In Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, while describing ‘the colossal force of recollection’, she compares memory to ‘a pinball in a machine — it messily ricochets around between image, idea, fragments of scenes, stories you’ve heard’. When I first came across Onyekwelu’s suite of poems, I was intrigued by how they further push this idea of memory; the past is not just fragmented or messy, it is also in a state of waiting. It exists as both, provocation and possibility.
Perhaps this is why Onyekwelu’s narrative poems resist the narrative trap of progress, order and neat closures. Its sequences are not certainties, which, in turn, are not stories. I found that while these poems wear the markers of anecdotes and incidents, they tributary into grass, scripture, death, art — and most evocatively — turns of language. Much of the force of these poems comes from their asides (‘I am human after all, so I measure / importance / by how much it’s possible to gain’) and the plurality of states (‘In one imagination / the geese fling themselves). Read these pieces for how they hold vulnerability as much as they hold the violence of desire.
For how memory turns maybe turns miracle.
— Pervin Saket
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Late-night Stroll with My Homie
Outside the city, the sky is starting
to drown itself in too much light.
We walk with the defiance of night
birds. Walk until a red Ford drags
over— the music too fucking loud—
& he wants to know Where is the
mall? I point him away, towards the
darkness, & suddenly it feels like a
betrayal, the way I said nothing
about that flock of geese lying flat
bellied on the road. Their wings un-
wrapped. The soft of their chests
submitting to the tar, as if in prayer. As
if waiting for something holy to reach
them. It’s Christmas. It’s that time
of the year everyone appears eager
to set something on fire. My friend
is telling a story about our child-
hood: the nights we played Kpumgbo,
sang our bodies open to feed it joy.
But most of what I remember has to
do with departure, like TY (& Ada
& Chinedu)— & their still cold tombs.
How each departure had been so
exact, like an arrow point. Like the Serpent
asking Eve to take nothing except a
bite. Above us, the moon squats
motionless, & I remember the Ford.
How far away is it? In one imagination,
the geese fling themselves
upwards into the air. The road, un-
littered. Their breastbones not yet
popped. In another, they don’t make
it past the windshield. Something
thumps again & again on the tires
& inside, his music still plays.
Gorgeous Little Things
There was always something
. to loot from
anything, even the grasses grey
. & dying. I
think about this as a form of
prayer. God being the dew,
. the shimmer
of light soft on each blade. In
. my first day at
the school’s lawn, I was thrilled
. by the long
spread of grass, whole landscapes
. scrubbed clean of
green. Like Vincent van Gogh’s
. “Field in Sunlight“,
the shrubs seemed to coalesce—
. a kind of kin.
Before the birds, I’d only
imagined a trendy way to loot
. from here.
Selfie as my colonial ship.
I am human after all, so I measure
by how much it’s possible to gain.
. But when they
arrived, I stood awestruck—not
. by beauty nor
by the colorful sight of invaders.
. There has to
be something holy about flight.
Once, Grace MacNair wrote that
. God as distance
. makes sense, & I
travel backwards past the barber’s
. hop at L-street.
Past the busy road & the traffic
. light that does
not work. Past the neighborhood
. tennis board,
until I arrive unharmed at our door.
but my father is seated at the
dinner table. The atmosphere taut
. as a belt,
their breads unbroken. & what if
. I am a witness
to this absence made thick by
He once called me Son. Blood as
. the evidence
of what he has given, what he has
. taken, is
continuing to take. Unlike us,
. the birds pick
only at splattered grains. Survival
. as their binding
cause. Sometimes I wonder what
. it’d feel like
to have a family out on a field,
. & not one
of them always too drunk, too
starting to mistake a boy for
. a grain.
Ode to the Wedding Party
It’s the season of plays.
kids cluster in little Os,
throw a dice
to select the cast.
Like you, I’m handpicked
from a long line of shy
kids, & dressed
too tight in a brown
taffeta. We lock
hands more eager
to convey fear
than to embrace.
Was that when it came—
love’s first breath
soft on my teenage
chest. How the priest that
was not a priest
must have wanted
to be mischievous & ask
the both of us to kiss.
How he didn’t.
So, instead we squeezed
each other’s hand
until the night
the moon a witness,
Chiwenite Onyekwelu is the author of the poetry chapbook, EXILED (forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks, 2023). His works appear in Palette, Adroit Journal, Chestnut Review, Gutter Magazine, Kernel, Rough Cut, and elsewhere. He was recently long-listed for the 2023 Palette Published Poems Prize, and the Writing Ukraine Poetry Prize. In 2022, he was a runner-up for the Foley Poetry Prize, a runner-up for the Surging Tide Poetry Contest, as well as 3rd Prize winner of Anita McAndrews Poetry Award. He served as Chief Editor for The School of Pharmacy Agulu, where he’s an undergraduate.