What is life? What is the universe and man’s atomic place in it? The ancient eastern world sought answers through meditation, and gradually invented the first organised religions of the world on a scientific scale. Philosophers prefer debates. But poets approach this metaphysical concern with wonder and adoration, writing poems, as Dylan Thomas described “as the rhythmic, inevitable narrative, movement from overclothed blindness to a naked vision.” This wonder is what Umar Abubakar Sidi over-clothes himself in in The Poet of Dust. Before this happens, he undergoes an apprenticeship in the peninsula of poets where an imaginary Martin Espada welcomes him with a slap.
In the peninsula, Sidi introduces us to his influences: Gogol (an ancient ape, and the poet laureate of the Peninsula of Poets, taught him “Hukku yyakku huhhu huk”), Adonis, Mahmoud Darwish, Charles Simic, Billy Collins, and Rumi. Billy Collins ties him to a chair and tries to torture a confession out of him, by asking:
What is P?
When is P seen as P?
Who made P?
Why is P considered as P?
This shows the burden of the apprentice initiated into poetry, still trying to understand the craft, while his muse tortures him. Collins tells him thereafter, that Good Poetry . . . is a chick / A voluptuous curvy, sexy chick, with protruding breasts / Heavy backside, an enormous clit. Sidi’s manner in capturing this—playful on the surface—underscores his language and aesthetic preference. After his initiation, he is able to venture into his inquisition.
In a second peninsula of poets, Laikhur offers him a river of wine; he drinks, he staggers, he stutters, and starts a glossolalia about whom a poet is in couplets broken by the chant, “Hush Hush Hash Hash.” Here we find a poet as “an x-ray of the ribcage of the sky, a vision vanishing / From the photographic centre of the brain.” The last lines of the poem are a medley of nonsense chants: Jam Jam Dum Dum / Harabab, Hukurut, Hurubub, Hurukup, Hushurut, Hut.
In “Instructions to a Poet,” the third poem, Sidi becomes a sage; he gives instructions on poetry to the willing student. The 12-stanza poem is constructed in five-to-eight syllables at the beginning of each stanza, punctuated with periods, which enforce stops: Poet. Discard. Forget; Poet. Dispose. Forget; Poet. Accelerate. Speed past; Poet. Blaspheme. Deny Love, and so on. It gives the poem the tempo of a marching song. In every stanza, thus, is a concern on the art of poetry and suggestions for it. A poet is asked to “crystallize” and “hold holy . . . Not the words, but the shadow of words.” There’s a diss to poets who make poetry all about romance:
Declare love a tasteless wine
From the Vineyard of Lunatics
A tasteless wine that dulls
The eagle-eyed sight
Of the poet-sage
For me, however, the heart of the collection is in the two poems, “Testament of Sand” and “Book of Dust.” The first poem is an adventure of metaphysical, surrealistic, and mystical wonder; and the second poem a response to it. Sidi’s persona is a voice behind Al-Arshad, which the long poem “Testament of Sand” is mediated with.
Al-Arshad poet of sand
Al-Arshad poet of dust
Al-Arshad poet of the testament
AL – AR – SHAD poet of mud
Al-Arshad poet of sand
poet of the ocean of sand
where the particles of sand are consumed
like fine grains of milk . . .
What follows is distilled madness, exposing Umar Abubakar Sidi as a hedonistic portrayer of poetry. As Al-Arshad’s adventure begins, words scatter on the page and go wherever they want, uninhibited by the inner voice of form or artistic ideology; but rather, spontaneity or abracadabra. Al-Arshad is many things, a witness to the creation of the world:
and when God said let there be light, You were there, as the Form of the
photon, the tiniest quark of dust
He is the one “who created mythos to distract Man from deciphering the original / face of God hidden behind palisades of clouds.” He also “carved out logos from the left ear of God.” To words, he is the “neutrinos, the photons, / protons of language, the central atom of speech.”
