as the narrative voice describes his passage through six corporeal forms. The poem’s extraordinary complexity derives not only from the fast-moving procession of embodiments of the speaking voice (and the way in which each of these alters and edits its classical antecedents), but also from the many cunning authorial comments which unsettle interpretations even as they suggest themselves. The poem is not best read, however, as an encyclopedic inventory of possibilities like certain epic, oracular, and visionary works — the world as a whole is not the subject for its categorizations, nor do I find love itself to be the central concern of the poem (even in the extremely generalized sense in which all human energy may be regarded as erotic), nor is it — except in a rather specific way — about the elusive definition of the ego.

The particular sort of self the poem does pursue is the poetic self, and the canzone is a self-reflexive commentary, a meditation on the nature of language and poetry, a work of theoretical criticism. It radically questions the validity of literature and explores the fundamentally doubled structure of language. The result in the end is not, though an answer that justifies the poem by placing it in a larger scheme, rather the result is the leap necessary to the “prima etade” of literary ambition, the engagement in struggle with the word which is poetry and which within literature can have no end and no victor.

This sounds, perhaps, extravagant, but the approach is hardly novel. Not only must every poem necessarily make critical statements about the nature of poetry and about previous poems, but the specific tradition of which Petrarch is an exemplar played explicitly from William of Aquitaine to Shakesoeare on the relationship between the poem and the lover. Moreover, Canzone 23 is full of references to speech, writing, and literary fame. Before examining these in detail, I would like to review three earlier critics’ comments on Petrarch which seem to me to approach increasingly close to the point of view I mean to set forth.

Burling in his introductory remarks broaches the possibility of a reading of the poem as criticism by identifying the theme as “the incomprehensible changeability of the self in love” and noting three points in the text at which the author is driven to, in effect, produce poetry within the narration. Further he notes that all the myths the poem recalls concern frustrated or disastrous speech or writing as well as deception or confusion over identity. Finally, he charts the basic antinomies governing the piece as follows: dismemberment vs. integration, death vs. poetic immortality, and sexual fear causing dumbness vs. poetic creation. His comments, however, in the brief scope of the preface, lead to no conclusion more precise than that Petrarch calls attention to the “psychologically relative, even suspect, origin of individual poems and thus of writing itself.”

John Preston Brenkman’s “Narcissus in the Text: Toward an Analysis of the Literary Subject in Ovid, Petrarch, and Yeats” examines Petrarch’s sonnets 45 and 46, mentioning poem 23 as well. In Ovid's telling of the Narcissus myth, Brenkman finds a commentary on the deceptive capacities of language. He locates the critical elements for this reading in the shapeshifting uncertainty of the story's central figures. If Narcissus partakes of some of Echo's qualities, and if the author is not wholly distinct from either, if these identities are unstable through the course of the poem, then all utterance may likewise be doubted.

In Brenkman’s view the confusion of identity so prominent in Petrarch further problematizes the status of the speaker. Suggesting that Petrarch undermines the distinction between body and image which is persistent if unstable in Ovid, he says that as Laura becomes less like Narcissus, the authorial voice resembles him more. Thus the sum of delusion remains always the same and the text “defines its own impasse as discourse” since it leaves no ground from which to judge reality, but only the patterns of appearances.

Marguerite Waller in Petrarch's Poetics and Literary History does a thorough and convincing job along similar lines including a substantial treatment of Canzone 23 with exceedingly insightful and suggestive close readings of several passages. For instance, she is at pains to point out that in the first six lines of the poem, Petrarch does not unambiguously identify love as the source of his difficulty. She also questions the reality of any primal state of “libertade” and of its attainability in the future. The laurel is at once himself and his beloved; he passes through changes and yet never leaves it. Waller would translate 1. 167 “nor for a new figure have I known how to leave” and would interpret it as indicating the poet's imprisonment within language. No medium other than words is available to him and so whatever metaphorical forms of his subject he produces, these “figure only that figural production” itself. “Petrarch undercuts the authority of an allegorical narrative reading, demonstrating that the first figure itself is generated in an equally figural and arbitrary structural moment: the poet becoming identical with the laurel/Laura is one dimension (that of the linguistic signifier or figure), but remaining absent or different from it in another (that of the allegorical or interpretive reading, or figural significance. In the effort to recover the self and to emerge from figural to performative discourse, he cannot be wholly successful, but “while losing the self he gains the sign. While escape from the narrative problematic is impossible, narrative itself becomes possible.

