Outpourings of a Burdened Soul: A Review of Kanyinsola Olorunnisola’s In My Country, We’re All Crossdressers
By Ogochukwu Ukwueze
Reading Olorunnisola’s new collection of poems is to be infected by those words weighted with the burdens of their utterer: of the things past, of the things that are, of the things that may remain. These are things the poet-persona seems helpless in altering but resolved to utter, to call out to brothers to be wary of again. Although this is his first published collection, Olorunnisola is not new to creativity, having published poems, fiction and essays in many literary outlets. He soberly, without sacrificing artfulness, speaks about the scars left by the past of colonialism and the continuing white racism; scars scratched by Africans’ unceasing embrace of all that is foreign and shedding of heritage. This leaves us neither wholly Africans nor Europeans; hence, we are crossdressers.
The poet like a severe medic uses the seventeen short poems in the collection to make fresh and anew the old, unhealed and unhealing wounds of colonial experience, and wakes the consequent rootlessness of the post-colonial African self: today we are
children of two cities – one borrowed, one deserted,
torn away from home, yet unable to leave its shores
While personalizing the experiences (as also signaled in the predominance of first person pronouns) and appearing to have turned his back on the audience, reliving the past and declaiming against distressful experiences, thoughts and emotions, the poet shares a continental worry which the affected populace either lack the insight to grasp or are too engrossed in the western songs to respond to. The poet engraves on the page the cause of his tears:
What makes an ocean of my
eyes is the unsuspecting manner in which
we wear this monstrosity with a dangerous
swagger, how we have trained our tongues
to only sweeten at the taste of lands which
will never see us as anything more than
just another consequence of conquest.
The title, at the realization of the continental compass of the collection’s concern, may raise eyebrows; but a trained mind will in that moment justify ‘my country’ in the title on the grounds of synecdochic reduction which literariness permits.
Using a disturbingly simple language graced with allusive words like ‘Fela,’ ‘Ojo,’ ‘Lakunle Alara,’ ‘Trumped’, and local images, the poet, in the likeness of Fela, the king of Afrobeat he constantly refers to in the collection, registers his displeasure at the sour relationship of Africans with their cultural root; at the battered identity of the black man, courtesy of the White; and the continued suppression Blacks face in the hands of the self-made superior Whites. He combines this dissatisfaction with a biting opprobrium on the ignorance of the colonizers who do not know that ‘La + kun + le ≠I have too much, come take it all away/ Alara ≠ one who is ready to lose his honour;’ and the ridiculousness of the blind imitator Africans, those whose ‘hands bear the notes/ of the conqueror’s songs with unsuspecting pride,/ [and] shares nothing with the first man but lineage.’
But in simultaneity with this tone of disappointment and displeasure is a defiance that straddles the aesthetic and thematic configuration of the poems. The poet-persona defies the logic of time to slide into the past and return to now at will; insists on being unbreakable using that recurring metaphor of water which knife cannot slice and chain cannot break (also an allusion to the chain of slave trade); and experiments with styles uncommon to poetry. There is a mixture in rendering: recitative (as in most of the poems), dialogic (as in ‘Interview (Or The Choking Weight Of Simplicity)’) and narrative (as in ‘Portrait I: Disparity (Explaining My Painting To Fela),’ ‘Chicken Slaughtering As Therapy’ etc.). Such poems as ‘Hollywood Always Kills The Black Boy,’ ‘Ojo The Pan-Africanist Does Psycho Ex- Girlfriend Analysis’ and ‘Black Woman Seducing The Hangman’ are not versified as known of poems; instead, they appear as flowing discourses like in stories, with the last two having superscript numbers to indicate possible line breaks. Poems like ‘@blackboy199_tweets_about_unease’ and ‘Mathematical Equation for the Myth of Lakunle Alara’ will leave conventionalists wondering what category they belong, given their outright departure from the form of poetry. The poems, all of which are free verse, have very long titles, some have double titles. The unconventionality of some of the poems evidently gives the poet freedom to express himself, to come out raw and daring, unmediated and untrimmed by convention. The poet-persona for instance not only affirms his identity as an African; he pens down his own name as an entity in the poems and prides in this name:
