Oily Tears and Teary Inks: A Review of the Poetics in Sophia Obi’s Tears in a Basket

Theme Quote

‘The writer cannot be a mere storyteller; he cannot merely x-ray society’s weaknesses, its ills, its perils. He or she must be actively involved in shaping its present and its future.’

  • Ken Saro Wiwa

Title: Tears in a Basket

Author: Sophia Obi

Publisher: Kraft Books Limited

Town of Publication: Ibadan

Year of Publication: 2006

ISBN: 978-039-157-6

Pagination: 63 pages

Price: Not Stated

Reviewer: Eyoh Etim, PhD.

Introduction: Sophia Obi’s Tears in a Basket is a lamentation on motherland; it decries the neglect or abandonment of the Niger Delta region by the government of the day despite the huge resources taken from the region to develop other parts of the country. Specifically, the anthology revolves around the Oloibiri saga and its motif in the Nigeria’s oily and teary story. Oloibiri is where oil was first discovered in commercial quantity in Nigeria in 1956. The anthology is significant because Sophia Obi is a native of Oloibiri in Bayelsa State, Nigeria. In this maiden anthology of hers, the poet Sophia Obi uses her art to draw the world’s attention to the plight of not only her people in Bayelsa, but also the entire Niger Delta region, with the hope that help might come to the wronged people of the region. Tears in a Basket also contains poems on love and heartbreak with explicit sensual images, as well as deeply philosophical poems that guide us in the contemplation and meditation on life. The poems on love also mirror gender relations, especially where the vision is bleak. There are also cautionary or didactic poems in the collection. In this review, I intend to analyse three poems from the collection – one poem on oil and the injustice meted out to the people of the Niger Delta, one poem on love and one on existential meditation.

Organisation: Sophia Obi’s Tears in a Basket is an anthology of 49 poems organised in two untitled parts. The poems in part I are ‘Tomorrow’s Debris’, ‘Oloibiri’, ‘The Wisdom of Poverty’, ‘Riotous Ghost’, ‘A Scale-pan of Indecision’, ‘Swamps of our Time’, ‘Tears in a Basket’, ‘Regrets’, ‘Baby’, ‘Learned too Late’, ‘My Muse’, ‘Mama’s Winning Colours’, ‘Litmust Test’, ‘Reflections’, ‘Irate Needles’, ‘Gone too Soon’, ‘I Hate Farewells’, ‘Seasons of Life’, ‘Consolation’, ‘The Potter’, ‘Routine’, ‘Destiny’, ‘The Counsellor’, ‘Naked Heart’, ‘You can’t Fool an Old Fool’, ‘Images’, ‘Timeless Clock’, ‘What is Life all about?’, ‘One Man, Two Women’, ‘Deadly Pleasure’, ‘Your Conscience’, ‘Wisdom’, ‘A Taste of Tomorrow’ and ‘Resolve’.

 The second part of the anthology has the following poems: ‘Discovery Channel’, ‘Night Time Robber’, ‘This Blue Night’, ‘All of Nine Months’, ‘Epiphany’, ‘Twas Nice’, ‘Riddles’, ‘Shylock’, ‘Pride of Barbados’, ‘Whispers from the Hear’, ‘Gushes’, ‘Infatuation’, ‘Lost Rib’, ‘I am not Lazy’ and ‘One Day at a Time’.

Subject Matter and Major Themes: The main subject matter of Sophia Obi’s Tears in a Basket is the abandonment of the Niger Delta region by both the federal government of Nigeria and the multinational companies who drill oil from the region. The poet’s persona focuses on Oloibiri, the poet’s hometown, and uses it as a metaphor and a microcosm for the Niger Delta, a region rich in crude oil but crooked and crude in terms of infrastructural development. Poems in the anthology that decry the themes of injustice in and neglect of the Niger Delta region include the titular poem, ‘Tears in a Basket’ and others like ‘Oloibiri’ and ‘Swamps of our Time’. There are poems that capture the timeless and universal theme of love both in its ideal and pessimistic modes. Indeed, it is perceived that the poet’s persona takes us on a journey through personal love stops and stations from the ideal to its perils which involves ‘Epiphany’ on the one hand, and ‘Regrets’ on the other.

