AiW Guest: Tọ́pẹ́ Salaudeen-Adégòkè.
Sometimes, impositions on our spaces and feelings – in the form of law, tradition or custom – try to curtail our inclinations and stifle our freedom of expression. In some nations subject to despotic regimes, restrictions are felt against free expression and unconventionality, while conformity to beliefs and strict rules are encouraged. In Nigeria, for example, human rights infringement is becoming worrisome as social activists have been incarcerated because they dare to contradict an administration, as seen in the continued detention of Yele Sowore; societal prejudices about sexuality may be perceived, too, where commercial sex, for instance, is reproached in public discourse. In Uganda, meanwhile, the potency of a poem can be offensive enough to send a poet to jail. Even in countries where censorship is less overt, literary prize culture fosters a more subtle handing out of conventions, affecting the creativity and outputs of African poets, artists and writers in this age where average critique and review often focuses on what is said, almost leaving out how.
This conformity is what Femi Morgan’s newest poetry volume, Renegade (The Baron’s Cafe, 2019), bursts open, broaching topics that are considered taboo to societal dictates whilst giving expression to what are usually considered the mundane things of existence, but which are nonetheless important phenomena, all the while questioning contemporary nuisances or inconveniences. The volume offers an insight into what it means to be in a state of expectation, continually looking for hope, and what it means to live in a dysfunctional society presided over by corrupt politicians and characterised by frequent media furore. One of the blurbs that accompanies the volume, by the Nigerian literary critic Biyi Olusolape, captures this succinctly: ‘With clever, striking imagery, ‘Femi Morgan offers a mordant portrayal of modern life.’ And, sometimes, in doing that he offers himself up as a canvas and becomes expressly confessional.
There is a running theme of cosmopolitan identity and anxieties, and some of the attendant frustrations of living in an African metropolis are documented with a touch of humour. The volume is divided into five parts: ‘Selected Poems’, ‘Bar Room Conversations’, ‘Postcards for Irene’, ‘New-Inverse’, and ‘Two Legs’. They contain the thematic excursions of the titular renegade, a social rebel who problematises and denounces conventions, and the parts run into each other in a continuum depicting the pace, especially in ‘Selected Poems’ and ‘Bar Room Conversations’. The beer parlour monologue in the latter pitches an argument from a chauvinist against a feminist’s. The argument of the chauvinist is bold, damning and obnoxious – in using a careful selection of words such as ‘dowry’, ‘goats’, ‘barn’, ‘prostrated’, it is clear where the prejudice stems from in the chauvinist construction, as he appeals to tradition and materialism to validate his claim over a woman’s body. The response, in a feminist voice and an artful touché, is equally bold and damning, but here it serves as a tactful deconstruction of patriarchy. It reminds us that the women being spoken for are ‘mothers, daughters’ and thus shouldn’t be ‘blisters of struggle’. In taking the conversation to a pub, a space where patriarchy is freely expressed by drunken men, a space where a woman drinking beer commands a second look, the poet demystifies attitudes and expectations. But problematically the lines, ‘All men are the same/Egoistical bastards’ (40), pander to the notion that feminists are generally misandrists, in itself undermining the otherwise strong basis of the feminist voice.
