If All

By Uche Ogbuji

Poem

Earth Day blessings, 2011
Elu anughi, Ala ga anu.—If the heavens don’t hear, the Earth will hear. (From an Igbo proverb)

If all the skies were sewers
If breezes made us gag
If flocking birds were charnel herds
What would our lungs for swag?

If all the seas were petrol
And all fresh water slops
If all the fish thrashed feverish
What sap for veins and crops?

If every storm’s potential
Were parboiled troposphere
If hurricanes swept all our planes
What home could persevere?

This is a continuation of a series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1. For items 17-32, see part 2. In this final installment I include a few observations I’ve culled from my father’s memoir of his life in Nigeria and abroad “Seeing the World in Black & White.” (SWBW) (AWP, 2006)¹

33. Modern Nigerian literature, ever vibrant, is certainly on the up. Young as it is Nigeria has already had an early generation of great writers, household names such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, not to mention the likes of Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, and even the prolific pulp novelist Dan Fulani. It’s almost too much to ask for more, but as it happens, we have much, much more with new generations exploding on to the scene, including poets Chris Abani, Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe and lesser known contemporaries such as Chinweizu. But the real earthquake manifests in novel form, with the emergence of the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Sefi Atta, and Nnedi Okorafor. I can’t pass without a word for the recently deceased poet and playwright Esiaba Irobi. One of the neat aspects of these 21st century blossoms is that so many of them are young women.

This is a continuation of my series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1.

17. Nobody deploys the witty put-down quite like Wafi and Safi boys (and girls). You know it by many names: “the dozens,” “snaps,” “cracks,” “yo mama jokes,” and such. The tradition of non-violent contests of wits through rapid-fire mutual insults is well know anywhere Black culture has left a mark. But in my travels I don’t think I’ve met any group that dishes it out quite as expertly as folks from the Niger delta towns of Warri and Sapele (AKA Wafi and Safi), rendered in the particularly extravagant brand of Pidgin English for which that region is famous. I myself still bear the scars from some such encounters. And if you are trying to get cozy with a girl from that region, you had better come correct, or you might not survive the resulting put-down.

I think marijuana should be legalized.It is not a gateway drug and it offers a variety of important medicinal benefits. It’s a total no-brainer as far as I’m concerned.People should have the right to choose. But there is another very important reason that pot should be legal, one that I’ve not seen addressed much in the media.

“… some green movement momentum has been lost, Earth Day supporters agree. But they welcome the debates the day brings… Critics long have accused its organizers of being anti-business or anti-growth. The Washington Post last year characterized the day a ‘global guilt-fest.’”
– MATT CAMPBELL, The Kansas City Star, Wed, Apr. 21, 2010 10:36 PM

“Oil fell toward $83 after soaring U.S. inventories signaled demand in the world’s top energy user is lagging the recovery in the global economy.”
– Alejandro Barbajosa, Reuters, Thu Apr 22, 2010 12:00am EDT

I’ll pump ’til my ecstasy ruptures your mantle
And bathes me in puddles of fossilized corpses.
I’ll sway in the lamplight as evening approaches
Observing the towers—all empty, yet shining.
I’ll dance between raindrops and autos that pass me
And tingle when neon advises a stripper.

My ecstasy poisons the lightbulbs and hookers.
I stumble—a jackass—beneath a coal shadow.
The alley absorbs the low echo of motors.
The moonlight’s too distant to rescue this drowner
Awash in an ocean of fossilized corpses—
I’ll pump ’till my ecstasy ruptures our mantle.


No one likes alligators, really. Most people appreciate them fried or turned into boots, but when they are real, alive, and sidling up to your fishing boat, they are less enjoyable. When you see an alligator in the water, you keep your distance. You don’t entice or antagonize it. You sure as hell don’t cast your fishing line thatway. In Louisiana, you grow up with a healthy respect for your toothy reptilian cousins. I fear no human being, but an alligator is one force I will not test.


This is where I grew up. I know it doesn’t mean anything to you. It matters to me, though, and all the reasons I can think of for you to care are insufficient. There’s seafood, alligators, oil, and the economy. But then there’s my home.  That blue-brown swirl spilling out of a little wet crack in the earth? Yes, that. That’s where I’m from.

It’s not really a spill. It’s more like a gusher. A deep wound. It’s like being stabbed in the belly while wearing your Sunday best, something your grandmother made for you, something irreplaceable.

It’s like hearing your first love got hit by a train and seeing photos of his mangled body on the news while the broadcasters banter about how this is going to be some awful PR for the railroad business, and there you are at home, sitting in the glow of your TV, screaming inside and unable to act. There you are – watching part of your life die on the evening news while everyone feels sorry for the killer. The murderer. Sick.

