Since last week Saturday, Nwagwu has been mourning with the people of Nepal over the earthquake. That country’s remarkable landscape provided inspiration for his recent poetic efforts Cat Man Dew in which he eulogises the innumerable virtues of his wife, Helen. In this interview with Anote Ajeluorou, Nwagwu describes his emotions at the tragedy and what the world can do to help…
Your heart must be with the people of Nepal at this tragic moment. Could you describe how you feel?
My feelings are of devastation as though I was buried in the craters of the earthquake. The world we live in is ever a mystery to me, when such enormous pain wells up in my heart. For I ask, how could people suffer so much?
When I first learnt of the earthquake last Saturday, I was severely troubled, but then Saturday in the holy, Catholic Church, was the feast of St. Mark, my name-Saint, so I was in a celebration mood. And when we got to Mass the following day, Sunday, the choir sang an entrance hymn, praising God, telling him we have come to thank him and to receive his blessings. Whenever I hear this hymn, I can say my eyes dance. That is precisely why I go to Mass to thank my God and receive his boundless blessings which he pours down on me without my asking for them.
So, you could say the good Lord got into my soul and quickly healed the wound with his blessings. So the initial trauma was thus ameliorated.
My pain is all the more exacerbated by the news that the earthquake shook mighty Everest and it resoundingly threw up avalanches down the slopes with several mountain hikers trapped therein and killed. To hear that anything at all happens to Everest rocks my frame, leaves me subdued and defeated. My dear wife and I were in the Himalayas and we saw Mighty Everest standing there in all her singular powers surveying all of God's creation with telescopic eyes. Your whole life changes after you've seen nature's masterpiece and you get down on your knees feeling little and humble, and thanking God for his mighty works. My poem on Everest will see the pages of my next book, God willing.
Your poetry collection Cat Man Dew has Nepal's capital as title. What was in your mind at the time?
Choosing the title of my book was a work between my publisher, Book Builders Ltd, and myself. We went through a number of titles and she then threw up Cat Man Dew and I immediately fell for it and screamed in boundless delight that finally we had a title that captured my thoughts and feelings of heights unsurpassed in a number of the poems. And she did the cover of the book also which has a number of peaks rising higher and higher. But we did not want to use Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, as the readership in Nigeria might not take to the foreign caption. We spun the word, Kathmandu, on its head and came up with Cat Man Dew, which was ideally poetic. My publisher did a great job here.
How does celebrating your wife align with Nepal's capital?
Now that you ask me this question, I've gone back to the book and I find the answers all over the place. First, there is the poem ‘Everest’, where I say that I won Everest in prize but could not get there for on scoreless seas I sailed. I, therefore, buried Everest in hills of waters, then swam to buried peak,
the prize is won
On next page, you have the poem, ‘The Himalaya of my being’, where I celebrate my dear wife, Helen.
In this context, Kathmandu, The Himalaya and Everest are all one, easily transposed one to the other, and wonderfully identified with Helen, who is both a mountain Everest, and a valley, Kathmandu, from where you can sight the mountain. You see, she's both, the Himalaya of my being!
What special place does that city hold for you and your wife?
There is one and only one Everest. There is one and only one Himalayas. There is one and only one Kathmandu. There is one and only one Helen. I have Helen and I feel I have all of them living in me, as she does.
Our daughter, Ugochi, her dear husband, Onuora, and their children lived in Kathmandu at the time in a house of such historical status that it drew us into the Nepalese people. I knew a little of this history but since it was mainly of an imperial dynastic nature, I would not like to dwell on it. What was interesting was the march toward a modern state and the different intrigues of the parties to control power. My dear wife and I have great admiration for gardens and greens and the outdoor, though, I'm sorry to say the only house we have on this earth, in my hometown, Nguru, in Imo State, does not speak this language of elegance and bliss.
My dear wife went on a hike of over five hours outside Kathmandu and fell in love with the cheerful scenery. She left in the morning and came home at night in time for dinner, exhausted but exhilarated that she saw so much of the people and the mountains.
