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Death of a Poet

The peculiar tragedy of J. P. Clark-Bekederemo

John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, who was widely regarded as Nigeria’s unofficial poet laureate, died on October 13 at the age of 86. He was a precocious talent. In the late 1950s, when he was a student at University College, Ibadan, a lecturer invited him to contribute to an undergraduate anthology; he rejected the offer on the grounds that he wrote “poetry and not ‘student verse.”’ This was proven true by his collection A Reed in the Tide (1965), the “first volume by an African poet to be issued by a leading British publishing house,” as he described it to me when I agreed to undertake a critical biography of him for the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday. It contains all the poems beloved by generations of schoolchildren, including “Ibadan,” perhaps the most famous, a haiku-like evocation of what was then West Africa’s largest city:

        running splash of rust
and gold—flung and scattered
among several hills like broken
china in the sun

My own favorite, “For Granny (from Hospital),” is a beautiful evocation of the watery landscape of Kiagbodo, Clark’s birthplace in the oil-rich Niger delta. In vivid images, the poet recalls a bewildered childhood memory of tenderness and darkness:

Tell me, before the ferryman’s return,
What was that stirred within your soul,
One night fifteen floods today,
When upon a dugout
Amid pilgrim water-lettuce on the Niger,
You with a start strained me to your breast:
Did you that night in raucous voice
Of yesterday’s rain,
Tumbling down banks of reeds
To feed a needless stream,
Then recognise the loud notes of quarrels
And endless dark nights of intrigue
In Father’s house of many wives?
Or was it wonder at those footless stars
Who in their long translucent fall
Make shallow silten floors
Beyond the pale of muddy waters
Appear more plumbless than the skies? 

J. P. wrote all of his his best poetry before the Biafran civil war of the late 1960s.

Clark’s poetry was well described by the South African critic Lewis Nkosi as evincing “a faultless visual sense,” along with “an admirable fluency of line and an almost desperate clarity in his underlying thought or sentiment.” He also wrote verse dramas, the first of which, Song of a Goat (1961), explores the theme of impotence in a society where, as he saw it, “the business of reproduction, of fertility, is a life and death matter.” Ozidi (1966) is about a man who sets out to avenge the death of his father and is himself almost consumed in the violence he unleashes with the help of his diabolical grandmother, whom he eventually kills. The play is based on an Ijaw epic, The Ozidi Saga (1977), which Clark recorded over the seven nights of its performance with the last of the bards who would have otherwise taken it to the grave. He published a dual language version—a feat in itself—transcribing a language without a tradition of writing.

Clark also published a collection of limpid essays, The Example of Shakespeare (1970), and America, Their America (1964), a caustic memoir of his aborted sojourn in the U.S. as a Parvin Fellow in the early 1960s. Taking stock of his achievement, the late academic, Abiola Irele, his contemporary at Ibadan, claimed that:

Clark’s work . . . can be said to have assumed a specific historical significance in the evolution of Nigerian, and indeed, African poetry in English, for it is indisputable that his early efforts were central to both the thematic re-orientation and profound transformation of idiom that led to the decisive advance that the new poetry came to represent. . . Clark helped to inaugurate a new kind of Nigerian poetry in English.

In fact, the most striking—and depressing—thing about ‘J. P.’, as he was affectionately known, was how suddenly his talent appeared to desert him. All his best poetry was written before the Biafran civil war of the late 1960s. Everything he wrote afterwards, in any form, is a parody of the real thing.

Of the so-called “pioneer quartet” of Nigerian writers in English, Clark was the only one who opposed the would-be secessionist state of Biafra. During the war, Chinua Achebe was busy travelling the world as unofficial ambassador for the rebels, Wole Soyinka was in solitary confinement accused of siding with the secessionists, and Christopher Okigbo was killed fighting for the lost cause that would eventually claim up to one million lives. All three felt palpably that the Nigerian state could unleash genocide on the largely Catholic Igbos—a fear shared by many within and outside the country.

Clark, a member of a minority ethnic group, went the other way, deciding “after a brief period of shock and doubt” that he wanted this artificial creation of a foreign conquest to remain together. There was some logic to his thinking. As others in his position pointed out at the time, better the “balance of terror” afforded by the Big Three—Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo—than to find yourself under just one of them, a point prominently made by many early nationalists, who feared for the future of the Niger delta minorities once “the restraining and liberalizing” hand of the British was removed, as indeed was subsequently borne out in the oppression of the Ogoni people.