The sort of struggle Waller traces in the poem to make a perfectly signifying work and the partial failure that makes possible a partial victory is particularly likely in light of the place the poem occupies in Petrarch’s oeuvre. A marginal gloss in Petrarch’s hand identifies this poem as one of his earliest and the attempt to write the perfect poem may be seen as the young writer's attempt to work up his arrogance into the decision to write at all by means of the fantasy of success at writing the definitive poem. It is, then, in a way a tale of the birth of literary ambition as well as erotic emergence, and it tests the margins of both realms.

The pun between Laura and the laurel (as a literary prize) joins love of self and love of other. The writer paradoxically demonstrates love for himself and love for the whole world by devoting himself to his work, to his muse. Waller suspects there may be a pun, too, in the word penosa (l. 11; meaning “painful” but penna is pen or quill). She does not mention, though the intention is indisputable, the play between foglia (leaf) and foglio (sheet of paper) in 1. 40 or with the word piuma (feather or plumage but also quill pen) in 1. 51. Having covered himself with pages and pens successively, after dedicating himself to the pursuit of literature the poet then finds himself a stone.

In the serial progression of literary worth I am now delineating this is the withdrawal or descent into self that potentiates poetry. His next incarnation is as a fountain which brings inevitable associations of inspiration and productivity — I would say he has here crossed the stile into the precincts of art. While the penultimate form — the Echo-like stone and voice — raises new problems, it remains for the final transformation, the Actaeon-like stag to bring a dramatic resolution.

Before returning to these last two images of the poet, I would like to discuss the poem’s references to 1anguage and its conclusion. Though Petrarch gets his poem going by asserting that it is efficacious to reduce his pain and he brings the piece to a halt by lofting into the empyrean on poetical wings, the references between to words are almost
exclusively devoted to attesting their inadequacy, their failures. Already by 1. 11 everyone is said to be tired of his carrying on; in 1. 37 he declares wit and speech of no avail; in 52-62 his wailing is continuous only because it is ineffective. Getting directly to the point he tells his reader that his subject is beyond all speech (1. 71), that his pen cannot follow his will (1. 91). Pen and ink again disappoint expectation in 1. 100 and later he says that his words have the form of a lie (l. 156).

All of these negative comments, however, are contained between two which, as I have noted, testify on the contrary to the actual power of speech and of poetry. The last passage is at once highly conventional as a description of poetic flight and very suggestive of sexual realization. As an apotheosis of poetry, though, the poem it ends must be its justification. Further, the complaints about the shortcomings of poetry are stated only in lines of poetry and they thus have a divided content anyway since their very existence as words is evidence that the author trusts in their potency. Only if the reader should indeed find them tiresome and leave off reading long before the conclusion will they have failed, and Petrarch provides even for that case. Line 12 tells us that every valley conveys his complaints so the message is virtually inescapable.
The erotic double-bind is then accompanied or paralleled by a linguistic one. One way in which these profound ambivalences is traced is by the opposition of life and death. In stage one the “living man” is made a tree, clearly a decline in vitality, though not an absolute one. The process continues in form 2 when his hope, the internal essence of his being, is said to be dead. As a stone he is suspended between life and death and from this egg-like latency, he emerges in the fountain which in its exhilarated flow requires no mention of death. As the Echo-like stone he calls death by name, but this is now an objectified death, outside himself. Unlike the earlier death, he is now able to name it and manipulate it verbally.

In the Actaeon-image of form 6, the situation would seem, to be a mortal one, yet again here death is not mentioned. The poet has, in the process of the poem, not banished death, but he has made it a part of his system. After his poem is born, he entertains no illusions about the powers of language, but he understands its nature more fully and by that understanding he controls it. Although the crisis may seem to evaporate in the heavenly flight at the end, the image of fleeing the hounds is not by any means obliterated.

It is a dramatic and compelling moment near the end when the poet says that he is still fleeing the belling of the hounds. At once the reader recognizes the gravity of the situation as it is no longer recounted by a coolly detached voice sneaking elegantly of past travails (and the tone of mastery is important throughout the poem even in the parts that would be most anguished in some common-sense relation), but it speaks of its own present. It would be acceptable to most readers to comment that the sudden grip of panic that seizes the reader’s throat at this point may legitimately be said to indicate a continuation of this elastic present into the moment of the reading in a virtual reenactment of the event described.

