FROM MECHANISMS, TOWARDS THE HUMAN BODY: ALISON GRAHAM REVIEWS TIMOTHY OGENE’S ‘DESCENT & OTHER POEMS’
Timothy Ogene Descent & Other Poems (Deerbrook Editions, 2016)
Review by Alison Graham
The word descent encompasses many possibilities, affording breadth as well as depth. What kind is happening here? The word might refer to degradation, departure from a height or heritage. Timothy Ogene’s debut collection unfurls questions of flight and vulnerability, how best to pass through difficult (even hostile) terrain, and a search for belonging from a location of alterity. Published in 2016, Descent & Other Poems was included on Australian Book Review’s 2016 Books of the Year list, as well as gaining an honourable mention in the 2017 Glenn Luschei Prize for African Poetry. These many strands of descent are characterised by focus on collision, minutiae, and gradation. Assembled, they constitute a thundering of sound reaching outwards. Impediments to belonging appear in details:
Power resides in the pinny of a maid:
Fanon in the polish of the master’s shoe.
The almost-assonance here, reverberating from power to Fanon to master generates an ever-mutating lineage. A descent in miniature is occurring, the speaker’s gaze lowering from the maid’s clothing to the master’s feet. Metrically, there is resistance; the hendecasyllable gives an effect of halting and reluctance. The speaker is unwilling to embrace the maid and shoe; these words create rupture from what might have been a naturalistic, symmetrical pentameter. This self observes but will not bow entirely.
Rupture also occurs on a larger scale. Poems become sites within which borders may be broken and inverted. For instance, “A carpet of algae wraps the bridge,” (‘Erratic Notes Left on a Trail, 1’) unifies the domestic and wild, which in turn contain the public sphere. We cannot be sure how long this impossible image has been evident; the verb is slippery. Is the bridge being wrapped as I read, or does it stand before me already encircled in algae? When Ogene writes
God must be at work
As they say in a place I once lived,
it is a lost homeland that is suspended in ‘Sub-surface Condition 4’. The certainty of “must” is diluted by clarifying it as reported speech. This speaker can hear but is not here; presence is no longer a requisite for perception. These are remarkable transcendencies.
A transmuting descent occurs throughout, with the poems’ order carefully directing the narrative, sometimes flowing and sometimes flitting Between the final line of ‘Cassava’ and the beginning of ‘A Small Experiment’, ants track across the page in the shape of ellipsis:
As a child I had the habit
Of trailing ants…
This minute formal detail gives inflection to the speaker’s confession. As in ‘Erratic Notes from the Trail 1’, the speaker is a trickster. And in using this form, the poet creates a gradation, in creating pause as the reader proceeds to the next page. The habit of trailing ants remains; the action is always beginning.
Although often complex, Ogene’s singing can be disarming in its simplicity. ‘Lost Voice’ is naked “In form and flesh”, it’s artifice in collisions. Here, elemental images jostle one another – “brown” against “pale blue hue”, a body “wax[ed] dry in a pool”. Collision also happens in a syntactical sense. A trajectory of speech begins “But before this” and is then transected by a competing clause. The poem’s current is curtailed; transformation occurs within the meander as it flickers in letters from “mirroring” to “mirage”. The poet enacts collision within as well as between images. In contrast to the blows that remove moisture, in the ascending pitch of “You bled life” a dense, terrible beauty is wrought.
Indeed, the descent named by Ogene is a paradoxical one. This is most clearly realised in ‘Holes Filled with Mud’. Earlier in the collection, Fanon is explicitly gestured to, and his account of necessary surrender is useful here:
…I grasp my narcissism with both hands and I turn my back on the degradation of those who would make man a mere mechanism.
‘Holes Filled with Mud’ consists of an extraordinary series of pivots. With each lines turn, fresh violence is enacted. With ‘Of’, a shield enters into a state of decay. Most significantly, “this shield” which by nature is concerned with force vanishes, leaving behind coagulation and then letters. From the break of a semicolon, whips crack. Ogene assails his speaker:
You who once littered my crevices
But now return, in shocking jolts:
The descent of whips on my back,
The stare of empty dinner plates,
The floor with holes filled with mud…
In this, both the mechanics of electrical and brute force are present. Anaphora itemise violence, creating a parallel between the structural violence of “empty dinner plates” and the physical violence of “whips on my back”. From an ellipsis, “You” emerge once more, paused but not stopped. Assonance draws words together that are otherwise distant on the page; in this way “shield” can echo “peel”, as “mass” echoes “coagulate”. There is a turn from mechanisms, towards the human body, towards language. A great deal is at stake – this struggle is “at all costs”. Here, a self is thrown against a parasitic other, one who “littered my crevices”, who infills language itself. And language condenses as the poem progresses, its stanzas decreasing in line count. The exacting of violence is devastating.
