NIYI OSUNDARE: TALE OF A ‘KATRINA’ REFUGEE

Filed in Arts by on December 22, 2011

Niyi Osundare: Tale of a ‘Katrina’ refugee
By THERESA ONWUGHALU and ANITA ANYANWU
Thursday, December 22, 2011

•L-R: Former DMD, The Sun Publishing Ltd, Mr. Dimgba Igwe, a guest and Prof. Osundare at the event.

The beauty of poetry was recently showcased at a reading by the master poet laureate, literary scholar, Professor Niyi Osundare.
Reading through his thought-provoking new collection of poetry, City Without People: The Katrina Poems, which has just been launched in the USA, Osundare gave his audience a rare dose of the poetry that would last for a long time.

The educative and entertaining event organized by the Friends Of The Arts Lagos (FOAL), an arm of the Committee for Relevant Art, CORA and The Life House attracted media practitioners, poetry lovers and friends. The reading held at The Life House, Sinari Daranijo Street, off Ajose Adeogun Street, Victoria Island, Lagos.

The poet took the floor to entertain his audience in verses, and music. This was spiced up with performances by Akeem Lasisi among other entertainers.
Here goes the poet himself, which he tagged, Beyond the Invisibility of Pain. Osundare metaphorically drives home his experiences and thoughts to his numerous audiences and the government of the day peradventure, they would listen to the plights of the people.

“It is five years now since Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast with a near-apocalyptic ferocity, inflicting sundry losses and countless bereavements. The catastrophe wrought by this storm changed many lives for ever: the child who lost an only parent; the painter who lost his favourite work; the pianist who lost a piano passed down from many generations; the professor who lost her library; the writer who lost his manuscripts; the businessman who lost his factory; the singer who lost her voice (literally and figuratively); a city which (nearly) lost its niche; a people who lost their dignity. .
. .
“The intervening years seem to have erased the immensity of this catastrophe as public interest appears to have receded with the flood. The common belief now is that New Orleans has been rebuilt or is being rebuilt at a fast and even pace – a partial myth that is a reflection of the partiality in the recovery pattern of the city itself. For while the business districts have sprung back to power and tourism is back on the bloom, while neighbourhoods belonging to the rich and well-connected have bounced back with their well laundered lawns and glittering fences, those parts owned and/or inhabited by most Black and poor people are still in a state of shocking blight and neglect…”

Osundare naused to describe the intensity of the pain caused by the storm. “Katrina’s wounds run deep; its pains are still red and stubbornly raw. As one of those gruesomely afflicted by its devastation, I remember what it meant to stand in front of my class in January 2006, a professor without books, a writer whose manuscripts and professional documents had been washed away, a ‘Katrina returnee’ without a place to lay his head.”
The poet waited for public interest on the issue but surprisingly, none came. “I waited in vain for a genuine institutional interest in and concern about the specific depth and range of my loss/pain, for a demonstration of empathy and care beyond political platitudes, official bulletins, and media sound bites, which only ended up as a mockery of my pain. None came. Alas, in the mass grave to which the city’s woes had been consigned, there was hardly any room for a consideration of the agonizing specificity of individual loss. Back in New Orleans, I became, to borrow the words of the Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo, ‘the sole witness of my homecoming’; the invisible carrier of my own cross. . . The relentless, excruciating pain of the disaster appears to have been privatized and driven into the domain of personal angst, accorded political mention only during media-hyped anniversaries and commemorations……”

Out of perplexity, Osundare queried, “But who is there to listen to the deep, personal cry of the sorely afflicted, the chilling fears and anxieties of someone suddenly confronted with a future without a purpose, the silence of those whose dreams have transmogrified into nightmares? Who has the eye to see the colour of pain?
“Here, again, face to face with the anonymity of loss, the invisibility of pain. The bereaved, the dispossessed, the terribly traumatized have been largely left to lick their wounds; urged to pull up themselves by their boot straps (even when those boots have been taken away by the ravaging flood); inveigled into accepting responsibility for a catastrophe that was not their own making. We have been asked to get all up and move on. Does anyone care about the relative state of our legs?. . . .”