But just who are these hounds and of what does their noise consist? And what are those woods from one to another of which the poet is driven? It would be a psychoanalytical reading unusually rich in self-contradiction even to begin to explicate them as emblems of passion, even a passion made up as much of ambition as lust. However, I believe they are more tellingly glossed as the meaning of language pursuing language itself. It is in this sense rather than as psychic impulses that they have outlived Pope Innocent’s hunting dogs and that they still live and pursue their quarry on the page today. They represent both the fund of energy animating language and the desperation that arises from its repeated failures. The tracks of their pursuit are evident throughout the poem.
Images of language as a two-fold structure are very old. In medieval books of rhetoric the most frequent form for this division is simply sound and sense. Words had always been recognized as arbitrary symbols and they had usually be admitted to be not wholly explicable. The bifurcation is reflected in Canzone 23 by a series of images of containment:

1. 20 “that within me” and “I the shell”
1. 24-26 the heart and "frozen thoughts"
1. 34 himself and his garment
1. 73 heart in his breast
1. 75 the beloved in a garment that makes her unrecognizable
1. 82 the poet and the stone
1. 95 heart and death all about
1. 106 the poet clothed in darkness

All of these images convey the sense of what is truly important, truly human contained within a more death-like outer husk which either prevents communication, deceives, or denies the importance of affect. The barrier is broken at least implicitly in all of these instances but surely the most startling and disturbing is the occult surgery the beloved performs in 1. 74. In the terms by which I have been explicating the poem each of the occasions catalogued indicates the doubled character of language which makes possible its deceit (cf . Hesiod and Umberto Eco), and this amazing violation of the boundaries suggests the possible revelation of meaning in language in sudden moments prepared by pain, though more the pain of painstaking craft than that of romantic agony.

If the outer layer in each of my containment images is that indifferent word which in its stubborn physicality seems altogether unresponsive to the demands placed upon it by human users, the withdrawal of the heart by the muse and indeed the very existence of Canzone 23 itself and its absorbing spell demonstrate that this husk is not a final one, that it may make possible an incubation from which a sort of new life can emerge.

The problematic of literary identity remains and the problematic of language itself: nothing can mean exactly what we would have it mean, language is not constructed to perform such a role. If it were a single verse could bring instant illumination to anyone and literary success on that order is impossible. Petrarch's interest may be in that which is (l. 71) “beyond writing,” but only if it provides him with the trajectory along which he wishes to aim, if it gives the excuse that makes him want to write. Though fated not to strike that transcendental target (and so far as the love theme itself goes, does even Norman Mailer still seek the transcendental orgasm?). Petrarch leaves behind a poem which in struggling against these limitations both comes to understand them and overcomes them only to encounter the same problems the next time he is is faced with a blank page.

In the passage following 1. 121 Petrarch suggests these ultimate pretensions with an analogy between the soul, God, and Laura. But the soul is accessible to others only through its outward form and its outward actions, the Lady through her person and the muse through concrete poems. Likewise the maker, whether divine or human, while never equivalent to his creation is pressed in it and the word, however inadequately it conveys meaning, appropriates that very inadequacy as part of its nature. The patterns of ambiguity and deceit that characterize language in general are just those elements that make literature. It is the distance between Actaeon and the hounds, between the word and its meaning, not the congruity of the two that makes poetry, but nonetheless the chase must go on. With the ceasing of the struggle would come the collapse of language.

Nova Academy

For several years in the late seventies, I taught at Nova Academy in San Francisco’s Sunset district. The school had been founded by Merriam LaNova to educate high school age dancers attending the San Francisco Conservatory of Ballet. There the regimen was strict and old-fashioned. Lanova had, after all, danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her style was icy and stern. Her husband, though a cellist with the symphony, looked like a mobster. Leonide Massine came by on occasion to view my classes, and the Kronos Quartet sometimes practiced in an unused studio.
The school maintained the façade of an elite preparatory school. The principal always wore a three-piece suit. The older classrooms were decorated as though they were part of some old manor, landed by accident above an urban storefront. One featured a hunting mural on one wall, another had a huge fake fireplace, a third had a ceiling of painted panels that belonged in an Italian basilica.

