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ALLOTROPES OF NATURAL TRAJECTORIES IN THE
POETICS OF J.P. CLARK
Chinonye C. Ekwueme-Ugwu
Department of English & Literary Studies
University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Department of English & Literary Studies
University of Nigeria, Nsukka
walter. ugwuagbo @unn.edu.ng
Submitted to the Nsukka Journal of Humanities (NJH)
for Publication Consideration
Organic entities in many of J.P. Clark’s poems assume a number of similar interesting forms that
are of exploratory significance. An ecological appraisal of some of his earliest poems of the
pristine creek regions of Nigeria’s Niger Delta prove immeasurable in advancing to the frontiers
African perspective to global ecocriticism. Devoid of protests and activism, the poems present an
ecological ambience that counteracts the devastations that often characterize contemporary Niger
Delta literature. They represent the sublime essences of nature in its ecological ambience,
mocking science and technology’s more anthropocentric propitiations, and ingraining the eco-
consciousness of the poet and his audience.
Key Words: Ecocriticism, African Literature, J.P. Clark, Nature, Poetics
Deeply rooted in the natural African environment J.P. Clark’s poems provide ecological insights
that are of significance to global ecocriticism. This paper, an exploration of the ecological tropes
in some of the poet’s older poems, participates in reimagining the natural African ecosystem
currently endangered by the new cultures of science and technology. As viable African
ecocritical testaments, the poems possess the essential elements for propagating African
ecocriticism and participate towards rescuing ecocriticism from remaining “predominantly a
white movement” (Glotfelty xxv).
The environment, African ecocritics have argued, predate modern day theories of ecocriticism,
as propounded from the global west (Slaymaker 684)). However to the extent that it has not
enjoyed the attention of many of the Afrocentric critics the same way that other postcolonial
socio-political and economic issues have, it continues to be viewed with suspicion. Even with
such inter disciplinary conferences on ‘Ecology and the Convergence of the Sciences and the
Humanities’ held recently in Lapai, Niger state, many professors in the Arts and Humanities
departments of public universities remain hesitant towards inculcating ecocriticism as an area of
literary scholarship. Appeals to the environment remain yoked to socio-economic and political
issues that often engender protests and activism. In their eulogistic estimation of nature, much
like the Negritudian appraisal of Africa and her cultural values (Buell 64), individual
scholarships nevertheless persist in projecting the African perspectives to the romantic essences
of ecocriticism, and this has continued to shape appreciation, in poetry and other artistic modes,
of nature and the consequences of human actions on the natural African environment. A
historical examination of the effects of cultural advancements on nature, the ingenious
exploitation of her resources and the pollution of organic ecosystems (White 4), has equally
encouraged many individual African writers to respond to imperialist incursions into peripheral
world ecosystems (Nwagbara n. pag). As such, the attention drawn, through ecocriticism, to the
physical environment and the ways that culture mediates, regulates, and even undermines it, and
threatens the survival of species in its local and global ecosystems has informed this rereading of
J.P. Clark’s poems.
The idea of ecocriticism as embodiments of the ideologies of nature, place, the earth and
organisms, the flora and fauna, in the biosphere, relevant to poetic practices, has in the last two
decades been emphasized by proponents of the theory beyond the USA, Europe and the Asian
regions of the world. Just as it is aptly figured out by Glotfelty that prior to the late nineteen-
nineties, when ecocriticism gained its popularity in the west, the term has been used in academic
papers to distinguish literature of ecologic concern from others which emphasize such
anthropocentric concerns as colonialism, feminism, gender, class, socio-economic inequality,
politics and psychoanalytical issues ( xxvi), in Africa, prior to the naming of the theory in the
global West, early African writers and composers have thematized nature in their poetics.
Many of J.P. Cark’s poems, reminiscent of the idyllic romantic enclaves of eighteenth century
England, have been estimated to project a Negritudian assessment of the African cultural and
environmental values. In a representation of the changing forms of the poet himself, Osofisan
underscores the influence of nature on the poet whom he fames as constantly retreating “to that
distant, isolated promontory of the Kiagbodo river, where he built his home” (Osofisan 4). From
this natural enclave he observes natural manifestations in their allotropic trajectories.
