The Swallows and the Gamble of Rebirth: A Review of Carl Terver’s “Till the Swallows Come Home”

“I know this place where civilisation
Runs along torn asphalts…”

These three-month gone, I have observed that poetry can invert itself to be an emotional hallucinogen; that it can sometimes betray its very own bard as to transpose the weight of its intended meaning, and after a varied moment, create a sound, a scene or something that was not; possibly, a beatification or the signature of an expressive insurance (for the poet).

Only when the social creature begins to display an evidence of sensitivity, an image of fear and agony, only then does the instance for consolation seriously begin to surface. To that ritual is poetry sometimes inspired. The gift can make the dejection of the composer ever-timely, not seeming too proud or too irrelevant.

The contemporary Nigerian poet, full of the burden of a messy tradition, appears to have bored himself with unresolved battles. Even so, he still contests the impulses of dubbing his tempered vision to the background. In this, is the solemn action taken to secure a moral standpoint and build an artistic consciousness around it. In such cases only are lamentations amply justified.

Encountering Carl Terver’s “Till the Swallows Come Home,” one comes to term with a fervent irreverence, a kind of foreknowing tumult which grows into an omen of regret, of suspicion, which works through the dominant act of dialogue. The long poem says so much about the Nigerian darkness, about the “notes that sound like stridulations to our eardrums.” Halfway down the missive that sounds like Wole Soyinka’s Elegy for a Nation, the critic will ask, why has this poet not written a conventional facile tragedy? That a monologue could be so single-mindedly drawn into a realism discourse is applause for the poet. It is easy enough to spot the grime on the wall but Terver expresses strong views about himself and the country in a critical period in Nigerian history and the Nigerian present.

Halcyon days were my thoughts
But the heights are now devolved

The dividend of an upright democracy constitutes perhaps the most restless hope of his race, but like the illustrious Frantz Fanon rightly believed, “the artist who has decided to illustrate the truths of the nation turns paradoxically towards the past and away from actual events… the native intellectual who wishes to create an authentic work of art must realize that the truths of the nation are in the first place its realities.” In the course of dramatizing the condition of pain and nostalgia, the poet indicts the sadistic worldviews against the establishments of memory, which were “those days when patriarchs composed notes,” days which are or were, of course, responsible for his erstwhile joys: “On her fifty-third, the country was stolid / With no music of culture / My hubris receded to salty waters.” It is his first ritual that defines the very depth to which his nation has sunk, “wander aimlessly in the mire.”

Two kinds of voices can be heard in this poem: the questioning and the aloof. It is questioning when the poet inquires into the legacy of compromised followership. It is aloof when he denounces the central leadership as absentminded, hypocritical and insensate. In both, there is a nervous passion partly because of a vigorous individual attachment to a political resolution as shown in “Is the world not in dire need of extremist?” and the stealth row about the “cactus-infected land.”

I hate to tell the tales of the end of the world
But until trees walk on naked limbs, I shall
Dream not of heysomeness.

Spoken like someone who has witnessed the landscape of death and, yet, refuse to be soiled by submission, by acceptance of the status-quo; Terver aims not only at socio-political criticism but also at the imminent – a rhetoric, as a driver of that worry, to determine what seems to be the lot of the constant deprivations of self and society. The poet’s cross-questioning should not be seen as the rigidity of a mourner; rather it is a tactic through which he inspires other hidden questions vital to the future of his particular experience, and that of his generation.

The clause “till the swallows come home” is an embodiment of the finite doubt, the poet’s positive disposition, displayed pessimistically. As privy to the realizations of the identity of the swallows are and where home is, it appears that some portions of the poem might have been inspired by conversations of the poet with comrades, some of whom he briefly addressed in scattered parts. “Dairo, the days are yellow,” “Oladele / May you…Become associate professor of creative writing / Or African Studies…Ha! Viking? / Break free from tradition,” “Was there ever a path, Oyin?” Some of it draws from the concerns of “a rumpled culture” and history being a “sonorous fable knitted by clichés”. All of these are emblematic of the extinction of civilization to mass illiteracy, religious fanaticism, intellectual absolutism, a bungling educational system, irresolution of the government in power, and most troubling, the relegation of history, of 1966, “the harbingers’ days.” It’s livid like how the pensive Teju Cole writes in his memoir, Every Day Is For The Thief: why is history uncontested here? The consequence thereof is what Terver describes as “rehearsed folly.”

However, before the poet brings the swallows to bear, he does not ignore the intense primacy of the “story [he] never wanted to tell.” His clamour reveals home. His “clamour is: where is the nation?”

The nation is not the white-faced chieftains…
Crafting another Bill of Mockery, not a putrid carcass…
The nation is the wailing dream whose ribs
Are poked by the ineptitude of pharaohs…
The nation is the [pedlars] who eke from
Hold-ups, the Nafisats who hawk kuka
At ten pms; The nation is the dream that
Has no wings while time flies;
The broken calabash and all that inspires
Wisdom, scattered and desecrated at the
Crossroads; the crawling casement that
Breeds educated puppets…

The poet uses many poetic devices to his advantage, a fusion of self-dramatizing metaphors and interesting intertextuality which prove the presence of maturity and self-control. It is cathartic to find Bulawayo in “We might continue / To bear new names,” Achebe in “We are mothers, refugee camps, and tiny graves,” Yeats in “The falcon did hear the falconer,” Soyinka in “Our day twisted like a shuttle in the / Crypt,” and Langston in “a dream that / Has no wings while time flies.”
While it is apparent, the acute pessimism of its message, the latter part of the poem draws attention to the earlier “Last sentinels of Salvations / Battered by weeds.” Activists? The brave literati? Our last resolve for national re-affirmation? Though it is the poet who says “The harmattan has cracked his soles for too long,” the poignant question hangs, obdurate in the head: when will the country be revived, or perchance, born again? And though we die in the attempt (as Soyinka testifies), will the patriot remain a subject of gamble to that promise?

As a note to its pathos, I say Terver’s work is grim and harsh and well-written.

[Carl Terver is a contemporary Nigerian poet and blogger. Read the long poem here: Afapinen –Afapinen.wordpress.com/till-the-swallows-come-home]

Oyin Oludipe

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About Ijagun Poetry Journal

Ijagun Poetry Journal is a quarterly journal that provides a platform from which we can tell our own stories in the authenticity of their multiplicity through the poetic medium. We don’t want to hear these stories from our master “griots” alone; we want to hear from those mastering their art, too. Hence, we aim at publishing new and emerging poets. We also welcome the works of established poets in order to encourage the poetic genius of those mastering poetic art. We prize original works that conform to, break or reinvent conventions. Again, we accept reviews and critical essays on poetry. We also accept powerful art works and photographs that make us appreciate the "poetry" in everything.
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