For his part, Clark feared that partition “would not stop at the boundaries of region nor of tribe, but would go on to the last unit of clan or village as obtained in large areas of the country before the British came,” which was as maybe but so what? Independence meant nothing if any constituent region was not free to go its own way. Tellingly, the war itself was fought under the empty slogan, “To keep Nigeria one/ Is a task that must be done,” which should have offended Clark’s otherwise sharp critical faculties. But he was probably helped along the right path by his two older brothers; one served as Nigeria’s most senior diplomat at the U.N. during the war, and the other was later appointed federal minister.

Following his conversion, Clark took to endorsing the Federal cause at various international events, including the 1968 Commonwealth Writers’ Conference in Brisbane, where he may or may not have let it be known that the imprisoned Soyinka was suffering from chronic syphilis. The charge came from Soyinka himself in The Man Died (1972), his prison memoir. Clark, a litigious fellow as I was myself to discover, prevaricated before in turn suing Soyinka for accusing him of slander.

Casualties (1970), his first post-war collection, rendered moot any questions of guilt. It begins with a confessional poem, blandly titled “Song”:

I can look the sun in the face
But the friends that I have lost
I dare nor look at any. Yet I have held
Them all in my arms, shared with them
The same bath and bed, often
Devouring the same dish, drunk as soon
On tea as on wine, at that time
When but to think of an ill, made
By God or man, was to find
The cure prophet and physician
Did not have. Yet to look
At them now I dare not,
Though I can look the sun in the face.

It is a strange performance, at once pious and swaggering, and the moral reckoning has been bypassed altogether. Other poems are worse still, as Clark comes across as unfeeling—if not callous—about those who had perished in the war, most notably in the much-quoted “Skulls and Cups”:

“Look, JP.
How do you tell one skull
From another?” asked Obi.
“That this, could you find where he fell,
Was Chris, that Sam, and
This here in the sand
Of course Emman.”

When I showed Clark the letter on my next (and last) visit he threw me out, vowing to sue me if I made it public.

All these were real people. ‘Chris’ was Okigbo, the poet; ‘Sam’ was Sam Agban, a diplomat, and ‘Emman’ was Emmanuel Ifeajuna, an army major and professional high jumper—the latter two were executed by the Biafran leadership for treason. Achebe, with whom Clark almost came to blows when they met at their publisher Longman’s office in London while the war was still raging, called Casualties “a terrible book.” The late Kolawole Ogungbesan, a leading critic, spoke for many when he dubbed it a “narcissistic indulgence in the midst of a national disaster,” bereft of any “genuine grief at the loss of his friends.” Clark seemed to repudiate part of these accusations in a revealing interview he gave in 1985, where he spoke for the first time about the civil war as being “one of the loneliest periods of my life.” Of the poem specifically, he said that, “I was crying there about the bodies that have been torn apart. I do not know where my friend Okigbo is buried.”

Whatever the case, Clark’s reputation suffered badly. Nor did he help matters when he forced Longman to withdraw the British edition of The Poet Lied (1980), a first collection by Odia Ofeimun, because he felt it parodied some of the imagery from Casualties. He was right about that. Consider the collection’s title poem, which has great fun with Clark’s fondness for animal imagery:

He asked this much:
to be left alone
with his blank sheets on his laps 
in some dug-out damp corner 
with a view of the streets and the battlefields
watching the throng of calloused lives,
the many many lives stung by living.
He would put them into his fables,
sandwich them between his lions and eagles,
between his elephants and crocodiles.

Following the unedifying spectacle of one poet censoring another, Clark largely withdrew from public life. In 1980, he also retired from his professorship at the University of Lagos, where he was the first African writer appointed Head of the English Department (as he also liked to boast). Freed from his responsibilities, he came to spend long periods in his beloved Kiagbodo, which was where I met him to discuss writing his biography. The idea for the book was mine and so I was a little surprised at the alacrity with which he jumped at the proposal, as if he had been waiting for me. Alas, we eventually fell out over a letter I found in the extensive archives he placed at my disposal, four filing cabinets crammed with papers going back to his primary school reports, many of them disintegrating in the high humidity, which forced me to spread them out in the sun, one batch at a time.

The letter, dated 23 May 1975, seemed innocuous enough at first sight. Writing to his London lawyer, Clark apologizes for his long silence over the Soyinka libel case, which he would now like to have closed as soon as possible, “for the more I have considered it, the more sorrow than anger I have felt . . . The fault was in the circumstances in which his and my kind were caught.” He then moves on “to something more cheerful and profitable,” to wit:

…would your friends/clients like to bid for crude? If so, let them state:

  1. quantity;
  2. grade or type;
  3. period of contract;
  4. price per barrel (which is negotiable between 11.70 and 12 US dollars);
  5. evidence of performance or capability e.g. annual a/c or turnover.

