Swimming through the Steam: A Review of “Mystery in our Stream”

Book: Mystery in our Stream
Author: Tubal Cain
Publisher: Kraft Books Limited
Reviewer: Mahfouz A. Adedimeji
Date: 2007
Pages: 154.

From the time immemorial, the subject of time has often constituted a core domain of philosophical postulates. This is mainly because time is the most valuable of all man’s possessions – fleeting, transient and incredibly irreplaceable. Time is the greatest anesthesia; time destroys everything. A poet, being a holy and winged person, according to Plato, who cannot create except he is inspired, Tubal Cain, the fledgling award-winning Nigerian poet, is inspired by time (that which man is always trying to kill but which ends in killing him, as Herbert Spencer would submit) to distill powerful messages that make a reader wear his thinking cap in his latest collection, Mystery in our Stream. In this masterfully crafted work of art that experiments several poetic conventions, the poet justifies the Fanonian (of Frantz Fanon) characterization of a good artist as “the awakener of the people”.
Mystery in our Stream is essentially a triadic exposition and sober reflection on the African/Nigerian fortunes and misfortunes in the times past, present and future. This trichotomy, suggestive of the philosophy evinced in the African proverb, “three earthen stones do not make the soup pot spill”, harmonizes the themes of the collection making them to be intricately woven and remarkably timeless. In other words, as the renowned English poet, T.S. Elliot, observed that “Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in the time future/ And time future contained in the time past”, the collection mainly reflects on the past, laments the present and charts a road-map to assure and insure the future of Nigeria. Though the themes are as diverse as the poems, the common thread that runs through the three sections of the book is the need for Nigerians to think and act to restore the past glory and sustain our heritage, redeem the country from the conflicts and altercations that typify the state and galvanize the great African nation for a better and brighter future.
The first section parades twenty-eight poems of varying lengths and aesthetic qualities, the opening entry being “ A gardener’s dream” which sets the pace by situating the bounties of life that heedless people often seek abroad within the resplendent Nigerian garden. “A salute to mediocrity” decries the archetypal Nigerian politician symbolized by the Speaker persona “Who spoke volumes, loudly/…With sealed lips/Without lifting his tongue/ Or/ Opening his mouth” (p.15), an open sore that assailed/assails African politics. In “Paradise besieged”, the poet experiments with rhyming schemes and reflects on the despoliation of the “mainland city” with crime and corruption while “Waning values” complains of the erosion of the rich African values of yore with the materialistic imperialism of the New World Order. To relive the beauty of the past then requires the “Intercession” of the ancestors, as the poet makes a strident invocation to them: “Show us again, / The ancient path” (p.30).
Among other poems in the first section are “Master-key to overcomer’s lodge” that ends on a philosophical note (‘anyone who cannot die/ For a cause/ Is not fit/To live’ p.34), “Communal feud” that laments crass materialism and moral bankruptcy, “Lonely mermaids” that romantizes the beauties and beasts of Africa, “Hooked” which recounts the poet’s emotional attachment to his lover, whose image is etched on his mind. The last three poems in this part are “ A shepherd’s dilemma”, an allegory of the want and privation typifying many Nigerians who still take recourse to hope; “A journey’s end”, a foray into the stark reality of death; and “No rest for the living” that philosophically assesses life as a vast jungle of trials and tribulations that can only be escaped through constant struggle:
True freedom in life,
Results from restraint and self-discipline,
And not as misconstrued, often
From rebellion and truancy
Only true freedom harbours fame and good fortune (p.48).
The second part of the collection, The Present, aptly opens with the “Reality” of the African landscape where “blood is shed” (p.50) with reckless abandon and dreams are aborted by a myriad of concatenating factors. The thirty-nine other poems in this part catalogue the various unfortunate and disheartening scenarios that make living in Nigeria critical. Titles here include “Escape”, “Whirlwind”, “Love drought”, “Lost”, “Loudness of consumption”, “Robin and the reptiles”. Others are “Slave of desire”, “Ruinous temperament”, “Notorious neighbour”, “Mystique”, “Song of a roaming spirit”, “Evil tool” and other revealing titles that portray the poet’s disenchantment with the quality of life and living in Nigeria. The present, the poet appears to reveal, is troubled and there is “Mystery in our stream”, the poem that doubles as the title of the whole collection.
