In his debut chapbook, Heaven is a Metaphor, Samuel A. Adeyemi understands that it is not the passion for self-expression, writes Ancci, but the conscious command of language that makes poetry that is worth rereading.
Recently, I have been thinking about how poems begin. The more I look at this poetic substructure, the more convinced I become that the beginning of the poem is its most important formal aspect. Samuel A. Adeyemi agrees because many of the poems in his debut chapbook, Heaven is a Metaphor, first published by the now-defunct Praxis Magazine in 2021, begin with interpretive intent. While most contemporary poets see it as their compositional necessity to arrive at a memorable, if sometimes superficial, conclusion, Adeyemi is one of the few poets who see the beginnings of their poems as equally important for attaining memorability.
The poem that opens the chapbook, ‘Flight’, begins rather casually, although with a dark undertone: ‘I live inside a plummet’. ‘Correspondence to Self’ starts with the apostrophic commonplace of the Elizabethan tradition: ‘Oh, Love’. And ‘Babel’ commences with the supplicative proper, synchronizing prayer with command while deviating from his primary linguistic medium of expression, as though a change of language might have an influence on the prayer being answered or the command being obeyed: ‘Ọlọ́run, fún ìyá mi ní ìlera tó dára.’ God, give my mother good health. The speaker of ‘Libertine’ restored religious nonchalance from ecclesiastical decline: ‘I built apathy from a ruined church’. In ‘Against Introversion’, ‘So much of the world is violent.’
Essentially, these self-contained and semantically self-sustaining beginnings suggest the poet’s self-confidence which is further accentuated by the proliferation of present tenses, implying the poems as not merely recollective artefacts, but as a specular continuum, projecting the ever-present conditions of man back to man.
The mark of any decent poetry is its seemingly effortless accommodation of expressive strangeness, and these poems exude it with exquisite exuberance. When I read ‘Good Arsonist’, in its slick delivery of narrative sophistication through simplicity (from the mordant self-commendation that begins it and the struggle through the hopeless reality that follows), the poem, as an expressive medium, is not essentially a hiding place. Nor is it a space unwelcoming of vulnerability, or condoning pretence, the poet’s coping yet gradually destructive mechanism (read ‘Correspondence to Self’). Rather, it is the literary equivalent of ecclesiastical confession or psychotherapy as the poet’s blunt rhetoric reads as if the speaker is talking in those environments, both of which assure confidentiality. ‘Quiet reader’, the speaker of the second section of ‘Babel’ commands an imagined audience, which is the only kind of audience these poems entertain:
permit me. This is where I come
to seek catharsis. I convince myself each line
is a tourniquet, folding my beloved into the page.
These poems, exemplified by ‘Good Arsonist’ in its oxymoronic intent and ‘Rimrock’ which follows the Christian rhetoric for apostasy, are more asides than soliloquies. In the former, the poet’s fear of addressing his transforming reality heads-on is transposed to a poem of and for everyone at the margin of religious spectrum; a song, sung out of desperation as much as out of frustration.
The latter, however, is the speaker’s lamentation against the divine ostracization, or ‘deafness’ as the poet calls it in ‘Epiphany’, which brings the speaker to corresponding himself, his cosmic importance, with that of spatial entities:
I sit by
my aunt’s terrace: My eyes, fingertips
inspecting the sky—its skin, bluer than
a larkspur. I watch the choir of stars
basking in their radiant hymn.
Lord, where is my brilliance?
Questions like this proliferate the poems (there are forty-nine questions throughout the book). Most of these questions are, however, techniques for examining the poet’s empirical processes, sometimes even an exposition of his need for assurance. ‘Rimrock’ contains five such questions: one is addressed to something as incapable of communication as a ‘room’, magnifying the poet’s pitiable loneliness: ‘why don’t you stutter when I ask for air?’ The following three are as much self-interrogation as they are rhetorical ones while the last, quoted above, is addressed to the book’s foremost agonist, the ‘Lord’. In ‘Every Gen Z Poem is about the Body’, the speaker questions if you know what it is to be happy and free as the ‘wind’, delivered concretely through a sartorial trope. The question goes: ‘Do / you know what it is to wear the wind as colour?’
