Abiku – John Pepper Clark

Posted: October 12, 2013 in NIGERIAN POETRY
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Poet’s Profile

jp clark J.P. Clark has been one of those principal Nigerian poets whose works have been studied far and worldwide. He was born in Kiagbodo to Ijaw parents in 1935. He schooled in Nigeria till his first degree in English from the University of Ibadan and then went on to work both at UI and then later at the University of Lagos. While in these two places, he was actively engaged in literary activity, being founder of the student poetry magazine The Horn at University of Ibadan, and also coeditor of the literary journal Black Orpheus when he was lecturer at the University of Lagos.

Clark studied a year at Princeton, after which he published America, Their America (1964), which was a criticism of middle-class American values and black-American lifestyles. His works also included Poems (1962) and A Reed in the Tide (1965), His Casualties: Poems 1966–68 (1970) which talks about the Nigerian civil war, Decade of Tongues (1981), State of the Union (1985, as J.P. Clark Bekederemo), and Mandela and Other Poems (1988). He wrote and published plays as well.

As one of Africa’s leading authors, he has continued to play active roles on literary affairs even after retirement, resulting in his receipt of the Nigerian National Merit Award for literary excellence in 1991. Howard University published his two definitive volumes, The Ozidi Saga and Collected Plays and Poems 1958-1988. He held visiting professorial appointments at several institutions of higher learning, including Yale and Wesleyan University in the United States. The poem reviewed here below is one of his most studied. This poem should not be confused with another of the same title by Wole Soyinka, the other Nigerian great.

Abiku

Coming and going these several seasons,
Do stay out on the baobab tree,
Follow where you please your kindred spirits
If indoors is not enough for you.
True, it leaks through the thatch
When floods brim the banks,
And the bats and the owls
Often tear in at night through the eaves,
And at harmattan, the bamboo walls
Are ready tinder for the fire
That dries the fresh fish up on the rack.
Still, it’s been the healthy stock
To several fingers, to many more will be
Who reach to the sun.
No longer then bestride the threshold
But step in and stay
For good. We know the knife scars
Serrating down your back and front
Like beak of the sword-fish,
And both your ears, notched
As a bondsman to this house,
Are all relics of your first comings.
Then step in, step in and stay
For her body is tired,
Tired, her milk going sour
Where many more mouths gladden the heart.

Review

The title of J.P. Clark’s poem is a store of meaning for the poem itself since it gives us understanding of many of the sentences we will encounter in the poem. The word Abiku is Yoruba for ‘spirit child. It refers to a child who must die and repeatedly be reborn again and again. So, Clark is talking to one of these Abiku.

The poem opens by Clark sounding a denouncement to this Abiku who probably has just been reborn, for ‘coming and going these several seasons’ (line 1) to mean that he gets born, and when the family thinks that he is here to stay, he dies. And he does it several times so that Clark seems so fed up as to tell him to ‘stay out on the baobab tree’ (line 2). In Ghanaian cultural tradition and I should suppose same for Nigerian too, the baobab tree is suspected to be the meeting place of all manner of spirits, witches and wizards who work at night. This is because the tree is usually huge, grows tall and has thick shrubbery that gives it a mystical look especially at night. By asking Abiku to stay out on the baobab tree, Clark is asking him to stay in the spirit world and not be reborn. In the third line, Clark emphasises this by asking Abiku to ‘follow’ where he pleases his ‘kindred spirits’, which gives a sense that Abiku keeps coming and going from a community of like-minded spirits. This should be so, as Clark says, if ‘indoors is not enough’ for Abiku (line 4). Indoors refers to normal life among men when Abiku brings joy at birth, only to bring sorrow at death soon after.

