Of Three Songs and Three Dances: A Bird’s Eye Re/view of Charles Akinsete’s Dance of a Savage Kingdom

Theme Quote:

‘Poetry is the music to whose rhythm the pure soul dances.’

Title: Dance of a Savage Kingdom

Author: Charles Akinsete

Genre: Poetry

Publishers: AMAB Books and Publishing

Town/Place of Publication: Minna

Year of Publication: 2020

Pagination: 94 pages (both preliminary and main pages)

ISBN: 978-978-54580-2-3

Price: Not Stated

Reviewer: Eyoh Etim, PhD

The Author: Charles Akinsete is a poet and scholar currently lecturing at the Department of English, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria. He graduated summa cum laude from the Department of English, University of Ibadan, where he also got his Masters and PhD in African American literature and criticism. A fellow of the African Humanities Programme (AHP), Dr Akinsete is also a two-time winner of the Alexander Humboldt Talent Travel Award. Dance of a Savage Kingdom is Akinsete’s second anthology, the first being Do not Preach to me, published in 2017.

Introduction: Akinsete’s Dance of a Savage Kingdom is a collection of 53 socially-committed poems that confirm the author’s status as one of the emerging stars in the firmament of Nigerian and African poetry. Like Do not Preach to me, Dance of a Savage Kingdom depicts, in poetic terms, the maladies of our time at the public and personal levels of existence in the poet’s setting. In the anthology, the poet’s persona is a reflective minstrel who takes stock of the occurrences at the social scenes of man, providing creatively caustic and sarcastic commentaries as the events unfold. The poet’s persona is also a griot-preacher who sings of the moral decadence that has characterised the ethos of his milieu, calling for change and a total turn around. At other times in the collection, the persona is just a silent listener and observer, playing the role of an active audience to the dance, drama and discourses of historical monuments in poetic masterpieces that can be called travel poetry and/or ‘poetrylogue’. Akinsete’s poetic servings are rendered with richness of imagery, refreshing diction and authentic individual style that is characteristic of the new and emerging voices in Nigerian and African poetry. His language and literary concerns resonate with those of other voices of contemporary poetry like Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Joe Ushie, Rome Aboh, Martin Akpan, Leonard Emuren, Imikan Nkopuruk and Johnson Nte’ne.  

Contents and Organisation of Contents: Akinsete’s Dance of a Savage Kingdom is organised in three parts/sections, with each section having its title. Section 1 is entitled ‘Native Kingdom’ and comprises 30 poems. Section 2 is made up of 8 poems and has as its title ‘Foreign Kingdom’, while the third and final section is entitled ‘Personal Kingdom’ and consists of 15 poems. The collection is blessed with a Foreword by Professor Ademola Dasylva, whose scholarly comments serve as a stamp of approval for the poems in the anthology. In this review, I intend to analyse at least a poem from each section of the anthology in order to demonstrate the aesthetics and vision of Akinsete’s poetics. My analysis would be at once postcolonial and formalist in texture.

‘We Become Empty Dance’: The first poem in the collection is entitled ‘We Become Empty Dance’. As it is with most poetry of commitment, this poem is a free verse and also makes use of enjambment. It is written using the second person narrative viewpoint. It is organised in 5 stanzas of varying lengths. Stanza 1 has 6 lines and reads ‘You gain popular entrance/with your ravishing gait,/Applauded by parched throats, unripe minds seeking/ fleeting bliss,/Blinded by a deluge of blood coins,/You feed us with your endless dance of death’. From the first line, it can be seen that ‘We Become Empty Dance’ is a poem of accusations and charges. The second person pronoun ‘you’ suggests the existence of two characters in the poem; the persona and the person being talked about in the poem. The accusatory tone of the poem is reinforced by the imagery of crimes and negativities conjured up by the poem’s diction and levelled against the ‘you’ in the poem which, from all indications, is a reference to the leadership or political class of the poet’s milieu. They are the ones who usually ‘gain popular entrance’ at events, they are also the ones who live by the applause of the hungry and gullible masses, whether the clapping is sincere or not, bought or freely given.

