Whoever decided to put Poems on the Underground was an absolute genius – reading those in the dark recesses of London’s nether world is far more edifying, thought-provoking and satisfying than adverts for hair loss remedies, online dating sites and Bachelors’ courses in Hotel Receptionist studies at Whitechapel-Northbank Polytechnic City Academy ofthe Arts & Leisure. The latest installment has been a set of 7 African Poems and this was the one i spotted yesterday.
I’ve checked out the poet – the Nigerian scholar and writer, Niyi Osundare – not come across him before (more the result of my ignorance than his renown i suspect). But he sounds a pretty impressive bloke: outspoken and fearless, articulate and passionate.
This poem is a dream – on a par, perhaps, with Martin Luther King’s – a dream of a society at ease with itself and in harmony with its environment. Who could fail to chime with its heartfelt cry – for a world finally rid of division, conflict, hatred? I found myself swept up in its optimistic yearning as i was hurtled through the tunnels far below the city streets.
But there is a problem. Far from being a realizable dream, it is actually just a pipedream. For how can division be finally expelled without the expulsion of human selfishness? How can freedom from all authority (from ‘kings and queens’) bring anything but anarchy which itself ALWAYS curtails freedom? Sure, we need to be rid of the bad ‘kings and queens’ and Osundare did suffer intimidation and opposition from the regime of General Abacha. But is the answer for all authority to be overthrown? Sounds nice – until you find yourself in the eye of a riot with everyone free to do precisely what they want.
I confess that the last 3-line stanza had me a bit puzzled. I guess it articulates the experience of living in an apparently silent universe where mysticism is the only real pathway into truth. Except it is not – for the universe is not silent but eloquent (Psalm 19 a case in point). But the optimism and yearning of the poem is completely understandable, for i do believe it resonates with what is in all of us – the eternity that is set in our hearts forces us to look beyond the present (politically, environmentally, spiritually etc etc). And what’s more, there will be a paradise, a paradise that far outstrips the beauty of Athens with its noble democracy (despite its slaves) and is utterly devoid of division (Galatians 3:26-29). It is a paradise that is another city, resembling the old, but renewed into the vibrantly new – the heavenly Jerusalem that comes down to us (Revelation 21:1-3). The difference is that instead of Osundare’s vision of an authority-free paradise, this will have the universe’s supreme authority at its centre – God himself will be with them and will be their God. And paradoxically, it is the service of this great King of Kings that brings perfect freedom.
That truly is a song to sing – a song not just of a world reshaped, but a world recreated. (Revelation 7:13-17) In the meantime, as we sing that song of the future, it is surely right to do all we can in the present to bring the values, aspirations and (dare I say it, for in political terms it seems so pathetic) love of this paradise into the present. For that is what it means to be godly – to be like God in how he acts and speaks.