The Existential(ist) Turn in Charles Iornumbe’s Grim Reaper  

By James Tar Tsaaior, PhD


One distinguishing and defining character of poetry is that it is the most creatively intense and linguistically compressed or economical of all the literary generic typologies. Poetry is, therefore, an art form which most cruelly tasks the imagination and teases it to mine the aesthetic properties and possibilities which lurk in the human soul. This makes poetry the highest and most honourable form of art because of its attentiveness to the weaving of language, distillation of sound/music, threading of images and layering of meanings.

In Grim Reaper, Charles Iornumbe’s inaugural poetry offering and out-dooring, the minstrel appropriates the rites of poetic craft in the same manner the or-akombu, the master of ritual practice, does with uncommon authority and dexterity while pouring libations to purify and cleanse the land and its infected people of their pathologies. His is a substantial and powerful voice whose maturity is obvious and unmistakable very much like that of the full grown rooster at the break of dawn which announces the arrival of a new day and dispensation. Thus the poems in this free verse, free flowing volume boldly negotiate a diversity of themes. There are some themes that are intimately privatist in temperament; those that are in the public sphere or domain and so of corporate concern; and those that navigate other larger existential(ist) issues or realities. These include: anxiety, alienation, fear, fate, destiny, disaster, despair, death, etc.

Theoretical Foreground and Explication of Grim Reaper

Existentialism is a philosophical concept that is concerned with the nature of God and the existence of individual personist being. Its immanent interest is in the who and what and why of the Godhead in relation to human beings as free and responsible moral agents with independent will. Philosophers like Martin Heidegger, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzche, Jean-Paul Sartre, etc. are existentialists who have interrogated the essence and existence of God and human beings. There are two dimensions to existentialism: positive and negative existentialism. Positive existentialism affirms the belief in the existence of God who is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. He is a loving and caring being who is deeply involved in the world and human affairs and directs everything in the order of creation according to his divine purpose and pleasure. He is all good and so incapable of evil and presides over his creation with love and benevolence.

In contradistinction, negative existentialism argues that God does not exist and that even if he once existed he is either dead or too old and infirm or simply preoccupied with other things. As a result he is too distant and has abandoned humanity and the world to themselves. In other words, God has retreated from the affairs of the world. When one hears certain nihilistic pronouncements questioning the power and authority of God, one should know that the negative existentialists are in town and up in arms: where is God? Why me? Why does this happen if there is God? If God loves humanity, where is he in this situation?  Why does God allow evil to prevail if he is all good? Why is there too much suffering, poverty, disease and death in the world if God loves humanity? Then there is the crass negative existentialist pronouncement that God is dead. And buried. Long ago.

In many of the poems that inhabit the covers of this 78 page volume, some of these existentialist issues have been explored by the poet at varying grids and with varying severity and intensity. The very title of the collection, Grim Reaper is highly evocative, imagistic and symbolic in an existentialist sense. Death is quite often refracted as the grim reaper with a sometimes crude but at other times keen, sharp sickle that it routinely and whimsically wields in brazen harvest rituals. It is in the nature of Death to harvest where it does not till or sow. It does not matter if the harvest is ripe or not. Death is, therefore, a ubiquitous, authoritarian and tyrannical persona, anti-hero or villain in the pulsating, unending drama of life. Death is the unwelcome visitor. When it visits a homestead and it is told that there is no seat for it, it responds rather omnisciently that it is aware there is no seat for it but that it has brought along its own seat.

Even though Grim Reaper does not explicitly pursue the argument, positive existentialists will readily volunteer the somewhat controversial position that Death has its own redemptive value and salvific properties. Their validation is moored in sacred texts like the Christian Bible which deploys agrarian metaphors like the burying and dying of a grain of wheat in the earth before it sprouts to new life and yields a bountiful harvest and that it is in dying that life achieves abundance and fullness. Thus in the economy of human redemption, death is an indispensable ally.

This biblical theology and epistemology on the nature of Death as a grim reaper and its poetic possibility by Iornumbe is also corroborated by indigenous knowledge schemas. This is enunciated in floral metaphoric elaborations that it is when the mushroom dies that a new one grows in its place and when the okra plant reaches menopause and abandons productivity rites, it is then that its young ones succeed it by appropriating maternity duties. Thus, in life there is death; and in death, there is life.     

