Review: The Renegade Poet, ‘Femi Morgan, coming through ‘The Year of Fire’

AiW Guest: Ugochukwu Anadị.

‘Femi Morgan’s most recent collection The Year of Fire (Baron’s Cafe, 2021) is a poetry of lamentations, of anger, and of defiant resilience. Forming itself around (re)negotiations, of the self and space, the slim volume of thirty-four poems is divided into two parts, ‘Mutations’ and ‘Cosmopolitan Angst,’ presenting a chorus of different poem-personas from whose perspectives we are invited to view the world, born of the “year of fire”.

Change is the recurring theme in the first fourteen poems that make up ‘Mutations,’ but never is this change positive. It is, rather, filled with the particular negativities that ignite the year into flame for each of the poem personas: The Year of Fire was published in 2021 within the context of the COVID-19 outbreak, when Nigeria and many other parts of the globe faced the pandemic-occasioned lockdown. In ‘Wearing Two Masks,’ the mutation brought by the COVID virus that this poem-persona faces goes beyond the biological and the health-related to the social and the psychological. The suddenly omnipresent facemask, worn to protect the body, our own and others’, from the virus, becomes symbolic of the other masks that humans have always worn – those we wear in more generalised, everyday settings, in day-to-day activities and in the performative signalling of virtues:

“Our mask is gone and our face is gone with it. We look but we do not see.”

In themselves, these lines hold a compact doubled meaning relating to the change of ‘Mutations:’ they speak as much about the end of the immediacy of the threat of the COVID-19 virus, which resulted in the stoppage of the compulsory use of facemasks in the country, as they say, that even though we’ve stopped using masks, life still remains ‘masked’ — we have not returned to what it used to be before the outbreak. Additionally, these lines reach out even broader, to talk of what happens when we, humans, lose ourselves – “our faces” – in the web of deceptions we weave, our metaphorical masks. Here, through the redoubled metaphor of the poem’s title, Morgan gestures that in hiding from others, we also lose ourselves.

For the poem-persona in ‘Reconnaissance,’ adulthood marks their own years of fire. The total loss of childhood innocence strikes in the realisation that a capitalist existence does not favour one for being righteous, and they lament this sudden knowledge with a canny second-person address, speaking of a time when:

“…you felt that the world belonged to all who searched
For truth, who gave love and sought friendship
But as you grew, you saw that the world was owned by Machiavellian
Gladiators who put people in places to serve as guards and gatekeepers.”

These kinds of personal crises, mostly brought about by external circumstances beyond the control of the individual, come into the focus of this section of The Year of Fire. The turmoil of these externalities is like a fire that relentlessly burns. But just like the burning bush Moses saw at Mount Horeb, sometimes the mind can be resilient enough to blaze on while refusing to be consumed by the flames, like those of the ‘Wall Geckos’ that

“survive the wrath
of brooms and incense
like a Nigerian… surviv[ing] another round of bombardment
starved of protein
tear-gassed without picture
yet, they crawl, nod and display their supple behinds.”

In ‘Wall Geckos,’ therefore, Morgan portrays the resilience of Nigerians – and by extension, the human spirit – amidst constant violence and violations, from both state and non-state actors.

In this sense, The Year of Fire seems to be building its critique from where Renegade (Baron’s Cafe, 2019) — Morgan’s poetry collection immediately preceding this one — left off. In the section ‘Mutations,’ just like in Renegade, poets, and indeed all who have the power of controlling and mediating narratives, are berated for their “elite silence” elicited by money, their exoticization of trauma and pain — “the performatives are idioms/ invented from filthy life” — and, more painfully, their glorification of the ignominious — “perfuming into recognition the stench of a dead butterfly.”

Also as in Renegade, attention is paid to the climate crisis: the poems that attend to this in ‘Mutations’ narrow the lens to the poet’s immediate environment in the second section of The Year of Fire, ‘Cosmopolitan Angst,’ especially as it relates to pollution. The world is presented as wounded by humans who are in the business of ripping her apart:

“The clouds
that marked the day
opened its wounds
into gushes of stagnant gutters
where bloated boxes of fruit juices, mask
and arse-sorted nylon bags
gather a quiet protest of consumption.”

And it is the cosmopolitan city of Lagos that becomes the central geographical point of contact for other degraded cities of the world, taking up the titular overarching “angst” that labels the second part of the volume. 