A TRIUMPH OF FORM
In this book, Adeyemi understands that it is not the passion for self-expression, but the conscious command of language that makes poetry that is worth rereading. The best metaphor in the book, for example, appears in ‘Evanescence’, in which the poet’s ‘mind, [is] a sieve’, selective of memory, doubtful of the prodigious, furious of the fleeting, and curious of the yet unnamed. Situated in the middle of the poem, the figuration elects the mind as the confluence between remembering and forgetting.
In a poem lamenting memory, the poet’s simplicity serves as a sort of prayer, a vessel in which linguistic accessibility paves way for memorability, which is the fundamental nobility of poetry. What the speaker of the poem fails at retaining to memory, he fabricates through and to poetry. The poem continues in its attempted realization of the memorable while its line break emphasizes the practical effect of its words:
Tell me, what are you, torturous
thing? Perhaps what can be cured must first have a name.
A kind of science I know nothing of.
In ‘Correspondence to Self’, it is assonance that emphasizes those effects:
i know you. brown boy.
perfect masquerade. draping the blades
paring away your skin.
you fleshless shadow. you
a whole forest wilting within you.
(Italics indicate the words’ technical implications)
Although, we are moved more by the onomatopoeic potency of the last line than we are by its semantic depth because it realizes Wallace Stevens’s observation on music in the fourth section of ‘It Must Change’ from ‘Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction’, where ‘Music falls on the silence like a sense, / A passion that we feel, not understand’. However, we not only feel the passion of the line but understand the poet’s internal struggle, obscured by his perfection of pretence as the main frame of his appearance. This is Adeyemi’s ‘music’, passionate and understood, transcending the Stevensian music or the logic of its initial formulation. Therefore, it is not accidental that poems that captivate both the mind with linguistic artistry and the ears with phonetic grace stand as the finest in our literary history. These sublime manifestations of formal dexterity make Heaven is a Metaphor Adeyemi’s adept review of his own literary apprenticeship.
Meanwhile, Adeyemi’s trials at communicating the poetics of religious freedom, intolerance, and distance culminate in ‘Applying Psalms 121 to a Gentile’, a poem that outs Adeyemi as a chronic self-revisionist. In ‘At the Mention of Grief’, even he calls the poems ‘siblings / holding themselves’. For example, the personal stance of ‘Applying Psalms…’ is transposed to the general in ‘Deist Hymn’ in which ‘Every heathen / I know once held chaplets dangling below their / chests’. This line sees the poet outsource his current state of belief to familiar others the way he outsources the accruing of interpretive depth to form rather than content—from rhetoricals, alliteration, linebreaks, structural transposition (as is the case in ‘Babel’ in which the supposed last section begins the poem) to spacing for caesura, employed to great effect in ‘Sacrifice’: ‘I want and want / till I am a body of dearth / sweet penury unhand me / into my grace.’ These long pauses accommodate utter communicative seriousness as they do doubt in the possibility of the prayers being answered.
In addition, ‘At the Mention of Grief’ is a defence of Adeyemi’s repetition of the rhetorics that permeate the book, yet another product of his self-revisionism, from loneliness, pain, to religious scepticism, asking if ‘is it not the misery that precedes the verse?’ However, despite the spent oomph of the poetic representation of the traumatic in Nigerian poetry through the abuse of the abstract ‘grief’, Adeyemi, not unlike his fellow Nigerian poets, contends that his employment of the word borders on the necessary: ‘I will not allow grief to scarlet a page, / if a blade never made a violin of my wrist.’ Although the mention of ‘grief’ still contributes to the aesthetic deterioration of the trope, the fact that the word appears only six times throughout the book, despite its traumatic thematic preoccupations, offers an optimistic view of the future of our national poetry.
In this figurative ‘heaven’ of subjective freedom, Adeyemi understands that the responsibility of the confessional poet is not only to express his private culture, his life. But to communicate that private life, that personal culture, in a way that aesthetic and formal integrities espouse the sentimental and the sensitive in a polygamy of effective communication. This is always hard to accomplish in the realm of the poetic and literary, but not impossible. Even the voice that speaks ‘Epiphany’ agrees that, with will and executive diligence, the poet, not unlike the speaker himself seeking total reinvention, ‘is still capable of the things I have not become’⎈
Heaven is a Metaphor
Samuel A. Adeyemi
Praxis Magazine, 2021
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