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Exile: A Review of Romeo Oriogun’s Nomad

By Chibueze Anthony Ukwuoma

Tuesday, November 29, 2022.

In an interview granted to World Stage Television, Romeo Oriogun revealed that when he was growing up in Benin, he saw boys leave home when they became men. But unlike most people whose departure bordered on the quest to escape poverty, Oriogun’s migration was an act of fleeing danger. So when he left Nigeria for Ghana in 2018, and later moved to the US, Oriogun was simply saving his queer life from Nigeria’s tyrannical homophobic laws. It is the complicatedness of these journeys that Oriogun sublimates in Nomad, his second full length collection of poems, published in 2021, by Griots Lounge Publishing, Owerri.  

The persona of the opening poem of Nomad, “The Beginning,” transforms the anguish of departure into a ritual of reconnection, by recalling who he was before he became a migrant: “tender—a lover of my city gathered into a singular prayer of leaving.” It is possible to imagine the persona in a toxic relationship with his country, a land whose weight he is condemned to carry along in his journey. The problem with migration, as Oriogun’s “The World Demands from us our Existence” shows, is that “so much of terror depends on movement.” We could rephrase Oriogun and insist that: much of movement depends on terror. Yet, after this linguistic overturn, we realize that we still echo his thought that the life of an exile is one marked by constant trepidations. It is this traumatic condition that the persona of “The Beginning” confronts. He is a “traveller,” his life is full of “silent tears,” his memory traverses “trauma and borders,” and his tongue is a “mingling of languages.”     

Samuel Osaze suggests that “due to the unpleasant circumstances of Romeo Oriogun’s exit from Nigeria, one would expect the poet to divest himself of every vestige of such memory and enlist to forget about the past and squarely focus on the bright future—the banquet that providence has set before him at his new place of abode.” Anyone who expects a nomad to erase their lived experiences may have an insufficient understanding of the enormity of the exilic life. Efe Paul Azino notes this in his praise for Nomad. For Azino, the collection “is a song at every border, a lyrical rendering of movement and loneliness that presses into hope.” Therefore, it is evident that “there is no rest in exile,” as Oriogun poignantly announces in “The Sea Dreams of Us.”  

Moreover, the following lines from “The Sea Letters” bear the painful weight of an exiled life in search of home: “The plane taxies and I wonder, in all the places I have been to, why does love greet me at the door with an effort sculpted by brutal labour?” The persona of “Late December in Abidjan” continues this lament when he says, “I have travelled through terror. Survival repeats itself again and again, knocking on the door of every city.” Just as these lines highlight the trauma of migration, the following lines from “A Train Stop in Sahara” depict the sense of alienation that characterizes an individual in exile: “I, nomad, who walked through cities soundless like a bone thrown into a pit, I have no language for belonging.” When we get to “Full Moon,” we encounter the persona detailing the lack of rootedness of the exile: “I keep nothing, I own nothing. When I leave, I was never here.” Likewise, we are arrested by the cryptic confession of the girl in conversation with the persona of “The Sea Dreams of Us,” who remembers the selves she had lost in her numerous journeys, and grieves, “our bodies are countries outside of borders.”

The above troubling migrant realities turn the exile’s life into one of endless protests. In his review of Nomad, Jerry Chiemeke acknowledges this, when he writes that Oriogun’s “life [is] some form of ‘protest.’” In “The Revolution is Over” Oriogun clarifies the nature of protest he engages with. In the poem written after the EndSARS protest in Nigeria, the persona says, “I have no patience for the language of cities, I was never raised in one, a proper child of roads, I was given nothing, I wanted nothing.” This is the voice of the dispossessed, the wretch of the earth. When the persona announces, “And if I come to you, there will be a gun in my hand, there will be no one beside me, I have become a poet of the past,” his words carry the weight of Frantz Fanon’s injunction of revolutionary violence reminiscent of Neogy and Theroux’s description of Christopher Okigbo as a rebel, a poet and a Major.

It is difficult to imagine Oriogun as a Fanonian revolutionary, in spite of his shared ideological vision with Fanon and Okigbo in “The Revolution is Over.” This statement from his interview with World Stage TV reassures me that my impression of him is not a failure of imagination: “I’m more of a person who exists in the shadow and writes about society and try to understand it.” So Oriogun’s activism is powered by language. This is what he expounds in “From Darkness into Light.” In the poem, Oriogun writes, “Only language can begin the restoration of those pushed out of history.” Darlington Chibueze Anuonye bears witness to Oriogun’s understanding of the agency of language in his comment that “in Nomad, Oriogun continues his tryst with language and truth, expanding his vision to reflect his experience of life, with a maturity of mind that comes from living that life fully.” I find this statement particularly interesting. Also, Oriogun’s interest in the places he has been to, prompted him to write the poems that make up Nomad, which according to Anuonye, “emerge as a sustained meditation on movements and memories.” I agree with this brilliant assessment. In Nomad, we find Oriogun embarking on journeys, accompanied by personal and collective memories. The last stanza of “Atlantic Beach” is a concise summation of his movements so far: “all my life I sat before the world and watched its beauty. I didn’t want to be a poet but when the sea called my name, I stood up and chanted everything you sang to me, then I offered the road my life.”

Reading Nomad, one may consider Oriogun a historian. But he is not a historian. Oriogun is a poet stretching the boundaries of African, postcolonial, and migrant literatures. Oriogun is a poet in exile, conscious of his movements and the spaces he inhabits, which for him, consist of the past and the present, both of which enable him to conceptualise the future. As he writes in “Returnee,” “to return to the present is to return to the past, is to be shed of exile, the worry of roads, before entering the dust of belonging.”

Osaze writes that “Oriogun’s travel poetry resonates with every displaced Nigerian.” This could be true. But beyond displacement and movements, Nomad is a thematically complex and aesthetically profound collection of poems. These qualities, among others, prompted the panel of judges and the advisory board of the NLGN Prize for Literature to distinguish the collection from its impressive shortlists, awarding Oriogun its 2022 prize.

Chibueze Anthony Ukwuoma lives in Owerri, Nigeria, where he studies mechanical engineering at Imo state University, Owerri. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in Stripes magazine, Praxis magazine, Ngiga Review and Lolwe.

 Image: Bella Naija

 


Exile: A Review of Romeo Oriogun’s Nomad

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