Picking the Grievous Bones of Disaffection
Every poet is in search of something. This “thing” – sometimes called a poetics – describes the philosophical criteria and aesthetic codes that connect a poet’s discourse to meaning and life. Yeats, in his later years, pursued to track reality and its imperfections; Heaney sought a “clarification of life….a stay against confusion”; and Jay Wright, that impossibly brilliant “black African-American” poet, incessantly distills mythologies of being from metaphysics of identity. For Dami Ajayi, a poet who has invested as much passion and consistency on emotional experiences as on somatic exposures, “affection” – in its vari-bodied manifestation – forms the nucleus of his poetic quest. Whether he is writing about intrigues of love or the entanglements of the sublimely erotic, Ajayi’ style and sensibility reflect in active response to all sorts of romantic stimulus, making his contemplations, in many ways, a quest after what may be called an affective ideal.
In a recent conversation Ajayi describes his motivation as “a re-imagination of affection as a living thing, a moving thing, a verb”. The reader of his two previous collections of poems, Clinical Blues and A Woman’s Body is a Country, will no doubt be well familiar with this thematic position. She may also be aware that the poet’s preoccupation with, and persistent articulation of, the shifting terrains of human sensual connections is governed by a certain sense of involvement; that an implacable will to self-disclosure forms the con-text upon which the text of his experiences is exhibited. Ajayi’s style and sensibility provoke rehearsal and performance of self as an article of truth.
One may recall that he once wrote that “my Id is playwright”. For a poet, who is also a practicing psychiatrist, invoking an artistic profile both Freudian and Shakespearean, cannot be considered out of context by any means. And for a poet who stages affective interplays of human (dis)connections around dramatic emotions like desire, affection, love, loss and grief, associating his “Id” – the unconscious part of the psyche, the source of primitive and instinctive impulses and drives– to performance in a book of poems, may be considered a most self-referential act. Thus Ajayi further confesses to practicing his “…male vulnerability on the page as a prelude to living it in person” because, as he sees it, there is a fallacious belief in the society which encourages a dissociation of maleness and romance:
As you know, our ideal of masculinity is that brash macho thing that is as rigid as the muscle in front of your nightclub or worse, an unyielding wall without history or feeling. But I assure you men cry.
The sense of “prelude” to experience that Ajayi mentions appears to be, but cannot be taken, as a priori; for even before the dramatic, confessional strains of Affection and Other Accidents, the poet has been known through previous collections to have consistently centralized himself as the doppelganger in the multilateral spectacles of human emotional and physical entanglements that he presents before us.
Despite all of this, the raw, visceral rendering of his latest collection, Affection and Other Accidents, even to his most perceptive readers, may appear as an audacious testing of the very limits of self-revelation. If the tenacious propensity for immersive self-reflection that seems to form some kind of thematic umbilical cord in Clinical Blues and A Woman’s Body is a Country may be considered some sort of “prelude” to the actual experience for the poet, the unfiltered cogitation in Affection and Other Accidents reads very much like a reel of realism, a posteriori. In Affection and Other Accidents, it seems things have been taken beyond the poet’s familiar acts of self-insertion to the certitude of the confessional, where disclosure and catharsis seem to equate, even if what is brought to light are dark matters of trauma scoured from the rigor mortis of a love effectively immolated.
Affection and Other Accidents is where the poet’s act of “practicing vulnerability” finds a most heightened articulation of love’s complexities and contradictions. We see this in the intensity and intimacy of emotions inclemently laid down on the pages.
The “Introit” sees the poet-persona swearing in a most Nigerian of ways, to bare it all:
to the variations of diarrhoea
to which I now say amen
The prose sequence, “Affection and Other Accidents”, whose title names the whole collection is alternatively a stark portrayal, a questioning critique and a mordant post-mortem, of a failed love affair. These passages throb with an autobiographical explosion, oozy with pungent episodes and emotional inquests. They are a woven mesh of anger, loss, sadness and disappointment, moving in episodes, taking the reader through five cities in which the gradual, but foretold, collapse of the love affair between the poet and his lover is enacted. The sense of “complainant” reminds us a little about the figure of what is known in Latin poetry as exclusus amator, the “excluded lover”, bemoaning the fate of devotion gone awry, of affection out of kilter.
