Hijra: Odu Ode’s Poetic Voyage Through Grief and Migration | Ibraheem Uthman

The renowned Nigerian poet Su’eddie Vershima Agema remarked, “Poetry, like art in all its glory, is big enough to hold life’s constant and transcend it,” in an interview with Carl Terver for OLONGO Africa. He further remarked, “When we set out to create, we have these ideas which many times come flooding and if we do not find a way to direct them, they might drown us or come out jumbled.” This idea perfectly captures the spirit of Odu Ode’s poetry collection Hijra, which probes into philosophical questions, emotions, and the human condition. Ode explores the intricacies of memory, loss, migration, and identity in Hijra, guiding readers through a metamorphosis of his poetry.

Examining the historical and cultural background of Hijra is crucial to comprehending its literary significance and contribution. The title itself, Hijra, alludes to the Arabic term for migration, which carries deep significance in Islamic tradition as the journey of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina. This theme of migration permeates the collection, serving as a metaphor for personal and collective transformation, displacement, and resilience in the face of adversity. Against the mise-en-scène of economic hardships, political upheaval, and social unrest, Ode’s poems resound with the struggles and aspirations of ordinary people striving for dignity, freedom, and belonging.

Calligraphy of Demons” and “Back Home, There’s a Box of Chocolate,” two of the poet’s earlier poetry collections, are crucial reference points for comprehending the subject and stylistic components of  Hijra. Ode explores Nigeria’s socio-political problems in “Calligraphy of Demons,” hitting on social inequality, violence, and corruption. In a similar vein, “Back Home, There’s a Box of Chocolate” reviews the human experience by examining the personal and emotional aspects of grief and loss. Ode expands on these themes in Hijra, exploring the nuances of migration, dislocation, and the quest for identity. The collection is broken up into multiple sections, each of which presents these subjects from a different angle. Ode takes readers on a voyage of self-discovery and development from the first poem, “Dear Benue Pyrite,” to the last, “To Swim,” judiciously and sensitively examining the complexities of human existence.

The poet’s employment of analogous language and musical effects to arouse emotion and conjure vivid images makes Hijra one of its most captivating features. Ode uses dramatic metaphors and sensory descriptions to give life to his poems by using poetic tropes like alliteration and repetition. It is clear from dissecting certain poems in Hijra that Ode is indeed a master of language and poetic form. Take, for instance, the poem “Dear Benue Pyrite,” where Ode addresses the pyrite as a symbol of resilience and transformation:

Dear pyrite,
Make a room by the fire to refine yourself before
Inhaling the collective soul of a river...

Here, Ode uses strong imagery to illustrate a process of purification and refinement, with fire as a metaphor for the transition. The poem emphasizes development and rebirth as a theme, and this is furthered by the contrast between the pyrite’s inert nature and the dynamic imagery of fire.

Similarly, in “Brother,” Ode explores themes of grief and remembrance, drawing on personal experiences to imbue the poem with emotional depth:

Brother, it’s
A decade & I’ve
Starved my ears
Of the onion in your voice.

Ode compares the lack of the brother’s voice to starving oneself in these lines, using metaphor to express the speaker’s feelings of loss and longing. The poem gains poignancy via sensory imagery, such as the reference to the “onion in your voice,” which evokes the visceral recollection.

Ode explores issues of identity and belonging in “Mushroom / Intifada / Lokoja,” using rich symbolism and allegory to dive into the intricacies of the human condition:

the river needs you
make your soul hers; you and the river
a confluence awaiting rain
caress your lapis lazuli
feed pigeons with your remaining grains

Here, Ode portrays the connection between nature and humanity by using the images of the river and the mushroom. The river is metaphorically represented as the soul, which emphasizes the poem’s thematic focus on the pursuit of meaning and purpose in life.

The last poem in Odu Ode’s Hijra, “To Swim,” offers a moving meditation on the voyage of migration, dislocation, and the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. It also captures the overall theme of the collection:

I seek refuge against the illusion of this voyage – from
When we were eluding days our songs mouthed clay
Eluding cascading fingers
Trance & the death of trembling arms

The imagery of avoiding many facets of life’s complexity, which is a symbol of the poet’s struggle against the disillusionment of the migrant journey, is well-represented in this piece. The poem goes further into desiring an expanded and genuine relationship to spirituality and rejecting religious hypocrisy. Through poetic prose and striking imagery, Ode asks readers to consider the existential struggles that migrants experience as well as the universal search for transcendence and meaning.

Hijra is unquestionably an excellent and stirring collection, although it is not without flaws. One obvious flaw is the sporadic lack of coherence and thematic consistency between poems. Even if each poem in the assortment excels on its own, there are times when the transitions between them seem contrived or erratic, which detracts from the collection’s overall coherence. Additionally, some readers might find some of the poetry in Hijra to be unduly esoteric or abstract, which would make it impossible to understand or completely appreciate them. Ode’s use of symbolism and figurative language gives his poetry depth and complexity. Still, it can also turn off readers who are not as familiar with the literary and cultural allusions woven throughout.

When one contrasts Hijra with other of Ode’s earlier compositions, like “Calligraphy of Demons” and “Back Home, There’s a Box of Chocolate,” one can see how his lyrical style has developed over time. Hijra shows more complexity and finesse, demonstrating Ode’s development as a poet, although his early works are characterized by raw intensity and urgency. There are also unavoidable connections between Hijra and the contemporary African poetry of Warsan Shire and Safia Elhillo compared to other poems by comparable writers in the same lineage. Much like Ode, these poets capture readers with their lyrical intensity and imaginative language as they explore themes of migration, displacement, and identity. But although Elhillo’s and Shire’s poetry frequently veers towards the lyrical and introspective and the visceral and raw, respectively, Ode’s voice fills a special niche that combines aspects of both, providing a complex and comprehensive examination of the human experience.

In Hijra, Odu Ode masterfully navigates the tumultuous waters of migration, grief, and existential questioning, crafting a poetic odyssey with profound insight and emotional depth. Ode reveals the age-old human yearning for spiritual fulfillment and belonging by inviting readers to go on a journey of self-discovery and transformation through his masterful use of words and compelling depictions.

Ibraheem Uthman is the author of Mind Of a Bard, a poet, essayist, and thinker.

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