African Poetry: Gbenga Adesina

Image | Jerry Riley |
Image | Jerry Riley |

Writing about Ngwatilo Mawiyoo’s poetry was easy: I’ve been reading her work for close to ten years and she’s a friend. I might not know the Kenya she writes about so expansively—I haven’t traveled as much within Kenya—but I know the vernaculars of travel and the habits of hospitality she describes. Ngwatilo and I are Nairobians with complicated relations to the geohistories we traverse, from the ruralities that ostensibly ground us to the abroadness that supposedly deracinates us.We have forged our language practices as we cross time zones and encounter borders. Such intimacies shape interpretive practices; at the very least, they provide access, if not complete understanding.

Writing about Gbenga Adesina’s poetry is less easy. I find myself wondering what kind of tools are available. As always, I ask myself, “what do I need to know to write about this work?”

Training in literary studies provides a not-unreasonable answer: formalism. An awareness of common literary strategies, an ability to see them and craft arguments about them. Formalism is a useful vernacular: a close attention to the poetry’s formal qualities, including the affect-world it creates, takes the place of a deeply contextual reading. I taught my students that formalism—as it took shape as Practical Criticism and the New Criticism—democratized interpretation by moving away from the idiosyncrasy of (class-bound) taste.

(The lyric, that vexed form troubled so beautifully by Virginia Jackson, complicates what we might want to say about context.)

When I first started teaching poetry, I used to joke that all poems were love poems. At the time, I wanted to begin with a normative idea of poetry with the aim of complicating it. But the more I taught, the more I realized how deeply I held to this belief: not that all poems are love poems, but that poetry is always in proximity to love.

As I read Gbenga Adesina’s Painter of Water, I keep encountering love. Here’s the first poem in its entirety:

How to Love
This is how you love in war:
You put a bit of yourself in salt and water and
feed it to him. You make his hands write a map
that softens the night on your cheeks and then you
open a tiny follicle in his eye and say Shabash, Shabash,
Shabash. Shabash being your name, so that
when the city slips out of your hand and becomes the fire
you and your son are running from, he to the South,
you toward the North, you will pray your last, knowing
he will live with your name singing in his eyes.

The poem is three complete sentences, heavily enjambed so that only the first line reads as complete. (All poetry teachers discuss units of meaning and, while such units vary--the word, the phrase, the image, the metaphor, the metonym--the sentence is still key.) The poem is marked by incompletion—sentences do not end on the same line—they spill over, pursuing other sentences, other proximities, other possibilities. One experiences the poem as a gushing, an extension in time that refuses to let go—form creates the sense of longing and lingering.

Love lingers in Painter of Water, appearing in various guises over multiple poems:

“I love to sit beside her” (“Ceasefire”)
“At night, my lover and I huddled by the grove” (“Three-Fifths of the World’s Songs”)
“love-sized cupboards in neat rows” (“How Memory Unmakes Us”)
Will tell Fatoumatou I love her like Lucozade today” (“How Memory Unmakes Us”)
“laughing like love” (“Christmas in Chibok”)
“Words, brittle as the intimation of rain, try to say things only silence can speak: / love, loss, this half-light I see” (“The Intimation of Rain”)
“a slave woman says to her slave lover” (“Places”)
“Highlife. High love: Fela’s colony of the mind” (“Fisher of Memories”)
“This land loops like loss, it loops like love” (“Fisher of Memories”)

By my count, the word love or some variation of it appears in at least eight of the fifteen poems in the collection.

Love also appears when not named explicitly, as in the opening lines to “Days and More”

There will always be a mile more.
I will want to go inside of me,
you will be there and I will be here,
and in that space between us and the us we could be
I will be somewhere inside, summing time up
in few sentences of a smile

Or in “Lami,” where a mother promises her newborn daughter that she will not “edit the story between her legs.”

Modern African poetry, very much like other postcolonial literary practices, is defined in relation to European literary traditions which provide the paradigms, conventions and critical principles that are either appropriated or negated in the process of defining the identity of the newer literatures. Any appraisal of the critical reception of modem African poetry should underscore this problem by revealing why certain paradigms and methods are privileged and others marginalised.
—Oyeniyi Okunoye, “The Critical Reception of Modern African Poetry,” Cahier d’Études Africaines (2004)

The striking feature of [modern literature written in European languages by indigenous Africans] Africans is a noticeable preoccupation not only with the African experience as the central subject of their works but also with the problem of a proper and adequate reflection of that experience, which involves, in formal terms, a reworking of their means of expression for that purpose. There are of course Africans writers who demonstrate no preoccupation with an indigenous mode, but the really significant writers (my emphasis) are those who have addressed the question of an African manner of expression and of the establishment of an African imaginative mode derived from the oral tradition, along with the representation of an African universe.
—Abiola Irele, The African Imagination, (article 1990, book chapter 2001)

Last week, Aaron asked what it means to “read Africanishly,” and as I’ve returned to Irele, I’ve been asking the same question.