 The synecdochal expressions ‘parched throats’ and ‘unripe minds’ speak of the unfortunate situation of the crowd that gathers to praise these politicians. They are barely enlightened to understand the import of their actions and are too hungry to resist ‘the fleeting bliss’ of the paltry amount they are offered to play the ignominious roles of praising these non-performing and dictatorial leaders. Their hunger and oppressed statuses are ameliorated (blinded) with ‘blood coins’, which at once suggests the evil sources of the money (blood money) and the idea that it is meagre in amount (coins). There is the use of alliteration in the penultimate line of the first stanza in words like ‘blinded’, ‘by’ and ‘blood’. The word ‘deluge’ in the same line has a hyperbolic gesture, as it is suggestive of the huge amount of money purportedly spent on such public occasions as the one poeticised, but which ends up as coins in the pockets of the praise singers. The final line of the stanza establishes the motif of dance which the reader will repeatedly encounter in the collection. The you-versus-us dichotomy is also depicted in this line. It creates the leadership-followership dialectic that is implicitly and explicitly sustained throughout the collection. This is seen in the expression, ‘You feed us with your endless dance of death’. Dance, in poetic terms, refers to the totality of human actions, which could be negative or positive. However, the actions of the leadership class depicted in this poem do not make for the survival of the human race, as can be seen in the metaphor ‘dance of death’, which is also an instance of a repetend, a refrain, and alliteration in the poem.

In the second stanza of the poem, which consists of 6 lines, the poet’s persona slams the two major political parties in the country for the poor and unsafe leadership which their existence has enthroned in the country over the years. The expressions ‘filthy bridal broom’ and ‘leaking nuptial umbrella’ constitute visual imagery that is emblematic of the political parties so discoursed. The epithets that trail each symbol depict their non-performativity and decay in the system of meaning and life. The stanza also accounts for the exploitation of female bodies in dancing to the entertainment of the political class at public events. This is captured in the expression ‘swinging hips’ which denotes the dance movement of feminine bodies ‘on charming platforms’ in political arenas possibly during election campaigns.  

The longest stanza in ‘We Become Empty Dance’ is the third stanza which comprises 9 lines. It accounts for the wiles of government officials at the end of their tenure of office. By now the populace have realised that they had been swindled all over again by the non-performing officials. It is obvious that the masses have been suffering throughout the tenure of these politicians. This is seen in the expression ‘And teary eyes regain slight sight’, which at once constitutes synecdoche, incidental internal rhyme and alliteration. The subsequent lines discuss the strategies the politicians use to perpetrate power and relevance even after the expiration of their tenure. This can be seen in the words such as ‘lure’, ‘threaten’, ‘soften’ and ‘feed’. These shades of lexis suggest that these desperate politicians employ different tactics to win back the people every election year. Expressions like ‘sundry strokes of legislative sways’, and ‘executive spins’ account for some of the benignly deceptive manipulative actions undertaken by the postcolonial Nigerian leaders to convince the masses to trust them again. Other actions are not so gentlemanly. They include ‘gyrating thuds/of boisterous boots and bountiful bullets’, which demonstrate the dictatorial tendencies of most democratic regimes in Africa of today.

The penultimate stanza is made up of 8 lines and depicts the fallout of such a system as the one illustrated in the foregoing stanzas. It turns the citizens into slaves and makes a complete mockery of their existence since they are not valued by their leaders. As it is with the other stanzas, this stanza is rich in kinesthetic imagery as can be seen in words and expressions such as ‘twirl’, ‘spin’, ‘sway’ and ‘rock-and-roll’ which equally help to sustain the dance motif in the poem. Both this stanza and the previous one has instances of anaphora with the repetition of initial words like ‘you’, ‘of’ and ‘in’.

The final stanza of the poem reads, ‘Lost in this eurhythmic madness,/We become macabre dance/of this savage kingdom’. It is the shortest of all the stanzas in the poem and provides a dramatic conclusion to the poem’s discourse. The word ‘eurhythmic’ is a musical imagery and signifies the interpretation of music using free-style dance movement. It is a creative way for the poet to comment on his art! but at the same time make a major statement on the kind of dangerous and crazy liberalism that denotes political practices in postcolonial Nigeria and Africa. The word ‘macabre’ signifies ‘deadly’ and when combined with dance, sums up the poem’s subject matter, which is the extinctive and apocalyptic practices of the political class in the poet’s environment. The word ‘savage’ is suggestive of primitivity and darkness. It is a fitting epithet for a society that is run by a set of people whose aim and intent are deceptive and evil as can be inferred in the unconscionable acts that have been outlined in the poem.

‘Silent Rhymes of Cape Stones’: ‘Silent Rhymes of Cape Stones’ is the first poem in the second section of Akinsete’s Dance of a Savage Kingdom. It is organised in 9 staggered stanzas, which for me, is indicative of the looped movement of time and history. The poem is written in free verse which befits the tradition of all committed poetry. From all indications, this poem is set in South Africa, where the author must have travelled to in his various scholarly sojourning. The setting of the poem is given away by the word ‘Cape’ and the acronym ‘UCT’ which translates to the University of Cape Town, one of the best universities in South Africa that enjoys positive and favourable position in world university rankings every year. The stones mentioned in the poem are historical monuments that have contemporary relevance in the persona’s mind.

In ‘Silent Rhymes. . .’ the persona alludes to South African history which is rooted in apartheid. The poem also serves as the avenue for the interrogation of South Africa’s contemporary history. The poem can also be read as a discourse on post-apartheid realities in South Africa. It is inspired by the persona’s sighting of ‘an army of Cape bees’, which for me is a metaphor for the people of South Africa. My view is justified by the expression ‘white queens and black kings’, which stands for the two races in that country, as well as the conflicted history in the relationship between the two races. The poet’s persona poses as an observant tourist at a fountain in the university town where people are seen moving about freely but in the chains of their thoughts and the history of the place that they live.

The second stanza is a quatrain and reads, ‘The silent sit-stones speak to me,/sturdy pillars of Cape history,/The quiet sit-stones watch me,/guarding the flourishing fountain of UCT jealousy [sic]’. The dominant trope in this stanza is personification, as the symbolic stones are imbued with human attributes like speaking, watching and guarding. The first line of the stanza is an instance of alliteration seen in the repetition of the sibilant sound /s/ in words like ‘silent’, ‘sit-stones’ and ‘speak’. Alliteration is also exemplified in the expression ‘flourishing fountain’ in the final line of the second stanza. The stones are also capable of being jealous, which is chiefly a human emotion. The second line constitutes a metaphor and speaks of the palpable nature of South Africa’s history, which is even reflected in the skin pigmentation of the ‘bees’. The difference in colour is what the persona refers to in stanza 3 as ‘Cape diversity’, implying the multicultural nature of the South African society. But there is also an implied irony in the persona’s tone especially given the history that gave rise to that diversity, including the continual inequalities observed in black-white relations in post-apartheid South Africa. Thus, it can be inferred that the use of the expression ‘black queens and white kings’ is indicative of the unequal relationship between the two races, as males are usually privileged over females in traditional patriarchal gender discourses.

The fact that this poem is built on the trope of historical allusion can be seen in the reference to Jameson in the fourth stanza of the poem. The word opens up various historical possibilities including the in/famous Jameson Raid that occurred in 1895 and which was led by Leander Starr Jameson. The expression ‘Forbidden silhouettes’ could refer to lovers of different races who hide to express their love oblivious of the events of history that should have restrained and constrained such a relationship.

It should be noted that Akinsete’s ‘Silent Rhymes’ is a form of ekphrasis, a poem that is based on an art work. The point of view adopted for this poem is the first-person narrator. It is also a form of stream of consciousness because the persona narrates to the audience his thought processes as he encounters the historical monuments.

In the fifth stanza, the persona encounters silent stones that refuse to converse with the poet because they have been ‘abandoned by time and space’. This is characteristically paradoxical but it can infer the idea that a section of South Africans has been silenced through neglect, their voices deprived through oppression. It is then magically creative that poetry has given a voice to such people. In the sixth stanza, the persona has an encounter with stones that are quieter than the ones mentioned in the previous stanza. This refers to the aspects of the society’s history that are hardly mentioned because it is full of guilt and shame. It is like the part of the mind, the collective unconscious, where all unwanted, sanctioned thoughts and actions are repressed until brought up to the conscious mind by chanced events like jokes and other memory tokens. This perhaps explains the use of such words as ‘dirt’ and ‘secrets’ in the stanza. It is in these unwritten aspects of the society’s history that one can find the truth about this society.

‘Scorpio Bites in Paradise’: This poem is the first in the third part of Dance of a Savage Kingdom. This is a deeply personal poem as the title of the section suggests. You might call it a love poem that inadvertently gives the reader a peep into the poet’s personal love life. The poem is organised in seven stanzas. It is written in free verse and in run-on-lines. The poem is wrapped in paradoxes and ironies, as most things about love are usually seen in contradictory but positive terms. For instance, in the first and second stanzas, the persona uses the words ‘bite’ and ‘sting’ to discourse love acts. The bites are done in ‘sacred places’ of the persona’s ‘personal kingdom’, and the effect they have on him is that he is ‘crucified many times over’. This last line of the first stanza is an example of biblical allusion as it refers to Christ’s suffering on the cross on account of his love for humanity. Thus, love can lead to pains and the pain of love is usually borne with pleasure and gusto because one is fully aware of the long-term benefits. The second stanza reads: ‘When you sting,/Under shallow sea waves of our tender mangroves,/I sink countless times under’. This stanza is rich in visual imagery and metaphors as can be seen in words like ‘sea waves’, ‘tender mangroves’ and the idea of sinking.