Clark goes on to explain the modest conditions in which they live, if perhaps that is what keeps Abiku going away. He confesses that it ‘leaks through the thatch’ (line 5), a roof of grass and straw used as matting for a poor home built usually of clay, when it rains till ‘floods brim the banks’ (line 6). At night also, bats and owls tear through the eaves (lines 7-8), making sleep difficult. Then when the dry harmattan of the West African dry season comes, the bamboo support of the house is torn down to make fires on which the poor fish caught for the household is dried up on the rack (line 9-11). Maybe Abiku keeps going because he is born into a poor home. Clark makes this excuse and still insists that Abiku should stay out nevertheless because regardless of how poor they are, the house is the ‘healthy stock’ (line 12) to many more people who are born and stay, and others more who ‘reach to the sun’ (line 13). I will translate this reaching to the sun to mean that they grow up, each growing taller bringing them vertically closer to the sun. Abiku never stays long enough to grow up.

Clark continues that Abiku should make up his mind, no longer should he ‘bestride the threshold’ (line 14), meaning he should no longer stay with one foot indoors and the other out on the baobab tree; an indecision between life and death, this world and the other, ‘but step in and stay. For good’ (line 15-16). Henceforth, Clark mentions a few things we will need to understand by understanding the culture of Yoruba.

When an Abiku comes and goes a couple of times, a frustrated family gives the Abiku scars at birth so that being now made ugly, it will displease the gods and spirits to have him return to the spirit world. This makes the child stay alive and end the sorrow of the family that is burdened to bear that child over and over. Clark says that they can see and ‘know the knife scars’ (line 16) running ‘down [his] back and front’ (line 17), ‘like beak of the sword-fish’ (line 18). They have made their mark on him so that when he has now been reincarnated with those scars, they recognize him ‘as a bondsman to [their] house’ (line 20), having also ‘both [his] ears, notched’ (line 19). In pastoral communities, cattle owners use ear brands and notches to indicate which cattle belong to them. These notches look like huge, coloured earrings on which specific alphabets or even the colour, serve to identify one man’s cattle from his neighbour’s. Clark says that these very evident marks are ‘relics of [Abiku’s] first comings’ (line 21). They are not mistaken; they know him as the one.

Finally, Clark tries to convince Abiku to ‘step in, step in and stay’ (line 22), for the woman who bears him is now ‘tired’ (line 22) of his many reincarnations and so tired that her milk now is ‘going sour’ (line 23). This souring only happens to milk that has grown old and we will assume this to mean that the woman is now growing too old to keep up with Abiku’s treachery and may no longer have a strong body to bear him. Clark tries to make it not sound so bad, by saying that it is with this same milk that ‘many more mouths’ (line 23), presumably of those other people who stay and ‘reach to the sun’, have ‘gladden[ed] the heart (line 23). Which heart? The hearts of the family which have not hurt because these other people lived on and also the hearts of these ones who lived on to gladden themselves with the milk of this woman’s breast!

This is a great poem by all standards and there is no doubt why it is one of Clark’s most studied.

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Comments
  1. Beautiful review. I studied JPC’s Abiku in secondary school way back and your review is par! Well done, Dela!

    Like

  2. Kayode Sowunmi says:

    A very nice analysis of the poem

    Like

  3. Lateefat.S says:

    its is such a good analysis but should be followed by the figure of speech and themes in the poem.

    Like

    • Dela says:

      Thanks Lateef. I have intentionally not done literary analysis of the poems I review because that will make the reviews too long, and is really just so much tedious work for each poem. I’m just doing my bit to help people come to a better understanding of the poetry they read, that’s all. Thanks for coming by.

      Like

  4. bett says:

    amazing review.one of my favorite poems in secondary school.you couldn’t have given a more beautiful insight.

    Like

  5. Adedeji hammed says:

    kudos to you! I can understand the work better.

    Like

  6. Best says:

    Someone should please help me with analysis on Soyinka’s abiku. Then the themes in Clark’s abiku

    Like

    • Dela says:

      I had plans to review Soyinka’s Abiku until I decided to review different countries every other time so Nigeria will have to wait in line a bit. The themes in this poem should be online. Please see what results Google returns to you.

      Like

  7. ogunboyowa samuel gbenga says:

    what a wonderful review, it made no sense to me initially but after going through the review, i can now say i have a very clear understanding of this great poem.

    Like

  8. Oloko Reginald says:

    ABIKU is one the poems of JP CLARK I read fervently. The diction and use of other literary devices like figurative particles is a masterstroke. And the review is a masterpiece.