As his name echoes throughout the poem, you see him: a Sufist Persian poet-sojourner standing before a cloud of dust, staring into the meaning and the meaninglessness of things. Then the dust settles and he stares into the galaxy and finds an ancient labour room of stars: al-arshad? What is the meaning of A L – A R S H A D ? The third alphabet in his name is AYN, and AYN is:
. . . The consonant of light, the eastern duck that flaps the wings of emerald, the Butterfly, the Unicorn, the nebula of the horse; the ancient labour room of stars
This alludes to the Big Bang Theory of creation as an explosion of matter, dust, forming the galaxy. Thus, between Al-Arshad and the persona behind him, the impulse for inquiry begins, lingers, and ends with the Beginning—the origin of the universe. As Richard Ali describes, this makes Sidi “[reaffirm] the primacy of the poet as philosopher.” The persona behind Al-Arshad, inquiry-hungry, asks:
AL-ARSHAD, did God impregnate the sky to give birth to the universe and dhuljoom?
. . . did the universe impregnate space to give birth to the planet and the stars? . . .
. . . did the Dinosaurs impregnate dust to give birth to grass, the green gorilla, the genomes and genes?
Sidi imagines all possibilities of the origin of the universe and, above, he juxtaposes paleontological findings with the celestial. It goes on and on, this poem, an ultimate litany of inquiry. (Is God this, is God that?) He considers the zodiac, the Cherubim and Seraphim prophets who “dance on one leg in frenzy chanting: shey mama shey mama / shey mama,” and asks exasperatedly, “are their souls being melted by the heat / effusing from the angry eyes of God?”
Much of this is written with madness. Yet, even on such scale of madness, his reader has to be well-read—not just in the arts—to fully appreciate Sidi’s soup-pot of surrealistic echolalia. In his oeuvre, Sidi revives the metaphysical persuasions of poetry not in currency today, through a seamless, protean aesthetics, carving his uniqueness, apart from usual artistic modes, such that the litany of poetic adventure in “Testament of Sand” doesn’t wear you out. Rather, you’re patient to reach the last line of its fourteen pages. Because in an unconscious trick, Sidi awakens your curiosity for wonder at the universe, applying the Socratic method of questioning as his poetics. When you take a breath of relief at the end of the poem, the next poem “Book of Dust” starts the process all over: Al-Arshad, is dust the ultimate baggage in the acid ball of life?
“In Lieu of a Preface”—the first poem in the second part—protests the hypocrisy of poets and encourages the political function of art. “This is not a poem this is not a Prayer” (the next poem) begins by decrying the helpless fate of poets in the first lines, “Today the machinery of the poet is scuttled.” Then transmutes to a lament of bitterness, calling God to strike “the rock dwelling Captain of the Community” and “the Prefects of the Orchards”—alluding to corrupt leaders. Readers familiar with Esiaba Irobi’s poem “The Kingdom of the Mad” will find a resonance with the repetition of the word “Strike” at the beginning of several stanzas in Sidi’s poem, as with “spit” in Irobi’s. Even as a surrealist poet, Sidi is not blind to the political currents of his time; the poem is dedicated, among other persons, to the girls of Chibok.
Very soon, the book ends. Every time I return to it, I am usually exasperated at this point (of the last two poems), unable to bear Sidi’s insufferable madness. See the titles: The Veiled Secret of the Kama Sutra or the Way a Certain Poet interprets the Surrealist Manifesto at Night, and Poetry in the Republic of Love or A Goddamn Poem about Goddamn things & Similes Vomited by a Motherfucking Goddamn Bard. Sidi is the labour room of stars. It takes amounts of cosmic pushes to birth his species. To understand him, perhaps, we can borrow a quote from Jose Saramago which he uses in the book: “The great difference between poets and madmen is the destiny of the madness that possesses them.” Afam Akeh says of him as “still harnessing the raw energy of his prodigious talent.” Let’s just say, Sidi is a poet.
© This essay was first published in Praxis Magazine, July 25, 2020, and was recently republished as an introduction to Umar Abubakar Sidi’s second edition of The Poet of Dust (Masobe). Order here.
Carl Terver has a BA English from Benue State University, Makurdi, and writes about film, literature, and music.