The fact was, though, that, along with the dedicated dancers, Nova Academy, like other private schools, found itself accepting many students for a variety of reasons it would prefer not to admit. Some parents wanted their children in an all-white environment; other young scholars had encountered unpleasant disciplinary proceedings their parents were willing to pay to escape. Several foreign students had enrolled in preparation to applying to American universities. The dancers were, in fact, all but invisible in a larger crowd including drifter, misfits, and troublemakers.

This reality sometimes clashed with the high art pretensions of the dance world. Among the distinguished visitors was Kyra Nijinska, Vaslav’s daughter. Once a dancer with the Ballet Russe, she now painted mystic canvases, but now and then she would come to Nova to conduct a Flamenco class. I could hear the heavy heels stomping above my room. Her manners were odd, and, to the more vulgar students, exceedingly comical. If she perceived a mocking look, she would rise up in indignation and declare, “Do you know who I am? I am the daughter of the Grrreat Nijinsky!” Before long, the students, innocent of any idea of her father’s work (or her own) were greeting each other with this line, suitably exaggerated.

For some reason, the school seemed to define itself with reactionary tradition. Apart from the anti-Bolshevik feeling of the Russian émigré tradition, propaganda magazines from apartheid South Africa were among the few journals scattered about the office waiting area. The emphasis was, as the principle Michael Badenhausen reminded the students at morning assembly, self-discipline and hard work. But, alas, by mid-morning, the pink-faced principal was three sheets to the wind, sometimes literally lying on his office floor, passed out. If a parent came to consult him, the staff would have to think on their feet. He had been a Peace Corps volunteer in the bush of Upper Volta (as it was then called), and that experience was probably enough to explain his alcoholism, but it was not his only peccadillo. Once a well-built young friend of his appeared at the school, wearing skin-tight jeans with a chain belt and a motorcycle jacket with no shirt. Madam could hardly have approved, but for reasons best known to the two of them, she tolerated his behavior with maternal protectiveness.

Our pay was little more than welfare, less if one includes food stamps -- $325 a month when I began, then increased to $375. In the middle of my second year of service at Nova, I began to organize. I called the local teachers’ unions who, I must say, showed little solidarity. I set out to do it myself. “They can’t fire you,” I told my coworkers, “You’re protected by state and federal labor law.” Threatening a mid-year strike, we received Lanova’s signature on an agreement giving us $425 a month and a certain position for the coming year. Then, when the term ended in the spring, the entire faculty was fired. (Doubtless individuals the administration trusted who showed proper contrition might be allowed back.) I picketed the graduation exercises in my suit and then put down my sign to enter the hall and take my seat to applaud the graduates. I filed a complaint against the school with the California Labor Commission. It was the least I could do after leading my fellow-workers down a path that proved more dangerous than I had known.

After months had passed, I received notice of a hearing before an administrative judge. When I entered, the school’s attorney was just saying to the judge, “It’s frivolous, really,” and the judge, in an old-boy manner, responded with resignation, “Well, we must give him his day, anyway.” While I presented what seemed to me undeniable facts, their scurrilous lawyer proceeded to tell outlandish lies: that I was fired because of my obdurate gum-chewing, that Lanova would not have signed the agreement had I not been raising a fist over her in a menacing way. I was at the time young enough to be genuinely surprised at my adversary’s complete dishonesty. Needless to say, the hearing was decided against me, and, as it happened, about that time I received an offer to teach school in the Nigerian bush. Perhaps if I had prevailed over my San Francisco employer, I would never have seen the palace of the Oba of Benin nor would I have drunk palm wine from a calabash with a dozen drowned bees afloat. Doubtless, the time had come to move on.

Phonetics and Semantics in the Last Line of Beowulf

Following Tolkien's bugle-cry in the thirties, the most general trend in Beowulf studies has doubtless been the approach to the poem itself as a successful artistic product. Subsequent critics have found one element of the poem after another to be significant in ways unsuspected by Ker. [1] I propose to contribute to this well-advanced trend not by demonstrating a new system of significance operating throughout the text, but by the detailed examination of a few lines with reference to their semantic and phonetic content. [2]

In general I think the relation between the two in poetry is similar to that between signifier and signified in language as a whole: that is, their association may be originally arbitrary, but it becomes meaningful once the correspondence is established, though the relation is always more aptly characterized as a pursuit of one by the other than as an equivalence. In an aesthetic text, moreover, such relations are legitimately read as highly determined and determining without any necessary implications regarding the intentions or the powers of the author. Indeed, an intentional effect unperceived by a given reader does not exist for that reader, and what seems to the reader to be designed functions for that reader as meaningful, whatever the writer’s intention.