Nature and its Trails
From the vantage point of nature and its gifts, the poet observes and documents natural entities in
their transformative aura. Water for instance assumes various postures in the process. ‘The
Year’s First Rain’, ‘Night Rain’, ‘Water Maid’, ‘Olokun’, and ‘Stream Side Exchange’ address
the same element – water – but from different angles. In the first instance, the same element
takes the form of rain which “after long surcease in the desert … comes / Hot-breathing, alert /
Swift to thunder-rolls and claps” to water the parched and thirsty earth. The year’s first rain,
interpolates the traditional African worldview of the male – female sexual imagery and the
associated tropes of procreative essences. The rain, possessing the male attribute, ‘after long
surcease in the desert’ (line 1), returns, reinvigorated, with swift action to impregnate the earth,
who in turn is imbued with the feminine attributes of docility and willingness to receive,
incubate, nurture and birth new lives.
After long surcease in the desert,
Swift to thunder-rolls and claps (lines 2 – 5)
And earth waiting, waiting inert,
Fallow and burdened …
Shudders to her rump,
Tingles to the trump
Of the long-missed one.
Now with more than tongue can tell
Thrusts he strokes her, swamps her,
Enters all of him beyond her fell,
Till in the calm and cool after
All alone, earth yawns, limbers her stay,
Swollen already with the life to break at day. (lines 7 – 11)
On this one hand is the allotrope of congenial ambience that counteracts that of ruin or
degradation in “Night Rain”, with its reminiscences of modern day ecologic ruin occasioned by
humanity’s misappropriations of science and technological inventions. Assuming the form and
force of the “night rain”, streams of ecological metaphors course through, inundate and animate
the multi-faceted natural entities. “Like some fish doped out of the deep”, to a fresh but repeated
experience with nature, the riverine and fishing enclaves combat nature’s now anarchic
influences. The poet persona’s sleep, cool, and smooth-sailing, like a typical African stream, is
rudely interrupted by the rain. ‘And no cocks crow’ to indicate what time of the night, a
recreation of the natural interaction between organisms in their ecosystem, as well as a
symbiotic relationship between the environment, the birds, and the humankinds.
The ‘roof thatch’ and the ‘sheaves’ that ‘slit open to lightening’, open more vistas to an
appreciation of some of the natural elements that are at the root of advancements in building
technology. “The rhythm is soothing, real, and concrete”. The poem represents “an Africa that
sadly, many of the present generation no longer know” (Osofisan 10) and may never know.
Great water drops are dribbling
Falling like oranges or mango
Fruits showered forth in the wind
With the rising movement, and with the urgency of the tone, the effect of the usually very strong
tropical African rain is felt, so strong as to be compared with the fruits, oranges and mangoes
‘showered forth in the wind’. This urgency calls for action and replaces the earlier soothing tone:
It is drumming hard here
And I suppose everywhere
Droning with insistent ardour upon
Our roof thatch and shed
Environmental issues are often universal, though with regional variations. Rain, flood, cyclone,
tsunami, drought, etc., are associated issues witnessed to a greater or lesser degree from one
region of the world to another. Thus, this call, as under a military command with all necessary
arsenals, the desired action being wrought, one observes that:
In wooden bowls and earthenware
Mother is now busy deploying
About our roomlet and floor.
Although it is dark
I know her practised step as
She moves her bins, bags and vats
Out of the run of water
That like ants filing out of the wood
Will scatter and gain possession
Of the floor.
Although armed with the most rudimentary tools, mother (significantly not father) confronts
nature, with ‘practised step’, an indication that nature must always have its way, and that it is
incumbent upon human beings to devise appropriate measures for mediating the effects of
natural occurrences without incurring greater damages to the ecosystem. The current situation
around the world whereby human beings, in their attempt to secure maximum comfort for
themselves endanger the lives of their fellow human beings, as well as other organisms, only
produce greater natural disasters, in the forms of severe flooding, soil erosion, earthquakes, etc.
that cannot be overcome by simply removing ‘bins, bags and vats out of the run of water’.
Then, from the allotrope of ruin in “night rain” nature’s affectionate essences looms large in
“Olokun”. Transcribed in the lyrical fashion of the earlier English romantic tradition, ‘Olokun’
tells the story of an African in tune with nature and the supernatural world. Knowledge
transcending the natural boundaries embraces the sublime world of Olokun, the sea goddess, to
create a symbiotic, transcendental, love relationships between the poet persona and the spirit
I love to pass my fingers
(As tides thro’ weeds of the sea
And wind the tall fern fronds)
Thro’ the strands of your hair
Dark as night that screens the naked moon:
Tides, weeds, sea, wind, fern fronds, hair strands, dark night and naked moon, provide glaring
metaphors or images of symbiotic relationships among the transcendent, natural organisms, and
environment. The poet persona thus in addition to making a strong case for his metaphysical
world view, demonstrates the unity of all things in nature. With strong allusions to, and
comparison with the natural elements – tides, weeds of the sea, wind, fern fronds, hair strands
dark as night that screens the naked moon – the speaker highlights the beauty of the goddess and
compares the strength of his passion for her with that of the Jew for Jehovah in this equally very
I am jealous and passionate
Like Jehovah, God of the Jews,
And I would that you realise
No greater love had woman
From man than the one I have for you!
