Praxis Magazine Online is honored to present the seventh and final chapbook in our 2019/2020 Poetry Chapbook Series selected by JK Anowe: Bipolar Sunshine: (Look At Me. It’s too Unromantic To Look Up At the Moon Here) by Rotimi Robert. Read the Foreword from Kanyinsola Olorunnisola here, then download and read: Bipolar Sunshine.
The first thing that struck me when I picked up this book was its title, an experience I expect would prove universal as more readers get their hands on it. I remember saying, partly in jest, that it sounded like the moniker of a glam rock act from the seventies. A glance at the table of contents did nothing to alter this impression; with titles like Poetry for Them Boys That Line Dark Hallways with Broken Light Bulbs and Peaceful When I Sleep Yet Unaware of It [an evident allusion to English rock band, The 1975], its flirtation with elements of the music genre appeared more than accidental. Even before reading them, the poems had taken on a voice of their own. They promised to provoke, promised subversion. And this fascinated reader was ready to take them up on it.
Bipolar Sunshine is a journey into a mind ridden with terror, gloom, apathy, love, redemption and love as redemption through the vehicle of dreamlike imagery and language so experimental it threatens its own categorization as a poetic form. But even such description is thoroughly reductive. Experimental works such as this are much too often defined by their deviation from expectation, but this collection is much more than what it is not; it exceeds the sum of its subtractions.
For the most part, it is a confessional statement on steroids. The poetry is reminiscent of Kurt Cobain’s lyricism and the ethereal aesthetics of Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie’s rock alter ego. It engages in its own mythmaking by weaving the world around its persona. With the personalization of a myriad pop culture elements such as Uma Thurman, Soundcloud rap, British rock, Wakanda and meme culture, Robert situates his work in a very specific framework of expressionism, the kind Otosirieze Obi-Young calls the “decentralization of the societal”. Rather than treat his experiences as an infinitesimal part of society, he makes himself the center and forces culture to assimilate into him.
And his expression of that centered self is of an invigorating, surrealist sort. No room for censorship or respect for strictures of the genre, Robert powers through with an assured confidence that lights up his words with a jarring intensity. The latter part of one of his lengthy titles reads: My fists are out, teeth bared: I’ll fucking kill you. You say nothing, confident in your power to transpose. Off with your head and my spine with it. In Blindness, he confesses: I’m a charlatan, a trickster / god, not some average divinity ignored till something is needed. In Rapture, he writes: I’m calling in on that quid pro quo / the world’s going mad / burning red / in a blood entropy.
However, tempering all of that rambunctious energy is a more somber reality: the poet-persona is in an uncontrolled state of flux. He explores dark truths with an offhandedness that suggests a painful resignation to reality. In, Cut the Speakers, he writes: your skin requires no introduction to the game. On the television a black boy’s being shot dead in America. Again. In Peaceful When I sleep, Yet So Unaware of It, he chooses oblivion over the terror of confronting a distressing truth: You’re disintegrating and I’m sleeping / Cuz it’s the easier thing to do. In 21st Century Crucifixion, an apparent commentary on the cynicism of online outrage culture, he notes: The push and pull of a / generation; instant reactions. A new joke to mute the silence? Let the crucifixion begin. In Late Hours, he appears to surrender to the bleakness of life, alluding, once again, to a popular element of rock music: Redemption like / an obscure Indie band and its shot at commercial fame.
In being an outlier, and choosing comfort within that position, Robert finds kinship among the generation of African poets like Momtaza Mehri, Theresa Lola and JK Anowe who are abandoning the bordered structures of highbrow poetry. Robert does away with convention and embraces interiority. It appears works like this were what Leonard Cohen had in mind when he described poetry as “the constitution of the inner country”. In this collection, he creates a geography of intimate truths into which we are all, graciously, granted entry.