Sulphur is the dot where I lived for my first 18 years. From where I grew up, the gulf is about an hour’s drive. You put your boat in the water at Cameron, the grey stone jetties guide you out, until the floor of the Gulf drops off and finally it’s just you and that fine line of a horizon, bobbing along together. Only you don’t really get that kind of intimacy with the sky because it’s interrupted by oil rigs unless you go out pretty far.


When fishing, you may find the rigs useful, as you can tie your boat up to one — they keep you from drifting off aimlessly. And at the end of the day, a pod of porpoises may join you on your way back to shore. They’d swim right at the bow of your boat, just riding along, jumping, escorting you. They’re in the dolphin family, but they’re not the same as the widely loved bottlenose dolphin. Maybe they’re not as cute or as open to being domesticated. Maybe they’re too damn Cajun for that showbiz nonsense. But they, like everything else that makes its home in the Gulf, are threatened by this oil spill.

Every dark dot in the water is an oil rig.  You can see how close they are to the mainland. Close enough that if any one of them sprung a leak, the nearby shoreline would be destroyed.


The rig that actually collapsed was 50 miles from shore, near
Venice, LAThe oil has been drifting away from my hometown and toward Florida instead, and for that we feel lucky. Lucky, but far from thrilled. It’s like feeling grateful when a hurricane turns the other way or when the flood waters rise in someone else’s neighborhood. We can always say that wasn’t our fault. We can call it a natural disaster and say prayers and collect canned food to donate to those whose homes were destroyed in one of nature’s mood swings. This is the kind of thing you’re used to if you grew up on the Gulf Coast.

An oil rig, on the other hand? That’s our fault. That’s straight up, undeniable, human stupidity.

Even the canal in the woods, where my best friend and I used to trek on summer afternoons to feel like explorers, is connected to the oil-vulnerable Calcasieu River. There are so many waterways in Louisiana that some of them don’t even have names. They’re just “the canal” or “that little inlet,” but they are all connected. Every last one of them. Every little blue line on the map goes somewhere.

We human beings have become too sure of ourselves, and we need alligators. We need some animals left that scare the daylights out of us. Do you know what happens when an alligator gets its teeth around you? In Louisiana, we call it a death roll. When an alligator has you in a death roll, there is no escape unless something juicier strolls by. But I’m afraid an alligator has no defense against oil spills.

*Please note: I had help editing this essay from my amazing editor friend Ellie Di. She can be found on Twitter @Ellie_Di. She’s also the founder of The Wholestyle Network.


WASHINGTON – Toyota to recall 270,000 Priuses after reports of malfunctioning brakes. Spokesman for the company cites green initiative.

“It is our belief at Toyota that brake dust and brake fluid are harmful to the environment. As 21st century innovators and leaders in green vehicular technology, we took the initiative and eradicated these two harmful agents from spoiling our beloved Mother Earth and killing innocent dolphins.”

Pressured with questions regarding Toyota’s other recall, the company spokesman offered his take on the matter saying, “You say tomato. I say tomahto. My friends, the press–these accelerators are not jammed. They are simply locked. Jammed and locked are two wholly different issues. By coupling locked accelerators with malfunctioning brakes, we, at Toyota, are preserving our planet. When an accelerator locks and you have no brakes and you’re going down a mountainside at 80 MPH, everyone, and I mean everyone, knows that you put the gear shift in Neutral. And what does Neutral do? It saves gasoline. Saved gasoline saves planets. Toyota’s Green Initiative. Any more questions?”

Click to watch video of Crash Test Dummies performing Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm.

They tell me you should write about what you know. I’ve always had a problem with that. I may know some things other people don’t, but in writing that down, what good does that do me? Not much. I already know it. I want to write about things I don’t know about. I want to learn things about what I don’t think, how people I don’t know don’t act and why. Perhaps I say this because I don’t know much. I know a lot of facts about arcane things, but I already know them and I already know that nobody, unless they are short of Trivial Pursuit cards, wants to hear that kind of bilge. However, I don’t know one thing that I think will serve me well in my writing career: I don’t know how to write.

