Mark Nwagwu’s Time Came Upon Me and Other Poems: How to Love a Woman Forever
Title of Book: Time Came Upon Me and Other Poems
Author: Mark Nwagwu
Publisher: Bookbuilders, Ibadan
Year of Publication: 2019
Price: Not stated
Reviewer: Aderemi Raji-Oyelade
Time Came Upon Me and Other Poems(2019) is Mark Nwagwu’s fourth collection of poems dedicated and devoted to his wife, Prof. Helen Onyemazuwa Nwagwu (1943 – 2018), arguably a unique feat by any African poet; predictably, in its consistency, it revolves around love and in ever more refreshing forms and perspectives that it does not fall into tedious monotony, either as a volume or in relation to the other collections before it. With Time Came Upon Me and Other Poems, Nwagwu has bequeathed us with a tetralogy, the others being Helen Not-of-Troy(2009), Cat Man Dew(2012), and HelenaVenus(2013).
In total, there are 94 poems on various but interconnected subjects, of life and living, love and loving, of aging, death and transcendence, friendships, anniversaries, family scenes and reminiscences and, above all, the overarching and recurring subject of eternal affection of the poet for his wife and life partner.
The collection is curiously titled as “Time Came Upon Me and Other Poems”; in the tradition of collections with “& other poems” notation, there is always a poem eponymously titled after which the collection is named, so that it would seem that the other poems take force, relation or connections from the flagship poem, as it were. In this particular collection, there is no poem so titled as “Time came upon me”; rather, there is a poem entitled “along the way time came upon me”, apparently signifying on the poet’s journey of identity, relation, and encounters, his chronotope of experience. The whole sequence of poems in the collection is a reflection upon time, the daintiness and magnificence of it, that the collection might be directly or unequivocally titled as “Time Came Upon Me.” Taken together, the title points at the poet’s realisation of the depth and intensity of experience which have attended his past and his present.
The entire strings of poems are sprung as telegrams and as beads on the column of time. Lines follow lines of joy and pain, of loss and memory, and of love and loving.
The sensitive reader moves stealthily in the booby trap of sensuous words, seeking images which survive the poet’s ballistic memory, and there the reader finds his mind in the embrace of what I shall call an helenospheric absorption, to which the poet himself has been captive over decades. Relief for Nwagwu is not easy; and in that helenosphericstratosphere, the discerning reader will find a poet in remembrance and devotion, in worship and wonder. Compared to the first three books of poetry devoted to Helen, this is the first posthumous collection, and it becomes significant that even in her mortal absence, or because of it, the poet’s remembrance is more intense and poignant.
The larger collective of poems is an extended dialogic evocation of the spirit and personhood of the dear departed wife of the poet. In “Where will I find you”, it is as though the persona has asked a question. Although the statement does not carry a question tag at the end, the voice that responds says “... you will find me in heaven beatific” (6). One can infer that Mark Nwagwu is asking his late wife, Helen, when/where he will find her, to which she responds “they have covered my eyes... my face”, but when he finds her in heaven, the “mystery” will be “revealed” (6).
“Behind you” is both a celebration and a vivid remembrance of his wife’s grace when she leads him and takes the communion (significant to the body of Christ); at once, the poet is joyful connecting the act of walking (with his wife) with the actual witnessing of her taking communion as proof of celestial union with “all of heaven” (2).
There is a unity of expressive vision between Mark the poet and Mark the man, and Helen is the integer of that expression: she is the mermaid in magnificent armour, the constant presence, the epiphany, the emerald eyes, the ofe Owerre, the heavenly shadow, the sublime one, the timeless rainbow, love magnified, the redemption, and the “jeweled dynasty”.
In Nwagwu's devotional poems, the expressive continuum of lines about love has become the stuff of legend.
In “you were not on the cards”, a poem that reads like a poetic autobiography, the reader will find flashes of an episodic life marked by his divine connection with Helen, the passion that followed, the intellectual progression, the conjugal adventure that spanned decades since 1961, and the eventual beatification of his dream woman and wife of a lifetime. Listen to how the poet's serenades his helicon love, the “object” of his absolutist rapture:
you showed up, clothed rainbow, beauty overwhelming
I saw you. My world ran from your head to your toe to your eyes
I was lost, unforeseeable dreams undreamt capture me
transport me to heavens not yet built, awaiting my mettle
to give it life in a world mellifluous. Helen, my dream, my redemption. (29)
There are other significant poems which are part celebratory and part reflective in Time Came Upon Me and Other Poems. There is the poem “Kpakpando”, a praise song to a friend, apparently a reference to the accomplished playwright, poet and scholar, Femi Osofisan: “I am Kpakpando the earth my theatre Ibadan her home/orange invites indigo in dance, my mind their costume” (35). In the other poems, Nwagwu's keen sense of observation and re-memorying is all too evident, as in “the Cambridge sisters (36); and in his overflowing love of St. Theresa of Avila: “to catch the sun skies warm, don’t leave me/I live on the air you breathe flowing all over me” (54). There is also the unforgettable casting of the legendary prowess of the poet’s great grandfather as a dibia who transformed himself into “nwankpi”, a goat in order to head-butt “his opponent another dibia/who had challenged him” (20). And like his enigmatic forebear, Mark Nwagwu is a firebrand magician of the word.
A close reading of Time Came Upon Mewill reveal the poet’s fastidious use of the sensory metaphor of sight which runs through a number of the poems. The focal sense of sight, of seeing, of beholding and of watchfulness, and of attention and attentiveness, is almost always reflected throughout the collection. In “the joy you give me”, the poet is captive of the joy and bliss that Helen radiates “in the priceless pearls of (her) eyes” (9). Poem after poem, the reader will find the poet’s obsessive conscription of the metaphor of eyes: “emerald fire” (5), “rendezvous eyes” (5), “where will I find you” (6), “pride pierced” (6), “to look at You” (9), “the nerves came to their senses” (10), “sleep on the valley” (13), and “the untold story of all that meets the eye” (17), among others.
In this collection, the reader will also encounter the poet’s love for cosmic significance of numbers: 7 and 9 especially; in celebrating Helen’s 74th birthday in the poem “it’s all sevens”, the poet turns attention to the year as the double of 37, in addition to the interesting fact that he was born in the 37th year of the twentieth century.
In writing these devotional and evocative poems, Prof. Mark Nwagwu has achieved immortality even as he has immortalised his wife of a lifetime, Prof. Helen Onyemazuwa; he seems to be aware of his own mortal essence and admits of time coming upon him, but as the middle name of his wife “Onyemazuwa” suggests, nobody, not even the scientist of the word, knows tomorrow. He may just rise into the evening and add another collection to extend the tetralogy into a pentalogy.
Let me conclude with a coda, that in Time Came Upon Me and Other Poems, Mark Nwagwu teaches us how to love a woman eternally: say it, write it, remember and write it again...
March 30, 2019