7 min read

Sixty-two [Ìrí ìsíí n'àbụ́ọ́]

Serious thoughts on Nigerian Independence Day, what DALL-E makes of raw poetry, The Woman King & more.
Sixty-two [Ìrí ìsíí n'àbụ́ọ́]
DALL-E - A children’s drawing of "Only elephant can bloodlessly haul/ Hippopotamus from the river"
Klansmen extort Naija in the name of Christianity
I’m an Igbo boy, watch how you handle me,
It’s hella crucial in my homeland
No man should ever protest peacefully And be slaughtered on they own land
Buhari should repent for propaganda pedaling

—Tobe Nwigwe - Clearing my mind

The smell of blood already floats in the lavender-mist of the afternoon
The death sentence lies in ambush along the corridors of power;
And a great fearful thing already tugs at the cables of the open air,
A nebula immense and immeasurable, a night of deep waters -
An iron dream unnamed and unprintable, a path of stone.

—Christopher Okigbo - Path of Thunder

Saturday was Nigerian Independence Day. On October 1st, 1960 a frankenstein monster of a country was stitched together from some ill-fitting bits, and illogically sundering some other bits. Ultimately European vanity rather than African reality defined our borders and polity, and it's no wonder the result has been so fractured and unmanageable. No wonder it exploded into horrific conflict within its first decade, and was largely manipulated to remain as it was at an unimaginable price in blood, once again thanks to European (British) vanity and venality.

Umune and Ụ́mụ̀ńné serve
Where history leaves refugees
(As I met life The Queen
Had much to answer from her colonies.)

—Uche Ogbuji - from "Ọpụ̀tá na Ọ́mụ̀gwọ́" (Ńchéfù Road)

It's strange that I smoulder at the thought of a woman who has died with so many laurels covering up the buckets of blood on her hands, while also finding loyalty to the country so ill conceived from the ashen ink of her family's royal seal.

Nigeria is what it is within the modern roster of nations, and if we're not able to figure out how to bring it to its immense potential in its current form, I don't believe we'll have any better success with its fragments. It's quarrels all the way down. North versus south for sure, but then southeast versus southwest, then north of southeast versus south of southeast, and so on. And north has its own many fault lines, as does southwest, and so forth.

We shall have to draw afresh from our potentially deep well of human grace, concentrating our energies on expansiveness rather than reduction. I don't mean to be glib about this—Nigeria is steeped in problems ranging from petty incompatibilities to unforgivable treacheries, but this scale of problems is all the more a test of us all.

I speak quite aware that I'm one who has been indoctrinated in the One-Nigeria ethos, raised in what we variously call a Federal Government College or a Unity School. I've spent a lot of time interrogating this indoctrination, including in the process of writing the poems in Ńchéfù Road. Despite the sort of Stockholm Syndrome I admit to with regard to the idea of Nigeria, I believe it's the right idea in the long run. I care most that the people I hold dear manage to thrive in our current era of global community, which, as I believe, must somehow expand even beyond the confines of our globe.

Ooh! OK that was rather heavyweight ore for a Loomiverse newsletter, but I needed to do that bit of digging in my gut barrel, especially with recent events and commemorations—today's 55th anniversary of the Asaba Massacre, the British monarchical transition, the unlikely rise of Peter Obi's candidacy, and more. I'll close this section with a lighter touch, though, in the form of "50 Observations on 50 years of Nigeria", a wry bread series I wrote back in 2010 on The Nervous Breakdown. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3.

Dá àlụ́, DALL-E

I mentioned DALL-E in passing in an earlier post. You might be familiar with this amazing service, which has become widely popular, applying AI to generate images from text prompts. You're meant to describe what you want the image to be, so people use it to create imaginative "art" for all sorts of amusements and practical use. I scare-quoted "art" because, it further loads the tortured question "is it, really?" Ah never mind—it probably is.

I said in mentioning DALL-E: "but as usual, everything AI touches tends to start looking a little as if it has a design eye for The Terminator guy…" and I confess now that I made that statement not based on having used it myself, but rather seeing what other folks had done with it. I think this statements holds true, but not necessarily exactly in the way I originally meant it. I've recently had a bit of time to give DALL-E a try, and I've learned that you have to get extremely particular with your descriptions in order to get good results without breaking the bank.