The didactic and cautionary poems in the collection include ‘Deadly Pleasure’ and ‘Your Conscience’. The philosophical poems in the collection help us to reflect on life generally and its meaning. Examples of such poems are ‘Reflections’ and ‘What is Life all about?’ There are poems that lament the passing away of the poet-persona’s father and these include ‘Gone too Soon’ and ‘I Hate Farewells’. In sum, Sophia Obi’s Tears in a Basket is a collection of the defining moments in human life inked in verses and aesthetically crafted for our pleasure, delight, learning, lessons and reflection.

Analysis of Contents: My intension at this point is to analyse three poems in the collection Tears in a Basket, each poem representing the major themes of the collection. The first poem to be analysed is the titular poem ‘Tears in a Basket’ which is a lament on the injustice and deprivation that is the lot of the Niger Delta region. The poem is organised in 5 stanzas, with three stanzas constituting a refrain: ‘We are sacrificial leeches,/waiting to be squashed’ (19), rendered in italics and repeated at timed intervals in the one-page poem as stanzas one, three and five. The other two stanzas appear as stanzas 2 and 4, with stanza two having 16 lines, while stanza 4 has 9 lines. The first stanza and the refrain of the poem constitutes a metaphor as the people of the Niger Delta are compared directly to ‘sacrificial leeches’. A leech is a parasitic creature; it attaches itself to a host and lives off it. The irony in its utilisation in this poem is that the Niger Deltans have been turned to leeches in their own land but at the same time they are ‘sacrificial leeches’ in the sense that they are being used as a means to an end that would serve a greater purpose for the other regions of the country. In other words, they are victims even in their dependent status.

 The second stanza of the poem reads: ‘Winds of bitter memory slap me silly’/As I cock my ears to the drumbeats/Of the Niger Delta./Naked dances and dreams have been dampened/By the cold winds of neglect./Drunk with anxiety,/I flip through the memoirs/Of our ancestors, tracing our path/To a quaint communal disorder./I am yet to fathom the obtuse grooves/On the foreheads of our forefathers/Who, unceremoniously, gave our fate away/On a stained platter of gold./Now only the deep scars of memory/Wrapped in cobwebs of pain/Binds us to mother earth’. In this stanza, the persona interrogates the memory of oppression and victimisation in the Niger Delta. The theme of memory interrogation is raised in the first line of the stanza, ‘Winds of bitter memory slap me silly’. The expression ‘bitter memory’ captures the tragic story of the Niger Delta blessed with oil but cursed with poverty, hunger, disease and underdevelopment. The expression ‘Winds of bitter memory’ is an implied metaphor as memory is realised in the imagery of winds. The expression ‘slap me silly’ constitutes alliteration seen in the repetition of the voiceless alveolar fricative /s/ in ‘slap’ and ‘silly’. The first line of the stanza is equally an instance of personification because the winds’ action of slapping is a human act.

The expression ‘As I cock my ears to the drumbeats/Of the Niger Delta’ speaks of the history/story of the Niger Delta region rendered in a motif and imagery of a song or music. The lines, ‘Naked dances and dreams have been dampened/By the cold winds of neglect’ refers to the precolonial ethos and visions of the people now defeated after colonial and neocolonial battles. These precolonial values and visions are captured in the expression ‘Naked dances and dreams’ which also has alliteration in ‘dances’ and ‘dreams’ where there is the repetition of the voiced alveolar plosive /d/. ‘The cold winds of neglect’ is a metaphor that depicts the attitude of the government and the multinational companies towards the rich-poor region. ‘Neglect’ is a lexis that best captures the condition of the people in the Niger Delta. It is a major theme of the Niger Delta literature. The expression ‘Drunk with anxiety’ reflects the general mood of not only the persona, but also the people of the region who live in perpetual state of unrest both in mind and in the body. The expression, ‘I flip through the memoirs’ is an implied metaphor as ‘memoirs’ represents memories which are here compared to the pages of a book.

The persona’s reflections and interrogation of history leads him or her to where, in the words of Chinua Achebe, ‘the rain began to beat’ the Niger Deltans – ‘a quaint communal disorder’, a mistake or an event that disrupted the cultural equilibrium of the Niger Delta people. The persona traces this mistake to the actions of the past leaders of the region, perhaps while negotiating with the colonial masters or with the postcolonial government of Nigeria and the multinational oil companies before the exploration and exploitation of the region’s resources began. This is captured in the lines, ‘I am yet to fathom the obtuse grooves/On the foreheads of our forefathers/Who, unceremoniously, gave our fate away/On a stained platter’.