The hair, “Dark as night that screens the naked moon”, speaks of the natural African hair on the
speaker. The image of a dark night screening ‘the naked moon’ is one familiar only to those
close to nature, and who reside within the natural environment, as most Africans are, even today.
This projects a peculiarly African perspective that is mostly lost to modern metropolitan city
dwellers around the world. One has to reside away from the city and its dazzling superficial
lights to appreciate the natural elements. The ecological metaphors, embellished with the
transcendental images of nature and the metaphysical world, continue through the rest of the
But what wakeful eyes of man,
Made of the mud of this earth,
Can stare at the touch of sleep
The sable vehicle of dream
Which indeed is the look of your eyes?
The image is that of a man, a product of earth, mouth agape, eyes wide open, staring in
unbelievable wonder at the goddess, whose eyes are compared to “the touch of sleep … vehicle
of dream”. Conclusively, Olokun is nature sublime and generous.
So drunken, like ancient walls
We crumble in heaps at your feet;
And as the good maid of the sea,
Full of rich bounties for men,
You lift us all beggars to your breast.
The image, first and foremost, in the lines above, is that of men who, satiated with the beauty of
a woman, “crumble in heaps”, beggars, at her feet. The other image of “ancient walls”, which,
soaked with rain, “crumble in heaps” is evocative of man’s earlier attempts with architectural
designs, which nature, in the form of heavy rains, demolishes as imperfect. Thanks to man’s
natural resilience and ingenuity, more durable houses are available now, though not to many in
Africa’s rural settings. In other words, many Africans are still battling with crumbling walls.
Olokun, or nature, “as the good maid of the sea” is moreover “Full of rich bounties for men”. As
such, she lifts them all up, beggars to her breast. Olokun/nature is transcendent over and above
human beings, who are but beggars, vagabonds or tramps before her. Thus, human beings,
creatures of nature “Made of the mud of this earth” (line 12), are here deposed from their
presumed sublimity as the centre of creation and reduced to just another of the natural entities.
The ‘Abiku’ ecosystem is very much similar to the ‘Night Rain’ oikos, as both embody more or
less the same natural elements. Birds, fish, trees, humans, floods that ‘brim the banks’, fire, night,
day, sun and seasons all interact in an ecological milieu. The only difference is in the supernatural
experience of the poet persona who transcends the physical world and ventures into the
metaphysical world of the Abiku and its ‘kindred spirits’. With these, the “web of creation”, as
envisioned by Robert Barry Leal, is completed. Leal attributes anthropocentricism and human
arrogance to humanity’s willful disconnect from their position in the hierarchy of created and
immanent beings, thereby losing their transcendental origin with the spirits and other more
sublime metaphysical entities. This in turn results in the unwholesome exploitation of the natural
world by human beings (Leal 16). The world of Abiku is one in which all, the physical and the
metaphysical, interact in an organic unity and ambiance. The poet persona, addresses the spirit
entity in familiar terms:
Coming and going these several seasons
Do stay out on the baobab tree,
Follow where you please your kindred spirits
If indoors is not enough for you
As the seasons come and go, so does the Abiku. As the seasons take their toll on the seaside
habitat of the fishing community, causing ‘leaks through the thatch’, “floods brim[ing] the
banks’, and harmattam making “the bamboo walls ready tinder for fire”, so does the Abiku’s
seasonal coming and going make the body of the mother, tired and her milk sour. There, the
poet draws a striking parallel between the natural elements and the spiritual; the physical and the
metaphysical akin to Olaoluwa’s analysis of the Igbo metaphysical worldview of Things Fall
The poet employs the metaphor of contrasting reciprocity with the imageries “when flood brims
the banks, and it leaks through the thatch” alongside, “the fire that dries the fresh fish up on the
rack”. The poem readily reflects African ontological, animist viewpoint regarding spiritual
habitats. The Abiku, a spirit-child, in want of a permanent habitat, craves the womb of the
mother. As such, the poet persona, privy of the pains of child birth and mortality suggests that
Abiku stays out “on the boabab tree”, considered in many traditional African societies as the
natural habitat of spirits. This is suggested by “follow where you please your kindred spirits” .