In this remarkable poem, no doubt it bears the weight of the book, the author highlights the incongruities and anomalies of the Nigerian nation where there is so much poverty amidst plenty and where corruption and greed are the only fruits of the ‘two palms’. The crave for modernity and foreign culture is identified by the author in the poem and several others like “Nature”, ‘Existence”, “Season of beasts” etc. as the bane of the present generation of Africans/Nigerians while the clarion call is for what Amilca Cabral would call a “return to the source”.
The last part, The Future, comprises some forty-four poems, including the embedded ones. Here, there are many philosophical poems as the poet also reflects on several issues of interest. The thrust here is the sensitization of the audience to those issues that can guarantee a better future for individuals and the nation. From “Serenade”, the musing of a lonely lover, to “In search of love”, the author probes into the inner confines of the heart. “Gentle fiend” and “Domino theory” focus on women; in the first, a beggar that turns out to be a thief, snatching the wallet of her benefactor and the second, a night encounter of drunken men and women engaged in an illicit trade that portends a bleak future “for their siblings…and…for our nation”(p.111). “Song of the lawmaker” portrays the hollowness of our lawmakers, those who Tayo Olafioye would refer to as “Sinators” and it is closely followed by the powerful “Message of the talking drum”, a recipe for a nation at war with itself: ‘Let’s live in love!!’ (p.120). The author further reflects on the troubled present in the “Shadows of an astonished race” but is quick to say there is “Hope” with “Time” before he takes a swipe at the religious pretenders in “Seers in slumber” and “Song of the deacon”.
Some other interesting poems in the section are “Grey alliance”, a scathing comment on homosexuality that is fast seeping into the Nigerian setting from the porous foreign lands; “Land lubber in creation”, a title that doesn’t appear fitting enough to the theme of man’s inferiority to the lesser creatures, in some respects; “Roaming in affliction” , “Solid & ethereal”, “Beastly mien” and “Chameleon age”, an alliterative denunciation of the pretence and duplicity of the modern times: a cobbler in Connecticut is a sailor in Salisbury, a hotelier in Hamburg is a farmer in France, a mercenary in Moscow is a chaplain in Chechenya, an arms dealer in Amsterdam is an undertaker in Uzbekistan, etc.! The collection then wades through “Wonder years” up to “Joy of living”, “Charity” and “A season of cackles” till it ends at the “Forest of foresight” where “Key to nature’s treasure cove” is hidden for the poetic adventurer.
As a whole, Mystery in our Stream is functionally relevant and aesthetically profound. The poet highlights issues of contemporary relevance and prods us to think because thought is a precursor to action for the sensible. That the work is garnished with appropriate style, the dress of thought, makes it pleasurable to read and deeply impactful. Little surprise that it won the 2006 ANA/NDDC Gabriel Okara Poetry Prize. Largely situated within the philosophical realm, various parts of the rich volume are material for sociological, structural, neo-colonial and critical theoretical appraisal. One can easily compare it to a rainbow with several beautiful colours or a vast garden that is fragrant with the scent of flowers of different hues and varieties.
The main weakness, if at all, of the collection, however, is the size. Reading over a hundred and twelve loosely categorized poems, some of which run into two pages, in a single collection is like being hit by an avalanche of words. At the ideological level, reference to Buddhism, a religion alien to Nigeria is considered anomalous in “Make us more laws” (pp.32-33) where there are many indigenous gods of Africa to invoke, reminiscent of Christopher Okigbo, without importing any from India, the same way that the inclusion of “Shamans and samhain” (p.113) is considered superfluous right from the title for the simple reason that Halloween is almost meaningless to an African, who would appreciate many of better known festivals and rites even in Christianity better. Infelicities, though very few, at the linguistic/grammatical level, can be illustrated with ‘dirty stain’ on page 42 (as if there is a clean one), ‘my cattle is lean’ ( p.46; subject-verb ‘disagreement’) and “A journey’s end” on page 47 can be better phrased so as to dispossess ‘journey’ of the possessive that it doesn’t deserve while ‘this shifting sands’ on page 55 also insists on being ‘these shifting sands’.
Students, scholars and researchers in modern African poetry would definitely find studying Tubal Cain’s Mystery in our Stream rewarding. General readers who have the third eye with which poetry is read and the sixth sense which its meanings are interpreted and explored would also find it fulfilling. The mere fact that few works nowadays combine thematic functionality with production aesthetics makes the book itself as a product compelling. This is because hardly would one see its beautiful cover design without having an irresistible urge to dive in for a quick or pleasurable swim through its stream. The author undoubtedly deserves a pat on the back for a job well done and it is not fulsome that such a work still has more awards ahead to win.