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Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Agbor Dancer by John Pepper Clark

See her caught in the throb of a drum
Tippling from hide-brimmed stem
Down lineal veins to ancestral core
Opening out in her supple tan
Limbs like fresh foliage in the sun

See how entangled in the magic
Maze of music
In trance she trads the intricate
Pattern rippling crest after crest
To meet the green clouds of the forest

Tremulous beats wake trenchant
In her heart a descant
Tingling quick to her finger tips
And toes virginal habits long
Too atrophied for pen or tongue

Could I, early sequester'd from my tribe
free a lead-tether'd scribe
I should answer her communual call
Lose myself in her warm caress
Intervolving eart, sky and flesh.

                                                 Literary Analysis (Summary)

Agbor Dancer by J.P. Clark is a four stanza poem which tells the tale of a dancer who hails from the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria. She is distinctively called an Agbor dancer and she reminds the poet of his cultural heritage and pride. 

With the coming of the Europeans, many Africans were either forced to give up their culture-especially in francophone speaking countries where the policy of assimilation thrived- or deceived into doing so. Some, however, for the love of the flimsy glory which they beheld, willingly gave up the ways of their fathers to be europeanized. Along with the piled-up neglect of Africanism came unending regrets which has prompted many African writers to push for a revival of the African culture.

Just as the foremost Ghanaian writer, Koffi Awoonor, projects in his poem The Anvil and the Hammer, it is an undeniable truth that the western culture has come to stay. But it is also a feeble lie to say that we can't relieve the days of our fathers. It is needful to sew the old garment under the new. Ever wondered how beautiful it would be to dance around the fire, under starry nights; colourfully dressed and fragranced with the aroma of the African skies? John Pepper Clark brings that beauty to life in his poem Agbor Dancer.

J.P. Clark, well known for his plays Wives' Revolt and Song of a Goat, has a common factor which plays in all his works including poetry. His works share the theme of cultural reflection. He is one of the many Africans who believe that to return back to the days of our fathers is to behold true beauty. Agbor Dancer is therefore a poem which not only appreciates the beauty of the Niger Delta culture in Nigeria (Africa symbolically at large) but calls our feet to the roots of the drums.
The poem opens with the poet persona describing a lady caught in the throb of a drum. She is a dancer from Agbor in present day Delta State, Nigeria who is unable to escape the rhythmic beats of the drummers drum. The beats which escape the skin of the drum entraps her. She is somewhat bewitched by the beats and cannot escape. Instead, she trails deeper and deeper into the story of the drummer.  She is therefore seen Tippling from hide brimmed stem. The idea of the word tipple is to create in our minds a scenario where she is drunk from ogogoro (African brewed alcohol with soaked medicinal tree bark) laced with hide brimmed stem. This in itself could mean a lot. It conveys varieties of messages to the mind of the readers. 

For some who are conversant with the Niger Delta States in Nigeria, hide-brimmed stem speaks of the obvious yet concealed status of the Niger Delta people. They are well known for being the inhabitants of the country's major oil resource base, but they in their entirety have become so obsolete in the minds of the rulers and other regions. Their pains are concealed only to be seen by themselves. This could be a wake up call to the concealed truth of immeasurable suffering and pain which they go through. Just as Ahmed Yerima sights in his book Hard Ground, the land of the Niger Delta is the most futile place to plant a seed because of the long term havoc caused by the non-stop oil drill. But then again, the line could mean in its simplicity, that she drinks from the rhythmic beats which escape the completely animal hide (skin).  The word Tippling also conveys a message about the Agbor dancer. Perhaps she is not a newbie in the charm business of drums. She constantly gives herself to the habitual practice of dancing. Thus, when the drum throbs, she is caught up in the ways of her ancestors. 
The rhythm of the the drum which flows down opens out in her "supple tan" and her limbs are compared to "fresh foliage in the sun". The word "supple" communicates to the readers the image of flexibility and compliance, while "tan" refers to her brown colour. Once again,  we can interpret this line as the poets description of the Agbor dancer, a  woman with soft brown skin. We can also interprete it to be the compliant nature of the Agbor dancer. The specific reference to the colour brown is significant as it stands for the black race. Perhaps, just as the Agbor dancer, Africa has become somewhat submissive, compliant and yielding. The question which now comes to play is "To who or to what?" Considering the fact that the poets message is centered on the beauty of culture - the need to retrace our steps to the ways of our father's - it could be said that Africa has become somewhat submissive, compliant,and yielding to the European way of life. Thus, even though her brown limbs are like "fresh foliage", they end up getting scorched or dried up by the "sun".
As the music flows, she gets entangled in its magic. It becomes complicated for her to understand. The music is compared to a maze; a labyrinth in which she can't find her way out.  Initially, one would get the impression that she knows her way around the beats of the drum because she is an Agbor dancer. She's been "tippling" from hide-brimmed stem so one would expect her to be able to navigate her way out of the labyrinth but she can't.  The music holds a magic which is mystical and confusing. She can't comprehend it. After walking around the maze - a confused Agbor dancer, her head probably spins a bit and she falls in a trance. Will she find the answers to the puzzle of the beating drum?
In this unconscious state, she "treads the intricate pattern.." She walks and runs over the ancestral pattern. She begins to understand the pattern of the maze - how the music flows but how does she tread? We know quite well she's treading, but how? Is it in fear or in serenity?