The poet (re)tells myths to convey violence again in ‘As it is Elsewhere’, to deeply moving effect. The Labyrinth and its creators haunt the poem in minutiae. The banquet is mirrored in “Music, food and souls”, Icarus’ faulty wings in “a pot of wax” and the Labyrinth in the presence of its name. The poet makes new myths, too. In ‘Erratic Notes Left on a Trail 13’ I see a complete inversion of Atlas holding up the world. Instead,
The world hangs by the toes, dangling,
And its head bulges with blood…
I found myself searching for greater formal experimentation. Considering that these poems address dispersal thematically, a visual, demonstrative dispersal – a thorough scattering of words on the page – may have been worth pursuing. However, the division of selected poems into sections establishes an engaging polyvocality. ‘Descent’ exemplifies this – there is a shift in voice between parts five and six. The speaker addresses “you”, where previously there were only anonymous “hands crossed from breast to breast”. Likewise, in ‘Sub-surface Condition’, changes from plural to singular, from “our thighs” to “my thighs”. As it progresses from section to section, it splinters. And in using this form, the poet achieves gradation, in creating pause as the reader proceeds to the next page. But what are these gradations from, and what do they move towards?
Fred Moten’s concept of the radicalisation of singularity aids me in understanding the traversals taking place in Descent:
…to be sent, to be transported out of yourself, it’s an ecstatic experience, it’s not an experience of interiority, it’s an experience of exteriority, it’s an exteriorization. And so we’re sent. We’re sent to one another. We are sent by one another to one another. To the point that, by the time you get to work that shit out as well as it should be worked out, we’re sent by one another to one another until one and another don’t signify anymore.
Being sent is a collapsing inversion. And addresser and addressee collapse into disappearance in ‘Erratic Notes Left on a Trail 2’:
For those we love
We refrain from easy paths
And restrain the
Urge to run.
Granted, Ogene sends this many-peopled voice for one another, not to. But this urge to run is unanchored; we do not know who experiences it or who is restrained. It resides within the poem. In maintaining sparseness, the poet for a moment brings us from ourselves. The speaker and audience are dissolved together into the text, these two contradicting mechanisms held for an instant.
Questions of exteriority and futurity also drive ‘A Pinch to the Skin’. A struggle ensues between “The question [that] was a single line” and the impossibility of total isolation. Scenes and motions are sent only to be vanished or denied; this is the spectacle of “attempt at flight” and “the call / Of silence”. The alliteration frequently deployed by Ogene is out in full force, and is a mechanism for unifying. It makes plausible “The sky a splintered sheet”, and fosters coherence within “Tumbling in tangents”; it generates proximity.
In the opening poem, ‘December’, the poet brings the liminality of the diasporic experience into language through description of a recognisable phenomenon – that of freezing in winter. Homi K Bhabha proposes “the third space” as a means of understanding interactions between colonising and colonised. It is the “contaminated yet connective tissues between cultures”. That this speaker interacts with a Western winter is indicated by the detail of “Gothic structures”. Strikingly, more vitality is afforded to the historic buildings that “argue with skylines” than to the river which has its motion named then denied, its “Currents curtailed”. Indeed, the river emerges in a state of syntactic dislocation. The description of it being frozen, or, “rendered dry” precedes Ogene’s detailing of its solidification – that “hammering in winter’s metal works.” The stillness of the present is more readily recalled than the past action leading to stillness. This is a warped circulation, caught between its point of issue and terminus.
In-between worlds are also created through distortion and suspension of time. And in the moment of ‘A Pinch to the Skin’, the past when “[t]he question was” opens onto an uneasy present:
The sensual appeal
Of a forked path
Through a meadow
Time is an unsteady progression – not simply linear, but a line subject to gradient. This is how these poems thunder; in their depth, their vanishing, their all-present issuing.
Timothy Ogene is the author of two books, a novel and a collection of poems. His second collection, The Colours of Speech, is due in 2019 from Little Island Press. He lives in Portland, Maine and Cambridge, UK.