if only the night
Sojourner Press, out of print (paper)
eel on reef
Akashic Books, $15.95 (paper)
SPM Publications, $10 (paper)
all by Uche Nduka
“BEAUTY WILL BE CONVULSIVE or it will not be at all,” André Breton thunders at the conclusion of his 1928 Surrealist novel Nadja. But nearly one hundred years later, how potent is the Surrealism Breton championed? Can juxtaposition, surprise, enigma, antithesis, and nonconformity still form a convulsing engine that emits the pulse of force we call beauty? Or does twenty-first-century Surrealism deserve (and prefer) a small “s,” being a well-worn bag of tricks nullified by poets’ non-investment in the political force of poetic form? Does contemporary Surrealism fail to convulse? Does it exist at all?
It does. The work of Brooklyn-based writer and artist Uche Nduka confirms the persistence of Surrealism in its classic, convulsive mode. Born in 1963, Nduka has written ten books of poetry—some published in his native Nigeria; another after beginning a life in Germany and Amsterdam in 1994; and a growing number since settling in the United States more than seven years ago. The signature of his style has been apparent since his earliest works: casual yet tenacious, easy-phrased yet aggressive, brief-lined yet indelible. In book-length lyric sequences, Nduka utilizes a speaker by turns alert to, enthralled with, and pugnacious toward the world—that hypocrite reader, that double, that frère. Take the lyric titled “Acquittal” from the 2002 volume if only the night:
I’m not neutered as you can see.
I’m raining on a town
Where cars prate
And when I move my tongue
The cars slip into my gabble.
I stand with my hands on my waist.
Hatless heads screw themselves
Into the innards of summer . . . .
I see the Gate of Order
The Gate admitting guides inside it
Admitting occasions admitting
It has more than a single wish as it
Swings. As it swings between actions
And opinions. As it opens up to
And incompleteness. I don’t know
Unites it with itself or what unites it
With cars or what unites it with me.
It obsessively sears the scenery.
You see this and so do I.
This poem exhibits many of Nduka’s hallmarks. There is the seemingly bold but in fact ambiguous title: rather than suggesting relief, “Acquittal” connotes the uncomfortable relationship of a dark-skinned man, or any immigrant, with the justice system of his host country, the provisionality of any acquittal. The first line is literally ballsy, funny, complete in itself; we imagine this speaker’s feet spread and firmly planted on the ground, the alpha male of his own poem, asserting fixity of position in the space of the émigré’s characteristic precariousness. But the next line dissolves this bodily firmness in a Surreal conversion: as rain, the speaker is dispersed everywhere, his actions amplified; cars speak his “gabble.” Next his bodily gesture causes “heads” to “screw themselves / into the innards of summer,” another lushly Surreal, improbable, and bawdy set of transformations pistoned along by enjambment. When we readers arrive at “It obsessively sears the scenery,” we must hunt back through the poem for its antecedent. The true antecedent seems to be Nduka’s poetry itself, relentlessly palpable and attentive to “the scenery,” “searing” in its potency, and never neutral or neutered.
If the strength of Nduka’s poetry has been evident for some time now—he won the Association of Nigerian Authors Award for Poetry in 1997—his three latest volumes, all published since his immigration to the United States, represent a distinctive flourishing. With eel on reef (2007), Ijele (2012), and Nine East (2013), Nduka’s writing has retained its insouciance and easy virtuosity, but it has gained consistency, resourcefulness, and pliancy. In his generous preface to eel on reef, Kwame Dawes connects Nduka’s most overtly political poetry to his (small-s) surrealism. When Nduka’s writing seems to refer to political events, Dawes contends, “The surrealism that emerges is a commentary on the violence and the horrible facts behind the poem. . . . what has become a tragic reality for many Africans can only be articulated through the language of the absurd.”
Radical proximity is a first principle of Surrealism.
I would expand Dawes’s point. To my reading, all of Nduka’s work is Surreal, and in this sense it is all political. The real is not paraphrased or commented on by Surrealism but convulses through it. The real in Nduka’s work carries the resonance not only of his Nigerian identity and experience of political violence but also the dislocation of the émigré and the frightening power relations of intimacy as mapped onto the lyric. eel on reef is a bewitchingly elegant collection of lyrics, and part of its convulsiveness (which in this case might be described as ambiguity taken to its violent extreme) comes from Nduka’s placement of phrases within the whiteness of the page, a whiteness that then beats with competing and deafening resonances. The volume opens:
a season trembles.
the sentience of a season
quivers inside water.
the sun slaps a wall.
where is your face?
tuck your hair
into a band.
where is your face?
pat back your hair
let me see your face. . . .
i wish i could
estrange your starfish
from a pebble.
