A Poet Gives an Answer: The Remarkable Poetry of Ahmed Maiwada’s We’re fish

by Carl Terver

In Eye Rhymes, his last collection before We’re fish, the poet Maiwada declared, “Milton took my quill / He snatched it from my hand!” In We’re fish, Milton has thrown the quill into the sea. So, plunged into the sea to retrieve it, Maiwada becomes a fish and the sea he swims in is dying. This sea, his universe and country. With his fish-eye he is able to see differently, and aquatically, the tragedy that befalls all fish. And We’re fish, the single poem divided into 71 poems, is the Chorus of himself as fish. To begin, he cries, “Save our sea . . .”

The long poem isn’t easy to read, its logic ungraspable at first glance. The best way through it is to read it as it is than attach any superior meaning: there’s fish, there is the sea, and the fish tells a tale. Therefore, the declarative “We’re fish” is fashioned into a symbolism of “fish and sea” maintained throughout its Odyssey-esque narratology. So when poem 1 opens “On three faces are our passage painted; / Three opuses – / River / Lagoon / And Sea,” it is the fish introducing us to its rite of existence, whether it is the river, lagoon or the sea. However, the next lines read, “But, the sea dies, / Slips on the blush of red rivers, / Takes no more rivers’ offerings.” The sea cannot let the rivers flow into it; the river itself already dead. It is the beginning of disaster.

This disaster is what Maiwada’s fish is going to narrate to us. Before that, it takes us through a preamble of fish life, and to the genesis of its migration from disaster, in the first movement of poems 1 to 4. In poem 2, it describes its universe as:

We’re here – in rivers swimming; 
Gametes in semen, 
Headed for the ovum.
Fish, in our own water – 
Fish, fish flying the plane of all fishes;
Fish on a horse, fish in carriage.
We fly on water,
Our minds focused, at sea level. 

Then breaks into,

Migrants, we flee
Water unsalted,
River bank-constricted.
We flee croc-torn water . . .

But at first, it lived in aquariums and gonads “caught in glass / caught in sacs. / There was no telling / When the feeds came falling.” Being in the river, as gametes heading for the ovum, describes an escape from its former life of being caught in glass. Yet in this small paradise, it soon has to flee the croc-torn and saltless water. And yet again, even to the sea where it escapes to, from saltless river, it faces its greatest peril.

Its peril is perpetrated by the omnipresence of East Wind, an apocalyptic horseman, otherwise known as the Breeze (a messenger of East Wind). We come across it throughout the poem, as it crashes into the fish’s shuttle to fly (swim) to freedom. The fish also suffers existentialism. In poem 10, it “flounder[s] in mud and in crystal” waters. But one fish, the lantern fish, knows religion cannot provide the answers to their questions and charges the believing fishes with delusion:

The lantern fish charge us with delusion,
We, who testify to the sea divers.
“Those exists only in your imagination!”
“Imagine angels in trawlers,” they say,
“Dropping nets unseen from the heavens,
“To harvest these souls amongst us.”

But reason is often not always hearkened to. The fish’s disposability to this conceit of the sea divers (gods) poses a problem for its sea life, for the deception it shall suffer once its fate is tied to it. A parallel is struck between Maiwada’s fish and the fated Nigerian under a deception spell of his country, none other than political dystopia.

As a result, the fish, tossed about by the deception of the sea divers, begins a meditative hijra. This, however, doesn’t lead to any denouement, as the fish is already aware of its fate. Rather, it seeks to find an inner escape, or salvation, to its woes. In a voice that overflows with acquired wisdom, it starts:

Sometimes, last time, when we talked,
Butterflies walked
Along the South Pole
And the North Pole
And the Equator of our bellies.

Here it raises the promises birthed in speech, of Nigeria’s honey-mouthed political headliners. So fishes “laughed and smiled, / Butterflies in the gardens of our bellies, / Last time we talked.” Their minds:

. . . too thrilled to be trusted,
We turned our ears into stores, ad hoc,
For the words from the lips tumbling.
Those stores – those strainers!
Now empty.