    Like

  9. nwibo Rapheal says:

    pls how can I got this poem ” they too are of the earth”

    Like

    • Dela says:

      Nwibo, I am very far away from my poetry collection that contains this poem by Niyi Osundare. I will do well to post it when I can. It is one of my favourite poems by him. The correct title is ‘They Too are the Earth’

      Like

  10. jenny joe says:

    Thanks alot i now understand the poem more than ever.

    Like

  11. oyewumi michael says:

    so lovely analysed,less i forget,can you please analyse ‘Abiku’ wole soyinka for the releive of literature students

    Like

  12. Abiodun says:

    Good analysis there. Keep on the good work and never rest on ur oars in d world of literary appreciation.

    Like

  13. Vitalis Onyekwere says:

    Beautiful review. Erupts a kind of nostalgic feelings in me; and Sends my mind racing back to my secondary school days in the 80s.

    Like

  14. margaret says:

    wow…thanx…good job

    Like

  15. Famara says:

    That a poem Jp Clark this happen a lot in The Gambia

    Like

  16. emeagwai marion nwanaka says:

    What a simple and interesting analysis.The analysis was so understandable . Nice work but I need the poetic devices and the themes.

    Like

  17. Longe Damilola says:

    I studied this poem either in jss 2 or ss1 bt d lines never left my mind.I can still remember english teacher’s analysis of each of lines.never thought I’d find it on d internet…was sitting here in my office and writin sumtin on baobab trees and dat poem back flooding in…tanx 4 d review.it’s a great piece

    Like

  18. Dattee says:

    really awesome!

    Like

  19. novelafrique says:

    Reblogged this on novelafrique and commented:
    Very lucid.

    Like

  20. tina says:

    i love this poem so much,i remembered when i was in secondary school my literature teacher taught me how to read it off hand

    Like

  21. Dikis Henry Ezra says:

    Good work Dela. Am an artiste and I don’t know how to get my biography published for google search.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Abdullahi Suleiman Otiwe says:

    Please someone should help me review my own Abiku written for Muhammudu Buhari.

    …..Abiku
    Before the semen formed my yolk
    Like lubricating fluid in the eggs
    I knew that I would become
    An actor leading roles of your womb

    Like the eggs ready to be hatched
    Break me now and I will come out
    Like snail crawling on the fence

    I am Abiku who left you years back
    I have come back again; to live
    I have come now; for the last time
    I feel your joyous cold womb
    Rejoicing moaning as I arrive
    From my untimely journey

    Do I not pity for you?
    I see your roasted breasts
    Peeled like the sad oranges
    Calling me to climb your chest
    But I’m old enough to suck

    I know your fatigue womb
    Is glad for my second coming
    Like the arrival of Jesus Christ
    But I can’t miracle and wonder

    I am the Abiku born again
    With my disciples to preach
    But expect no miracle
    This house is my home
    Have you no tears to mourn me?

    Like

  23. Asokogi says:

    Please someone should help me review my own Abiku written for the Nigeria’s President.

    Abiku
    Before the semen formed my yolk
    Like lubricating fluid in the eggs
    I knew that I would become
    An actor leading roles of your womb

    Like the eggs ready to be hatched
    Break me now and I will come out
    Like snail crawling on the fence

    I am Abiku who left you years back
    I have come back again; to live
    I have come now; for the last time
    I feel your joyous cold womb
    Rejoicing moaning as I arrive
    From my untimely journey

    Do I not pity for you?
    I see your roasted breasts
    Peeled like the sad oranges
    Calling me to climb your chest
    But I’m old enough to suck

    I know your fatigue womb
    Is glad for my second coming
    Like the arrival of Jesus Christ
    But I can’t miracle and wonder

    I am the Abiku born again
    With my disciples to preach
    But expect no miracle
    This house is my home
    Have you no tears to mourn me?

