Title: Sounds of a Metal Gong
Author: Damian Terkaa Jam
Publisher: Sevhage Publishers
Year of Publication: 2014
As a caveat, this review is simply a voyage around literary polemics rather than an expression of ideas along the patterns of canonized literary thought. So, this should serve to evade the darts of province pundits who may be quick in their altercations of a meta-critical sort.
To begin, real homage to the author may be appropriate, for overcoming the plague of self-doubt and the vagaries of draft writing to achieve publication in an area that is highly fluid with practitioners in an age-long cross-cultural war of attrition over genre language and style. Jam’s publication of Sounds of a Metal Gong only reaffirms his status as a writer of talent as his debut publication Convictions, a novel, won reviewers’ enormous admiration.
Strikingly, Jam’s emergence on the scene represents a worthwhile addition to the gathering voices of poetic persuasion emanating from the Benue valley. These voices of sonorous note serenading various concerns seem to have come into their own and are determined to draw global focus with inspiring new aesthetics. Jam and some earlier poets from this axis, like their cousins elsewhere, strike diametrical notes of opposition to obscurantists and champions of purple poetry. There behooves a needless observation here to the effect that adherents of purple poetry and prose believe that writing and compositions must be necessarily grand and the steeped tradition must remain inviolate. Thus, to them, anything to the contrary defeats the whole essence of poetry and renders its poetics and poetriness unliterary. But Jam pulls for the flip side of this argument and deploys the canvas to good purpose.
Sounds of a Metal Gong is therefore the author’s bold literary statement on the state of the nation Nigeria; its seeming precarious situation and entire predicament. Showing that poetry is much more than simply an artistic
pastime, the collection serves as a medium for the author’s feelings, ideas, thoughts and other varied concerns. It explores both the banality and the extremity of the ongoing monstrous campaign by the Islamist Jihadist insurgents known as Boko Haram and the wanton destruction of lives and property wrought by their use of lethal weapons and the detonation of bombs and other explosives in public places and against government interests as captured in ‘Nyanya’s Everyday Fear’. The author paints the hopelessness of this situation and the deplorable plight of its hapless victims in ‘At Home Without Hope’. The sad images evoked here are those of the tens of thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who are refugees in their home country without basic education and food. The author appears to be overwhelmed by this entire scenario which seems to have no immediate succour or solution in sight as x-rayed in ‘A Bellicose People’ and ‘A Silent Place’.
The title poem ‘Sounds of a Metal Gong’ harps on the same excruciating trauma that has beset the author as he bemoans:’ for my bitter heart bleeds/ with regrets of unending deaths’. Thus, the entire collection resonates with harrowing images of human misery and the troubling manifestations of man’s inhumanity to man.
Validating George Lukacs’ assertion that ‘an author is the son of his age’, Jam expresses his deep malcontent with the style of governance and leadership in Nigeria in ‘Fallacies of Transformation’ and ‘The President’s New Clothes’. Here, he seems to have agreed with Chinua Achebe in both statements that ‘the trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership’ and that ‘ our true leaders are not those intoxicated with Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard degrees but those who speak the language of the people’ .
It is interesting to note here that Late Christopher Okigbo, the poet-turned warlord may have expressly found a literary protégé in Jam in the use of resonating and sparkling imagery and symbolism. Jam’s use of symbols and his witty evocation of imagery could easily pass for that of Late Christopher Okigbo; as the author adopts a metal gong, a traditional medium of communication to sound his message in a bid to be heard. By this he finds a parallel in the late Okigbo who adopted an ‘iron bell’: if I don’t learn to shut up my mouth I’ll soon go to hell/ I, Okigbo, town-crier, together with my iron bell’( Labyrinths with Path of Thunder).
So, like Okigbo, Jam’s dream of a social function of poetry finds fulfillment and gives him as a socially committed writer who readily deploys art to the service of society; not art for the sake of art. Thus, Jam’s poems possess enormous utilitarian and therapeutic value. It is perhaps proper to draw this important parallel between Okigbo and his allies who believe that poetry must be cast in difficult idiom for it to be effective and Jam who subscribes to the school which holds that poeticism is not obscurantism and like Niyi Osundare believes that ‘a poem must neither be a nun nor a prostitute’; not yielding its meaning too readily or must always be a hard nut to crack.
Similarly, across the Atlantic, Jam’s poetry finds another parallel in Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Victorian poet who was also Jesuit priest, though not in linguistic style but thematic currents. Although Hopkins was renowned for his difficult use of language deriving from his belief in linguistic purism, Jam, like Hopkins is noted through the collection for his preoccupation with immediate political concern and moral protest that he tries to articulate in his work. Although, Jam unlike Hopkins, is not enlisted in the Jesuit Order of priesthood he philosophizes about the afterlife, the mortality of man and life’s final abode in ‘ Heaven is our Pride’ and ‘ Begging for Heaven’.
Jam’s poetry, like most of his contemporaries and comrades in words reflects his deep personal convictions, a passion for freedom and self-determination, and the urgent issues and political turbulence of our time. Thus, seemingly heeding Chinua Achebe’s warning in an article entitled The African Writer and the Biafran Cause that: ‘any Africa’s creative writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of contemporary Africa will end up completely irrelevant like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames’. Therefore, it is worth noting here that Sounds of a Metal Gong is relevant in theme and time having taken on the big issues contemporary Nigeria of insurgency, general insecurity, brazen corruption, crass leadership failure, political upheavals and other challenges posturing as the perennial banes of the Nigerian state.
In the final analysis like some critic had averred elsewhere,’ the appearance of a book is the disappearance of the author’. Consequently, Jam’s Sounds of a Metal Gong upon emergence from the press must subject to torrents of criticisms both favourable and unfavourable. To this reviewer, the collection deserves accolades and achieves merit in its artistic quality, rendition and thematic thrust. However, the reviewer takes issue with certain aspects of the collection which do not in any way affect its credibility. First, there are sprinkles of compositional defects in form of typos, punctuation and grammatical inaccuracies littered in the collection which the author should lookout for in subsequent issues. Finally, there are certain poems in the collection which arguably ought not to have been included as part of the collection as they seem to put the author’s efforts as experimental and amateurish. But to say that Jam Damian is brimming with multiple literary talents and is a bourgeoning writer to watch is stating the obvious and not just making a statement of doubtful value.
Kwagh-Aondo Terzungwe is a literary critic and a public affairs commentator.