Kányinsọ́lá is not the kind of music that flows
river-like with the adopted tongue forced
into my mouth by capitalist boats of conquest,
its inflections too crass and primitive
for the refined taste of Western voices
The reader is not enthralled just by what is said but how the saying arrives. Here is poetry glistering with audible images imbued by various metaphors, personifications, symbols and other markers of figurativeness. Our gaze is trailed attentively on such verbal metaphors as ‘music that flows,’ ‘memory…pours into my skull’ as if music and memory are liquid that can go with the verbs ‘flow’ and ‘pour.’ There are adjectival metaphors as in ‘taste of western voice,’ ‘rude whisperings of the wind,’ ‘hungry Atlantic’ etc. ‘My tongue is a path,’ ‘womb of time’ etc. are some of the instances of nominal metaphors that embellish the creativity. ‘Sun,’ ‘world,’ ‘war’ and ‘languages’ are beautifully personified in ‘the sun dies,’ ‘the world cries itself to sleep’ (doubles as a synecdoche), ‘a war is knocking/ on our door,’ ‘ two languages war’ respectively. The significance of the symbols, ‘song’ and ‘water’ in the poems can entirely engage a study of the poems as the former for instance has a ‘double destiny’ of being a source of identity and a mark of identity loss. A line like ‘some of us are like water, only impurities give us colour’ has refused to repent of burgling into my mind: it has what Roland Barthes calls ‘stubborn after-image,’ it resonates. I am equally overwhelmed at the description of the aborted dreams of the slaughtered brothers during slave trade as ‘unstaged rehearsals.’ That creates poignant images of dashed hopes and wasted efforts that last as long as theatre exists.
The poet like a severe medic uses the seventeen short poems in the collection to make fresh and anew the old, unhealed and unhealing wounds of colonial experience, and wakes the consequent rootlessness of the post-colonial African self
The last poem, ‘In My Country, We Are All Crossdressers’ which doubles as the title poem seems to be a reservoir of all that the poet has borne, for here, verbal artistry is followed by attempt at clarification: ‘ I mean to say…;’ perhaps, for undeterred consumption. The concretization of the ‘broke into irreconcilable halves’ done to Africa by the colonizer in the graphological representation of the poem impresses the issue at stake permanently in the mind of the reader, such that even when the pages are gone, the picture of the breakage, the wreckage, the damage remains indelible, haunting both the victim and the vector. The collection is awarded a final note of hope and resilience by the ending joiner-lines of the two poems with imagistic representation of this break. The three line envoy of ‘Auditioning for the Role of Lakunle Alara’ reads:
We are but one and the same
parted by a cosmic deficiency,
an unbroken ancestral chord.
The ancestral chord is unbroken; we only need to fan the dying embers into flame again, so that our tongues can be whole to ‘carry the weight/ of my grandfather’s songs with the newness/ of such ancient wisdom.’
Like the poets of old, who were regarded as the souls of the community and the custodians of history, Kanyinsola Olorunnisola pours out what had remained repressed, bottled up through generations of dismay; he let loose a surfeit of ripening bitterness that has accumulated and sedimented in the heart of the continent. We do not acclaim him just for the sad truth he has uttered and the courage it bespeaks but also for how he has knitted, not grafted, these issues into well-crafted pieces of art that invite passers-by to solemnly feast on them.
Cover of In My Country, We’re All Crossdressers by Kanyisola’s Chapbook
Ogochukwu Ukwueze recently completed his training as a literary critic and reviewer in the Department of English and Literary Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. While there, he served as the editor of the university’s literary journal, The Muse.
He writes from Awka, Anambra State, Nigeria.