The theme of betrayal of Africa by its leaders at every stage in her historical evolution has become a well-known motif in African literature. Surely, the blame cannot always be borne by the outsider. There is alliteration in the repetition of the voiceless labiodental fricative /f/ in ‘foreheads’ and ‘forefathers’. The expression ‘stained platter’ depicts the corrupt, blind and ill-informed deals that these leaders must have made which have contributed to the underdevelopment of the region to this day. The consequences of these past decisions are being negatively felt by a new generation of Niger Deltans and is portrayed in the lines, ‘Now only the deep scars of memory/Wrapped in cobwebs of pain/Bind us to mother earth.’ This poem justifies the idea of leadership determinism in any social setting, as a single decision by a leader could alter, irreversibly, the destiny of a people. That the people of the Niger now live in agonised pains is owing to the ill-fated actions of their past leaders. The expression ‘deep scars of memory’ is a metaphor as well as ‘cobweb of men’ which are the lot of the Niger Deltans in the world.

The penultimate stanza of the poem, which is preceded and succeeded by the refrain, has 9 lines and reads: ‘How do we think/When our thoughts are images lost in muddy streams,/Dangling on hooks that mock our existence?/How can we sing/When our folksongs are distorted grunts/Raking up our sorrowing lungs?/How do we even smile,/When beneath our plastic joy/Painful tears flow freely.’ The predominant tropes in this stanza are rhetorical questions which cause the reader to reflect on the existential tragedy of the space so portrayed in the poem. Indeed, the poem is replete with imagery of pains and agony. It is seen in how the melodious precolonial songs of the Niger Deltans have become ‘grunts’ in postcolonial times and how whatever happiness the discovery of oil brought to the people has now turned to ‘plastic joy’ and ‘painful tears’ largely because of the distortion of not only the landscape of the Niger Deltans, but also the distortion in their cultural values.

The second poem that I wish to analyse has love as its major theme. The poem is entitled ‘Timeless Clock’ which, perhaps, mirrors love as a timeless phenomenon. Perhaps, if human beings operate with love in their hearts in dealing with fellow human beings, then there would be no situations like the ones the Niger Deltans are going through as depicted in the poem. However, love in this poem is depicted in its ideal mode. Unfortunately, whatever is ideal tends to elude human practices. ‘Timeless Clock’ has stanzaic regularity, as all the stanzas are rendered in tercets and which, for me, demonstrates the ideal nature of love. The poem is organised in 8 stanzas. The dominant figure of thought in the poem is simile which also serves as a refrain that begins each stanza except the final two stanzas. Love is also personified throughout the poem and it is cast in the image of womanhood; caring, nurturing, protective and constant.

In the first stanza, love is compared to dewdrops that bring peace to man’s heart. In the second stanza, love is compared to ‘vexed wildfire’ which represents the conscience of love. The third stanza reads, ‘Like the wind,/she sneaks through minute spaces/into angered souls and chills their heat’ (39). This stanza alludes to the biblical statement that love is slow to anger in I Corinthians 13:15 and in Psalm 145:8. In the fourth stanza, love is compared to the sun, especially its characteristic brightness that illuminates the human soul. In the fifth stanza, love is likened to the rain whose generosity spares none. In the sixth stanza, love is akin to ‘a welcome blanket’ needed for warmth in the cold. In the penultimate stanza, the timeless nature of love is described in terms of how it does not discriminate people based on age or race. The whole poem hangs on a device of suspense which is broken only in the final stanza where the ‘she’ is named as ‘Love’. This poem is rich in imagery and supports the idea that whatever evil exists in the world today is due to the lack of love among human beings. It only takes love to ease the ‘ordeals of life’.

The imagery in the poem cuts across visual, kinetic and tactile spectrums. Instances of visual imagery are realised in words like ‘dewdrops’, ‘sun’, ‘wildfire’, ‘brightness’ and ‘night’. Words like ‘flows’, ‘sneaks’, ‘spits’, ‘spreads’ and ‘ticks on’ entail kinetic imagery while words like ‘embraces’, ‘veins’, ‘chills’, ‘warmth’ and ‘damp’ capture tactile imagery.