More of these love images are depicted in the third stanza of the poem which reads ‘When we hold,/In octopus grip of your silent suckers,/We glide over gleeful layers of golden rainbow’. The images of these lines are mostly visual and tactile as they appeal to sight and touch. The expression ‘octopus grip’ connotes love posture of intense romance. The expressions ‘silent suckers’ is an instance of alliteration but it also generates an engaging imagery about romantic love in the poem. The words ‘glide’ and ‘gleeful’ in the last line of the stanza is alliterative and kinesthetic in effect. The expression ‘golden rainbow’ generates visual imagery and is suggestive of the totality of the love experience of the two lovers.

The rest of the poem is devoted to eulogising the object of the persona’s love, whom the persona sees, among other things as a companion in the journey of life in stanza four. Stanza five is a single word, Ibijaskele. The persona goes on to refer to his lover as ‘my black pearl’ in stanza six, which at once infers a metaphor and oxymoron. The expressions ‘friendly storms’, love’s hatred’ and ‘truthful lies’ are instances of oxymoron in the poem. In the final stanza, the persona refers to the lover as ‘the only antidote/of all my stings of love’. It is obvious that this poem is an ode to the poet’s companion of life, his wife. It could also mean that after all the pains the persona has gone through in the course of searching for love, he has finally found the one person whose presence in his life has replaced these past pains with pleasure.

Evaluation: Akinsete’s Dance of a Savage Kingdom is a poetic serving of an intelligent and an observant mind. It is a bouquet of flowery and melodic verses that sings of the dislocations and dispossessions in the ethos of our days and of our body politic. The poems are creatively crafted with originality of imagery and a wide array of symbols which coalesce to capture the deep sense of dystopia in the poet’s milieu. The poet’s persona takes on many roles and wears many masks in the task of condemning, warning, exhorting and eulogising. He is a preacher, a lover, an observer, a tourist and a teacher, among other roles.

The finishing of the anthology is aesthetically pleasing, beginning with the cover page whose artistic illustrations synchronise with the title of the collection. It has the title of the text written in white and embossed print over an inferno-like pictorial of a society full of war-postured silhouetting zombies. The author’s name follows at the foot of the front cover rendered in white print, just like the title. The back cover is dark brown and has an excerpt from the fore-words of Professor Ademola Dasylva on the collection’s strength and quality. The back cover also harbours the imprimatur of the publishers and the ISBN of the anthology. The inside back cover has the author’s picture and his brief biodata.  

The print of the anthology is legible and clear, the fonts large enough for the average eyesight. The poems are printed on cream bond paper and are professionally edited to root out noise in the form of typographical errors whose presence could have distracted the reader from their visionary messages. In all, Akinsete’s latest poetry collection is a gift to posterity. It is creatively written and professionally finished. It is a book that all lovers of poetry should read.

Conclusion: I have attempted a review of three poems in the latest anthology of Charles Akinsete entitled Dance of a Savage Kingdom. The collection is Akinsete’s second poetic brainchild, coming three years after the first, Do not Preach to Me. The anthology has 53 poems organised in three parts. I have analysed the first poem in each part of the collection to highlight the form and contents of the anthology. My evaluation of the poems reveals that not only are the poems well-written, the book is equally well-published. It contains masterful pieces of poetry that imaginatively recreate the ills of our days. Together, the poems dramatise the current malaise in our polity, what the poet refers to as macabre dance. The art of writing itself is also a form of dance, as well as my critique of the poems. The poems have all the qualities of good poetry, especially imaginative language and style. I do not, therefore, hesitate in recommending the anthology to all literary enthusiasts in Africa and beyond.

Recommendation: I most heartily recommend Dance of a Savage Kingdom to students and educators in the literary world. It should be read in schools and colleges, as well as by leaders at all levels in Africa who wish to sidestep the pitfalls that the current crop of leaders have thrown Nigeria and the continent into. Akinsete deserves our congratulations. Congratulations, great griot!

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