The pen has finally dropped from the master’s hand. What a tragedy! The mind has gone numb. Those sparkling eyes—headlamps to a brain loaded with literary ideas — are shut in death. What a loss! You left heaven 85 years ago—empty. You are returning as a wordsmith. Mission accomplished!
We grew up reading your poems. We saw ourselves in your writings. You wrote in specifics. You wrote for the masses. In my secondary school days, we tried to act your plays. I played the part of Ozidi—that mythic Ijaw hero in the epic-drama: Ozidi. The simplicity of your language thrilled us. No one needs a dictionary to understand your writings. You always have us in mind when you write. What a writer you were!
Meeting you in person several decades ago was a desire I couldn’t take for granted. You had become an institution—our bride and pride. Your simplicity remained awesome. But while we prepared to celebrate you the more, heaven beckoned; and you took a flight home.
The literary world has gone teary. Fear has gripped our hearts. But I can sense your quick response to this; as in Casualty, the poem you did on the Civil War: “Tears are founts from the heart/Tears do not water a land/Fear too is a child of the heart/Fear piles up stones, piles up bones/Fear builds a place of ruin.”
Prof, we mourn your exit. The intellectual community is in a state of shock. Why should death be so cruel! We are left without a leader of repute. One by one, the writers’ tribe is getting depleted. What shall we tell our children!
Perhaps when you wrote those 18 power-packed words, which landed like tonnes of bricks on our minds and exploded with undeniable impact, you had us in mind. As in Ibadan, your eternal exit has left us broken and scattered in thoughts: “Ibadan/running splash of rust/and gold-flung and scattered/among seven hills like broken/china in the sun.”
The news of your demise came to me on Tuesday morning in the mould of the Night Rain. It left me with no sense of time. I keep asking no one in particular: “What time of night it is/ I do not know/ Except that like some fish/ Doped out of the deep/ I have bobbed up belly wise/ From stream of sleep/ And no cock crow/ It is drumming hard here/ And I suppose everywhere.”
Prof, why the sudden exit? You were not an Abiku: You came to stay. You were not made for: “Coming and going these several seasons.”
No Prof, you were not meant to be a Casualty of any situation—not even death. Poets do not die. Writers live forever. Activists are in short supply here. Was it Chinua Achebe that pulled you home? But Wole Soyinka still needs your company here?
Your death has left us mentally bruised. You were our intellectual touch-bearer. You showed the way, and we followed. You were one of the finest—across the world. You wrote poems with the ease of a breath. We equally remember your world-class theatrical works—the Goat; the Masquerade; the Raft; Ozidi; the Boat; the Two Sisters; among many others.
Even as a student at the University of Ibadan, your star was already shining. Everyone thought you would end up in the newsroom because of your journalistic dexterity when you edited the Beacon and the Horn. Yes, you did practice journalism for a while at the Daily Express. Princeton University contributed to sharpening your mind further in the area of your calling. Your footprints in the literary world are unmistakable.
As we cry, I can hear your voice from the great beyond, asking in that professorial tone: “Show me a house where nobody has died/Death is what you cannot undo/…O let us light the funeral pile/But let us not become its faggot/O let us charcoal the mad cutters of teak/But let us not cut down the clan!”
Prof, I read these words from Nikita Gill this morning. It makes so much sense to me: “Never take a writer for granted. They are snipers armed with words. They know how to aim with sentences; how to fire with paragraphs; and how to immortalise their kills in verse.”
In your lifetime, you belonged to that exclusive club — the writers club. Therefore, you’ll never be forgotten. You live in words. You live in lines, verses and sentences. You live in paragraphs. You live in our hearts. You will live forever.
Adieu Professor John Pepper Clark.
. Alaibe was a former Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission.