Edwardsville by Heart
Cover image, Edwardsville by Heart

The speaker in Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún’s Edwardsville by Heart acknowledges his initiation into a rite of passage from the first poem in the collection, with a voice that is conscious about what is going on around him in new territory. This voice is the poet’s, as the collection is a diaristic penning that recalls his time spent in Edwardsville, a quiet town in the US. We follow this voice, which holds you by the hand (or mind), into the book, where you navigate with it as it recalls the itinerant life of a Nigerian student-scholar once in America. Túbọ̀sún’s speaker familiarises and defamiliarises with his new surroundings to become one with it. But it is not the known story of most Nigerian writers in the early 60s and 70s who travelled to the white man’s continent: not Gabriel Okara writing ‘The snow flakes sail gently/down from the misty eye of the sky/and fall lightly lightly on the/winter-weary elms’, and, ‘Then I dreamed a dream/in my dead sleep. But I dreamed/not of earth dying and elms a vigil/keeping . . .’ Túbọ̀sún’s speaker rather gives a nod to, welcomes estrangement: While ‘Outside, the trees/heaved yellow leaves/across the sky’, he comments later in the same poem that ‘Behind me, the house from/where I had emerged faded/into one with all the others there/colours of the season giving cover/to concrete homogeneity’. The speaker sets out with a perceptible mind to navigate America and its new environment, not to ponder about estrangement.

‘In the Fall, when the Village/wrapped its welcome/in aridity, the rustling of grass/welcomed with the honks/of the geese in the corners/flapping rage at strangers’: Rather than a more poetic flourish, Túbọ̀sún’s style reveals a hand that is good with narration, which is why all the poems in the collection are narrative poems. Perhaps this fits the thematic leaning of Edwardsville by Heart; Túbọ̀sún’s speaker forever tells us about his time spent in Edwardsville in memoir, road trips, sights, campus life, meeting and making new friends. Divided into five parts, the collection moves through the following phases: Visitor; Wanderer; Teacher, Student; People, Patterns; and Traveller. And each part concerns itself with poems that agree to the titling of each. Visitor has ‘Stepping Out’ – which has provided my quotations from the book so far – as the first poem; there’s ‘Campus Deer’, where the speaker sees a live deer grazing by the side on campus and feels slighted, nay, disrespected, that he should call 911 if ever attacked by a deer, when, back in his own country, the cousins of those deer ‘knew an African when they saw one/in the bush singing Íjálá to the boom/of Dane rifles . . .’ In ‘At Tower Lake’, ‘The water lay/calming the scene/like new glasses/on a broken eye; then there’s ‘The Preacher on Campus’, ‘Meeting Rudy’, ‘Three Degrees Centigrade’, ‘First Malaria’, and ‘Becoming American’, where an army recruiter persuades students to enlist in the US Army and the speaker responds, ‘I’m a scholar here only’.

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Edwardsville by Heart is more enjoyable taken as a work of nonfiction, perhaps because the book is concerned with travelogues and memoirist writing. So the reader is tempted to go for the narrative poems and the wonderful prose-in-verse (or is it prose-poetry now?) where parts read like something from the pages of twentieth-century American prose. The last stanza of ‘At Tower Lake’ smells so much of Nick Carraway in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (I have adapted it into a short passage): So I rode away defeated; my intrusion into the tryst playing for my mind like sweet prose contrast to the rough remains of the day bearing the lovers warmth. In ‘The Preacher on Campus’ we read: In the cold, he cut a shape of a bloodied knight doing the windmill of caffeinated youths in what seemed a most unnerving kind of fight.

One would pine: Why has Túbọ̀sún robbed us of the delight of reading his nonfiction instead of this poetry collection in a time Nigeria needs a counter-therapy to the storytelling syndrome? In some places though, there is a lapse into too prosaic language that becomes a bit overbearing. (‘There’s a memory I have, a dark/ trace of three people walking/ through a wooded swamp/ behind the Lewis and Clark/ College? Park? Memorial?’)

Nonetheless, you cannot miss his sense of the poetic touch in a line like, ‘Like the kiss of a Swiss girl by the stairs’ (Simile, assonance, alliteration and euphony, all in one line.). And such lines as: ‘At Joplin, the wreck/spread over many streets with/mappings of violence like tribal/marks on a baby’s face’, ‘Like yesterday ripples on the Chicago Lake/anxieties straddle our lips like the leaves of July’.

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Túbọ̀sún’s language bears no discernible traces of influence from a school – traditional, modern – or another poet. Its bearing being more narrational may only re-live for the reader the memory of Edwin Arlington Robinson or Robert Frost. This is not to say that Túbọ̀sún sounds like any of them. His intent with language is not even style or the conversation of poetic craft – it is simply poetry. As a signature, he has good employment of the aphoristic in his voice, which is particularly strong in the endings of most poems in the collection.

‘Bike Paths’ opens, ‘The city’s belly opened up/when prodded, concrete veins/leading into where only a cyclist’s/legs could reach’. This poem, my best in the collection, recalls a very important experience. Its figurative significance captures a stage in the rite of passage earlier stated: A grown man riding a bicycle gifted to him by an old buddy, Rudy, who thinks Túbọ̀sún would need it ‘to carry you around’. But the voice here is that of a boy trying to find himself ‘by the maps that my feet recalled’. Picture a grown Nigerian man cycling an American neighbourhood in exploration trying not to be too enthusiastic and miss his way, making a mental map for his ride back. In the last stanza, this is what the boy in the poem says: ‘Going home to 431 in the Winter/like a night ghoul with a backpack/through the school gardens, I bore the soft/sounds of crickets about my freezing ears’. Another good aphoristic ending is this: ‘. . . love wrapped around our singing/like a family bearing each other’s cross’. Then there’s ‘Finding Lovejoy’: the speaker visits the tomb of Elijah Lovejoy, a nineteenth century Presbyterian pastor and abolitionist who was murdered for being an opponent of slavery. Ten stanzas with 3 lines in each, the last stanza forces the reader into meditation, like a Robert Langston Hughes knowing rivers, to the fate of a little girl on a tombstone:

Another name there tells of other ways to mourn:

“Vivian F. Schwallenstecker (1925 – 1928)”,

tough to grasp like “baby shoes, never worn.”

Not melancholic always, the last poem in the collection (and the longest, too), ‘Edwardsville by Heart’, is a narration of desires met and unmet, and road trips, a way of vicariously living the American dream. The voice of the speaker is different from the one in the beginning of the collection; the ritual of passage has happened. He speaks of places and things as someone now used to being American, and Nigerian, in and out. He has taken America, through Edwardsville, by heart. His language is jovial after a minor car accident he causes. Luckily he is not found or fined. So he jokes to his friend while he stands by the roadside and takes a pee on a tree in Iowa ‘in front of the Capitol/with its gold glistening dome’, ‘How is this for courage?’ Turn to the cover page of the book and wonder why there’s the picture of Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún staring up at an American sky■

WATCH THIS SPACE FOR REVIEWS BY CARL TERVER, OF THE LATEST POETRY COLLECTIONS FROM NIGERIA. Up Next: Review of Echezonachukwu Nduka’s Chrysanthemums for Wide-eyed Ghosts

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