In Grim Reaper, the existentialist turn regarding Death is resident in poems like “Greater than Death?” (28), “Dark Day in Mbaakpur” (31-32) and “Black August Twenty-Eight (33-34). These poems are elegiac in tone and funereal in execution as the poet mournfully remembers and contemplates the atrocious campaign of the vengeful Nigerian military in a reprisal onslaught on his native home of Mbaakpur, Shangev-Tiev in Konshisha LGC during which scores were massacred in cold blood and property wantonly destroyed thereby shattering the peace and tranquility of the clan. This military expedition, the poet announces with lamentable notes like the indyer drum, has turned the Nigerian military into a punitive and occupation force that mobilizes its arsenal against hapless and innocent citizens it is meant to protect from external aggression thereby abdicating its inalienable responsibility of securing the territorial integrity of the nation. He also grieves over the death of David Ukuma whose untimely transition casts Death as a grim reaper whose restless sickle harvests crops that are unripe. The poet, like the negative existentialists, appears to question the existence of the all-loving, all-knowing and beneficent God in these horrendous events.

The existentialist turn notwithstanding, some of the poems are personal and evince an autobiographical complexion. The poet-persona identifies himself as Vuvuzela, a trope that permeates the collection and lodges in its very subsoil and becomes the poet’s very identity, mascot or talisman particularly in “Kongi in Vuvuzela’s Courtyard” (24-25). The vuvuzela is a wind piped instrument. When blown, its notes produce a harsh but melodious sound that titillates and appeals to the auditory sense. In sports, the South African national team, Bafana Bafana and its supporters popularized the vuvuzela phenomenon when that country hosted the FIFA 2010World Cup.

The vuvuzela is symbolically significant in a social and cultural sense. It summons individuals and society to service; it is as such a call to communal action on behalf of the community. The poet as vuvuzela translates to an illustrious personage with an activist, interventionist agenda who collectivizes communal consciousness and channels it towards positive action and transformation just like the vuvuzela appeals to the spirit of solidarity, communality, popular support and positive achievement. The poet is as such the conscience of society and its town-crier, a custodian of the griotic tradition and its memory archives and heritage.

The poet, in his privatist commitment, celebrates spousal love and friendship and challenges that accompany it in “Proclamation” (44-45); domesticity and its politics in “To JB and Ta’ata (77-78); fidelity in friendship fostered by the comradeship of the pen in “Orocity” (46). In a stylistic virtuosity reminiscent of the English Romantic poets, the poem lyrically serenades August his month of birth in a most personal introspection and recollection of his nativity in tropes that are concrete and nostalgic. August is a month that incarnates celebratory moments but paradoxically it also brings with it un-consolatory events such as death, lamentation, grief, anxiety, and fear of the unknown.

Some of the poems have their roots in the rich loam of past history, some are sown in the fertile humus of present history while others are buried in the clayey slipperiness that charts routes into the future which promises a corpus of vast possibilities and impossibilities. This organic temporal unicity of the poems housed in this supremely readable and compelling collection validates TS Eliot’s proclamation that time past and time present are both present in time future. For example, “There was Nigeria” (26-27) is perhaps the poem with the most unmistakable appeal to our past, present and even future public and corporate sense of national being, identity and becoming.

In a plaintive voice that borders on the despondent, the poet interrogates Nigeria’s destiny as the most populous Black nation in the world and its historic duty to lead Africa and the world but how that manifest destiny and its concomitant reassuring dream have been turned into an unending, sordid nightmare. This particular poem enters into an inter-textual conversation with Chinua Achebe’s valedictory memoir, There was a Country as it sarcastically reminds Nigeria of her corpus of contradictions as a nation-state in a perpetual state of postcolonial becoming while other nations are making appreciable and accelerated progress in the Olympian race of development and civilization.

Some of the poems in the volume have a global dimension and universal resonance. They are, therefore, of corporate concern and contemporary relevance. For instance, “The Wuhan Cough” (71-73) addresses a health challenge and conundrum otherwise called the Covid-19 pandemic which has been ravaging humanity with millions of casualties or fatalities. It is believed by many in the West and around the world that the virus which causes Covid-19 emerged from a Wuhan laboratory in China before it spread to other parts of the world. The poet is particular about the devastating toll the pandemic has registered especially in countries like Italy, Brazil, Britain, Spain, France and the United States, wrecking whole economies and dislocating social and cultural life. The poet characterizes Wuhan as “the greatest tsunami in world history” (73). With dark humour or jocularity, the poet treats a deadly health hazard which has tested human ingenuity in medical science and innovation as the world struggles to find a lasting cure and end the tyranny of the pandemic. As he puts it:

Wuhan coughed once in winter

 and the world caught cold in autumn

the sputum emitted from the cough gave birth to covid-19 –

a dreaded virus with no respect

for age, race, religion, education

or political party. (71)

