By Kanyinsola Olorunnisola
To read the Brittle Paper Literary Award shortlisted poems is to bear front-row witness to a compendium of stories; stories which highlight the human condition and force the reader to surrender her attention to the proficiency of the poets. They remind you of the unrivalled power of language as the primal form of emotional resonance. These poems touch upon diverse experiences and emphasize the wide-range of the emotional spectrum. Some of them are inspiring, haunting, exciting, nostalgic and even conflicted, while some are specifically crafted to break you. This is African poetry, after all, did you expect any less?
Going forward, you should note that the sentiments expressed here are reflections of a personal, though well-educated, opinion and not representative of Brittle Paper’s intended final result. Let us break down the poems, shall we?
Application for Asylum
In “application for asylum”, we get Safia Elhillo going wild with her power of experimentation. With a mere glance at the title and a rudimentary familiarity with the poet, one can deduce that it is a poem about anxiety and displacement. Those are two themes Elhillo handles with an unusual dexterity that makes every single line she writes read like a long, deep breath of fresh air, an exorcism of a darkness worn for too long on an immigrant body.
The feeling of being an immigrant in a country that sees the colour of your skin as an impediment in need of correction is common on this shortlist, but it is the haunting lyricism which particularly colours Elhillo’s words that helps her secure a space as a favourite for the prize. There is a lot of anxiety surrounding her persona’s experience and it is highlighted in such lines as:
what do you do?
i keep having the dream where my brother is dead i wake up & can’t remember where he lives
where do you live?
broken dishes in the water
where do you live?
[ ] died teenaged & his brother died too they were moonfaced & dark
The gaps represent the unnamed black girls and boys taken away in their prime by bigotry and an unfavourable system. Elhilo’s subtle-but-politically-resonant poem has a strong chance of getting ahead in the race.
Koleka Putuma’s piece is a work that cares more about what it wants to say than how it says it. Nearly casting away the fundamental stylistic strictures of the poetic form, Putuma is able to exude an unmatched air of rawness and veracity. She discusses the Western mainstream idea of a link between black people and a supposed fear of water. She challenges the reader – presumably a white supremacist – to unpack their defensiveness about colonial history. Uncomfortable truths are exhumed in this work. Putuma proves she is a body of fire waiting to set consciences aflame.
The poem is the bold voice of someone who is terrified, confident, tired and all shades of confused with the inhumane treatment of the black race:
Are we not tired of gathering as a mass of blackness?
To atone for just being here
To beg God to save us from a war we never started
To March for a cause caused by the intolerance for our existence
Raise our hands so we don’t get shot
Raise our hands in church to pray for protection
And we still get shot there too
With our hands raised
The title is a mere front for what it truly is – a fiery rant on the commercialization of black bodies, institutionalized racism, hypocritical religiosity, white feminism and the white-washing of history. However, its lack of ambition in style and form will play against it here. While it stands out in terms of theme, it does not get ahead enough to win this prize based on theme alone. It already has a rival in “Metamorphosis” for that.
Your Body is War
“Your Body is War” is as disturbing as they get. It sets out to paint a really vivid picture of torn flesh, severed bodies and…yep, luminescent blood. It treats the persona’s relationship with her body as the gigantic mess of battlefields. It is hauntingly heart-wrenching in its tackle of acceptance of one’s body, or lack thereof. Mahtem Shiferraw certainly outdoes herself here:
and your hands would rather busy themselves
with something new, something torn,
they touch the sand and a poem comes rushing
and it is about a black body, and a body of blackness
and you try to wash your hands, but such poems
do not go away easily, instead they stick to your skin,
In this single-stanza tale, the body does not have a happy ending. It does what all victims of war do – become fallen stars, “empty sockets” and ghosts stuck in a tragedy the world does not pay attention to.
Though certainly different from his most-impactful poem, the splendid “Kingdom of Gravity” – one of the poems that won him the Brunel University African Poetry Prize – Nick Makoha’s Pythagoras Theorem does remind one of “Gravity” for both its technical complicatedness and verbal portraiture. As it begins, the colours pop and a cinematography of words is let loose.