Your clients will be on stronger ground still if they have a refinery or are affiliated to one. That is the offer and it is immediate.

When I showed Clark the letter on my next (and last) visit he threw me out, vowing to sue me if I made it public. I pointed out that doing crude oil business with a corrupt military government was by no means a crime, but we both knew that it could very easily look like he was being paid off for services rendered. The letter’s timing was especially damning. It was sent just months after his eldest brother, Chief Edwin Clark, was made a federal commissioner. This was a period when the country was beginning to earn vast sums from the international spike in oil prices. The graft was so great that the then head of state, Yakubu Gowon, let it be known that our problem was not money but how to spend it, a statement he has never been allowed to forget. And it only sounds worse today, when this precious union has more people living in extreme poverty than almost any other country on Earth.

So it was that Clark became a rich man and built a fine estate on a promontory five minutes by canoe from the village of his “Father’s house of many wives.” As it happens, his father had advised against him building there. It seems that, in the distant past, a virgin captured from a village further away had been buried up to her neck on that particular piece of land and left to die as a sacrifice to the gods in order to bring peace between two warring clans. It was believed that bad luck would follow anyone who disturbed her gruesome grave. I asked Clark what he made of the prophesy. He laughed and said that no harm would come to him because, as he wrote in a poem, “being a spirit/ Myself, I could live at peace with my kind.” We tried to figure out how long ago this event had occurred. Clark, who took great pride in being able to recite his lineage back many generations, thought it must have been about the time of the French Revolution, which is to say when another set of people in another part of the world were fighting for liberté, egalité, and fraternité—and decapitated their king to prove it.

Clark, Achebe, and Soyinka on their way to Dodan barracks. | News Nigeria

In A Peculiar Tragedy, my biography of Clark, I argued that he lost his poetic gifts when he sold out to the union. Deep down he himself knew this, though he still craved fame, which was why, unbeknown to me, he had also employed the services of another writer to pen a parallel biography—both of which were to be launched at the Lagos Boat Club on 10 December 2011, by which time we were already in court. By all accounts, Professor Femi Osofisan’s launch was a tremendous success, with the Who’s Who of Lagos in attendance. Soyinka, with whom Clark had reconciled some years previously, presided over the event.

Clark had died in the middle of what turned out to be a fortnight of peaceful protests at police brutality.

It was Clark who had made the first move when he approached both Soyinka and Achebe in early 1986 to accompany him to Dodan Barracks in Lagos, then seat of the federal military government, to plead on behalf of Major General Mamman Vatsa, an aspiring poet who had been sentenced to death for coup-plotting. There is a famous picture of the three of them on their way to lay their case before General Ibrahim Babangida, who received them cordially and promised to do his best to save his former friend and colleague on the Armed Forces Ruling Council. But the trio had barely settled down in a restaurant “to toast and treat ourselves to a lunch we all thought we thoroughly deserved” when they heard he had been shot anyway. Later that year, when Soyinka won the Nobel Prize, Clark was at the airport to greet him; there is another famous picture of them embracing each other. Some fifteen years later, they were seated together at the Lagos Boat Club where, according to the reports, they were united in their dislike of the “other” book that wasn’t being launched. Preparing my biography, I had written to Soyinka, enquiring if he had any thoughts about what had happened between them all those years ago. He said that the matter “should be laid to rest.”

And now J. P. is dead. I recall our last meeting in court in February, just ahead of the pandemic lockdown, the familiar squat figure with the three delicate incisions under each eye done at birth to ward off evil spirits. At last, after all these years, he was finally allowed to give his testimony. “He has ruined the reputation I spent all my life building,” he kept saying, shaking with rage. It was a sad spectacle and I was sorry to have been the cause of it. A European friend who accompanied me later confessed her shock that a man could remain so angry after all these years. He died ten days shy of our next hearing, having requested in his last poem to be buried at Kiagbodo within three days of his departure, which seemed in keeping somehow.

Clark died in the middle of what turned out to be a fortnight of peaceful protests at police brutality. The government initially made placatory noises and then, abruptly, ordered troops to fire on the #EndSARS demonstrators. Violence begat violence as the great army of area boys with little to do and less to hope for took to the streets, looting and burning. Among the buildings destroyed was the High Court on Lagos Island, the oldest in the country, and presumably all the papers within it. But then I never thought it was a legal matter.