In fact the significant relation between signifier and signified is constitutive of literature, and thus analysis of any sample of an accomplished poetic text will reveal what I find in the case of Beowulf, namely that most of the sound-sense ratios are indeed direct or inverse. In either case one may be said to reinforce the other. [3] (Those which do not serve such a relation may be considered unassimilated data with an unknown meaning or simply the random noise which inevitably accompanies any expression. [4])

I choose to examine the last sentence of the poem, lines 3178-3182, not because I expect any greater degree of artfulness in a rhetorical conclusion. Rather, I would claim that the same operation I undertake here might be done with equally good results in any other portion of the text. However this is not to say that the lines are uninfluenced by their placement within the poem as a whole. Even if the passage is found to declare itself the conclusion; indeed, even if it were known to be dense and more carefully “worked over” for that reason; it would not necessarily be more highly determined. [5]

The semantic content of the lines is clear and straightforward, more so in fact than much of the poem. Beowulf is dead, the poem that bears his name is in a sense already over. Lines 3178-3182 simply tell us that his people mourned for him as the best king on earth. The structure of the expression of this simple statement is not itself, however, simple. The semantic content may be described as doubly symmetrical in its presentation. The first hemistichs as a group have a unity balanced by that of the second hemistichs. Further, lines 3178-3179 are a group while 3181-3182 are another with 3180 as a transition.

The first half-lines possess a certain obvious continuity in that they may be read with no reference whatever to the second half-lines and the basic sense of the passage (indeed, its grammatical integrity, too) does not suffer. The second half-lines do reinforce and enrich that sense, but in no simple pattern of echoing what has just been said. 3178b and 3179b are largely synonymous as are 3181b and 3182b. The first pair names the mourners, the second names the qualities of their king, and the central one names their linkage in the institution of monarchy. Thus the second half-lines restate in their periodic way the same idea stated in the first. The right side of the page may also be independently read though grammar and syntax suffer in the version of the story given there.

Turning to the other symmetrical axis, one notes that the first half of the passage contains the essential message “the people mourned for their king” while the second half explains his qualities which make clear why they mourned and what they said while mourning. The middle line 3180 is abstract, cleansed of specificity, saying only that people spoke of a king. It stands between the particulars concerning the people's mood and those of the king's nature. The first half of this pivotal line restates the content of the previous two lines and the second half foreshadows the last two.

The five lines as a whole might be thought to represent the entire poem in miniature, for surely Beowulf may be accurately described as a verbal memorial offered up to the dead leader. Thus the linguistic activity that concludes the poem is identical with the poem as a whole. In fact the very last word is an even more condensed epitome: lofgeornost. This is the only occurrence of the word in the entire text, almost as though it were reserved for this capping location. It suggests not only the nature of the poem itself (praise invested with emotion) but also recalls the whole pattern of behavior that might elicit such praise and the centrality of the relation between lord and warriors which provides such a great share of the thematic meat throughout the text. [7]

Analysis of sound patterns is notoriously liable to slip over into super-subtlety, but I will here have space only to consider the most apparent of effects, those which will be most likely accepted as genuinely operative. The available data are set forth in these arrays:

vowel sounds

3178 a e o o o ea a eo e
3179 a o e y e eo e ea a
3180 ae o ae e ae e y u y i a
3181 a a i u o o ae u
3182 eo u i o o o eo o

consonant sounds

3178 sw b gn rn d n g t l d
3179 hl f d shr r h rthg e t s
3180 cw d nth t h w r w r ldc n ng
3181 m n m ld st ndm nthw r st
3182 l d ml th st nd 1 fg rn st

The following observations seem most important for these data:
1) Alliteration is stronger in 3181-3182 than in the other lines.
2) The open vowel sounds of the first hemistich are similar to those of the last.
3) 3178b provides a vowel pattern repeated in 3179b and then carried over and expanded in 3180a.
4) 3180 contains an abundance of sounds not found elsewhere, both vowels and consonant clusters
5) The superlative -st which ends each of the last four hemistichs had not occurred before.
6) The m's and n's of the last two lines are prefigured in the three n sounds of begnornodon.

