HISTORY AS A RECONSTRUCTION OF TRUTH: A REVIEW OF OZOEMENA BY FUNSO ORIS
“In war”, Aeschylus, the Greek tragedian writes, “truth is the first casualty”. For someone who lived at the point in history where empires waged endless wars, mythical or real (he was indeed a soldier), this must not have been an easy conclusion. For someone considered the father of Tragedy, ancestor to Sophocles, Euripides, Philocles and Euphorion, his own, this conclusion must have been subjected to a rigorous dramaturgy. But this is true of every war regardless of its place, time, duration, gravity or outcome. Truth here, as in language of the casualty, as in documentation of the facts of the war, and not just a political agenda of revisionism, whitewashing or the cold, uninspiring, archival of history due to laziness or lack of thoroughness on the part of the curator. This is where art – or poetry – comes in. To give the truth its wings in our imaginations, even the imaginations of those who did not see the war.
The paradox with the above quote is that so many people of renown and authority have used it to the point where the original authorship is unclear. It’s been credited to Senator Hiram Warren Johnson, the American statesman, Rudyard Kipling, Boake Carter, Athur Ponsonby, Michael Herr, and even our own Chinua Achebe, in a localised expression said: “There is that great proverb — that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”. But one thing is clear: wars never end. After the staccato of bullets and pounding of mortals must have ceased, with its corresponding destruction of lives and properties, the war with or through language continues.
In Ozoemena (No More Weeping), Opia-Enwemuche Maxwell Onyemaechi uses the armament of poetry to continue a long tradition of telling and retelling of a history that is deliberately suppressed by politically motivated revisionist and distortionist. But distortionism is also a form of art, to an extent, it is relative, depending on its source or side professing it. To the Federal troops, the truth of the war is that the ‘rebels’ were not defensive, but offensive, evidenced by their attempted attack on Lagos which was quickly neutralised once they reached Benin-Ore road. This is buttressed by the invention of the Ogbunigwe, a weapon originally designed as a surface-to-air anti-aircraft weapon which turned into a ground-to-ground assault weapon, an immeasurable instrument of horror to the Federal troops. To them (the Federal military and subsequently, the historians), they are plain rebels. To the Biafrans, they were victims.
The power of a story of poetry told from a place of strong pathos has the power to mediate truth, the emotional truth. The truth that we are all casualties, in the words of the now late poet, J. P. Clark. But Onyemaechi’s book picks a side, and rightfully so. He amplified voices: the mythical Biafran soul matriarch in “The Weeping Queen”:
“I am a woman with sagged breasts who talks too much upon deaf ears …”
The imagery of ‘sagged’ breasts invokes age. An old history with a propensity to be suppressed and this, not heard. Almost a double entredre! This is the delight of this book. Though the language is ferried in prose-diction, there is a subtlety that draws the reader into their wisdom. They’re not overly sentimental where the truth needs to be told boldly, as it is; for instance, in “The True Heroes”:
“We’re heroes in the midst of arrows”
Note that he writes chiefly in the active, present tense, which is in sharp contrast to the poems that follow like “Bullets and bombs”. But his idea of heroism is not merely steeped in empty glorification or deification of the past (‘heroes’) or the sudden reappearance of an atavistic ethos in the generations after. Rather, he witnesses to the present, to himself, to his power to retell through an evocative lens.
The Biafran war might be over, the republic might be defunct, but the war still rages on in language.
As I write this, the military are currently targeting IPOB sympathisers in Oyigbo. Which means the war has grown wings out of its burial site. He does not pretend to give it its proper burial, but to mourn it further. And where the book may be subjective in its historicity, it makes up for in its boldness, an impulse not driven or burdened by agenda, but by silence itself. The desire to stretch truth further and connect with a present generation that has the propensity to forget how retelling a people’s story by the powerful is destruction of their identity.
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