My first experience of reading Onyekachi Iloh’s poems was like taking a shot of Berber coffee in Vienna. Spice awakens the palate, then a gritty aftertaste over and above the obligatory aroma, the caffeine, and the foamed milk to keep it all together. Consider how the first poem explores love with metaphor and diversion: “one hand on the wheel & another in softer places”.
Typically, such themes are loaded with cliche. Remember Rilke’s warning in Letters to a Young Poet? ‘Do not write love-poems,’ he wrote. ‘Avoid at first those forms that are too facile and commonplace: they are the most difficult, for it takes a great, fully matured power to give something of your own’. Indeed, it takes the verve and nerve of someone ungestüm, loosely translated from Rilke’s native German as ‘impetuous’, sonically connected to unmuted or even stormy, to convincingly break through the threadbare phrase.
Even though Iloh writes ‘in shielding my tongue, I do not speak’, he richly describes with image. These poems are a demonstration of how understatement can hold — and advance — larger themes of love, resurrection and redemption.
— Mandakini Pachauri
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Romance Is Not Dead In My Native Tongue
two bodies sitting on sand
in a map that doesn’t die
. -Romeo Oriogun
This is probably how the story begins for other people:
a glance, two stares, one date, a half-kiss where someone
mistakenly tongues the other’s nostril.
They could have been running late on the same bus
& found the conductor’s sloth irritating.
They could have been sitting across each other in a nightclub
shrouded in the silence of owls and none of their wisdom,
sipping vodka & drawing stick figures on misted beer glasses,
whorls of smoke dancing in and out
of them like the aftermath of gunfire.
But ours did not begin in any of those ways;
we lacked the wisdom of owls alright
I had some of their silence, you hadn’t
& neither of us smoked cigarettes in praise of war.
I don’t quite remember how it began but
our eyes calligraphed lyrics of rain the first time:
To be in love is to be a body on fire
stumbling around in its search for a river’s path;
a path to God’s undying eye to drink some of his tears.
To be in love is to be a radio with broken knobs;
wailing without control, without fear,
without throttlehold, with all the memories of lost piety.
So when we face each other like clapping hands
& pop pomegranates into each other’s mouths,
I think about things like this:
bodies on fire
//b r o k e n//
radios blaring a medley of Hip-hop & Afrobeat.
It could have been RnB, trap or reggae
breaking a body into water//into waves coiled like music notes;
perpetual inquisitions of love reside in the love singer’s throat
like condom packets in a cheating husband’s pocket,
Jimmy Ruffin asks a generation what becomes of the broken-hearted,
Bob Marley tosses his locked head & haunts a world with his words:
Is this love Is this love Is this love
My skull takes the flow of lyrics like amphora taking new wine:
say wince, say grimace, say loss, say equilibrium
say owl before an explosion of headlights
Somewhere in the middle of the story;
a middle so long the remaining pages are the first & the last,
we are bumping along a road riddled with potholes
one hand on the wheel & another in softer places.
This one has several versions but it is still different facets of the same diamond:
Independence Layout, Allen Avenue
& some street without a name on Victoria Island.
I think we celebrate love the way we behold the sea:
watch it for an eternity//watch it come//watch it ebb,
watch it dissolve all the sandcastles into shame,
then we lose our awe of it, dig our feet into sand
& look for shells.
On the Last Day of The World
Which will be the first day of The Apocalypse,
because the end of something
always means the beginning of everything else;
the mother will be at the kitchen counter chopping onions
and rubbing her watery eyes with the back of her hand.
The father will be in the front yard revving the car
and listening for sounds.
The daughter will be in her room reading letters
from a boy who loves her too much
to tell her without saying it through dead trees.
It is the end of the world, the dead are all astir and love is still alive.
The son. The son will falter home, gibbering : father, mother.
The dog will see and bound towards him.
He will come up to the front porch.
The flowers from his grave now in his hands.
They will all board up themselves inside the house.
He will beat at the door with bloodied hands.
They will shiver at his every growl.
