“Life Performs Itself” – The First Valediction

Scottish artist Susan Philipz is part of Soundings: A Contemporary Score currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art. Her work in the exhibition is “Study for Strings.”

“It is a contemporary interpretation of an eponymous 1943 orchestral work by Pavel Haas (Czech, 1899–1944), who composed the score while imprisoned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. The Nazis filmed a performance of the completed work at the camp as part of the 1944 propaganda film Teresiendstadt. Almost immediately after filming was completed, Haas and many members of the prisoners’ orchestra were killed. The conductor, Karel Ančerl (Czech, 1908–1973), survived the Holocaust, and after the war he reconstructed the composition.

For her 2012 reworking, Philipsz has isolated only the viola and cello parts. Recorded onto multiple channels, the piece is a note-by-note deconstruction of the original composition, replete with fraught silence.”

When I entered the room it was being played at MoMA I remembered what Yasiin Bey had done with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. He’d performed “Coming Together,” a score composed by Frederic Rzewski.

“Rzewski’s ‘Coming Together’ is unquestionably one of the great Minimalist masterpieces….It’s really nothing more than a short text read over a repetitive, fast sequence, much of which is played in unison. But the overall effect it creates is of a very slow build up of tension to an incredible climax after 19 minutes.

The text comes from a letter written by Sam Melville, who was an inmate at Attica prison, and was one of the leaders of the 1971 Attica riots, where Melville was killed.”

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Ray Daniels Okeugo, 1980-2013 [His last Facebook profile picture]
Ray Daniels Okeugo, 1980-2013 (His last Facebook profile picture)

Today I was told a friend had died. When I went to the bathroom to take my bath, fearing my tears would be inseparable from water falling from the shower, it immediately occurred to me how I wanted to mourn him – I’ll write an essay on his life and work as a photographer and actor with the title “Life Performs Itself.”

Everything about him surged with action and performance, as though the business of living was, as one moment followed the other, being restaged as drama. Even now, his death seems to me as life performing itself. I can think of it in no other way – it’s the only form of clarity I have amidst all the questions, the contradiction, the shock.

He performed life. It’s there, right in the way he looks in his profile picture on Facebook. Now he’s performing death. Nothing seems to be missing except his body. I carry about the memories I shared with him. The rooms we slept in together. The arguments we had. How I sometimes hated his guts, his bravado, his manner of approaching (no, performing) life.

Is it wrong to have the language for mourning? How can I write when I’m fighting tears? Why is my vocabulary not grief-stricken?

If I was in Lagos I might have seen him as he lay sick, and dying. Distance did not afford me that opportunity. And perhaps this is why my vocabulary isn’t grief-stricken. I mourn him with words, trying to figure out now what his life and work means. I might write about how I shared in his life in past tense, but not the photographs of contemporary Africa that he took. They remain an eternal presence.

This is Arrival

I was determined not to write about living in New York. This was necessary, I thought, since I did not want to indulge in the negligible demand to articulate my thoughts about immigration. In formal terms, I am not an immigrant. I was granted a student visa. In conceptual terms, however, I am one. I left Lagos without knowing when I would be back. My head was unbelievably calm. I felt I needed to let time run its course.

Immigration suggests permanence. Yet, seeing how dominant culture tells us how we can be outside and yet inside, a person who leaves his country to live indefinitely elsewhere must find ways to remain committed to an exiled identity. The most important factor being that he retains that identity – whatever it is that made him feel a belonging to the place he left.

Upon arrival here, things happened in ways I had not cared to imagine. It took me three weeks to find a room that fit my budget, and the uncertainties that attempted to shake my faith in the positive eventually slapped me awake from the dreamy nonchalance that I had carried along. Which has always been one of my faults; I walk into new phases with expectations painted in broad strokes so that in the end I am blinded by too much colour.

Sometimes I feel it is my impressionability, my Christian faith, that makes me as dangerously nonchalant as this. In New York these past weeks, I have learnt to cling to specific affirmations; life is always in flight and only right aims will reward the hunter; only clarified expectations will count.

I have been dazed by the recurrent nudge that makes me interested in anonymity. Every day without fail, a mass of faces – a rush of quick glances, unintended touches – assault me. It is an assault, now that I think of it. What has always fascinated me about big cities is that the inner, private space that keeps me from others is yet presented with astonishing visibility. I realize that it is a wrong idea to think I am not alone in the subway station where everyone is. Between me and the man sitting beside me there is a declaration of privacy.