Certain reinforcement of semantic patterns is obvious. The structure of the alliterative line insists that the second hemistichs are redundant of the first in a broad sense. A number of characteristics bind the last two lines and set apart the middle line. The semantic equivalence of 3178b and 3179b is underlined by their similar vowel patterns which then provide a transition into the turn of the central line. Not having analyzed sound patterns in the whole poem I have no evidence that the function of the end in epitomizing the whole is phonetically reproduced. The only really new element produced by the phonetic survey is the added impression of unity one gains in seeing the reminiscence of 3178a in 3182b. Much information remains in the arrays which might be called the “narrative” (because non-recurring) sound pattern.

This brief survey of sound and sense relation in a five line passage should emphasize yet again the sophistication and complexity of the poem's texture, though it does not imply any conclusion about the literacy or training of the poet. Indeed, conventions of style and of sentiment make density of signification at once more easily realized and more easily neglected. A poet working in a prescribed and artificial tradition may either flat-footedly supply his readers' expectations (and thus signify less) or, by a very minute distortion of those same expectations, he may signify more efficiently. In Beowulf the divided line, the alliterative pattern, the storehouse of phrases that belong to the heroic ethos are efficiently used to convey more, I think, in shorter compass than one would find to be the case with most contemporary poets not supplied with a closed tradition.

1. The implications of this for literary historical reconstruction may go in either direction. One might see in his artistry proof either of book-learning or of the oral tradition.

2. If I were to seek a more modern bugle-cry than Tolkiens, I might find it in Eco’s advocacy of the “semiotic civil rights” of ever smaller elements in the stuff of the work. (p. 268, A Theory of Semiotics [Bloomington: 1979]).

3. In the case of an inverse relationship the stakes would be raised a bit, and one would be justified in speaking of ambiguity, irony, and the metaphoric “lie.”

4. Alternatively, one might call this "meaningless" component the constitutive bearer of that desirable residue of mystery which allows the work to retain after interpretation its original quantum of aesthetic mana.

5. My opinion is the opposite, that more is likely to be encoded in a passage if the “purpose” of the passage is not apparent, though sometimes a high degree of motivation can allow the writer to deceive himself and the reader. I am thinking of such instances as Pound’s translations where he felt justified in doing as he pleased since he had an original as his excuse.

6. Normally in French romance the second half line will be more likely wholly conventional just as the rhyming line of a couplet (the second) will. The poet has license at first, but must obey his formal imperative after.

7. Lof by itself occurs only once also. It is applied in a sense similar to this in line 1536 (very nearly the midpoint of the poem) just before Beowulf fights Grendel's mother.

Nigerian Given Names and Road Mantras

A few fragments of found poetry.

Nigerian Given Names

Many Nigerians have English given names. These sometimes recalled the ancients in simply noting the day of a child’s birth: Sunday (etc.). More often they expressed a kind of magic – names, for instance, that might aid a young person toward a good career: College, Engineer, or Editor. Often they would name desirable qualities: Famous, Clever, Moneymaker, Lucky, Goodluck, Pious, Blessing, Endurance, Innocent, Ebony, and Fidelity, for example. Some were a bit less clear in intention: John Bull, Didacus (and Philemon), Portuguese, Dried Meat (though “Pigmeat” is known in the American South), Whisky, Society. Some are vast: System and Empire. Our neighbor had a boy with an African name Vaki which was explained as meaning “Everything has its time.”

Road Mantras

(These are lines collected from the sides of cars and trucks in Nigeria. In spite of the small percentage of the population that owns cars, Nigeria has an extraordinarily high rate of serious traffic accidents.)

question of time
speak your words
nothing in my hands
don't mind
life is war
if men were god
truth is bitter
more days
my problem is not your problem
high life
o taste and see
not as you think
who knows tomorrow
see the work of god
let them say
no event -- no history
how shall we escape
are you god
princeless youth

Vignettes of Sunny Nigeria

Walking on a bush path, we entered the village of Urohpokpo and waved greetings to a woman under a burden of wood, startled to see exotic strangers. Almost instantly, everyone knew we were passing though. An excited, giggling woman rushed from a hut holding a leaflet. The crowd grew and filled with elated expectation. She thrust before us a Christian tract depicting a white Adam and Eve. By gestures she conveyed the notion that we resembled the pictured couple. General hilarity and assent ensues.

