-Reviewed by Claire Trévien–
Akwe Amosu’s debut collection Not Goodbye is littered with false and real endings. Amosu is a half-British, half-Nigerian poet who has lived in various countries, including South Africa, where her publisher Carapace was based, before settling in Washington DC. This biographical element is worth pointing out as while relationships, particularly family ties are a large part of this collection, so are the many places she has called home.
The ‘Goodbye’ of the title makes reference then to the many forms of attachment ones makes through life. Sometimes, they’re not wholly human attachments, in ‘After O’Keefe’ the painter’s paint still coils ‘like a lick of sky’ around her wrist, long after she’s left the gallery. While in a different gallery, Washington’s National Museum of African Art, Amosu experiences a haunting from across the ocean:
I came here looking for Africa, but it is you I find,
stepping weightless beside me through the galleries
(‘Postcard to Wolvercote Cemetery’)
And the goodbye here is not easy, or even perhaps possible:
I find your going in words, memories, movement, all fading,
my life muffled by your absence, hanging still as museum air.
Come back. Or, I beg you, go on ahead.
Non-goodbyes interrupt even the most idyllic of scenarios, as in ‘Keeping you with us’, where an almost stifling vision of domestic happiness in Swanage is cut short:
and this enchanted house where we play happy families,
reprise annual fights and japes, ritual meals and bids
for the window seat on the steam train to Corfe Castle,
for boring tours, cream teas and strawberry jam. Africa
couldn’t be further away.
There follows a list of news items that are absent from this trip, and while the positives of Swanage’s costal life are brought up again – it’s with the shadow of a loss over it.
Not Goodbye has a predilection for straight unbroken columns of poetry, such as ‘Against Hope’. The format allows for an unrelenting pile up of negative images:
Here’s how you hope,
don’t catch the truth’s eye.
Just go about your business.
Purse your lips so that it
can’t slip out as you argue
with the cab company or
mumble apologies groping
for coins in your purse.
Eat quickly: concentrate on not
This form makes her poem ‘Not innocent’ stand out all the more. Here the poem is capsized so that the title is at the end and the lines must be read from bottom to top. This forces the moment captured in the poem to be drawn out, first by being read accidentally in the wrong order, a chaos of broken phrases, and then back together in the intended sequence. That simple act of making us read in a non-usual order (and with a right-hand side alignment no less) magnifies this simple moment. If it were filmed, it’d be with a fisheye lens:
facades blurring as through thick glass,
and drags as we bend in, the street tilting
innocent ritual but observe how time buckles
These farewell kisses on the cheek may seem an
Not Goodbye is a slim volume, containing only 31 poems, but its economical format packs a poetic punch. Unfortunately, Carapace has closed its doors, which might make this collection harder to find – it’s worth the effort.