Hence, the poem is anchored on the African natural animist environment in which human beings,
trees and other natural entities may be inhabited by spirits and none is in a limbo, purgatory,
heaven, hell and other such habitats of spirits conveyed in foreign religions and mythologies.
The “Agbor Dancer”, probably anchored on an actual experience involving the poet and a
traditional lady-dancer, is an expression of nature and artistry. From a vantage point among the
audience, the poet draws quick attention to her, using the grammatical operator “see.” The
setting Agbor, is a hilly town, the dancer is a woman, dancing to the intricate beat of a
traditional drum. The drum is made of animal hide and the gestures and dance steps of the
woman expose her: ‘opening out in her supple tan’ is compared to, fresh foliage in the sun”. The
dicotyledonous plant can only open-up to the sun in its state of virginity, akin to the dancer’s two
hands thrown into the air in tandem with the drum’s rhythm. The poet establishes a clear
relationship between animal, plant, man and nature, interacting in a physical environment.
The dancer is so engrossed in the intricacies of the musical notes that she is said to be in a trance.
So, she departs from the conscious and travels; ferried by the music, metaphorically carrying
tufts until she enters her ‘cloud nine’. This orgasmic climax, the poet again relates to the natural,
organic and environmental reach: “to meet the green clouds of the forest”. She trembles to the
beat as she involves her whole body parts-tips, toes, hair and so on; to a superlative degree that
leaves the poet tongue-tied and ‘poem-tied’. Then, the crux of the issue is addressed in that
stanza. The poet-persona rhetorically wonders if he-the westernized prodigal could return to the
traditional African ways, and once again put down his toe on the native soil and dance as well,
even to the point of giving the Agbor dancer a warm caress. The persona refers to himself as a
‘lead-tethered scribe’ schooled to read and write; tied like a domesticated animal to foreign
letters. He agrees to the fact that he is separated from communal ways long ago-in his infancy.
But there is a longing for a return to self. The very last line relates the dancer to a warm caress
with the earth, sky, and flesh.
In all, the flora and fauna are firm anchors of the poetic tropes. The Africaness of the poem lies
in relating the success, and beauty of the Agbor dancer, not to expertise or training or
modernity but to the pristine; hence the clear invocations of “fresh foliage in the sun”, meeting
the green cloud of the forest” virginal habits”, and cares intervolving earth, sky and flesh”.
Therein lies the interplay between humans and their physical environment and the influence the
latter exerts on the former in the poem under study. From here to “Streamside Exchange” with its
thematized title, suggests that a conversation is held in a serene, natural setting: a streamside.
The dialogue is between a child whose mother leaves home for an undisclosed place and a bird
perched on a tree branch by the side of a stream.
The ecological dimension to the poem is that the dialogue is between a human being and an
animal. In Judeo-Christian mythology, the last time human beings dialogued with an animal is in
the Garden of Eden. Out of curiosity, the child asks the bird to do the work of a clairvoyant; that
is, to tell if his mother would be back from her unknown destination. The bird agrees, but only to
inform the child that his knowledge of seasons and events is limited, and he needs not worry
about the unknowable. The bird consoles the child and draws a parallel between the tide that
comes and goes and journey of the absent mother. As “markets and tides” come and go, so shall
the mother go and return. This reflects the cyclical world view. In other words, the instinct of the
lower creature, the bird, supersedes the knowledge of the higher creature. The thematized
setting--the streamside, the river itself, the river bird, the grass, the tide and market are all
elements of the natural environment are suggestive of symbiotic relationships of organisms, with
their natural environment. The imagery of an idyllic natural setting, where humans converse with
animals, is also suggestive of this ecological ambience. The strength of the poem lies in its
evocative power and the longing by humans to blend with nature. The mood, setting, and
characters are brought together through the choice of environmental diction.
The deployment of the natural organisms, humans and non-humans, the flora and fauna –
mother, cocks, owls, bats, oranges, mangoes, ants, thatch, rafters, lightning, fish, stream, great
water drops, the poet persona and the brothers mentioned towards the end of “Night Rain”, etc. –
all in one ecological setting, indeed recommends the poem to an African ecocritical reader. Since
Africa possesses the rich natural environment, and resources that are often targets of imperialist
conquests and exploitations, a more active participation of African literature in the global call for
a reassessment of humanity’s exploitation of peripheral ecosystems is an imperative. Clark’s
poems, mostly set in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, embody environmental metaphors, capable of
projecting authentic African eco-lit. Thus, employing the methods of ecocriticism, this paper
explores environmental metaphors and tropes in selected poems of J.P. Clark that will help
propagate the integration of the study of the natural environment into African literature.
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