Heart Of Arts

A Journey of Guided Discovery: A Review of James Yeku’s Where the Baedeker Leads, By Toyin Falola

Toyin Falola

 

The first time I started to read James Yeku’s poetry collection, I wondered why he chose that title for his book. First off, not many people would know what a Baedeker means. However, the earliest glimmer of revelation hit me, and some tens of pages into the collection, the revelation was fully confirmed. When one considers the author, the content of the poetry collection and the title, one would understand the aptness of the double entendre in the title, or should I call it multiple entendre? To fully understand, we must first know what a Baedeker is. A Baedeker is a guidebook that comes in handy for travelers. Karl Baedeker started the publication of these traveler’s guidebooks, and decades after his death, the Baedeker has become known as the symbol for quality guidebooks.

James Yeku is an assistant professor of African digital humanities at the University of Kansas. He was born and grew up in Nigeria. He lived the better part of his childhood, adolescence and even his young adulthood in Lagos before moving to Canada, and later Kansas, the United States. Where the Baedeker Leads is proof that the human is restless—always in transit, whether mentally, intellectually, spiritually, or physically. Amid the human’s eternal journey, the importance of a helpful guide, the Baedeker, cannot be overemphasized. Family members, friends, a university degree, an appointment—all these have the potential to serve as the Baedeker.

Where the Baedeker Leads is a chronicle of a man’s experiences in two different worlds and the noted similarities between these two worlds, despite their stark differences. It also gives a clue into how people note experiences and formulate perceptions by relating them to other things they have previously encountered. What relationship is there between Lagos and Saskatoon? For how long does a human feel alien in a new environment till they blend in and call and see the new place as home?

James Yeku’s Where the Baedeker Leads is a 95-page collection of 57 poems. I love that this poetry collection touches on every aspect of concern that a contemporary Nigerian in the diaspora could have. From Saskatoon to Móremí, Dr. Yeku speaks to us of the issues that affect a Nigerian in Kansas the most: of police brutality and the #EndSARS agitations; of the Buhari era and its adverse effects on the life, economy, and standard of living of Nigerians; of love; of settling down; of kidnappings.

The collection opens with “Saskatoon,” a poem that, through vivid imageries, aptly narrates the beauties that endear one to Saskatoon. The reader understands that Saskatoon is a good place for people who love comfort and pastoral life through the poem. Yeku acquaints us with the people of Saskatoon and the vital role they play in the bubbly and loving nature of the city. Saskatoon is its people, radiant souls tipsy with dreams. One does not need the words of a magi to know that Saskatoon is a city of welcoming and amiable people.

In “Isolation,” the poet hits us with the reality of what was left of the world at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The imageries are consistent, and they appropriately describe the state we found ourselves in during the enforced lockdowns worldwide. Yeku takes us through the experience of a man in isolation—the dread for the pandemic, the loneliness, and the longing for physical human interactions. He whets readers’ appetites with the hopes of what could yet come by asking them to imagine scenarios where they are back on the streets, in the midst of the hustle and bustle. He ends the poem with a thought-provoking line that reminds us that humans crave things they had earlier detested in moments of deprivation. Typically, people do not like the stress that often comes with hustles and bustles, but at the height of a pandemic and the enforced lockdowns, they craved even the slightest amount of activity.

James Yeku is a poet rich in language and language use. He knows how to pick his words and string them together to spark the sound effects and elicit the correct responses. “Traveler” is a short but thought-evoking and powerful poem. In this poem, Yeku relates different forms of traveling to reinforce the same phenomenon and message. From the people who travel through their thoughts and minds in the form of a daydream to the poet’s words that travel on a mission to achieve his aims, to the poet who travels as he writes to achieve his dreams, every entity travels with a destination in mind; and a journey that the Baedeker guides lead to an arcane of futures, and a world of endless possibilities.

In “Away in Lagos,” James Yeku yet proves that he is a master of alliterations and metaphors, which are two of the most robust tools of outstanding poets. Through the deft use of these tools, he creates an impressionable image of Lagos in the reader’s mind. You do not need to have visited Lagos to understand the message of the poem entirely. He not only compares Nigeria’s beautiful city to its counterparts in other parts of the world, but he also draws a not-often-talked-about issue of how Lagos residents (known as Lagosians) continually leave the city they call home in search of greener pastures; how they would rather have winter than the harmattan of Lagos; and how in many cases, their moves are often ill-advised and not well thought out. At their arrival in their city of destination, the reality of what they left behind hits them; then, they start to feel uncertain about actualizing the dreams that made them flee in the first place.

“#EndSARS” evokes memories and brings to the fore the realities of the average Nigerian. In this poem, the anger and frustration of the Nigerian are strongly brought forth through the poet’s choice of words. Like every Nigerian, the poet is angry at the country’s political leaders, law enforcement officers, police brutality, and a system that continually fails the citizens. “#EndSARS” shows hopelessness and despair and how people would revolt when they are pushed against the wall.

“Bubu” is yet another poem from the collection that laments the fate of Nigerians. For six years now, Nigerians have witnessed what can be deemed one of the country’s worst governments. The country’s state is more lamentable at the deafening silence the government gives to the people despite justifiably raised concerns and agitations. It is one thing for a government to strive and yet be unable to deliver on the job, but it is outright unacceptable and grossly wrong for a government to not deliver on the job yet see no need to be accountable to the people. And what happens when the Buhari-led government eventually decides to speak out? Citizens are fed speeches reeking of nonchalance and a stark dissonance from the experiences of the people. The government speaks without empathy and from a reality different from that of the populace. These are the issues that are rightly addressed by the poet in “Bubu.”

James Yeku has successfully woven together with words that speak volumes. Through them, he has been able to touch on diverse issues that affect the people. Where the Baedeker Leads is a book that provokes you to reason, rethink, and discover. It is a collection that everyone would find at least one poem to relate to. Though it is rare to find a book that suits everyone’s taste, I have read Where the Baedeker Leads, and I must say James Yeku has committed time and intellectual resources to put together poems that are unified in their diverse message and will always find a place to rest, as they journey from the pages of the book, through readers’ minds.

  • Where the Baedeker Leads by James Yeku is a 2021 publication by Mawenzi House, Toronto, with support from the Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, and the Canada Book Fund.

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