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Insights - January 5, 2023

African poems: ‘Abiku’ by P. J Clark



Coming and going these several seasons

Do stay out on the baobab tree

Follow where you please your kindred spirits

If indoors is not enough for you


True, it leaks through the thatch

When flood brims the banks

And the bats and the owls

Often tear in at night through the eaves

And at harmattan, the bamboo walls


Are ready to tinder for the fire

That drives the fresh fish up on the rack

Still it’s been the healthy stock

To several fingers, to many more will be

Who reach to the sun

No longer then bestride the threshold

But step in and stay

For good we know the knife sears

Serrating down your back and front

Like beak of the sword-fish

And both your ears, notched

As bondsman to this house

Are all relics of your first comings

Then step in, step in and stay

For her body is tired

Tired, her milk going sour

Where many more mouths gladden the heart



In any discussion of Modern Africa Literature, Clark’s name cannot be omitted, for he is one of the pioneers. John Pepper Clark is an Ijaw man, born in the Ijaw area of the Mid-Western, now known as Delta State in Nigeria. The Ijaws are known for deep emotionalism –they express their feelings in a very deep way that shows their commitment to whatever they believe in. Clark is highly intelligent in his mastery of poetry; such that he says so much in very few words.

Clark was educated first at the famous Government College, Ughelli and later at the University of Ibadan, Ibadan, like his contemporaries; “Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe.

His poetry is known to show deep, fine artistry, and a great power of description. Part of the people of his poetry is that the imagery , ideas and subject matter are all draw from his Ijaw cultural background , yet he succeeds in fusing these perfectly with Western tradition. Clark is still leading a very active literary life.


The frustrations and despondency, an average poverty- stricken African family faces, particularly the woman.


The word “Abiku” is a Yoruba word for an ill-fated spirit child. Such a child is born, dies suddenly and continues its life-cycle in that manner. The Igbo tribe of Nigeria calls such a child “Ogbanje”.

This poem is an appeal to the ill-fated ‘spirit child’ who, having been born dies immediately to be born at another time. The post belongs to a culture that believes in re-incarnation.

The post appeals to the child who comes and goes back ‘these several seasons’ to come in and stay permanently , otherwise , it should go back to meet others like him. The family into which the Abiku is born is poor;

True, it leaks through the thatch

When flood brims the banks

And bats and the owls

Often tear in at night through the eaves.

The wall of the house is made of bamboo sticks, which dries up during the harmattan , and it is used as fire wood, yet, this same home has raised many important personalities, ”the healthy stock…. Who reach the sun”. The spirit child should consequently come in to stay permanently.

The ‘Abiku’ is easily recognized because of the marks made on it when it died, but these marks have not stopped it from coming back.

“We know the knife scars

Serrating down your back

….And both your ears notched

Are all relics of your first coming “.

The poet appeals passionately to the Abiku to abide and stop tormenting the mother for ‘her body’ are tired.

“Tried , her milk going sour”

Other babies come to make their mothers happy so the spirit child too should

“Step in and stay”


Diction: The words used represent a typical African setting in the rural area. We have baobab tree, bats, owls, thatch, bamboo walls, notched, bondsman.



  1. “Serrating down your back and front

Like beak of the sword fish

2. “both your ears, notched

As a bondsman to this house

The comparison here is to make us see vividly the indelible marks on Abiku, just as slaves were marked in the past for easy identification.


“Step in step in and stay

“Her body is tried “

“Tried “

The repeated word shows anger, impatience and despair


“Several seasons”

“Through thatch”

“Brim banks”

“Many more “


“Baobab tree” in Africa symbolizes the meeting place for evil spirits. The “Abiku” is instructed to follow his spirit friends of he cannot sty with the family.


A part is used to represent the whole e.g.

‘Seasons’ represents years

‘Healthy stock’ represents dignitaries in that home

‘More mouths’ refers to children.

MOOD/TONE: The prevailing mood in the person shows unhappiness, disappointment, despondency, frustration. As the Abiku goes and comes back, the life of the mother has become meaningless.

The poem is a castigation of the “Abiku”, who torments the mother. It is ironical that from the same poor home where he refused to stay , eminent personalities have been born.

Culled from Selected Poems for Professional Students



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