But what does it have for random surprise, and perhaps inspirational prompt-making? I thought of a simple experiment: feed DALL-E lines from Ńchéfù Road, exactly as they are, and see what it comes up with? I cherry picked lines which in isolation might suggest some dramatic visual images.

The goons split us out from the room, Benin and Cameroon
Colonial ghouls with their pantaloons and barracoons.

—from "A Sixteen for Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe"

The results turned out to be far more prosaic than I'd have guessed. This is probably the best of the lot:

Sample from feeding DALL-E text from Ńchéfù Road, try #1

I'd also forgotten—what crackling recall!—
The many shades of mango flesh,
The many shapings of mango flesh,
The many flavors of mango flesh,
The many textures of mango flesh

—from "Mango Flesh"

O what sort of synaesthetic delights might this prompt from the robot?—Robot swings in response the straightest of straight bats.

Sample from feeding DALL-E text from Ńchéfù Road, try #2

Only elephant can bloodlessly haul
Hippopotamus from the river

—from "Ńchéfù Road"

Flipped to near the end of the book, and tried one, which resulting interesting mutations and giblets of elephants and hippos in faux-photorealistic  river scenes (so much for "bloodlessly"), but I decided to try a variant by adding the prefix: "A child's drawing of". The results were suddenly far more interesting (and more worth sharing).

Sample from feeding DALL-E text from Ńchéfù Road, try #3

I like that in this case DALL-E decided it was not just to be a child's drawing, but more a page, complete with text, from a children's book, and apparently it's an imaginative elaboration from Sugar Hill Gang lyrics. This does feel right.

Truly, the technical achievement of DALL-E is staggering, as is the scale of resources it is using to achieve its results. I've read some of the available details on how it works, and I that's helped me understand its behavior better, including why this specific tool isn't entirely suited to feeding in general creative text. It reinforces for me how AI often ends up being specialized in ways that can be difficult to predict, or even explain. At the same time I admit to marveling at the extremely idiosyncratic sorts of magic that can emerge for users given the enormous computing resources increasingly available to us. We'll barely have time to wonder at the power of text-to-image before text-to-video comes along upping the ante.

Recommendation station

I have an appearance coming up soon in Boulder, alongside Claudia Putnam.

Claudia's latest book of poetry, The Land of Stone and River, won the Moon City Poetry Award.

It is so easy to please
a mother. Just to think of her
for a moment, from a high place,
and to carry that thought to her
in the form of a stone.

—Claudia Putnam - from "Cairn Stone", (The Land of Stone and River)

Claudia Putnam - The Land of Stone and River (2022)

A quick word for the film Woman King. I watched it and thought it magnificent, and then was surprised to read complaints about its supposed denial that the Dahomey Empire had any complicity in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Not only is that a nonsense claim easily debunked by watching the film, but it's also founded on a dangerous premise, that African film-makers have some extraordinary obligation in such explicit disclaimers. This would render any African story-telling into an unintelligible morass of complicated moralisms, and the sorts of people complaining certainly don't seem to hold European story-tellers to the same obligation, given how that slave trade affected everything that happened on that continent after the late 16th century. Just watch the film. It's not eidetic history. It's a good story.

From the opening scene of The Woman King

Sorry, no room this time for an original poem. As for songs:

❧  From The Continent I wanted to highlight Ifé, an Igbo neo-folk singer I somehow hadn't encountered before. I picked 1967 (Ife Melu), a track remembering the horrors suffered by Biafrans during the civil war, with a harrowing opening audio drama of a father urging his wife to secure their daughter as they are being bombed: "jìdé Obiageli áká"—"hold Obiageli's hand". I'll also mention  Igbo Kunie, translating loosely to "arise, Igbo".

❧  Whāia Te Māramatanga. B-Girl Ladi6 dusted off one of her old singles, translating it into te reo Māori to celebrate 50 years since the Māori Language Petition was presented to parliament in Aotearoa.

❧  For grown B-Boys & B-Girls, legendary producer (and not half bad rapper) Diamond D - Flying High, off his new project, featuring no less than De La Soul's Posdnous.

Please do consider sharing this newsletter with others, and subscribing, if you haven't (button in the lower right). Always something new to listen to, some new word play, a fresh take for tech's sake, with side sauce of odd juxtapositions. Dá àlụ́-nu!

❧ Égwú 🪘 Ókwú ✍🏿 Ígwè 📡 Ńdụ̀ ❣️