Abiola Irele's The African Imagination is a stunning work of love and erudition. The term “African” appears as a constant modifier—African universe, African imagination, African experience, African letters, African discourse, African condition—and it gathers and accumulates objects and writers and histories. But beyond this proliferation of an adjectival African, the book does not provide a method to read Africanishly. I find Irele's turn to “oral tradition” odd, if only because the oral means such different things across Africa, even across Kenya: mouths shape sounds differently, languages dance in different ways, and to attempt to stage all such dances at once simply produces discord. As a grand theory of African literature, as a book that might instruct the novice reader how to read Africanishly, Irele’s book is not very helpful.

Part of the problem might be that there is no field known as African Poetry studies that is a subfield of either African Literary studies (which I’m not really sure exists) or, more generally, African studies. Panels on African poetry are few, even at major conferences. Poets are invited to talk and perform, but scholarly presentations on poetry are very rare, and when they happen, a limited number of foundational names circulate—Okigbo, P’Bitek, Brutus—or a series of ethno-regional designations—x in Somali poetry, y in Yoruba poetry, v in Zulu poetry. One is not quite sure how to read Africanishly, what strategies can accommodate the hyper-local and the metonymic.

Perhaps love can still live in poetry in a way it cannot in other genres. After all, the genre most associated with love, the romance novel, is devalued as unserious women’s literature. Perhaps the poem is one of the few places where men can still write about love—yes, music, but I’m focused on writing at the moment.

Speaking to my best friend, I comment that when it comes to poetry, I trained as an Americanist. I know my Shakespeare through the Romantics, as any half-decent English major should, but my interests really move from Whitman and Dickinson through Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance to the mid-century experiments of the Black Mountain school, the New York School, the San Francisco Renaissance, the women confessionals (never had much time for Lowell), through feminist and Black Arts poetry, through something I think of as the contemporary: black gay poetry (Assotto Saint, Essex Hemphill, Melvin Dixon, Marvin White, Danez Smith, Jayy Dodd), the formal experimentation associated with Susan Howe and Lyn Hejinian and Kathleen Fraser and the women who follow them, and also the experimentation of Ed Roberson, John Keene, Carl Phillips, Reginald Shepherd, and the younger poets who’ve followed them (Saeed Jones, for instance). The list is expansive, but it is also very distinctly U.S., not European, and definitely not English.

Within this tradition, the love poem, especially in the twentieth century, is playful and irreverent and political and pornographic: Claude McKay describing “America” as a “cruel mistress”; Edna St. Vincent Millay describing booty calls; Gladys Casely-Hayford celebrating the lushness of lesbian erotics; Marilyn Hacker creating a sonnet cycle based on lesbian erotics; Audre Lorde describing anti-lesbian hate in a love poem; Essex Hemphill putting a ring on a cock in “American Wedding”; Cherríe Moraga asking what it means to love in the war years.

“This is how you love in war.”

Introducing the chapbook, Ladan Osman—I’m such a #fanqueer of her poetry—writes, “Gbenga Adesina’s poems invite readers into the heat of postcolonial discord.” The book, “describes the rage that suffocates citizens, leave them beyond dystopia, in bewilderment.” I think the repetition of love—love in the war years—offers a more optimistic vision than Ladan sees.

Love does not make horror bearable—often, in this chapbook, it amplifies it. One sees a beloved child realize that the world has changed for the worse, for instance,

But she knows, she knows, for she rustles out of her chair,
running face-first into her mother’s bosom of nights,
sobbing. (“Ceasefire”)

A love ethic humanizes young soldiers, mourning for what they have lost, no matter what they have done, in “Young Soldiers”:

On sighting two kids, who darted around a half-blown house, half-clad,
jumping and laughing and chasing themselves across the road with that smile
only children are strong enough to carry—the young soldiers tremble, hold
out hands to one another like sisters and cry, wet patches
slithering round in their eyes:
tears for their hearts, their lost hearts and the things
which they had but now will have no more.

What is love in the war years? What is loving in the war years? What is love when war ends? What is loving when war ends? How does one survive the banality of horror?

The unbelievable fact of history that the sun came out later
that day. (“How Memory Unmakes Us”)

Adesina addresses form most explicitly in “Painter of Water”:

I once met a painter in Borno
who said things I couldn’t hear
because I didn’t speak the language of water,
. . .
Who said he painted his Fulani women with beaks and
wings because some languages—the Fulfulde, Kanuri, Kananci,
Gudduranci—are not
in words, they are in waters, they are in songs.

Every decent formalist knows there’s a limit to interpretation, a place where the critic yields to the poem’s vitality, to the world it generates and populates. Perhaps one might think about African poetry—that vexed category—as a space-generating genre, a world-populating genre that attracts those who want—or need—to be in proximity to it.