The story begins in Lagos, as the soon-to-be estranged lover, on the eve of a departure for a journey, affirms her affection for the complainant:
Then you delivered an intimate speech about us, about getting engaged, about your missing engagement ring, about your unfaltering devotion to me & our aisle-bound affection & somehow, somehow, I found myself again kinking one knee, asking for your hand in marriage again.
But this is neither the first proposal nor the first ring. There had been an unexplained loss of engagement ring which had necessitated the repetitive events and locations of the anxious marriage proposal. The unusual occurrence of multiple proposals, it will turn out, presages an inauspicious love journey whose significance will become legible when the affectionate moments and momentum quickly turn foul and hostile on a train journey in Berlin:
But in that train car, your voice was rising & rising. The other passengers were becoming uncomfortable… One hour into that conversation, sleep-deprived & anxiety-stricken, I began to have a panic attack. My heart pounding against my chest, I wanted to do two things. One was to get off & never see you again. Two was to call my mother & apologise for being rude to her when she began to ask questions about Denmark.
Things hardly fall apart in a sudden heap. In the story, things did not fall apart in a single moment in Berlin or Cologne; the seeds of discord arrive through doubt and suspicion and, tellingly, on the bank of contemporary technology:
You read my private messages to friends & acquaintances, quizzed me about other people’s life choices, sometimes punished me for those choices. There were exes that lingered & loitered, this confirmed your brazing suspicions, even when I said to you that I have shut those doors, you continued to probe & poke old wounds, willing them to bleed.
A mollifying visit to India by the poet, where the lover now resides, proves inadequate band-aid to the already festering gash:
That was why I came to India, to see if there was any love left, anything we could work with to bring our affection back to speed. But it took only days for your hospitality to sour ….On the night before I left, we sat on opposite sides of the soft mattress thrown on the floor & argued about marital roles. We argued bitterly about marital roles. Yet my questions lingered, unanswered.
The resultant emotional unhinging and self-flagellation that follow unanswered questions seem to have been aggravated by the anxieties and discomfort of living in a new country:
I was coming apart. I couldn’t seem to do anything right. I couldn’t find my way around the tubes. I couldn’t understand what this new job entails. At night, I lay in an uncomfortable couch in southeast London, willing sleep to come, watching the ticking clock till dawn.
Passage IV is the most acutely emotional part of the narration. Laden with pathos, the passage describes a moment of personal humiliation arising from the poet’s encounter with the terror of urban living, leading to a dysphoric moment. That moment of vulnerability is further aggravated by the feeling of betrayal and disappointment in a lover whose disturbing distance makes it all lonelier:
I slid & fell on Sunderland Avenue. On the third day of work, I tripped on the underground station & fell. I sat on the floor with my overtly yellow luggage & wept. A grown man shedding tears in the Elephant & Castle underground station. I think you could have done better. Put your five-hour head start in New Delhi to good use. Ask how my day went like lovers do in those songs. I believe these things are real, that people check on their lovers even in long distance relationships.
Well, the lover will come checking on the forlorn poet spelunking in London. But this gesture, as it turns out, embeds autodestructing consideration:
You came to London to apologise without begging—& yet, I chose to accept your apology. I remember that evening in Motel One Berlin, sharing Prosecco & being merry, I knew that our affection sank that night. I remember the afternoon in the train to Cologne, I knew that our affection sank that afternoon.
In some respect, the (dis)entanglement of the lovers demonstrates the embedded contradictions and contingencies of love relation in a globalizing age. The privileges of mobility and technological connectedness proves poor buffer against love’s inherent and active maps of misdirection.