“The Last Smile” in its salutary imagistic spectacularity captures the iconic smile that was etched on the face of Terwase Akwaza (Gana), the militant leader when he presented himself for amnesty in 2020 at Katsina-Ala. That luscious, compelling smile which illumined hope and radiated peace issued from the deepest recesses of Gana’s being but was soon turned into crimson blood as the staccato of gunfire turned a promised amnesty into dastard death. The poet deplores the political chicanery and duplicity that culminated in the judicial murder of Gana. In his accusatory accents, the poet pillories the political and military establishment for conspiring to destroy a repentant militant leader who surrendered and laid down his arms for peace while more egregious terror is perpetrated by groups like Boko Haram, Fulani terrorists and ISWAP who enjoy government patronage and rehabilitation. In a dirge performance, Aôndohemba Ayenge, the established Tiv folklorist, imagistically identifies Gana as the delinquent dog that feeds on the eggs of hens it is meant to secure but also functions as the dutiful hound which announces and chases away the predatory bear that terrorizes the hens. The folksinger submits, just like it is Iornumbe’s poetic verdict, that Gana deserved a better deal than the betrayal and terminal fate that was handed out to him through summary execution.

The poetic proclivity to the larger issues of public interest and national debate continue to fertilise the restless imagination of Iornumbe. In “Shadows of my Thought” (50-51) the poet unsuccessfully attempts to defamiliarise the subject of the poem whom he excoriates for the regime of predation, despondency and the behemoth of insecurity and death that slouches the landscape with impunity and reckless abandon. Interlaced with sarcastic undertones, the poem declaims  Muhammadu Buhari who inspired great optimism for national renaissance during his second coming as president but has ended up as a locomotive gone berserk conducted by gross incompetence, ethnocentrism, clannishness, bigotry and an insatiable lust for a blood. The poet submits that the deficit in public governance and the subterfuge of the inept rulers have culminated in the shattering of the dreams, hopes and aspirations of the citizenry for a more productive union and future for Nigeria.

In “Of Deprived Dignity” (74-75), the poet idealises womanhood and affirms the agency and subjectivity of matriarchal energies to transform the world even in the face of prejudices, stereotypes and other ossifying odds which socialise and condition women as marginal others who exist on the fringes of patriarchal, male-dominated society. The poet deplores phallic society for depriving “Amina’s generation” of dignity, a veiled referent to the matriarch, Queen Amina of Zazzau. In a powerful rendition of accomplished female luminaries including the “Margaret Thatchers, Angela Merkels, Dora Akunyilis, Mabel Seguns, Onyeka Owenus and a host of others”, the poet wields a consequential voice which testifies to the indispensable, complementary place women occupy in the social, political and economic engineering of society as vectors of change, locally and globally.

Poetic versification in indigenous languages has been largely ignored in our literary and cultural hemisphere. It is, therefore, supremely heartening and gratifying that Iornumbe ambidextrously experiments with poetry in his indigenous language as few of the poems such as “Gado Wase” (48-49) and “Orimar” (56), are codified in his native Tiv. The indigenous character of the poems endows them with an earthy, idyllic quality and I find them among the most exquisitely written and aesthetically satisfying in the entire volume. This novel but bold linguistic experimentation lends latitude and leverage to the imperative of rendering poetic truths and verities in local languages as indigenous languages better bear the burden of thought patterns, histories, cultures and experiences of the people and render them with authenticity, perspicacity and relevance. It also adds value to the linguistic, expressive and utilitarian qualities of indigenous languages.


As a maiden poetic effort by Charles Iornumbe, Grim Reaper represents the deche, the first line of heaps on a yam farm which adumbrates the future heritage of heaps that will follow. As a Tiv aphorism proclaims, one can divine the productivity of the yam not just from the seed but also from the tendril that bears testimony to what lies beneath the soil. Even though the poet occasionally turns away from poetic phraseology and embraces a prosaic narrative elan, his idiom nevertheless retains the potency and nuances which accompany and define great and venerable poetry, not essentially as an esoteric, cultic art form, but also as a creative essence whose sensibility requires that human beings should communicate with fellow human beings, not gods.

With this impressive poetic accomplishment, it will not be reckless or extravagant to announce that a major poetic voice has appeared on the literary landscape. As it matures and enacts its poetic soulfulness, the republic of letters and its citizens should expect more harvests of a dimpled corpus and oeuvre from Iornumbe’s poetic afflatus. I think highly of the poems that grace this volume: their metaphoricity, lyricism, picturesqueness, evocative power, linguistic virtuosity and deceptively simple idiom but nuanced, multilayered meanings. These literary qualities aggregate to make Grim Reaper a first born who promises illustrious siblings that will issue from the same womb it emerged from. This is a pulsating and richly textured volume that excites as much as it stimulates cognition. The Existential(ist) Turn in Charles Iornumbe’s Grim Reaper

Tar Tsaaior, PhD, Professor of English, Media and Cultural Studies & Alexander von Humboldt Experienced Research Fellow  Institute of Anglophone and American Studies, University of Potsdam, Germany.

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