Essentially, my visibility needs some air. I need some time to walk alone, be present in an absent manner. Presence-absence, despite its cheeky paradox, is alive with promise. It promises a certain form of visibility akin to speaking with a voice I didn’t know I possessed. Leaving appealed to me when I was in Lagos. I had felt drawn to all the things that were possible, partly because I went off on a less-predictable trajectory, rejecting the convenience of a predictable career. For instance, I wanted to write while organizing conferences, publishing a magazine, and curating photographs. None of these duties were impossible – but I needed invisibility to essentialize my expectations, and measure the levels of imminence.

Now in New York I feel like every time I need to communicate with my family in Nigeria I have to clear a foggy path. That I feel this way suggests complicated emotions. It is often a mix of gratitude, frustration, nostalgia and joy. I am grateful that it is possible to exchange instant messages, but frustrated that when on Skype I see a blurry face. I feel joy when it seems my lover and I will succeed in our quest to stretch romance across bandwidths. But nostalgia when I recall there were times when our eyes met and our bodies touched. On Skype the other day, she asked me to look directly into the webcam so that when she looked at her screen it would appear that I was looking at her. When I thought about her request days later, I felt embarrassed and belittled. It occurred to me that maybe the aliens that ran the virtual universe had sent us smileys with stuck-out tongues.

I am being circled by a whirlpool with letters spelling survival as well as significance. To earn a wage has never been as needful as it now is. Sometimes the fear that I will have no money fools around in my head, poisoning the responsibility I feel towards the ongoing project of relevance. But I am consoled by another cheeky fact – now in New York the gavel of beginnings has been slammed.

Many thanks to Dami Ajayi, who requested that I write a follow-up to On Leaving

A Great Expectation

There is a poem for every feeling, like Allen Ginsberg’s “Transcription of Organ Music” for the feeling of great expectations. To expect is to imagine a future, sometimes without colour, sometimes without direction, like the wind.

In my case the colour I see is white smoke. I see myself in the middle of whiteness. And despite the noise and movement around me, is an essential quietude.

The first stanza of that Ginsberg poem reads:

The flower in the glass peanut bottle formerly in the kitchen
                crooked to take a place in the light,
the closet door opened, because I used it before, it kindly stayed
                open waiting for me, its owner.

Being young is that feeling of a great expectation. People tell me this all the time, “You are young.” Before now I took it badly. To emphasize my youth, I felt, was to shoo away the importance of my presence in today’s moment. And worse, I didn’t feel young at all. Deadlines and to-dos whirled in my head. For me youth was a relative I was growing up with, who made constant journeys to undisclosed locations, yet familiar in his absence.

But now, reading this Ginsberg poem, youth is rushing into focus. The poem’s questions are side by side with its answers –

Can I bring back the words? Will thought of transcription
haze my mental open eye?
 
                The kindly search for growth, the gracious desire to exist of
the flowers, my near ecstasy at existing among them
                The privilege to witness my existence – you too must seek
the sun…

What does expectation mean if not to witness one’s own existence as it unfolds? What else does expectation mean except to have hazy dreams of tomorrow?

Being told I am young, I realize, is the greatest compliment anyone can pay me. It means I am expected to grow, to acclimatize. It means I am not being watched – the demands are less, the promise is endless. It means I am up to something. It means my ambition is utilitarian, my life is of use. And these facts wouldn’t change until I am old.

My favourite stanza of that poem –

My books piled up before me for my use
waiting in space where I placed them, they haven’t
disappeared, time’s left its remnants and qualities for me to use –
my words piled up, my texts, my manuscripts, my loves.

This feeling of great expectations thrives on the endlessness of time. Ginsberg writes mostly backward, recollecting amongst other things his first homosexual experience. My project, in response to his, is situated at the point where I wait to ‘transcribe’ my own music, as he has done in his poem.  It is mostly an ideal, but an ideal is okay since an ideal is mostly an unclaimed utopia. The way I feel is like I have the right currency to buy time; for all I care there will be no change in time’s market value.

How has time managed to become my ally? How has it left its quality for my use?

Christopher Okigbo had written in “The Passage”:

Ray, violet, and short, piercing the gloom,
Foreshadow the fire that is dreamed of.