The poem begins drenched in Rimbaud, alluding both to A Season in Hell and to the fraught tableau that opens Illuminations. The trembling and quivering in Nduka’s opening lines feel at first anticipatory, but once “the sun slaps a wall” this tone is rewritten as nervous, even terrorized. The lyric axis is re-established as interrogation; that is, a character called “you” is brought into the poem through the challenge of an unseen speaker, perhaps the sun itself: “where is your face? / tuck your hair / into a band. / where is your face?” In our contemporary moment and after a long, brutal twentieth century, this series of questions and commands feels frightening, like those of a rogue policeman, our Interrogator Sun. The next two lines—“pat back your hair / let me see your face”—soften the tone, reading like intimacy, like the beginning of a seduction. The poem ends with an almost ludicrously quiet image: “i wish i could / estrange your starfish / from a pebble.” This wish should feel gentle, but after the preceding violent juxtapositions, its hyperbolic diminution in tone cannot relieve the tension. Instead, the wish, like the seductive command, “let me see your face,” illustrates how violence and coercion can change shape to enter the reduced scale of intimacy.
The collection Ijele departs from most of Nduka’s work in that it comprises not lyrics but prose. These prose poems proceed at a breakneck (Rimbaudian) pace, with a speaker propelled along the full, agitated horizon line of the sentence, riding nothing more substantial than a lowercase “i.” In the poem “Jammage,”
as the first bulletin turned to face the second, i went through another adolescence of fascination with a political circus act. the slow-burn romance reeked of patchouli. i won’t forget the suffocation i fought against. those insufficiencies of libertinage. a friskier reprise. there is no entwining that does not call us. orchid and cumulus. glass and wood. plastic and paper. can we just make faces at the frontman for pogroms and stop at that? here’s the basketweaver. that rod was not spared and i was not spoilt,they thought. beside us a spilt lotion.
These poems read rapidly, as a fuse burning up the elegant sinuosity of eel on reef in a hectic compressed montage, that most Surreal of aesthetic forms. Nduka’s speaker in Ijele is the classic cinematic running man, with the global/local city on fire around him and a bullet in every bulletin. Instead of giving us a face-to-face lyric, the poem problematizes faces. In the first sentence, the “facing” of the two bullets/bulletins carries volumes of violence in its wake, while adolescent “fascination” recalls the fascist bundle of sticks, by lines five and six reprised as a rod, the pogrom’s cudgel. The “spilt lotion” in the final fragment recalls the uncertainty of intimacy in this context: Is this lotion like blood, spilt by violence, or like milk,
Ijele is the most chaotic of Nduka’s recent books, though like all of them it is also nimbly assured and fully realized. With his most recent volume, Nine East, the lyric instinct returns to the fore but without reprising the elegance of eel on reef. Instead these poems have the jammed quality of Ijele’s prose; erotic and driven together, the poems seem to deploy in a radiant, jazz-drenched darkness, to entail something like Joycean “writing of the night” (“I really could not,” Joyce said, “use words in their ordinary connections . . . that way they do not express how things are in the night, in the different stages—conscious, then semi-conscious, then unconscious”):
Short breaths, shallow breaths.
unrested, overamped. i couldn’t
capitulate to peace. i slammed myself
between rage and rectitude. honed
and rehoned the poem. sought
within it. the poem as sensory assault.
sought excitement within it. was it
or was it the peach petals on my
you want a whiskered awakening. you
to tackle the mathematics of arousal.
the flame in the grate. a prickle of
In this poem we recognize many of Nduka’s accumulated techniques—the headlong motion of the lowercase “i,” the abrupt, almost ear-popping downshifting of tone between “the poem as sensory assault” and “peach petals on my limbs.” This tonal convulsiveness is not resolved by the ending lines of the poem; instead, it becomes a
current transferred to the addressee. But does the poem land on the lover’s “you” or the “you” of the poet addressing himself? The assignment of the tingly “prickle” to the tight, implicitly delimited space of a “caesura” implies that this, too, is an erotic interval, a place of currents, sparks, flames, and exchanges. And we should remember that a caesura is not just a neutral interval or pause in a line of poetry; this is an interval that encodes violence, death, derived from the Latin caedere—to cut, hew, fell, strike, beat, kill. It would be impossible to extricate all these resonances within the work of Nduka, to separate the erotic from the non-erotic, the political from the non-political, to estrange the starfish from its pebble. Nine East, especially, entails an inextricable hyper-proximity.
Radical proximity is a first principle of Surrealism, in which a variety of techniques—automatic writing, cutups, juxtaposition—are designed to force the real up through the surface of everyday reality. “Existence is elsewhere,” the first Surrealist manifesto concludes, pointing to this other zone, which shares a skin with our waking world. But what can this mean for the émigré, his brain formed during a civil war, flung in his maturity into an elsewhere that also renders his home country a permanent elsewhere, himself the skin between a double-elsewhere? He becomes what Don Mee Choi has called a “twin zone.” Surrealism’s precursor movements, such as Dada and Cubism, were created by packs of transnationalized or stateless refugees in Zurich, Paris, Rome, and elsewhere. It was Aimé Césaire’s sojourn in Europe that allowed him to turn the x-ray vision of Surrealism back at the island of Martinique, resulting in his transformational Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, 1939). Maybe it is Nduka’s tenacious virtuosity alongside his émigré status that has confirmed the Surrealist tendency of his work and rendered him a Surrealist par excellence.