So, I reckon I’m sitting at my computer in good stead now, not knowing how to write. When I learn how to do that, I can stop writing and go on to a more noble pursuit like filming my relatives in Bakersfield, California doing their best interpretations of pro wrestling, then selling the tapes on what they like to call, the inter-tubes. If the nobility of this is called into question, I defy you to tell me that my cousin Bert leaping off the roof of his house and slamming a metal chair on the top of my younger cousin Stanley’s head is not tantamount in artistry to a Nureyev –Fonteyn showcase ofProkofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

I haven’t been able to write for as long as I can remember. Alas, I’ve always wanted too, but it never comes out quite right. It seems like everybody writes better than I do. I’ve always wanted to write a book that I’d like to read, but I’m always reading books I’d like to read, so what’s the point? You toil for years over this book, like your child. You like it when you first start raising it, feel you’ve done a bang-up job. Then, the book hits adolescence, its voice starts to crack, it wants its independence, then a car, then none of your time even though you want to give it all of your time. And finally, it flings itself into its own world and blows all your time and patience by spending its time (and still your money) on the hustling whores of the Mexican border and Quaaludes. To this, I have only one response:

It is to enact a sort of vengeful Golden Rule and to take up the qualities of your prodigal, ingrate book. Besides, all the books I would have liked to have written were written by full-blown, abject lunatics. There’s Salinger, speaking in tongues and drinking his own urine, Hemingway and Toole, blowing their minds out, Plath and her oven. Did she pre-heat that? Then Ambrose Bierce, gone without a trace. Que te vayas bien!, old boy. Where is Pynchon? And Mailer, always retching at parties and occasionally stabbing his wife. What a ship of old fools! It’s a good thing I can’t write. I see myself flinging my own feces over the rooftops of Paris, confused over the relationship between vector calculus and intransitive verbs. I swear, once I learn how to write, I never will. And who has the time to learn? There are too many distractions. This is one thing I know: How not to write.

Well, I see your point. You think I’m going to start talking about how not to write.

“But, hey,” you’ll say. “He said he didn’t want to write about things he knew about.” Then you will fold your arms contentedly and relish in my howling error. Aha! I also wrote that I didn’t know how to write, so it was okay to do so. In essence, I have canceled out both of these grandiose proclamations, and at the end of this, it will be like nothing ever happened. Nature frowns at my vacuum and smokes her first cigarette of the day, like Bette Davis…like she couldn’t give one damn. And although I’ve missed an episode of The Real World: Alpha Centauri, its like I haven’t.

One way not to write is to get an STD test. I have spent hours, days not writing because of these. If you think of all the melancholic things that could occur to your genitalia during the three or four agonizing days of waiting for the results, you really can’t be expected to do anything. However, while your wondering if your dick will drop off like an unwieldy stalactite when you’re in line for the movies, or if your partner’s vagina will gradually creep up and eat her belly button, you can think ofall the wonderful places you’d travel if faced with some harrowing disease. I decided that I would go to the south of Spain and just write. I mean, really write this time.

Now, here’s a really sly trick. Do you know that apocryphal probability of a bunch of baboons at a bunch of typewriters, who, if given long enough would eventually type out the entire works ofShakespeare? It’s something that gives writers hope.


http://www.writers-free-reference.com/baboon-at-computer.jpg

It also hints at immortality, as all faulty logic, and writing, must. Here is what you must do. If you can type, you must unlearn how to do that. Maybe turn your keyboard upside down. Then using sequences of one, two, three, four and up to, say, nine letters, type randomly, not looking at the keyboard. Then, when you have finished a few hundred pages, spell check or put the Thesaurus to your piece. Often, you will find there is no suggestion for your word. Sometimes, you will find you have actually typed a word in the lexicon, and sometimes you will find that the spell check divined the subconscious word you hammered out on the keyboard. (Note: If you try this with common penmanship, you will find yourself either cheating or your neurons will become so confused at your attempts to confuse them that your head will turn into eggs Benedict.) “kdfyfrt,” I write. I then use my computer’s thesaurus and find that “juvenile behavior” is an equivalent to “kdfyfrt.” (Seriously, try it.)

And there, I have the beginnings of Catcher in the Rye, or Lord of the Flies. I am that baboon that will succeed. Eventually. And on a side note, if you are interested in poetry, I suggest you type out a few turgid lines in your native tongue, then find a translation website and in translation, you may very well be the next Goethe, Neruda, Rimbaud, or Horace, depending on the language you select. Perhaps you translate better than you are, like Garcia-Lorca.