Using mathematical terms to analyze human relationships, the poem takes an unconventional route to tackling its premise. The first two stanzas are distinct bodies of thought whose blend create an unexpected social commentary in the third stanza:
All numbers are divisible
by one: the act of being divided. Isn’t the God
of the Hebrews also the God of Islam?
We are at right angles the sum of each other.
While a Nick Makoha poem will always be of a shimmering brilliance, his chances of squeezing his way out of the crowded space to lift the trophy looks bleak amidst other poems which are just as stunning but offer more in terms of emotion and theme.
Credo to Leave
Interestingly, there is nothing about JK Anowe’s credo that resides within the usual praxis of conventional thought. He considers the collateral beauty in dying young, religious deviance and a generally unorthodox existence. In a class of its own, “Credo to Leave” pays no attention to established norms. It is one giant delve into the persona’s murky soul – an unapologetically-messy space of broken bones, collected pains and gratified rebellion. The reader is invited in for a ride but is forewarned by such lines as:
I’m reconsidering dying old
Who the fuck wants to stay that long
Under the cold desert sun
Not these oases tapped like fresh wine from humanpores & tearducts
……………Not this sand thicker than blood & water gushing from Jesus’ side
that this is not a read for the faint of heart. It reads like something Darren Aronofsky would write, were he not busy with his Hollywood auteur duties. A fast-paced work, it threatens to crash and burn under its own speed as it furthers its trip down a path of no return. It is full of catchy lines one can definitely print on a T-shirt. I am actually considering going to Ake wearing a T-shirt with one of the quotes printed on it.
The refusal to kowtow to the demands of society’s pretentious morality, and a total descent into a complete existential creepfest easily puts this at the apex of the list. It exemplifies the beauty of modern African literature: a wild, loose running thing in search of something resembling freedom, something resembling chaos. For too long, African literature has been pigeonholed to represent some vague idea of the African experience. But this poem is a massive middle-finger to that as it focuses entirely on expression of self, no matter how bizarre that self is.
Would it be an overstatement to claim that Romeo Oriogun is the best poet on the continent at the moment? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Such sentiments are definitively arguable. What cannot be debated however, is the magnificence of Romeo Oriogun’s ode to love in all its complete, imperfect vicissitudes. Metamorphosis is a work of art – the very definition of poetic beauty. I predicted back in April that he was going to win the BUAPP nearly-exclusively based on the strength of this poem. After all, it is about the length of three-to-four masterpieces strewn together by an alchemist who knows how to make magic of the frailness of words. Here we go:
He said flee from the heat wrecking your body, and you ran to a place where water
running over pebbles is a whisper of wildness, where lost birds are boys hiding their heads under wings as they touch their wetness in the dark & whisper hallelujah.
Oriogun is surely a front-runner.
The Colour of James Brown’s Scream
With a catchy title, Kayo Chigonyi swiftly sweeps in the reader in a poem that reads like a slow dance – rhythmic, calculated and sweet. It talks about how we lose our invented selves in the hands of the right music:
we dance on, cutting shapes
machismo lost to the beat–
every road man is a sweetboy
if the DJ plays Heartbroken
at just the right time for these jaded feet
Its brevity is rather unexpected. Just when the poem seems to reach a climax of clarity, it ends; as if representing some form of interruption of life’s music, a pre-mature disappearance of a sweet taste worthy of being recreated. This effect, though, is not enough to carry it beyond the shortlist.
I Ask My Brother Jonathan to Write About Oakland and He Describes His Room
Yalie Kamara’s spot atop the list is solidified by the impassioned “Oakland”, which touches upon the theme of race with a newfangled kind of energy. With a title that towers beyond almost everything released within the past year, the poem is a carefully thought-out work from start to finish. References to Junot Diaz and Frantz Fanon are added delights to stroke the delights of geeky readers.