Yet, it is to the promise of the preachment by the Sea Divers that the Nigerian latches his dreams to. As for the fish, it is a balm it inhales, each leap it leaps (in italics paraphrased from Maiwada)—thus, its thirst for a swim is kindled. Not just any swim, but a swim to taste the salt of the sea, because it—the fish, the Nigerian citizen—fled croc-torn rivers to the sea to reap the benefits of good leadership. Maiwada fully begins to inject Nigeria’s historical currents in the poem. But as the Nigerian is fooled, the wise fish isn’t; it sees that as it swims with its kin in the deceptive saltiness of the sea, behind them are:

The fishers frantic and the frogs full
And the crocodile tears
That deceives the fish.
Our pilgrim minds in citizen shoes.
Her blue embrace erased all doubts . . .

Electioneering in Nigeria often turns into a game of argumentum ad passiones, represented in the poem as the crocodile tears that deceives the fish. This was the drama that led the 2015 presidential race as major candidates Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari played the card. But more pointedly is the reference to the 2011 elections where the appeal to emotion was employed by Goodluck Jonathan—“I Had No Shoes”—in citizen shoes mentioned above. But fishes fell for this ploy, their pilgrim minds in citizen shoes, where the blue embrace of the sea erases all doubts: the fish is circumscribed to put its faith in a paradise represented in “citizen shoes”; its pilgrimage, a journey to spiritual, nay, utilitarian fulfilment, where the sea with its allure (blue embrace) helps in taming (erasing) its suspicion of doom that awaits it.

Certainly, the con is successful and the stage for East Wind—Nigeria’s apocalyptic horseman—to annihilate fish-citizens is set. Our speaker fish presages: Sometimes, some slips from the lips of the Wind mustering, Say there are concerns coming, On and on going; that a web thickens that the Spider is weaving. This spider’s web is also the tongue of the toad shooting at fishes resting on the sea’s blue canvas. And the ploy by the breeze is only the soft copy of a brewing storm (poems 24 to 29).

The poems 24 to 29 are waterspouts of imagery, highlighting an exceptional, distilled deployment of language in We’re fish. Very short, they’re a run-through by the fish about what East Wind, a.k.a. the Breeze, is up to. Poem 24, the first in the movement, begins:

And “Sh”, says the breeze,
Raising his fingers, four,
“Don’t disturb the sleep
Of those showers.
These clouds must first
Spread out
In the face of the canopy

A detour from the symbolism of sea to sky, since this is the terrain of the breeze. By “sh,” the sky-master initiates his policy on silence to dissenters or noisemakers who try to call it out: Nigeria’s favoured M.O. to free expression. Such is its audacity that it tells citizens, that for the rains (blessings) to come, the clouds must first spread out. But as we continue, we realise that “The breeze walks the clouds / Along the blue street of space,” coaching the clouds on the mischief it shall mete on citizens. Thus, the clouds—white and grey—rove the sky, spreading the gospel of darkness across the moon and the sun. This becomes accomplishable when

Stroke by stroke
Grey strokes of clouds
The sky – 
Centre ring.

Certainly, “centre ring” alludes to the sun, centre of the universe, Nigeria’s centre as well, whose light is covered by the curtains of East Wind’s clouds. Centre ring is also a pun for a ring where Nigeria’s battles are fought. But now,

The clouds are the big cats in centre ring,
And the bears and the horses and
The elephants and the dogs.
Lightning – ringmaster’s whip,
Lashes at hooves and paws,
Shaping the breeze into hurricanes.

There’s language orgasm here. The reconciliation of imagery daunting. If the big cats, the bears and horses, the elephants and dogs are all in the centre ring, the ringmaster’s whip, lightning—earlier lines of this poem indicate an oncoming storm—turns the centre ring into a battleground as hooves and paws, of the abovementioned creatures, claw and gnaw at each other, shaping the breeze into a hurricane.