The third and final poem that I would like to discuss is entitled ‘What is Life all about?’ As the title suggests, the poem is a meditation on life. It is one of the philosophical poems in the anthology. Like all the poems in the collection, this poem is a free verse and makes use of run-on-lines. It has 8 stanzas like the one just analysed. The first stanza of the poem is a couplet and reads: ‘Destitute flaunts despair on their faces/Like pregnant women, exposing obvious deeds of the dark’. The stanza captures the vagaries of life on humanity. This could also be the sad mood in the Niger Delta region. The poetic devices in the stanza are personification and simile seen in the ‘Destitute flaunts despair’ and ‘Like pregnant women’, respectfully. The second stanza is a monostich and reads: ‘Life, the smiles of birth and frowns of hunger’. The whole line is a metaphor whereby life is compared to ‘smiles of birth’ and ‘frowns of hunger’. These are symbolic expressions which speak of the paradox of life where it is happiness to be born and a pain to live, as the resources of the world are not enough to sustain everyone.

This antithetical view of life is sustained in the third stanza which is a tercet and a rhetorical question: ‘Life,/Does it mean waking up beside friends?/With the sunrise in their eyes, or waking up in the midst of hatred.’ The stanza speaks of the ambivalence in friendship as one goes through life. The idea of sunrise in the eyes of friends denotes their being true friends who are happy to associate with the persona. However, there is a possibility of hate existing among friends, and that is a fact of life.

The fourth stanza is a couplet and reads: ‘Does it mean fattening your lungs with air of affection?/Or with the stench of cruelty and greed along the corridors of deceit’. In this stanza, life is presented as a choice between good and evil for the individual. The individual can choose to live a life full of love for other God’s creatures and for himself, or toe the path of evil.

In the fifth stanza, the persona interrogates the rich/poor binary scale that life presents humanity: ‘Does it mean eating with golden spoon?/Or picking the crumbs of injustice beneath the tables of exploitation’. The stanza depicts the unjust situation among the Niger Deltans. They are the ones who pick the ‘crumbs of injustice’ in a country that should actually be theirs. In the sixth stanza, which is a couplet, the persona wonders if life means ‘smiling with glaring peace’ through effecting justice in the polity or encouraging nepotism due to a belief in sentiments. In the penultimate stanza, the persona suggests that life should be all about making the best out of every second that we have to live. In the final stanza, the persona uses metaphor to liken life to a book which can be studied for the all-round betterment of our life.

Evaluation: Sophia Obi’s Tears in a Basket is a creative recreation of the Niger Delta story in masterful verses that preserve the poet’s name and the region’s struggle for posterity. It documents the anguish experienced by the people of the Niger Delta region because of the neglect of the region by the powers that be. The poet draws from her education, experience and the social imagery in her surrounding in the writing of the poems. The anthology is well crafted and professionally published beginning from the cover whose graphics, pictures and texts, synchronise with the motif of the story. We have the title of the text rendered in yellow and white, followed by the picture of a weeping eye whose tear falls into a basket at the foot of the page. This is followed by the author’s name in white. The colour combination for the cover is done to depict a dark clime which signals the dramatisation of pain in the ensuing verses. The collection is written based on Niyi Osundare’s philosophy of ‘man meaning to man’, hence its language is accessible to the average reader without losing its poetic ingenuity and enigmas. The language demonstrates that the author believes in poetry as a committed art. To the best of my knowledge, there are no grammatical or typographical errors in the text. I believe that the world needs to see this poetic offering from Sophia Obi.     

Conclusion: In this review, I have attempted the analysis of three poems in Sophia Obi’s Tears in a Basket in order to emphasise the aesthetics and the social commitment of her arts. The review has revealed that Dr Obi’s poems cut across most aspects of life, especially the injustice in the Niger Delta. She has also written poems on life, morality and death. The evaluation of the collection has also highlighted the craft and professionalism that characterise Obi’s maiden outing. Her poems are seen to be witty and creatively refreshing to read and should be read by both the old and young in Nigerian and abroad.

Recommendation: I most unreservedly recommend Sophia Obi’s Tears in a Basket to the reading public in Nigeria and in the diaspora. The poems should be read in the universities, schools and colleges to educate the future leaders about the injustice in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. The anthology should equally be available to the political class and leaders in and outside the country. The unfortunate story of Oloibiri has to be well documented to serve as a cautionary tale to future leaders and policy makers in our country.

Related Posts

2 thoughts on “Oily Tears and Teary Inks: A Review of the Poetics in Sophia Obi’s Tears in a Basket

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: Content is protected !!