Pride and possibility cohabit uneasily, egos and memories collide in bad cheers; and at the end of the day, things remain firmly unsalvageable, as the “Interlogue 1” attests:
Three years &/four proposals later
we stand annulled/ a premarital divorce.
Passages like this, with their humorous sarcasm, demonstrate the therapeutic function of “Affection and Other Accidents”; wherein the poem is an act of grief-making as much as a cathartic moment. The reader, by the virtue of being within the earshot of the poet’s ruminations, becomes an unwitting therapy groupie.
The poems in the second segment are a familiar Ajayiesque feast, each with its own carnal distinction. There are poems concerning sensual and corporal entanglements of the sexes and there poems detailing the poet’s existential takes on urban living and contemporary human relations, and there are poems that expand on the experience of “Affection and Other Accidents”. Poems like “Queens”, “Sleeping Beauty” and “Unreliable Narrator” describe in alluring details the many amorous encounters and trysts doting the experience of the poet’s bachelorhood across world capital cities. “Crucible”, “The Body Knows”, “A Poem for Raliat” and “Cancelling R Kelly” inspect affection in different trajectories. “Cancelling R Kelly”, for instance, uses an erotic setting to discourse the topical but delicate issues of consent, gender activism, justice, ideology and the impact of global movements like “Me Too” and “cancel culture” in interpersonal relations.
You disrupt pleasure to shut off the music. /You will not fuck me to a R. Kelly tune/ I slouch in awe, perplexed & wooden / with desire. I imagine politically correct /ways to put you back into my bed, in zone / to resume our Bump & Grind shenanigans.
Other poems provide more context and commentary on the turbulence of “Affection and other accidents”. “Aubade to my Greying” describes the desperate social circumstance of the bachelor-poet advancing in age: “My mother & her friends haven’t lost hope/prayers & match-making/ winks and wishing but my dreams rest on different pastures”. “Mary’s in India” is a poem contextually resonant but maliciously repurposed. Set after Dido’s song of the same title about a lonely lover, Danny, whose love interest, Mary having gone to live in India, feels abandoned. The song is from the perspective of a new lover who is nursing Danny back to love. Whereas Ajayi’s poem is from the perspective of the poet-complainant, promising the lover that she will get her comeuppance, in so many words, that losing his devotion will always be a permanent error for her, for “the sorrow /of Cupid’s broken arrow” will be eternal reminder that “love also leave scar tissues”.
`“Naked I am before you River Dun” is an interesting poem lifting linguistics and ideas from three poetic sources. There is a blending of the first line of Okigbo’s “Mother Idoto” and Gabriel Okara’s poem “The Call of River Nun” in the title. But the poem also appears to refer to the little “love accident” between the English poet, John Donne and his wife Anne Donne, in its punning game. In the poem he mocks himself as a failed lover: “Naked I am before you River Dun/ A dunce, damned, done”. Then in “A Poem for the Condemned Poet”, the poet-lover is imagined on trial, in the dock where the manacles are “adornments for affection”. But he, again, is scorned and betrayed by the lover:
Do you know this man? /I do not know this poet.
Have you ever seen him? /No, not in this lifetime.
Does he mean anything to you? /Does he mean anything at all?
That last answer may indicate how the poet perceives the lover’s attitude to him.
“Denouement”, modelled after Walcott’s “Love after Love” and dedicated to him, speaks of hope and promise: “A time will come/ when, with a sigh,/ you will exhale”. This dream of respite is anchored on recognition of little pleasures of life, wine, music and food. It is a little surprise, that for once, and for a long distance-running lover, the warmth of a lover’s body, even if for rebound, is expunged from the inventory of convalescence. Because Dami Ajayi is also a music aficionado – who has amassed as much fame in music criticism as he has in poetry – music, in differing instantiations, makes active presence in this book. Some poems like “Youth (after Sunny Ade)”, “Mary’s in India (after Dido)”, “Life Goes down Low (after Lijadu Sisters)”, “Say It(after John Coltrane)” and “In Praise of God’s Stalker (after Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey)” are either set to music of those musicians or presented as homage to ideas from them.