Its titular character is a beacon of a depressing kind of hope, a blind faith held on to by someone who knows that the land does not love his kind. His avoidance of direct confrontation with his racial realities is what even makes it all the more heightened. His anxiety has been amplified to the extent that he has to live in denial. If any of these sound self-contradictory, it is the exact intent of the poet whose masterful manipulation of words creates a real piece of note:
I wait for fire to burst once again between the hands of this chocolate wunderkind. For electricity to dance through the fingers of a young poet. Instead, Jonathan offers me an inventory of his possessions. And I wonder why he’s chosen the words that do not breathe a kaleidoscopic fury into the city scape’s slate hue.
How to Paint a Girl
When Gbenga Adesina’s “How to Paint a Girl” first appeared on New York Times, lovers of African literature had a collective moment of breathlessness. It was a big stride for the scribe. And now, it has found itself on the shortlist for the BPLA. It is another one of his poems that make one say Oh yeah. That must be what brilliance means. It is an embodiment of intense pain and the unconscious import of memory and accumulated self into the demesne of art.
With him you come to learn
that when a man is called to paint a girl
he paints all of himself.
However, while it definitely had a huge impact, it is not exactly his most resonant poem. What it has in poignancy, it fails to match in terms of complexity. Had a different poem been on the list (say, “City Upon Many Waters” or “How Memory Unmakes Us”) he would have been handed a better fighting chance. But “Paint” just does not offer him enough meat to chew on in this contest.
A Series of Solitudes
Another solid collaboration between Fiston Mwanza Mujila and translator Roland Glasser, “A Series of Solitudes” is a dark analysis of the human body in relation to natural bodies of water. With references to Biblical floods, dogs, cities, goats, the poet employs a curious device in conveying his thoughts:
… and to think there is no euthanasia for the recalcitrant and drunkards of my species! and to think there will be no two successive floods to bear me away in my drool, meaning that old Noah will not come twice, that no more will seven pairs of all purebred animals, male and female, be led into the Ark, which means that the waters of the Zaire river, ebale ezanga mokuwa, will come no more to lick at our luxurious desires and other debaucheries in the starry nights of the red-light districts of Kinshasa and Amsterdam …
But while their Etisalat Prize for Literature-winning collaboration might bring them goodwill in this race, do not expect it to take the poem far. There is stiff opposition for Mujila here and his poem just does not have the narrative nor thematic heft to edge out the competiton.
This is going to be a three-horse race. Safia Elhillo’s “Application for Asylum”, Romeo Oriogun’s “Metamorphosis” and JK Anowe’s “Credo to Leave” are the real contenders here. Each of these poems represents an important aspect of modern African literature.
Who I Want to Win: Safia Elhillo’s highly-experimental work is a thing of beauty that I as a poet and critic deeply appreciate. But I neither think it is the best nor the entry with the biggest odds.
Who Deserves to Win: “Credo to Leave” is a manifestation of what poetry can be. Somewhat reminiscent of the early work of Franz Kafka, it is a breath of fresh air in a literary landscape that is overcrowded with too many similar offerings. But its failure to make as big a splash as Oriogun’s work might be against it.
Who Will Win: Romeo Oriogun is not done winning this year. “Metamorphosis” is his strongest poem and its impact across the continent cannot be overlooked when the winner is being decided. He is going to take the prize, although a possible upset is being threatened by “I Ask My Brother Jonathan to Write About Oakland and He Describes His Room”.
We should note that while I took glee in analyzing these amazing poems, it was an arduous task; as having to deem some poems out of the race felt like looking for trouble, like swallowing fire and waiting to get burned down by the flames of other critics. Did I go wrong somewhere? Feel free to drag me in the comments below.
In the end, may the best man win.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kanyinsola Olorunnisola is a poet, essayist and writer of fiction. He is the founder of the SPRINNG Literary Movement and Managing Editor at Kreative Diadem. He is a final-year student of Philosophy at the University of Ibadan. His works have appeared in Bird’s Thumb, Kalahari Review, Bombay Review, Lunaris Review, African Writer, Tuck Magazine, Gyroscope Review and elsewhere.
His poem, “Tell Us Where They Touched You” won the 2016 Albert Jungers Poetry Prize. His debut chapbook, “In My Country, We’re All Crossdressers” is upcoming at Praxis Magazine. He is obsessed with experimental pop music, political fiction, jollof rice and Game of Thrones.