Rukhaya M.K

A Literary Companion

Poetry Analysis: Christopher Okigbo’s “Heavensgate”

The title of the poem “Heavensgate” is emblematic of man’s quest for spiritual fulfillment. This is particularly significant as the poem describes the poet’s return to his native post colonization.

The phrase “the passage” also echoes the concept of quest or search for the ultimate truth. He stands before the Mother Idoto , a symbol of the oilbean, tortoise and the python; this “water-goddess “ is a recurring motif in Christopher Okigbo’s works. The oilbean is an article to worship the Mother Idoto. The “oilbean” stands as a concrete symbol for traditional roots. He tries to lean on it, but fails. He pictures himself as the prodigal son, on whose return he finds the loss of his inheritance and riches. To Okigbo his ultimate asset is his cultural heritage. He is currently lost in the legend or ‘antiquity’ of the land. The term “watery presence” may refer to its diluted existence. It may also connote the traditional land where the poet was baptized.

The poet longs to be the child in the lap of the Igbo society. The poet first asserts that he stands naked. Then he claims that he waits ‘bare-footed.’ This points to the rawness with which he is ready to give himself up, dismissing all airs of sophistication. He seeks to tread the threshold of the traditional heavensgate. He longs to take position as the person watching over its well being.

Out of the depths my cry:
Give ear and hearken.

The words echo Christ’s words “let them hear if they have ears.” The cry, nevertheless, falls on deaf ears and is lost in the “DARK WATERS .Violet rays (dusk) foreshadow the fire or new dawn that was once envisaged. His remaining in solitude is more colourful-it as colourful as orangery, as colourful as the African rites and rituals. ‘Wagging his tail’, in complete submission, he has a tale to tell, that is a “tangled-wood-tale”. The tale is a confused saga of one’s identity in its quest for the truth in a tangled maze.

As he stands in penance (one-leg standing) before the mother Idoto, he finds the most improbable occurrences-the rain and sun in a single combat: the yoking of opposite entities in a new culture. At crossroads there are just silent faces to encounter and no ‘guide’ to direct. The hitherto colorful festivity had rendered itself black. He just becomes one among the ‘long black column of ants’ devoid of any identity. Ants thrive in communities, and have no unique individual identity. The contemporary African generation apes Western culture, parade a refined air-they engage themselves frequently at formal meetings ‘behind the bell tower’ or ‘in the hot garden’. In such an existence everything leads to the same thing or “all the roads meet”, there are no different destinations.

O Anna at the knobs of the panel oblong
Hear us at crossroads at the great hinges

He implores her to recognize their reality as she did of Christ. The sounds of their now lost culture can only be heard in the creaking sound of the hinges to old doors to new avenues. They are the players of soft pipe –organs that rehearse the tunes of the old times, that too in fragments as there no longer prevails a sense of unity. They long to listen to the loveliest fragment among nature (cornfields).In their own land; they seem to be in exile for now they reside in an alien culture. His guardian angel guides him to make over so that he assumes the mask of the Roman Catholic Church. This mask is not ancestral, but a one given by the white masters.
He prays so that he is protected from the angels of this sophisticated religion and culture, from the Kingdom of Christianity. He longs to transcend into his native religion, one characterized by my “sandhouse and bones.” He wants to go back to the religion concerned with the worship of God at the time of harvesting:”IN THE CHILL breath of the days waking.”

He now transitions into this superficial sophisticated world. The draper of May has sold out fine green garments for the sake of commercialization, the hill sides are made up. The gardens parade a painted smile. The synthetic welcome at the cock’s third siren refers to Simon Peter. The phrase “behind the bulrushes” refers to the betrayal of Christ.

The speaker perceives an objective view of himself as the ‘newcomer’. As the poet ruminates on the bridge, he witnesses “the laughter of the waves”. Water has the property of dissolving, diluting or easily mingling with anything that it comes across. The poet unlike the water below cannot readily welcome this change. Water also can easily ‘weigh’ anything: It can easily displace an equal amount of burden. The poet finds himself standing above the waters where the tide flows only “under his feet”. He ardently wishes to immerse himself in its depth where all the burdens are light and one ‘floats’ in mere oblivion.

©Rukhaya MK 2010

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  1. Nwandugo Osinachi

    June 10, 2017 at 9:07 am

    This review has given me a new breath…

  2. This is the best review, and an eye opener…. Wish we can get more of these

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