Tales of Bureaucracy

As the trimly marshaled troops perform their smart ceremonies before the Remembrance Arcade war memorial in Lagos and the band played “Auld Lang Syne,” I sat in a seventh floor office of the Independence Building. I had been there already three hours while an official surrounded by heaps of file amused himself by pasting an occasional addition into one or another. He tires of my presence and dismisses me. I make my way down the seven flights. Files are piled in every hallway and on the landings of the stairway. Some are strewn across the floor. The walls are markedly soiled in a dark band corresponding to where a person’s hand might reach. Have these walls ever been washed or repainted since the British left? The next day the same thing happens, only this time the bureaucrat explains, “The problem is we have reached the end of our number sequence for files and haven’t received authorization to begin at one again. You will have to wait.”

The kola nut ceremony in the Benin City Public Service Commission passed from the benign (“May you have prosperity and good health!”) to the slightly sinister (“May he who wishes to speak against you find his tongue will not move! May your enemies become blind and crippled!”). With every wish the economic planner behind the desk chanted his concord.

When we had first arrived in Benin City, we were housed at the Hotel Philomena, an unlikely huge and modern establishment on a dirt road. Though the building is altogether modern, it was constructed by the sloppiest of craftsmen. Ever mirror, every board is seriously askew. An observer from across the room can see that the marble steps are visibly off-kilter. Heaps of dust rest in every corner, red with laterite’s iron oxide. Even manufactured furniture looks screwy – the chairs and tables all wobble. Later, when repairs were being done in our Agbarho home, the principal, Mr. Elempe lingered, overseeing their work. “You needn’t stay,” I told him, “You must have more important work.” “I must stay,” he answered. “These men are paid so little, they will stop work the moment I leave. If you tell them to get back to it, they may or may not. They will work as long as I am here.”
The Philomena was doubtless costing the government a pretty penny, but such waste was trivial in the system – the fabulous rewards went to a few at the top and payouts to many “little men.” (Working the system from the bottom, Mr. Varghese, a colleague from Kerala, the only other non-African at the school, made it a practice to bring cold Cokes for the clerks in the file office of the Education Ministry. When he felt the need to tweak his records, he would avoid petitioning officials, instead going straight to the clerks to obtain his files and make whatever changes he wished himself.)
The hotel was spooky apart from its geometric irregularities. For some time the only other guest in its spacious halls was an Indian physician named Reddy. Every day he sat in the Health Ministry, as though waiting was the true job for which he had been hired. After lengthy and mysterious delays, we received assignments, but our friend kept up his daily vigil for six months before being sent to the hospital in Sapele. When we spoke to him some time later, he described his frustration at the theft of virtually all ordered supplies, including, drugs, before they reached the hospital. Patients’ families would have to purchase the goods, sometimes, the very same merchandise, in the markets and bring it to the hospital.
One he had I both had to obtain the signature of the assistant commissioner for education of what was then called Bendel State. We entered his Benin City office early and were seated outside his office. After an hour or so, we were invited in, yet he did not give us a signature for our forms, a formality really. We sat while he chatted on the telephone or wandered aimlessly about the room. At about 10 a.m. some chief who was his friend appeared with a six-pack of Guinness. The two of them drank while discussing soccer scores. After a few beers, the chief left. The Assistant Commissioner called his daughter. He put his feet up on the desk and Dr. Reddy and I looked at each other, unsure whether he had fallen asleep. Around noon he left for lunch. We couldn’t depart since we had no idea when he would be in the mood to sign our documents.
The Assistant Commissioner must have had a good lunch as he returned in an expansive mood, ready to engage us. We discussed politics and world events for some time, and he then signed our papers.
The time was perhaps 1:30 when we left. Outside the Ministry Dr. Reddy turned to me and commented, “Pleasant chap, wasn’t he? I enjoyed meeting him.” “How can you speak like that,” I responded, “when he kept us waiting most of a day?” “Oh, well, of course he did. You must understand, he had to show what a big man he was. He’s a bureaucrat, what do you expect?”

The post office in Ughelli is filled with silent loiterers. I cannot understand why they congregate here doing nothing at all. The postmaster reaches an annoying point in his paperwork, rises, and irritably orders them out. No one speaks or moves. Only a few glance in the postmaster’s direction. He shouts again, tells them they must be gone. As a final gesture, he threatens to “take steps.” Still no response. He returns to his desk.