I want to make clear that, although I don’t know of any other treatise on how not to write, I assume that there must be a few out there. Fine. We all know that everything has already been written before and that the crucial thing is to say it better, or at least, differently. It’s like the idea of Genghis Cohen, the noted Jewish barbarian who went marauding through China slapping everybody with gefilte fish. It turns out, there is a Genghis Cohen’s restaurant at Fairfax and Melrose in LA and is also a character in a Thomas Pynchon novel, The Crying of Lot 49. But I thought of this name, independently, as I thought of the subject of writing on not writing, so be it. I wonder if anybody has done anything with The Origin of Feces, though. I must fact check. Why am I so defensive about this? Because I realize that many people must have sundry techniques for not writing, but I have found the following quite adept at keeping me away from the keyboard. That said, these are only some micro-suggestions.

The easiest way to not write is to start drinking. You may have a splash of inspiration after a few cocktails and look to put this, the framework of your magnum opus on paper. This feeling will pass. I will occasionally belly up to the keyboard after doing the same at the bar and find that while I think I can write, I still can’t (Thankfully. I would hate to learn I did something better drunk than sober, aside from falling down.). Just don’t drink whiskey. The only two things whiskey makes you want to do is fight or write. Both of these will get you into trouble. In defense of writing, though, the simian ogre at the bar ready to knock your block off doesn’t have a “delete” key. Stick with red wine and read a good book until you fall asleep. Or call up some friends and tell them how much you love and miss them. If you have no friends, watch a city council meeting on the public access channel and ask yourself why you are such a drip. Drinking is an easy out, and one determined to really not write should have salted away a number of other options. I’ll make this hasty, as writing about not writing is proving to be almost as exhausting as just writing. There’s something I didn’t know.

There is one particular flood of menstruum that dissolves the spirit and when instituted will assuage all pains related to not writing. This is called internet gambling. This is the knockout drop in the drink that keeps me alive, as Endymion. Rolled up jacks over trips, down and up, down and up. It is that kind of blessed monotony that I think keeps most people alive. And for the antsy creative type, you can really make an art out of losing money, which, I should add, has been my summer job. Losing money at the online casino. This is not as lucrative as a typical summer job, but the hours are flexible and I don’t have to talk to anybody, save my own ravaged conscious. When does anybody make or lose money on writing? Never. Writing just is as I am. Nobody can prove either postulate and only the fool might try. I have just lost $200. Really, I just did that. I sell bonds like cracker jacks and switch them like shell games. I am such a disappointment. I feel that way. Thinking, I am Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all of them. Pick my story, I’ll try not to write it. Matt, the realist. Too much on about His wisdom, Son of Sirach and all that drivel. Boring. Then Mark, snot-slinging drunk and bitch of Luke, holds forth on the Sabbath and then hits the middle-of-the-road. Why not Luke, the pretty-boy, the best writer of the bunch who learned how to write and kept it short, ofsorts. And finally, John, who gives the words appeal. Writes the bestseller. The clincher. No, I am none of them. I have created no universe, I have moved no man, no woman. Damnit, I tried, though. That is all I have ever wanted to do. Like McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “I tried.” There is nothing more stifling than knowing what to write and not writing it. I suppose that’s the point, though, not writing.

Maybe I’ll can it. I’m getting awfully invested about thinking about not writing. Change the ring on your phone to Dance of the Valkyries, think of titles for new books, old books. If you have that liberal guilt, see how far you can jam your thumb up your ass, while convincing yourself you’re really not that gay. Ok, then how interesting can you be? If you can see 3-D, try a hand at vector calculus. Make a sloppy Spanish tortilla. Put your brother to bed, again. And again. He’s getting old now. Memorize something. Like ketchup: Tomato concentrate, distilled vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, salt, onion powder, natural flavoring. I think I finally got it.

Enough. Writing, and not writing, is a brilliant ponzi scheme. You manufacture one word and the rest fall into rank. Any word engenders another, no matter how puerile, no matter how vacant. They will all, eventually, spill out in a brilliant splash of your own gore. But it is your gore. And you must believe it will withdraw from you some semblance of value. This is, of course, if you are able to write. I , of course, have a problem writing. I will sweat until my death in attempts to finish this odious trade. Until then, I can tell you only that one should never write about what one knows, one should never know what one truly feels, one should keep one’s thumb up one’s ass, constantly, in the hopes that one’s head will peer out from that unholy aperture long enough to realize that we must always try and hold our entrails, our souls out to ourselves long enough to realize that we can never, ever, learn to write. Jesus wept. I’m talking about me. But Godamnit, I try. I will try and take my TKO against the demiurge of words with grace, with nonchalance. With everything I have. I shall never write. I know that. That’s one thing I know. The thing I’ll never write about. Or not.

Last week, several newspapers picked up the report from the U.N. announcing that the world’s urban population is about to surpass the rural total for the first time in history.

They say, on August 16, 2008, the shift will happen.

It’s not accurate.