In all, lulled by the feeling of great expectations, I have to listen for the wind. I have to wait for the passage of time, and enjoy my place in it.

Okigbo agrees,

For we are listening in cornfields
Among the windplayers,
Listening to the wind leaning over
Its loveliest fragment…

And, with deafening clarity, Nina Simone sings,

 “…tomorrow will be the twenty-second century.”

On Leaving

In the last one week I have slept little, staying wide-awake even after I have slept barely four hours. A friend says this is anxiety.  I don’t think I am anxious; it is like waiting to enter a room whose door is open.

I am making mental calculations about leaving. Repeatedly I have revised checklists, although I hardly visit the lists when making plans for the day after the list is made. I want to slow time, capture a year-full of memories. Ultimately I want to understand how the passage of time will be my ally. I want the texture of both worlds. I want to halve existence into ‘home’ and ‘diaspora.’ I want to fight nostalgia. I want to berate absence. I want to feel nothing has changed, or will change.

Affection is falling around me, like fresh wound being poked. But, why, I keep having the feeling that I am looking at affection and calling it the wrong thing. I have been prayed for, encouraged, advised, warned, and those words have formed a cordon in my head; so that I am encircled by affectionate words, all the while thinking that they will reach out to me later.

What is it about self-deprecation that is attractive? Every time I think of the congratulatory messages I have been receiving – especially after I got my visa – I fight the tendency to think that, no, this is ordinary, I am not a special person, I don’t want to be different from the others, there are hundreds of thousands who have done this before me. And the temptation to belittle myself is even more endearing when I think of the kind of glances I get when I mention I am leaving my home country, to the ‘West.’ I get the feeling like I’m being welcomed into the afterlife, like this is where my life has led to, like irrelevance will never haunt me again.

And to remember that I have invested a substantial emotional sum into the need to remain at home: I am in love; I have collected photos of my family; I have founded a new enterprise. It is even more painful when I realize that the boundaries of involvement – what becomes immediately gratifying – will shift. I will have to reshuffle my priorities; I will have to decide which projects are urgent, important or are not.

Despite shifting boundaries, I keep thinking of what new quality I will discover about love. How can I outpace distance? How can I appear everywhere so that those that love me the most will feel I am still visible? How can I berate absence?

Then, again, the passage of time – I am drawn to think that leaving Nigeria will mark the beginning of a different phase of my life, and ultimately a new variable in understanding my place in the world.

What the Wayfarer Wished to Become

Failing to daydream a life of transcendence, a certain wayfarer found himself at the mercy of his ambitions.1

The first goal he set for himself was to find Voice, knowing as many others before him that to seek a voice was to find a calling, life’s worth, a process that suggested in other words the slippery concept of essence, the indeterminate polemic of illogic, and a measure of aimless strides, akin to taking a stroll in a village where life’s needs were bare and unwanting, akin to a morning of infinite bliss and wordless presences, akin to what’s called Borgesian logic, in sum a world only imaginable by Marquez, everything human and at once transhuman – the wayfarer knew if he’d ever attain a voice, in addition to a calling, his life would be one found in many, the memory of experiences and not places, one-off yet unwholesome, language yet inaudibility; at such time he’s reminded of Mandelstam – that feeling that the language of the time isn’t enough and wouldn’t be.

He knew that the first goal led to a second, Find Yourself, in which living was a collection of searchings, an attempt to perfect the eye, taken to agents of the supernatural, never able to hit the mark. On this quest he discovered the ambivalence of hyphens, mishmashes, middle kingdoms, the industry that negated in order to affirm, fresh nuances, many subtleties sidestepped for the sake of the general, yet in addition to these goals the wayfarer was confronted with the dilemma of leaving the world, not beguiled by the deceptiveness of fleeting pleasures, by streetcars called success, by obsolescence lurking in everyday life like ruined hopscotches

And thinking about dying, he wished to go as a cup emptied, elements of his soul dispersed in a dreamlike museum of silver lights, a bellowing voice welcoming him home.

 

 

  1. I wrote this poem while I was returning to Nigeria from Libreville. We had stopped in a Cameroonian village, and I left my companions for minutes, typing hurriedly on my phone. It has undergone several revisions – and after a few comments, I decided to make it a prose-poem, prose being the only thing that comes easily, at this point, for me. []