Nigeria’s catastrophic political landscape is dramatised in this chaotic imagery. Seeing that a hurricane is a stranger on this side of the hemisphere, with Nigeria’s helplessness to deal with its magnitude, a hurricane is a dreary situation. The citizen must, therefore, seek shelter. For Maiwada’s “fishes,” it is a season of migration, for the sea, hurricane-wrecked, has stopped breathing:

the river no longer giving.
East Wind has raged against her
[ . . . ]
I see sea fish answering, fish migrating. 

But Maiwada’s “fish”—the wise, meditative Odysseus—refuses to migrate:

But, I’m not swimming
I’m here, a free fish, waiting
To be one with my mother
To be one with the sea
To be cold and still, and stop
B r e a t h i n g…

Because the sea is its mother, it refuses to flee, cut-off from her. If the sea stops breathing, the fish will stop breathing. This is daring loyalty; in national context, unswerving patriotism. Indeed, the imagery of sea and fish is the vehicle that makes Maiwada proclaim such undying affinity; the fish has nowhere really to flee to, so its loyalty to the sea is bound. But he makes the excuse in the next poem:

Death’s parts we are, and death’s parcels,
We can’t breathe…

It knows all fish shall die, after all: is this what fires its resolve not to flee? The last line suggests there has been suffocation hitherto. And the fish’s defiance is: we have been dying here since; are we fleeing now as if we just had the epiphany? Why don’t we return to mother and save her? This sentiment continues in the next movement in poems 42 to 48. 42 reads:

The sea, to the fish, is his country;
His world,
A province of sort.
Her borders run
On without
Her weather mild, cold or hot.
Oh, the lie that sea divers tell
About a mother like you!

It reminds us of the sea divers—the East Wind—and their machinations as what lead to the corruption of faith in country. Their vocation is so cancerous to the point of distortion, thus, the lies they tell about Nigeria, a mother whom Maiwada will die with. And his commitment—surprising to admit—is love. By equating the nation to a mother, or to the sea the fish can’t do without, Maiwada raises the importance of love. To divorce our commitment from mother, our country, is to dispose our patriotic virtue and love to her. In tandem, we see the fish’s pledge of allegiance to its mother, beginning from poem 42 to 48. Like one body, the poems move climactically, ending with the cry: “a mother like you.” (No feet can come across a mother like you; O, where may the orphan find a mother like you?; O, let me be born again, by a mother like you.)

This flow, typical throughout the poems, renditions like a classical piece with measured rhythm: it rises and falls, steadies, then spurts, and sometimes enters a counterpoint. As such, you find that the poems can be divided into movements (I’ve used this technical term severally already) or parts; so that after the last poem in the movement of A Mother Like You, for example, poem 49, which follows, is an interlude. 50 begins a mild crescendo—“O, the hand that spirit gives / To the heart that downward sinks!” 51 relaxes the climb—“ ‘Now, let silence wear some / Noise – a whistle, / A thump, / Or such togas . . .’ ” 52 is a climactic climb to:

Hearts pounded before the jaws opened;
Alarms blaring,
On the tempest’s face, smiling.
Then came the shelling:

This violent climax allows for the contemplative diminuendo, poem 53, that follows:

Memory lash...
We remember you – a stick:
Target, Mars;
Dead Sea now;
We remember you, martyr of the wind,
A desire we couldn’t rescue.
You were the flame
We dragged in
And exhaled,
A bale of smoke then,
Robbed by the wind;
A memory stub now.
Where are you, now;
On whose Mars?
Where does the flame smoke go,
Riding on wild winds?
Which abode does the carbon keep,
That flew in the carbon craft?
Is it the one flying in the
Green leaf going down the gullet…

Once again, Maiwada’s masterful language is revealed in this poem, the best and most memorable in the collection. In its first half, we enter nostalgia. The nation is likened to sticks of cigarettes; Maiwada journeys to the so-called halcyon days of cigarettes like Marlboro, Target, and Mars to imply the sweetness that must have been his country. This sentiment drives him to call the inhalations of these extinct cigarettes as “martyrs of the wind,” and the failure to maintain or fight for the Nigerian dream, “a desire we couldn’t rescue.” The nation’s former glory—if there’s any—is a bale of smoke robbed by the wind (East Wind); and what we have is a stub of a cigarette that once was. But Maiwada already admits this in lines 4 to 5 when he says the nation’s target was Mars, but became a “Dead Sea now.” This double entendre with Mars is effected in lines 14 to 15 when he asks of the gloried nation:

Where are you, now;
On whose Mars?

Nigeria’s thwarted dream over the decades is interpreted as a failure for the country to arrive at its own planetary Mars—to its greatness.

Here, as with the part we read where the fish says it will be cold and still, and stop breathing because the sea, too, stops breathing, the rhetorical questions—Where are you, now? On whose Mars?—bring the reader to catharsis. Not only does he experience the fish’s suffocation because its mother, the sea, is dead; he shares the same fate with the fish in answering the question, “Where are you, now, on whose Mars?”—Where are we now, on whose Mars? This Dead Sea, Nigeria?

The revelation subtly settles in: we’re fish, game for the Sea Divers with trawlers to trap us. We’re fish, pawns of the East Wind. We’re fish, out on the street, without a mother (sea). This is Maiwada’s crude answer to our precarious lives, extending beyond nationhood concerns. Thus, while the poem broods no spirit of protest, it demands reflection and indirectly inspires the mood for transformation in the reader, which is an inextricable function of great poetry. A modern-day epic, Ahmed Maiwada’s We’re fish is a classic collection that may not be seen again for a while, like Tade Ipadeola’s Sahara Testaments. His devotion to style and aesthetics here reveals a painstaking, fearful, elitist loyalty to great art. Its only shortcoming is it being a work for cult readers. Nevertheless, it is a legacy he has sealed to his name.

On a final note when the fish re-experiences denouement, it also accepts its fate to the already dystopian state of its country, and wails silently:

Before this Dead Sea,
Before East Wind,
Before this blood,
There was our blue sea.

The tone of resignation is melancholic and unfortunate; it tells us what we already know: we’re not breathing in this country. And the fish, making its odyssey this far, becomes very philosophical about its welfare henceforth. In a series of four short poems that follow 9-13-9-9 lines respectively, it makes its peace with fate, not blind to the catastrophes that exist with it in the Dead Sea which is its home. This is the situation for all fish:

Death’s trigger is pulled
The moment you’re born;
Life ends at birth,
Daughter or son,
Funeral shall happen
In time, short or long.
When the lips are sealed,
At the close of the songs,
Other dead assembled, sing, “Till we come.”

Dystopia is complete. Life ends at birth, there’s no dream for the country. As Nigerian Death kills us every day because of a wicked government, the death of Nigeria is concluded. When we die, those coming after us are already dead and assembled, and they sing for us, till they come—a cyclical process of death and dystopia.

“Why do seas die? / Knowing they teem with us, fish…?” The fish has reached the last stage of its odyssey and asks itself these questions. Why do seas die? It thinks about the evil, storm intentions of East Wind, the apocalyptic horseman. It broods further: Why do blue seas turn red…? The answer is the epiphany it comes to in the last poem: it is because we toy with death. And the time we toy with death is in our sleep, Maiwada says (sleep, a metaphor for our dead conscience), as we set ourselves up for downfall:

We hear no thunder,
We hear no bark,
We hear no chirp,
We hear no beep
We hear no burglar.

The poem ends with an apocalyptic message, “Tonight we’re cubes dissolving in the glass called night – in the keeper of the sums of our ghosts.” To all aquatic life gathered, this is the hero fish’s testament and only truth learnt: we are goddamn fish◼

Carl Terver is the founding editor of Afapinen. He is the author of the poetry chapbook For Girl at Rubicon.