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A review of Sea Salt in the City, Circaidy Gregory Press, by Funmi Adewole

Adewole’s poetry is entangled in a broad spectrum of issues encompassing private and public deliberations and, of course, spiritual concerns. The key themes are belonging, acceptance and understanding.

In the 1980s and 90s, a small gathering of aspiring poets, writers and the mandatory charlatans used to meet in a lecture room at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ibadan. At the famed Room 71, they read their poetry in public to mostly discerning audiences. This group of literary artists was made up of both students and lecturers and quite a few of them found the experience provided them with a nurturing space.

One prominent member of the Poetry Club was Funmi Adewole, who has finally released a volume of poetry, ‘Sea Salt in the City’ (2013). Adewole directed many of the poetry performances involving several members of the club during its heyday and has managed to establish herself in the United Kingdom as a choreographer, dancer and general theatre practitioner of note. And this isn’t entirely surprising given the spirited tonalities of work with the Poetry Club.

‘Sea Salt in the City’ is divided into two parts; the first, “Back Streets and Corridors”, and the second, is simply titled, “Downtown”. Together they highlight a street-smart urban sensibility. But there is in fact more to the collection than celebrating the giddy exhilaration of city life. The first poem, “The fallacy of strife” begins on a tough note but then strife, as a matter of fact, or more appropriately, struggle has always been a feature in Adewole’s life and indeed any other life worth mentioning. Adewole’s key themes are belonging, acceptance and understanding.

A lack of belonging, acceptance and understanding can lead to mistrust and in the next poem, “No little girls grow”, there is a discernible sense that she is holding back, that she is aware of something we don’t know:

The Kurdistan ghosts chatter persistently
This is a story that you must tell.
To whom?
To the city?
I will not tell it (p.2).

A poem titled, “Why write” while superficially alluding to creative sterility manages to convey images of fertility and abundance:

…. still as this night
and Winifred’s sobs
pitted our hearts
like rain
patters my roof
this cold, windy, rainy night (p.4).
Not all of Adewole’s imageries are quick to reveal their meaning but even when they aren’t completely clear, they can be teasingly inviting. “Our feet possess the land” is replete with dense imagery that does not fail to be powerfully emotive:

In a breath we entered the mirror
and smashed the glass at our heels.
Our feet possess the land (p.6).

Feet possessing the land conjures a multitude of imaginary scenarios. The following poem, “The snail” further drives home the way Adewole sifts through imagery in which the snail stands for something rather specific but the poem seems to allude to something else.

Sometimes, Adewole is quite lucid but simplicity and lucidity shouldn’t be mistaken for simple-mindedness of lack or effectiveness:

… songs we sing behind locked doors
savouring our evanescent joys
tapping our feet in an unsure rhythm
on dubious floor (p.8).

“Anowa”, inspired by the famous Ghanaian playwright, Ama Ata Aidoo, is clearly Afrocentric in its effect in which the history and unbowed pride of the oppressed in a besieged continent, in spite of all, somehow glimmer.

While the plight of the oppressed can in fact be ennobling, a poem, “The edifice” paradoxically, dramatises the emptiness of the powerful. The poem appears to be saying there is nothing fulfilling in a life buffeted by leisure and easy money as there is something invariably missing, in other words, a profound spiritual emptiness lies at the core of pointless and obscene material excess.

“The wayfarer” is somewhat connected with “Anowa” as its central concerns are about regaining lost identity and heritage and the acceptance of one’s lineage. There is also evident a disapproval of kitsch and inauthenticity. Undoubtedly, the quest for authenticity is always a protracted battle littered with dead-ends enticements and distractions.

“Slaves to the heart beat”, again expresses an identification with the oppressed. Both plantation and urban slavery are subtly addressed. Repeatedly, Adewole’s political proclivities are demonstrated without dumping the ideological hammer over our heads. Her perceived sociopolitical obligations are skillfully woven into the fabric of everyday life and do not appear forced or over-determined which ultimately, make them even more convincing.

Accordingly, these lines from “Habitation” seem appropriate:

Mixed in the cup of libation
was the sweat of a million faces.
Trudging through the Badagry sand,
the blood of a salt-stared Biafra baby
and the pus of a Broad Street beggar(p.33).

“Habitation” is a long poem that is by turns hopeful, slightly despondent and finally triumphant. Adewole, here, weaves together a tapestry of diverse, sometimes discordant moods.

“Becoming” boldly announces her Christian faith but not in a dry institutionalised manner. Her faith appears to be a living, heart-felt experience, shorn of blind and arrogant fundamentalism.

Finally, the last poem, “After that, then” expresses the simplicity and magnificence of existence in one breath.

There is a strong sense that Adewole’s poetry is entangled in broad spectrum of issues encompassing private and public deliberations and also of course, spiritual concerns. There is also evident a struggle to wrest lasting meaning from these various issues in which gems of insight sometimes emerge and at other times get submerged. There is in addition, a determined quest for clarity and comprehension even at moments when they prove to be elusive. Her work as such as the feel of something jostling to come out and this makes it somewhat precious and promising partly because she isn’t afraid to explore what she truly feels and partly because of the inimitable way she careens between disarming simplicity and loaded imagery.

* Sanya Osha is an author based in Pretoria, South Africa.



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