An ever-appearing figure, except for when it is presented as a money-making escape destination for the poor village boy, Lagos’ appearance in the country’s literature is often as a villain. To give but two recent examples, in 2021, the short story writer, Damilare Kuku released a collection of twelve short stories, audaciously entitled Nearly All Men in Lagos are Mad (Masobe Books, 2021). While it is not clear whether this madness derives from the supposed inherent messy state of the city, or the disorderliness of the city is a derivative of the existence of its dwellers, it is safe to say that what exists in Lagos is two-way traffic where the state absorbs its citizens’ madness and the citizens reinforce the same. In another recent example, Lagos is akin to, although not named as, the city mentioned in ‘survival iii,’ a section of Obiageli Iloakasia’s poetry collection Kàmbílí (Libretto, 2022) – “in this city/ survival is the watchword” – this city, an environment filled with “dubious dreams.” With The Year of Fire, ‘Femi Morgan joins the league of those many Nigerian writers led to perform rites of mourning for “this city,” which is alive but decomposing, wielding the only tool they have – their letters. 

Indeed, ‘Cosmopolitan Angst’ locates itself precisely, beginning with the poem ‘Oshodi Symphonies,’ featuring the Local Government Area (LGA) Oṣòdì-Ìsọlọ̀ within Lagos State; before going on in its map to other neighbourhoods within Lagos, like Opebi, Ebutte-Meta, and Badagry; finally declaring all of Lagos as a ‘Rude City,’ “a rude proclamation” whose “shore speaks of a battle of ships and stock exchange/ of plastic wealth melting in the sun where pepper once grew.” There is no fondness for this ‘rude’ site, even as it is centralised as such. Oshodi, for example, “is the home of subtle fire/ a charred wound waiting to ignite”; Opebi “will remain/ mortar without mortal soul”; Ebutte-Meta will be remembered for “caskets/ gold plaited handles to heaven/ Brown, Portuguese chandeliers of tears/ shining bright in the time of Rail”; while Badagry is a child whose siblings had been abducted, “a grandmother of dispersed suns.” The most explicit address to the whole city in ‘Lagos Song’ says that it

“is built on blood
of migrants
now ungated place watered
by the toil of people.”

The Year of Fire is a collection rightly choked by sadness. It only offers beauty in its writing and inventive metaphors, its inimitable style and soul, and its rich and enriching language, while the elegant aesthetics of Morgan’s poetic craft jars against the ruins it depicts. The fecundity of the author’s imagination on display here leaves one at no doubt as regards the poetic maturity that has been reached. Morgan is a poet who, like the poem-persona in ‘The Duty of Greatness Written at Weekends’ understands that he “owe[s] the world a version of [his] truth,” but, unlike the persona, has refused to be stifled by that world. 

This maturation of voice and approach is confirmed by the poet Chris Abani, who found the collection to be a worthy Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry finalist (for books published in 2021). Writing about The Year of Fire for his judge’s comment, Abani described the book thus: 

“[A]n unusual and startling volume that unfolds the search for self, country, nationhood, freedom, political activism, self-determination and love without a trace of artifice, against the backdrop of the forgotten and the near-erased parts of Lagos, that chaotic emblematic city of cities. A story showing.”

While I agree and laud this growth evident in Morgan’s craft, I must point out that this maturation is not complete until the poet and their poetry reflects the fact that the existence of non-binary people is not a new trend, as implied by the poem-persona in ‘Time Frames’  when they say: “Men/ and women/ and those new names…” [italicization mine]. It is imperative to repeat at this point that human existence and identity has been shown not to be polarised or gender-limited only to man or woman, and a poet who demonstrates the sensitivity to selfhoods, and life under masks and pressurised constraints also present in The Year of Fire, should know and take care of the power of their language-use in their poetic “story showing”.

As a dedicated reader of ‘Femi Morgan, I can say, without any fear of contestation, that this collection, the fifth in the author’s creative oeuvre, is, so far, his best. While the thematic engagements may be similar to those addressed in his previous collections, in this volume, there is a sharp and distinct deviation from Morgan’s norm through his use of language, employment of imagery, and thought process. The Year of Fire presents ‘Femi Morgan as a poet who has reached maturity in his craft, a volume that looks forward to future and further developments.

Ugochukwu Anadị is a reader who loves writing, especially about what he has read. His fiction, poetry, nonfiction, book reviews and critical interventions are to be found in: Afritondo, Afreecan Read, Afapinen, ANA Review, Brittle Paper, Conscio Magazine, Kalahari Review, Isele Magazine and now, Africa in Words. He is also the Book Review Editor at Afreecan Read.

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