“The poems in this volume have been long in coming because (Deep tragedy hardly lends itself to instant messaging). If they do not come across as pretty to some readers, it is because the events, which provoked them are far from pretty. Indeed, Katrina’s devastations are the type that cut straight to the bones, necessitating a testimony that transcends trivial versification and verbal placebos. These poems insist on breaking the silence precipitated by the combined forces of anonymity and invisibility, which often stand between the needy cry and the listening world. These are the words of someone right in the eye of the storm, written by himself, not ‘gathered’ by an unappointed spokesperson or ventriloquised from ‘reliable sources’ by a privileged and distant secondary source. For, although Katrina may have taken all I had away, it never succeeded in taking away my tongue – and sense of proportion and justice. It has never taken away the necessity for the telling of a truth that never rests until it has been told.. .”     “In many ways, the poems in this book are a kind of ‘thank you song’ for the hundreds of people here in the United States and other parts of the world, who reached out to me and my family with inspiring love, generosity, and compassion. They brought a new, urgent resonance and poignancy to that famous Yoruba saying, Enia lasoo mi (People are my clothes). It was they, indeed, who made sure that Katrina never had the last word.

“These poems are also a tribute to New Orleans, our city: its fertile energy, its irrepressible vitality, its rainbow vernacular, its music and magic, the unsinkable humanity in the core of its being. Yes, New Orleans is still there, busy getting fat every Mardi Gras, and penitently lean the day after. The Mississippi flows on in its muddy majesty, even as the pelican jazzes up the sky with the riff and rhyme of its glide. I sing of a city which insists on its own right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, earnestly hoping that the levees will one day be as strong as they ought to be, the floodwalls as enduring; a city restored to glory through equitable recovery and lasting justice.

“New Orleans is a place where you can live large, virtually every corner of the street you find people doing music from age 9-90. Humans work around with trumpet and drums and its also a place where you can find humans in all kinds of shape and condition. Christians have always come there to remind us of the possibility of hell, so when the Katrina storm came people said it serves us right because of the life lived there by the people. So, I wrote a poem concerning that situation and its title Act of God.

Another poem in this collection is titled, Laundry List From A Dirty Flood, which laid emphasis on the loss.
“On August 26th 2006 University of Orleans wrote me a letter to write a poem, I considered the option of going back to New Orleans to see what is left of the place because it was about a year, it was an awful site to behold where you find no one around but dead bodies of animals and smelly environment, it was a city without people. After the return I wrote a poem titled Anniversary. Also a poem dedicated to New Orleans, Death Came Calling page 25 and also the longest poem in this collection is dedicated to my mother.

“Despite the flood and the loss, Katrina storm taught me so many things, one of those lessons is: “Everything we possess, possesses us.” On that fateful day August 29, 2005 I was at home with my wife. We used to have a neighbor called Placido Sabalo, a Cuban born, whom we were so close to. That day, he came to inform us about the changes in the weather and advised that we should be careful but we took it as a joke. He left and returned with three-life vest, gave two to us and kept one for himself and left. It started with a little drop of rain and continued gradually the garden got filled, the yard, parlour and got to our bedroom. At that time my wife was on the bed and I was busy saving books before she reminded me that we were drowning. The more I stack books in the shelves, the more they fell into the water. Our bedroom was filled to the brim and we had nowhere to go. We had no option but to go to the attics, we left with a pair of short and a top being the one we were putting on, my wife cell phone, a torch and a little radio. We slept in the attics for two nights without food or water. It was in the second night that Plasido came. He came to see what was left in his house and heard us shouting for help. That was how he came to our rescue. Its was through this experience I wrote the poem entitled, Emergency Call 911.”

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