There were a few but poignant moments of unfinished business with the bard, John Pepper Clark when he died recently at 85. It pertained to our dialogue over a poser on Facebook about Nigerian classic poems. Writer and columnist Mike Awoyinfa wanted Nigerians to pick what gems still whispered to us. J.P. Clark led the polls with such offerings as Abiku, Ibadan and Night Rain.
J.P. Clark was not aware of the Facebook buzz. He was not on Facebook, I reckoned. He did not seem surprised at the fan preference. His voice reflected a quiet gratitude. After a pause, he told me his much awaited new collection, More Remains, was out.
“You can get a copy in the market now,” he announced. He told me where to get it. I had badgered him about it, and he was glad to put me out my misery of expectation. He, too, sighed. He was out of my hook. Then I ordered a copy. When it arrived, I called to let him know. He did not pick. He called me back, I did not know. When I called back, he did not pick. He called again, I was not with my phone. I decided not to worry the old man. I decided I was going to surprise him with my review of his volume.
Then I saw a note from a fellow old boy of Government College, Ughelli, Okosubide Mozimo, that Nigeria’s preeminent poet had passed on. It left an ache. I didn’t pass on my word before the icy prosecutor. Death had its last word first, a cold, preemptive jolt. I did not have the chance to write my review. Like Ozidi who could not reach his murdered father, it is a futile quest. Especially for a man like Clark, who never bowed to gods or observe a rite.
Not writing the review for him will be an eternal ache, the sort that will visit me each time I remember his voice. Each time his poems are recited, poetry levitated, when night rains and I touch Ibadan, have dialogues with people with the philosophical excitement of a streamside exchange, I will meet Clark. It is non-corporeal engagement, a guarantee without flesh and blood.
The other unfinished business was his fascination with my series of poems on Leah Sharibu. He asked me to gather the volume so far written, and he wanted to let me know his opinion. I had gathered over 30 poems, short beauties, about a girl in captivity as mirror of a nation in the dark glow of self-immolation. I did not send it when I heard he was ill, and hospitalized. When we spoke, he was a little testy, and I prayed for him. When he came to, he said he was ready to read them. But just then, he lost his younger brother who was a general. All the Clark brothers, including Ambassador Clark who just turned 90, and his eldest brother the political leader, E.K. Clark headed home to pay their respect. J.P. Clark and Ambassador are old boys of GCU but could not attend our annual dinner. After they mourned their brother, he returned to Lagos, and I thought I had time to accumulate more poems. He often reminded me, but I said I was compiling the poems, and I diverted attention to his own work. I read his Remains of a Tide, a volume I collected from fellow Columnist Segun Ayobolu. The volume is a lugubrious beauty. The poems are touching in their deathly flavor, defiance and anticipation of the final call, musing on the passing of others, the use of withering images of leaves and blossoms as well as eternal ones of seas and trees and their capacity to devour human fragilities. Hear these lines from the poem, A Tree in a Grove:
…news too will spread:
J. P. Clark, poet, dramatist and mascot
For old masters at home, is dead
When I saw those lines, I thought it was still far off. He was 85, and his older brother just made the turn at 90. E.K. Clark had scorned death by planting himself at the departure lounge. The sap of both brothers was still alive. He had time yet. But he had begun to complain of old age, and he did not seem interested in anything. When the Covid lockdown came, it caught him in Apapa. He told me he wanted to go to his village in Kiagbodo. He was tied down at home. He sounded claustrophobic. There was an almost child-like lament to the captivity. He said his wife had told him he had not walked out of the door into the yard in many weeks. He was like the sedentary bird in the poem Streamside Exchange. “River bird, river bird, sitting all day long…” It was as though he was reliving the story of the bird he wrote decades ago. He was a sort of casualty of his muse.
I had another unfinished business. I wanted to interview him. I wanted his voice for the ages on my television show. He kept putting it off, sometimes telling me he had said everything. I recalled the words of U.S President Richard Nixon on Watergate, when he said he was not ready to relive the past. “Remember Lots wife,” said Nixon, “never turn back.” Clark was looking forward, to the place of the mascot of old masters.
I wanted him to talk on his plays. I wanted him to speak about the play, The Raft, a wrought affair of a picaresque disaster. What did the four characters represent, the four big tribes of Nigeria, including his Izon? He had said it was just about life. Who were the two who seemed to survive? Did they survive having ploughed into the fog? Was it a prediction of the Nigeria to come? He wrote it in the heady days of the young nation? Was it about our civil war, the throes of ethnic division, the fragility of our union, the journey of a nation adrift?
Drama critics have argued that The Raft could not be staged because of the narratives of storms and raft and ship, etc. That was then. But technology has vindicated the play. If it predicted the country, he also predicted its stage-ability. In today’s stagecraft, nothing can escape the technology. Karl Popper said we cannot predict the future because we cannot predict technology. His critics saw fog when Clark saw a lively stage. The raft has triumphed today.
Let us not forget the play, The song of the Goat, a tragedy about filial betrayal and remorse. Tapping from Old Testament and Greek tragedies, Clark wove a story of impotence and failure of virility, a projection of a nation where ritual and bloodhounds of ego fail.
I have wanted to find out why Clark, a preeminent poet, did not catch the attention in the world he deserves. I saw some of the poems of Louise Gluck, the American who just won the Nobel Prize, and her lines might have been written by Clark, their spare elegance and imaginative omission. Maybe he was just not lucky. He was never marketed well outside, like Soyinka and Achebe, or Chimamanda today. He probably never needed it. He was such a contended man. He once told me poems are not popular but poets have small but special audiences.
In his last collection, More Remains, was his last latchkey to memory. He ends it fittingly with the poem, Hope Alive, a sort of sad cheer runs through it. It is on that note a see him as coming alive often like Abiku. He will look less than the Abiku he wrote but the defiant one of Soyinka. He would play warrior in the words of Senghor paen to his ancestors in In Memoriam. He wrote of “O dead, who have always refused to die.”
As we read and stage him, he will remain before our eyes. It is not his remains we shall contemplate because he remains.
– Omatseye is a respected columnist with The Nation