By Oyin Oludipe
“Rafka” challenges the poet: “How can you describe a pain you haven’t felt?” The poet retorts: Pain. She has “no language … only taste and touch.” His intimation also is that “She touches us in different ways / But we only feel her in one way.” And because of this sordid universality of sorrow, his “skin is a light house”; it beams memories.
In his book, The Cartographer of Memory, Boluwatife is also the interpreter of memory: Memory is echo, stench, intrusion, and vision. Memory is verb and proverb; reflection and refraction—hollow graves, laughter, and healing. Memory is a sitting spot in history—an empty argument with pleasure—a vanishing point for the senses.
More than a mapmaker definition, as “Cartographer”, what is implicit is that the poet makes art with memories.
These memories, as they are engraved in free verses—like deep, ritualistic, African scarifications—those brazen, but artistic indentures of the flesh that serve as catalogues of ancestral experiences—are collective and personal.
These memories, like maps, offer direction. There is a stream of consciousness that courses from fleeting affections, to brutal aberrations, to shared desolations, and ultimately, to healing.
Reading the poems, it did feel as if Boluwatife wrote them so that he could breathe. As though under the duress of nostalgia, rekindling the flames of yestermoments, he would not let certain bygones be bygones; perhaps, because—as Aeschylus, father of Greek tragic drama, thought—memory is the mother of all wisdom.
So the poet never forgets. He only regrets, on behalf of a forgetful world. He brushes his quill against the smudges of the past and uses it to paint a vision for the future.
I am the lone observer
Watching the re-purification
by god. (Seeking Shelter, p. 36)
Somewhere in The Cartographer of Memory, “violence is a living word” and “tragedy has many portraits.” “Under the bridge at Mokola / Children are melting into water.” In some other place, “4 boys walked into a quiet town”, and they are welcome in a rush, with “kisses of fire and gasoline.” Somewhere else, “in a Northern night… / 59 martyrs died for our iniquities / But we still don’t have salvation.”
A journalist reports the present, whereas a poet reports the past. Boluwatife remembers sufferings. In Aluu. In Buni Yadi. In Aleppo. In Oman. In a bereaved home. In a silent bedroom. In a love life, short-lived. And in other numerous imagined spaces of flesh and blood.
We try to trace cracks on the wheels of nostalgia
with fingers that have grown weary from touching broken things
(dreams, women, walls, hearts)
to find where we first gathered our strength into smoke
and gave it to the sky (Dead Men, p. 24)
A memory of inhumanity eventually triggers an empathic retrospection, which, it seems to me, is one of the prime prerogatives of the poet. Like Boluwatife, for instance: his book is essentially an inquiry into what we, as humans, do (or may do) with memory in some facets of existence.
In war, do we assess Memory solely as permission for grief? In love, do we carry it in our bones as ticket to self-insulation? In sleep, do we let it mutate into “an angry storm” that “breaks [our] beak into two” and wakes us up, “screaming, sweating”?
In essence: do we heal memories, or do memories heal us?
As the movie of human life is too often a reel of the pictures of tragedy, Boluwatife’s position on healing, it seems, is that good memories can heal bad memories; and that, in this regard, there is nothing more potent for humans as physical, organic entities to do than to, as habitually as possible, strive for, reach for, and live for (or, if need be, die for) memories in pleasant experiences alone.
There are memories that injure, and much of these are charted in The Cartographer of Memory; but the Cartographer himself also writes of memories that heal. He urges the reader to mine those in the fields of Nature, Pleasure, and Purpose.
Healing is a woman
Or a rainbow
Or a dream
(Where fear comes to die—
Where I grow wings and float
Into the arms of god) (Breathe, p.19)
With memories also, he lays credence to the possibility of Healing, when he writes, “There is healing / in the touch of mother / on my skin. / praying fever away / with will and fire / and olive” and that “Healing is the laughter / of a stranger / on the bus home (or away from home)/ —she said / laughter can drown the voice / of tragedy.”
As far as the poet is concerned, deliverance from the tyranny of memory is a matter of choice and personal responsibility; one that is resolved with love, faith, and patience.
Hollow graves got tired of waiting—
For scents of flowers
So they became flowers. (Conversations, p. 22)
It echoes an existentialist adage from the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, which is that Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.
That gospel—armoured with the suave hypnosis of 3 love poems—is, in fact, the subtle, tranquil resolution of Boluwatife’s feverish collection.
Oyin Oludipe is the recipent of the 2016 Christopher Okigbo Poetry Prize.
This review first appeared on Oyin’s Booker, his 2018 odyssey of book reviews.
Click here to read his review on Chinua Achebe’s Girls At War.