It is the end of the world, the dead are all astir and love is still alive.
Prelude to Exorcism
I’m not scared
I’m not scared, need to grab the stars
I’m not scared of the dark/ of the dark
. -Lil Wayne
say it thrice for reassurance
to let it know it belongs to your hands
and not the store window of desire
that is how my mother taught me
to speak nothingness into being
no, this is not numerology; fuck
the ancient Babylonians really,
or was it the Persians? the Phoenicians?
fuck. fuck. fuck. say it three times
speak the wind into a woman wrapped
in kente, cornrows running
from forehead to the nape of her neck
goad a pool of something not water
into giving you something not your
face, or your father’s father’s father’s face
speak your lover into a beast that
swallows your heart and spits it
into your hands if you ask nicely
yes I told you of a man I used to know. he received news of his mother’s
death, he did a little dance and said: the earth never dies, it can only lose
what makes waxmallows bloom; so my mother is not dead. two hundred
hoes and two hundred cutlasses conspired against the hill, yet the hill
stands; so my mother still lives. when an angler finds iyemoja upon his hook,
he lets her squamous body into the water slowly, he lets the maiden of the
sea gently into the sea’s open mouth; let death ease my mother into life’s
calloused hands. when I last saw that man, he had written the last dirge.
now, the words break into cloudlets of grief and float from his reach.
in shielding my tongue
I tuck it deep into the recesses of my mouth
into the history masquerading with my body
into my grandmother’s story of yesterday,
before she looked away as vultures
gorged themselves on the eyes of the dead,
before she clamped a palm on my uncle’s wailing, infant mouth
as the enemy crunched dried leaves underboot,
before she said child, forget
these things, no one talks about them anymore
before I saw her tuck the flag of a lost country
between her breasts
in shielding my tongue, I do not speak
of anything left on the altar of grief
leave the priest be to do his work. hang
around long enough and see yourself caught
in a thicket on the mountain ledge
hang around long enough and see heaven
fissure into a mouth that pulls the knife
away from the trachea of the son to your horned head.
you want to be something for which a killing is made/awaiting the strain
of fire’s rhapsody to leap on a bound body/something for whom heaven breaks/
open to reveal a storm-filled orifice/but sorry, you cannot be the son/you want to open your body into melody/no you are not the fire/did you gather all the dense
stony parts/of your desire into a pile/did you heap/upon it/everything in you whose brittleness dreams of breaking/no, you are not allowed to be the altar either/
you are that on whose head/the priest places his hands as a/prelude to exorcism/
to expelling/your knees taste dust and he sprinkles holy water on your head/
some of it falls on your tongue/and like night/kowtowing/at the feet of daybreak/
you come into the knowledge of why Christ/clasped his hands in prayer thrice/
upon seeing/visions of blood in his chalice/before a kiss led him into the innards of night/amidst
flaming torches/and glinting spear points
Image credits: Edward Hopper, Room in New York. Why did we choose to show a new York City couple, each lost in their own entertainments, as accompaniment to Onyekachi Iloh set of poems. As with the other poets, we focused on the first poem. It speaks of modern love’s trajectory, both its universal patterns as well as the particular deviations of the narrator and their loved one. However, the ending is left open to closure. We thought Hopper’s painting would serve as one. Whether the painting strikes one as sad or happy is of course a matter of what the viewer brings to the experience. We recommend seeing it as the poet sees it: I think we celebrate love the way we behold the sea…
Onyekachi Iloh is a writer, poet and visual artist exploring photography as a means of documentation and the re-examination of sight. He has been a finalist for the Stephen DiBiase Poetry Prize, the Frontier Award for New Poets, the Barjeel Poetry Prize, and the Lagos International Poetry Festival Prize. He is a winner of the Oxford Brookes Poetry Prize and the Quarterly West Poetry Prize. His work has appeared in Barren Magazine, Off The Coast, Welter, Singapore Unbound, Quarterly West, Palette Poetry, Mudroom Mag and elsewhere.