To this writer however, the most successful of Ajayi’s poems are often those that meditate on ordinary things and abstract ideas, those that grapple with existential questions, amplifying the significances of voice-less things. “Covid-19” and “An Ode to a Face Mask” exemplify this tendency. The latter considers the nature and politics of the pandemic, mapping the essential ironies in the geography of rampage:
To think that Rome would be crippled again /with viral load /
& an African sun will scorch viral particles/even in churches.
The tall world order of irony /is in the black body count.
“An Ode to a Face Mask” is especially a more lyrically accomplished poem. The poem meditates on the after-life of a face mask, once crucial to human survival, but now discarded. The dark colour of the mask brings to the mind of the poet, the trampled-upon image of George Floyd, the African-American victim of white police brutality. The poet contemplates the long and painstaking process that brings the mask through usefulness to this sorry state:
How lonely it must be/ velvet-brown,
to journey from a cotton farm/ spin through textile machines,
be woven into fabric/ manhandled by a tailor
for this fate of abandonment.
But life is not fairer to a mask than to a man, the fate of both is similarly uncertain.
In “Acne Vulgaris”, another poem on the life of things, the poet, ever resourceful, manages to find artistic grandeur in blemishes: “Time has made an Enwonwu / of your post-pubertal face”. “Fall” is a really beautiful poem, containing a multitude of influences. The poem uses Yoruba conventional wisdoms to ruminate on the nature of misfortune: “A child falls prone & looks forward, / an adult falls prone & looks backward”. This is a literal translation of the Yoruba axiom, b’omode subu, a wo waju; b’agba subu a weyin wo. But there is also a popular cultural intone in the opening stanza of the poem reminiscent of both Orlando Owoh and Yinka Ayefele, two Yoruba musicians, who have enlarged the Yoruba idea of misfortune-as-falling: “The other day, / a mishap felled me”. Yet you can almost hear a faint influence of Kofi Awoonor’s “For Sika”. Of course, the idea that a fallen man is a friendless man, prone to betrayal and abandonment of kith and kin, is also axiomatic to African imaginary. Thus the poet-victim sings: “I looked at the ones I have loved / & they looked away from me”. The strength of this poem is in the way it conveys cultural atmosphere of elegy, using attributes of oral poetics like repetition and anthropomorphism:
Tell the ground where I fell / that I don’t know why I fell tell the ground that fell me /
that the lesson still eludes me./ This earth, a parch of life form, /has an even temper;/
why has it chosen to mete out anger to me? /This earth is a patch of life form /
with an even temper/ why has it chosen me for an example?
While it can be reasonably argued that the amorous poems (or “Ashawo poetry” as the poet himself refers to them) have formed some kind of psycho-sensual unconscious in Ajayi’s poetry, remarking him as a poet of epicurean recognitions – a Neruda without the revolutionary stance, so to speak– the poems about existential concerns and urban living show a poet well attuned to the changing dimensions of contemporary life.
An early review of Affection and Other Accidents has duly taken note of Ajayi’s radical experiment with form in the first segment of the text in ways that subvert both the lyrical form and the structural conventions of prose-poem. Indeed, without the qualification of his stylistic choice, the poet seems to leave us with a text that seems nebulously formed– being neither a poem nor a prose-poem. But in fairness to the poet, one can see how technically difficult it would have been to freight such a boundless weight of emotions, as portrayed “Affection and Other Accidents” , through conventional verse structure or the lapidary exigencies of the prose poem. The consolation is that what the piece lacks in lyrical constitution it makes up in arresting dramatic and rhetorical performances. “Affection and Other Accidents” explores the possibility of subversion inherent in all genres, and by so doing stands a genre of, and in, itself. Interestingly also, as a discourse of a lover’s grievance, it inter-textually recalls the affect of Okot P’Bitek’s Song of Ocol, albeit without Lawino’s first salvo.
Peter Akinlabi, a poet, lives in Abuja, Nigeria.