‘Allen Postcard’ pays homage to sex workers. Allen is a cosmopolis around Ikeja, noted for its nightlife and sex workers plying their trade. These are night renegades, beautifully evoked in the volume. ‘Allen Postcard’ is preceded by a humorous common saying in Pidgin that usually accompanies the sale of aphrodisiac on the Nigerian streets, ‘I dey shame, I dey shame/You are dying in silence.’ It is offered in the poem as you would hear it on a loudspeaker in a typical Nigerian market, an announcement to would-be clients and an expression of the hypocrisy of those raising their voices against commercial sex. But the persona has nothing but respect for these women who exercise their bodily freedom unconventionally:
All I have for you
Is respect. (pg 41)
The tone changes in the ‘Postcards for Irene’ section. Like a bitter ex-lover, it is imbued with schadenfreudic humour, at himself and unrequited love – a dichotomous bêtise as both an act of self denegation and of reminiscence, about intimacy with lovers and memories to be mourned. In ‘Getting High in Sleep’, for example, the poet explores the sensations of hearing, seeing and feeling all in a dream of getting closer to his loved one – hearing their ‘memorable laughter’, seeing their ‘dimpled face’, and feeling ‘supple skin’ – while ‘Old Together’ peers into the intimacy of couples in their old age, celebrating their affection:
Our album is full as our cups are
Our children have gone away and we are children
Longing for companionship not as rough as it began. (pg 62)
Femi Morgan’s latest and major work, Renegade, shows a bold engagement and maturity of stylistics. In terms of temperament, too, this work shows a literary disposition towards simplicity and free verse. But Morgan needs to challenge himself even further in his next work, be extraordinarily methodical in style and form, and move away from run-of-the-mill metaphor. There are a few typos, such as where ‘Sartre’ is spelt ‘Satre’, ‘Satzenbrau’ as ‘Satzenbraw’. For a persona that lays simultaneous claim to erudition and to alcoholism, these typos can be hard to stomach. Similarly, the volume needn’t be apologetic about the choice of words and make exceptions for Nigerianisms with the use of inverted commas. Renegade is also sparsely punctuated, and this can make the reading difficult: one is made to take some lines again and again because there is little guiding the tonality. But this is in itself an act of a renegade – on poetics, eschewing norms of grammar for us to read it in its own voice, at its own pace.
As if pre-empting critical reading of the volume, the poet offers us his manifesto towards the end of the book in ‘This is a Voice’:
The music of my voice
Is a rushing train
With Russian tenacity
It does not wait for the comprehension
Of colours. (pg 88)
Renegade is a volume of poetry that is inventive in imagery, unabashedly smart-mouthed and humorous in tone, that draws us into (un)familiar thematic preoccupations. The highlight of ‘Bar Room Conversations’, for example, is ‘Image’, a laconic poem of just three lines – the short, more imagistic poems in the volume seem to be more thought provoking than the longer ones – a poem of the kind that can cause ontological debate about existence and subtly lend us a belief that we have no past to burden us or to compete with our future at the same time, from the thematic context of the ‘Bar Room’. It is indeed beautiful to share the qualities of God as suggested in the poem; an atheistic reading may fault the metaphor created by using Platonic dialogue. But still, the reading will arrive, albeit through different route, to the same summation: Renegade pushes, rushes forward beyond a blank past that will not hold the future to ransom.
Having published print and electronic poetry pamphlets including Silent Drummings (2008), Phases: Poetry of People (co-ed 2015) and Songs of Travel (2016), Renegade, available from Okada Books, is Femi Morgan’s full length major work. Morgan, whose poetry has been featured on several African platforms including African Writer, Saraba, Sentinel Nigeria, Jalada, is a literary curator and founder of Artmosphere, an event which has played host to many prominent Nigerian writers. He has read his work at festivals, such as Lagos Book and Arts Festival and Niyi Osundare Poetry Festival, and received a few recognitions, including a Barbishai Niwe Poetry Prize longlist in 2015.
Tọ́pẹ́ Salaudeen-Adégòkè is an editor, literary critic and poet from Ibadan, Nigeria. Tọ́pẹ́ is the co-publisher of Fortunate Traveller, a travel journal. He writes for Wawa Book Review, Abuja, and Africa in Words. He enjoys travelling and cooking. His chapbook of travels across Africa, Transacting Stories: Markets, People and Places was recently published by Invisible Borders Trans-African Photographers Organisation, part of their exhibition, ‘A Volatile Negotiation Between the Past and Present’ at the 2019 AfriCologne Festival, Germany. @LiteraryGansta is his alter ego on Twitter.