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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry


Christopher Okigbo

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To purchase Labyrinths

Title: Labyrinths
Author: Christopher Okigbo
Genre: Poems
Written: (1971)
Length: 72 pages
Availability: Labyrinths - US
Labyrinths - UK
Labyrinths - Canada
  • Includes the individually published poems and the collections:
    • Heavensgate (1962)
    • Limits (1964)
    • Silences (1963/65)
    • Distances (1964)
    • Path of Thunder (1968)
  • With an Introduction by the author
  • Okigbo notes that these poems have been previously published, but: "The versions here preserved are, however, somewhat different and are final."

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Our Assessment:

B+ : strong, promising verse

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
New Statesman . 28/4/1972 Angus Calder

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The complete review's Review:

       Christopher Okigbo is still considered among the foremost African poets, of his or any generation. It is a reputation built on a surprisingly small output. He died (in the Nigerian civil war, in 1967) when he was only 35, and Labyrinths essentially is his "collected works". But it is quality that counts, not quantity, and Labyrinths is sufficient proof of Okigbo's talent.
       The poet provides a brief introduction, explaining that all the poems collected here "are, in fact, organically related". (He does not mean Path of Thunder, which is included as a postscript (and was first published posthumously), but it too is an extension of the previous collections.) He acknowledges that his influences are not limited to Africa, explaining much of what was behind the creation of the various poems. Gerard Manley Hopkins is mentioned, as are a mix of European, Asian, and African influences.
       Much of the poetry is also a poetry of sound, meant to be read aloud (or even sung) -- culminating in the Lament of the Drums, and then the Path of Thunder (which begins: "Fanfare of drums, wooden bells"). Again, the mix is both of African and outside influences. Okigbo told Lewis Nkosi in an interview:

... when I was working on Heavensgate, I was working under the spell of the impressionist composers Debussy, Caesar Franck, Ravel ...
       The sound and beat always convince; the meaning can sometimes be obscure. Okigbo's poetry is full of ellipses, with barely a poem not marked by sentences left to drop off in the three dots:
And there are here
the errors of the rendering ...
       The pieces of the poems are striking, often jarring. "Gods grow out / Abandoned" in Fragments out of the Deluge, a sequence that ends: "& the cancelling out is complete."
       The poems -- cut up, divided, brief in their sections -- impress from line to line. But they are also larger conceptions. Okigbo suggests some of this in his introduction, and some of the poems reveal at least a bit more in their structure. Lines are repeated and varied throughout several of the poem-sequences. In Lament of the Silent Sisters, for example, the question of: "How does one say NO in thunder" is central -- and the thunder reappears elsewhere too. (The "NO in thunder" is a "dominant motif" in Lament of the Silent Sisters -- so Okigbo -- taken, of all places, "from one of Melville's letters to Hawthorne"). It is in this poem that Okigbo also suggests:
Silences are melodies
Heard in retrospect
       The final sequence, Paths of Thunder, is a series of Poems prophesying War. It is here that the conflict between art and life, and the charged political climate of the day, bubble over. Okigbo famously abandoned art to serve the Biafran cause, dying in battle. It wasn't his words that got him into trouble, but even in Paths of Thunder he makes a rare personal appearance, warning himself:
If I don't learn to shut my mouth I'll soon go to hell,
I, Okigbo, town-crier, together with my iron bell.
       There is no stasis in these poems. Even on the page they seem to leap out. Okigbo also did not merely stick to one successful form and style: there is a clear progression in the poetry. Occasionally Okigbo overreaches in his ambitions (or simply misses the mark), but even his failures (and those poems whose meaning escapes the reader) are of interest.
       With deceptively few words Okigbo offers sometimes daunting complexity, but his poetry is certainly worth the effort.

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Labyrinths: Christopher Okigbo: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo was born in 1932. He studied Classics at the University of Ibadan and was the West African representative for Cambridge University Press. He volunteered during the Biafran crisis and was killed in battle in 1967.

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