Every morning, we basked in the garden sun where I was able to write my second novel, My Eyes Dance. This joy is captured in my poems, A Kathmandu Christmas, where I sing my Christmas joy traveling all over the world to Kathmandu, and from there to Bethlehem eternal; a Christmas Kathmandu, where I wrote about our 2009 Christmas Day
‘out in the sun from twelve to two...
collapsed into eternity Christmas hearts take flight
seeking new heights wings flapping in fury
to the top of the world Everest capped in snow..
take solar heat to stable colds
keep Infant Jesus warm
in a Christmas Kathmandu’
We were able to go to Mass every morning at the home of Reverend Sisters who ran a non-fee paying school for children. My daughter and family lived mere minutes from the Sisters and the Reverend Fathers would ride their bike to the home to say Mass for the community. We made friends amongst the priests and sisters and were often invited to share breakfast with them. The day we left Kathmandu to return to Nigeria, we were treated to a special feast.
A dear friend of ours, Fr. George
Kalapurackal, who was the parish priest in a local church we attended on Sundays, responded to my Facebook inquiry that he was safe, asking that we pray for his people of Nepal. And we are praying. You can see we had a whirlwind of a time in Kathmandu, certainly one of the finest times of my life with my dear wife Helen and our children and grandchildren.
From Kathmandu, on a clear day, you would see the Himalayas. In fact, from the corridor upstairs where we lived, we could see the Himalayas. What a blessing, unsurpassed.
The poem, ‘On Desert Waves to Himalaya’ tells it all. It is a sestina, with the six words, Timbuktu, Niger, Africa, Kathmandu, Himalaya, Eyes, repeated at the end of a line, in six stanzas, in different arrangements. It is a long poem so. I bring it in here for you to capture in some form how the Himalayas and Kathmandu live, love, and dance with our Timbuktu, Niger, Africa and Eyes, represented by Helen. It is one of my dearest poems unrivaled in unity and love in the life I live!
Does the earthquake echo a line or two in that collection, positively or negatively?
You know, poetry is not just what you write down in words. There is so much that is said in those words and sometimes much more that is not said in words but sensed from the whole body of the poem. I must say, though, I pour my thoughts and mind into my poems and so the tale they tell is not difficult to make out. Still, because my poems stretch into surrealism and escape into space from the boundaries of what is seen and heard, the words stride along heedless of anything around them. I have gone through the poems in Cat Man Dew and each of them lifts me up to heights not reachable on this earth.
As I said earlier, the Himalayas, Kathmandu and Everest capture my love for my dear wife and speak all I can say about our life together for the 50 years celebrated in the poems. I have searched through the work and do not find the word earthquake, but I can tell you I often regard to meeting Helen as an earthquake that shook my footing, threw me up in the wind and I landed flat on Helen's eyes where she can see me and rescue me. There is a poem at the very end which somehow captures something both positive and negative about our tomorrows. I'm leaving it to the end.
Will you make any physical contributions to help out?
I wish I could fly to Kathmandu and there help out in any way I can. Alas! This is not possible and so my dear wife and I have asked Ugochi and Onuora to make a donation on our behalf to help the survivors. I intend to raise the consciousness among my colleagues here at Paul University, Awka, of the enormity of the catastrophe and ask for their prayers.
How best can Nigeria help?
Nigeria can send immediate relief to alleviate the catastrophic suffering in Nepal in whatever way and by whatever means they can. The government should without any delay send help and invite companies, industries, institutions, and individuals to do the same. The government should set up registers where we can all express our condolences for the dead and sympathy for the injured and make a donation which the government can send through proper channels to Nepal.
During the week I saw on TV that an actor, Joanna Lumley, a British actress, was leading the U.K. relief effort to save Nepal. Can I do the same, you might ask? And I'll quickly offer my apologies that age is not on my side and public activities of this nature these days will not find me a willing participant. Surely, someone else could step out and help.
Is poetry enough in this dire hour?
Of course, poetry is not enough; nothing can be enough! We need to withdraw into ourselves and live out the true meaning of our life, knowing that yesterday is gone and tomorrow may never come. We have only today to live our life to the fullest in true image and likeness of God. All else is dross. And so the dead by whatever may be the means of their death are before their Maker to give an account of how they have lived this life in love.
Yes, this is the moment I recall the last poem in Cat Man Dew, titled ‘Boneless Tomorrows’:
graves immortal sepulchres scriptural
paint portraits of eternity spiritual
rivers of joy from gardens in embrace
flow into depths lifting the bones
airs bear souls of my fathers
to boneless tomorrows
depths prophetic announce new moons
flesh them out in new todays
alive they arise no longer fixed in time
ascend into years long since gone
my bones in pursuit seek marrows of time
the present into yesterdays now live in me