"Rippling crest after crest.." answers the question of how.  She treads in a chaotic manner, peak over peak. The image of a lady- running with her feet hardly touching the ground, her face distressed and her hands swinging in the air like she's being chased by something is created in the mind of the readers.  She runs "crest after crest" to "meet the green clouds of the forest". The poet gives us a definite imagery of her surrounding. The "green clouds of the forest" simply tells us that the trees in the forest are so tall and have become as clouds over the forest because they converge at the top.  This means the dancer can't see the sun anymore. The green clouds make it impossible for her to see. All these occur while she's in a musically induced trance.
Suddenly, " tremulous beats wake trenchant in her heart a descant".  The beats which earlier got her caught up in its rhythmic flows has now become a trembling beat which awakes her from the trance in a sharp and unexpected manner. Why do the beats of the drum become tremulous? In African history, a quaking beat usually meant a sound for war or an emergency (but most usually a war). The soft throbbing beats have now become quaking and tremulous beats which awaken the dancer suddenly.  The trembling beats awaken in her heart a "descant" which is a lengthy discourse. What could have been so important as to warrant a sudden intrusion into her trance and now a lengthy discourse? 

The next three lines summarize the focus of her discourse. As her heart begins this lengthy discourse, she speaks of the "virginal habits long too atrophied for pen or tongue". The discourse of her heart tingle quickly to her finger tips and toes. She feels a pricking sensation for a while because the subject of her hearts discourse is one which is highly crucial. She feels a slight discomfort because of this discourse. As she hosts a conversation between herself,  she speaks of the habits which haven't been exploited or tampered with by the Europeanized Africa. The only problem though is the fact that these virginal habits have withered away. The use of pen represents the absence of a written documentation of the these virginal habits while "tongue" represents the absence of these virginal habits in our oral tradition.
The dance of the Agbor dancer comes to an end in the third stanza leaving the poet persona- who is a spectator at the dance- with questions on his mind as he reflects on her dance. He has been "early sequester'd  from his tribe", separated from his culture and knows not the ways of his fathers.  He sounds unsure as to whether he should free a "lead-tether'd scribe". The significance of the word scribe could lead us into many directions and meanings. It could stand for the notion of Christianity which came hand in hand with the Europeans. Niger Delta was one of the first places in Nigeria to receive the Gospel of Christ and in so doing, the worship of traditional idols and gods came to an end. This could be the poets way of referring to the aspect of religion. He moves ahead to his resolution which is to " answer communal call". He resolves to lose himself in "her warm caress". The use of her brings us back to the presence of the Agbor dancer. She represents culture at the end of the poem. Loosing himself in her caress will mean "intervolving earth, sky and flesh". 

Poetic Devices

1)Imagery: J. P. Clark makes use of words which are direct and create a strong mental picture in the mind of the readers.  "As a reader, I found it easy to use my imaginations coupled with his words. I could see the Agbor dancer dance with every line I read. It felt as though I was there". That's the effect of imagery.  Words such as "throb of a drum" appeals to the ears and makes the reader feel the same beats in his or her imaginations. More descriptive words which appeal to our sight such as "Limbs like fresh foliage...." "Supple tan..."

                "Fresh Foliage. .." (Line 5, Stanza 1)
                 "Magic"/"Music of Maze" (Line 1 down to 2. Stanza 2)
                 "her heart..." (Line 2, Stanza 2)
                 "communal call" (Line 3, Stanza 4)
             "Limbs like fresh foliage in the sun"
        "Maze of Music"
   The poet compare the music being played to a maze; a labyrinth which is filled with confusion.
        "Tremulous beats wake trenchant"
          "Throb of a drum"
          "Lineal veins"
          "ancestral core"
             "green clouds...".
5)Onomatopoeia; There is the use of words that sound just like what it represents.
        "Rippling" "Tingling" "Tremulous"

6)Symbolism:The Agbor dance itself symbolizes the ways and culture of the Niger Delta. The Agbor dancer symbolizes the people of Delta State and more particularly, the Agbor's. The poet persona who is but a spectator represents all those who have no deeply rooted knowledge of their culture.  He represents Africans at large who have lost their cultural bearings.

Tone: The tone of "Agbor dancer" by John Pepper Clark is one of "amusement" but in the latter the tone changes to that of confusion and inner unrest. The tone is however resolved when the poet chooses to answer "her communal call".

Mood: the mood of the poem is one of excitement and thrill but it also brings readers to question their knowledge of their culture.


1)The beauty of culture
2)The beauty of Nature
3)Significance of nature in man's affairs
4)The need to embrace our cultural heritage
5)The effects of Colonialism on Delta State and Africa at large

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