    Like

  24. Asokogi says:

    Abiku
    Before the semen formed my yolk
    Like lubricating fluid in the eggs
    I knew that I would become
    An actor leading roles of your womb

    Like the eggs ready to be hatched
    Break me now and I will come out
    Like snail crawling on the fence

    I am Abiku who left you years back
    I have come back again; to live
    I have come now; for the last time
    I feel your joyous cold womb
    Rejoicing moaning as I arrive
    From my untimely journey

    Do I not pity for you?
    I see your roasted breasts
    Peeled like the sad oranges
    Calling me to climb your chest
    But I’m old enough to suck

    I know your fatigue womb
    Is glad for my second coming
    Like the arrival of Jesus Christ
    But I can’t miracle and wonder

    I am the Abiku born again
    With my disciples to preach
    But expect no miracle
    This house is my home
    Have you no tears to mourn me?

    Like

  25. christian says:

    good work dela. more power to your elbow

    Like

  26. afroheritage says:

    I STUDIED THE POEM “ABIKU ” BY JP CLARK IN HIGH SCHOOL AND I ALSO PROUDLY ACTED THE PART OF THE WISE OLD MAN ON THE PERFORMING STAGE DURING OUR INTER-HOUSE COMPETITION AT QUEENS COLLEGE LAGOS IN 1984. ANOTHER STUDENT WAS ACTING THE WOLE SOYINKA`S POEM ALSO TITLED “ABIKU” AND I WAS RESPONDING TO HER BOASTING OF HER POWER IN MY POEM. OF COURSE, OUR HOUSE, OBONG HOUSE, WON THE COMPETITION THAT YEAR. I WILL ALWAYS BE PROUD OF MY PERFORMANCE THAT NIGHT.

    Like

  27. Onny says:

    This poem might be a little bit challenging for non-Yorubas. The analysis was helpful (a student of English language and Literary Studies, Federal University wukari, Taraba State)

    Like

  28. dammyluolar says:

    What a wonderful reviews you made on this poem”Abiku by J.P.Clark”.Nice job done!

    Like

  29. Bernard says:

    Great work you have done here Dela. thank you very much

    Like

  30. Freeman says:

    Nice interpretation

    Like

  31. Isaac says:

    Awesome review
    I would like to know you better Mr Dela will it be possible?

    Like

  32. Sam Pewu says:

    I remember the Abiku Child and the legacy of JP Clark so well. It is a literary work rich in Africa’s way of life.

    Like

  33. Solomon says:

    You review is like a splash of waters washing away the webs of forgetfulness.
    Many thanks

    Like

  34. Joey says:

    Reading through, I can help but relate fully the pains of having an abiku. Nigeria seem to be besieged with Abikulike president. Our joy has once again been taking away

    Like

  35. Halima says:

    Wao this is great. Your analysis has made me to understand the poem. God bless you darling.

    Like

  36. Faith says:

    Nice one but there is one Yoruba man abiku av 4gotten d name,but if u can get it 4 me will be lovely.

    Like

  37. ORU SOLOMON ASTELL says:

    Your review of ‘Abiku’ by John P. Clark is awesome and very explicit that I now understood the poem and the pains of those families into which an abiku is born. Just like in the Igbo culture, Abikus are same as Ogbanjes. Thank you so much for your time and clear review.

    Also, I do wish if you could review my poems starting with this;

    WHY SING A LULLABY?
    By Oru Solomon Astell

    Why sing a lullaby
    when hearts are rented?
    Mothers cry to see their children
    hale and hearty yesterday, now corpses today.

    The Coal-City turned grave-yards
    brings to bear too many a death
    calling to mind Agatu massacre
    with none to help
    when anSoS becomes a love-note

    Too many a death by those alleged
    but questions would
    stare at you
    to prove beyond reasonable incontrovertible doubts
    …”Don’t put it on the herdsmen”
    Politics would retort

    From the lengths and breath
    from the south, the east to
    the middle-belt
    the stories the same

    Why sing a lullaby
    when hearts are rented
    too many a deaths
    Mothers cry to see their children’s corpse
    who should have been alive
    hale and hearty,… today.

    Like

  38. Iliya El-emunah Wushi says:

    Simple, short and precise yet powerful and straight to point. Just one reading and its all understood. Weldone Dela

    Like

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