Review: New Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Tano Part 2, Heartache)

AiW Guest: Rashi Rohatgi

AiW note: This is the third in a series of poetry reviews on the New-Generation African Poets Chapbook Box Set from AiW Guest Rashi Rohatgi. You can find the previous posts here and here; look for the follow-up reviews of the volumes in this box set in the coming weeks.

Leila Chatti writes poetry that is not deceptively simple, but rather forceful in its simplicity. A dual citizen of American and Tunisia, Chatti pushes and pulls at the experience of heartache in Ebb; Karen McCarthy Woolf, in her preface, identifies that “Chatti has the ability… to fruitfully utilize simile and metaphor to make something individual and urgent from a well-worn scenario” (5).

Partly this is because of the unabashed tying of the personal and the most universal of symbols: in particular, love and the sea. In ‘Fasting in Tunis,’ her description of the day of the fast brings the bodily desire and the sea together seamlessly:

The ocean eats and eats
at the sand and still hungers

As the speaker in Chatti’s poems longs for a distant – space but perhaps also emotionally – lover, we get a rhythmic depiction of the gaze:

I have learned to be

Ebb cover

Cover of Ebb, via

a watched thing

The two stories are wholly entwined, but perhaps no more so than at the start of ‘Ramadan Lament’ (15):

I want to eat my grief and my god
will not allow it.

Chatti has a fairly large web presence; she’s been interviewed several times, and many of her poems have appeared online. She’s always been a poet who’s not so much zeitgeisty – her focus is often on the classic minority American experience; her forthcoming chapbook is entitled Tunisiya/Amrikiya – as straightforward: in the summer 2017 Georgia Review, she has a poem entitled “The White Poet Wants to Know Why I Don’t Write More Arab Poems” and part of the poem reads:

Because every time I open my mouth
I am an Arab opening my mouth

That, in Ebb, we get a beautiful portrayal of an American heartache that coincides with Ramadan, neither apologetic nor brash but simply present, cannot be read as neutral in today’s climate. We can be glad it is here.  

Romeo Oriogun’s The Origin of Butterflies moves us from the American context to the Nigerian. I had not come across any of his poetry before this, and I was overwhelmed by how glorious its lines are – there’s no wonder he won the Brunel Prize in 2017. Oriogun writes of loneliness in a fashion in some ways diametrically opposed to that of Chatti’s poetry of heartbreak; his poetry is surreal, removed from a simple focus on wave and sun. Jericho Brown notes in the preface, however, that “while Oriogun is a poet of the surreal, he is also a poet of direct statement. He may tilt our view with mystery, but he never leaves us confused” (4). In that way they are aligned.

His poetry is about being gay in Nigeria, but what this means, most of all, is that it is about being gay in Nigeria and not leaving for somewhere less antagonistic. ‘Departure’ (8-9) begins with a quote from Safia Elhillo (who won the Brunel Prize in 2015) and ends with

Romeo Oriogun sitting on steps in front of an open red door

Romeo Oriogun, via

i worship the day because it survived the night,
& i’m in a bus station
saying bye to boys searching for cities
where they can hold hands & walk on beaches.
& i know what it means to live here
with words invented for hate, with wounds asked to be silent.
& when they leave i want to whisper into ears
filled with dunes of the desert,
do not forget i still live here.

After this proud, plaintive assertion, the next poem, ‘Kumbaya,’ (10) brings us back to earth, fast, its slangy first line setting up the poppy exasperation that is a particularly of-the-minute response to the horrific:

I cannot make this up.

There is no holding hands in ‘Kumbaya,’ but rather brute violence as

your father smashes our bones against the wall,

 our blood mingles, sings kumbaya as it streaks into the rug.

Tell me this is not love,

tell me this is not how couples run into sunsets.

The collection is tied together with a narrative, but also, and more tightly, with images, split into those which evoke a pop cultural 21st century universalism –

We are in a movie, we are acting,
but you keep saying this is not right.
I want to know who made love so wrong.

goes ‘Saddest Night Alive,’ for example (12) – and those which twist it. Amongst the latter, I loved especially

The skin of a lover is a fish baked with olives.

from ‘Denial’ (20). Birds fly through each poem in the collection (butterflies are a more isolated case), gay men’s patronus, most beautifully at the start of ‘Orlando,’ (27) reaching out across the ocean to say:

There’s no song alive tonight. Even in cities
where a man in love with another man is a bird
with a wounded chest, your cry was heard.

Oriogun’s poetry has the cadence of song: a fresh, shimmering new voice.  

Rashi Rohatgi is Associate Professor of English at Nord University.

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