Author: Folu Agoi
Reviewer: Ralph Tathagata
Year of Publication: 2017 Publisher: Flag Publication
I have never met or read about a supreme authority in the art of love. Love, in its divergent, sublime, illusive, torturous, and convoluted makeup could only be measured, defined, and understood within the total personality of the lover or lovers. Folu Agoi’s I Know the Smell of My Lover’s Skin is not about the measurement, definition, and understanding of love either. It’s rather about series of journeys into the sanctum and arena of love in its diverse expressions. It would therefore be helpful to inform readers not to X-ray Agoi’s offering only from the erotic optics.
In truth, the motif of erotic rendezvous, seduction, and surrender runs through the collection. I undertake this elucidatory appraisal with the hope that it will uncover layers of meanings behind the hero’s numerous trysts and liaisons (direct and vicarious) with the Ayabas, the Delilahs, the Bathshebas, the Cleopatras, the Helens of Troy, and other double-edged daughters of Eve. In addition to my task is to exalt some of the imagery beyond the reader’s banal understanding of love and eroticism. In other words, figuratively masked within the love and erotic metaphors are also territorial, political, economic, cultural, and religious reverence, conquests and capitulations.
The erotic does not begin and end in sexual intercourse. The farmer who furrows the soil to plant or harvest a seed, somehow, engages in the erotic with the earth. The soldier who pulls the trigger in a patriotic frenzy to crush perceived enemies, in some vicious cases e.g. Nigeria, to mow down armless civilian compatriots, also engages in the erotic of the sadistic kind. Politicians, functionaries, and civil servants feasting on public funds with impunity obviously engage in the erotic of orgiastic proportions. Indirectly, a significant portion of the population who openly and secretly eggs them on equally engage in the erotic – probably the voyeuristic type. Of course, the religious and political terrorists who blow people and things up convincingly engage in the erotic of a “divine necessity” for mindless actions. Religious and spiritual impostors who swindle the masses of their hard-earned money by selling them chimerical miracles engage in the erotic. Different people derive different degrees of love and erotic pleasure from different activities. After all, sexual desire can also be stirred by vanity, by emptiness, by the wish to conquer and be conquered, by the inclination to damage and destroy, and still be powered by “love”. But these contradictions can only be understood through the lens of paradoxical logic. I shall return to that later.
It is love therefore which impels the heroic personage of this collection to pray:]
Lord, grant me celestial torch
Guide me to know where
To know when, how
And with whom
The journey begins with the above poem titled “Dear Lord” on page 4 of the book. This simple but earnest request for a celestial torch signifies the persona’s awareness of the mazy and dangerous routes his tour in search of love would take. The tone of the prayer resonates a reverent attitude towards a force higher than the supplicant. Mindful of the powers of darkness around him, he asks for a torch – although a divine one that will lighten up the grim landscape he is about to travel.
Like the night of Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591), when he tells us that the soul ‘aflame with longings of love’ leaves her home in deep darkness, in a night of silence, and goes for her great adventure ‘with no light nor guide, except the Light that was burning in my heart’. The celestial torch image symbolises an inner light, an instrument that could provide a divine source of illumination on the pilgrim’s real and imagined paths. Love, in its authentic form produces infinite light:
The greatest gift you can ever get
Is true love
The above affirmative poem titled “Greatest Gift” on page 15 shows the ability of the personage to grasp and acknowledge a gift so subtle as God’s breath. Going by the patriarchal dominance and conquest replete in subsequent poems, this sort of unconditional love (God’s breath) can only emanate from an all-embracing source – Mother Nature. This is because no matter our tribe, race, or colour, gender or status, we all draw breath from one source – even when we’re poor and powerless. We also witness that kind of love in most of our earthly mothers who love their children with absolutely nothing attached. Ironically, “breath” remains one of the most unsung wonders of our world. Sometimes it takes a near-death experience for a few individuals to acknowledge and celebrate it. One of such experiences holds up a mirror and forces the personage to celebrate “breath” which billions of our species take for granted:
Dusting my good ol’ mirror this mornin’
I saw phosphorescent forms floatin’, flutterin’
Sparklin’ stars, singin’ soul-startlin’ songs …
“Ain’t Nothing But God’s Breath” is the title of the poem above on page 19. The need to pause and re-examine an entire existence reflects in the style and structure of the poem. The speaker has just awoken from a deathlike slumber and decides to have a look in his “good ol’ mirror”. His awakening is reminiscent of the call by Kabir (1440-1518), the Indian poet:
O friend, awake and sleep no more!
The night is over and gone, would you lose your day also?
You have slept for unnumbered ages; this morning will you not awake?
The spiritual advancement of man on earth is a sluggish one; and every poetic vision has been a seminal part of man’s awakening. Behind his humdrum finite existence, lies something infinite – something eternal that propels his creations of art and discoveries of science. The experience that arouses the creative spirit in man is not usually a pleasant one. No matter how he tries to run away from the calling. So in this “ol’ mirror” lie false images of what the speaker thought he was:
You ain’t no jazz
Good ol’ Negroid psalm …
You ain’t no reggae
Blessed beat, hunky beat
Soulful beat of colored hearts.
There is a deliberate colloquial usage throughout the long poem. In addition, contractions are audaciously deployed as rhetorical devices. And using African American nonstandard English depicts how accessible and vital, yet, so unvalued “God’s breath” was to the speaker before his prolonged drug-induced trance. Now he knows and appreciates “breath” better.
Following in quick succession is a poem titled “Fate” on page 32. Apart from the pre-determinist pitch of the poem, it hints at the likely encounter that led to the near-death experience in the preceding poem. However, the experience culminates in a humbling denouement with lessons learned the hard way:
I used to wonder why some men, even nobles
seeing a flaming dragon in a winking waist
would make a dash, eyes wide open
dashing headlong, rocket-like
for a nut in a burning well
fabled flies fated for fatal task. …
Now I know
man to fate is hopeless slave.
The above poem conjures up an image of a fledgling Casanova who had a baptism of fire. He obviously went on an amorous adventure and had his fingers burnt. The voice of the speaker smacks of a “chaser” who had a brush with death in the course of his escapades with one of those Delilahs, the femme fatales who habitually play Russian roulette with philanderers. Love could be a dangerous game. To love and to be loved require courage, though. But the courage for redemptive love is different from a mere bravado to engage in promiscuity and other fruitless or even criminal activities disguised as love. In actuality, we live in a world where mean and manipulative elements, irrespective of gender wouldn’t scruple to subjugate, exploit, and even damage anyone or group they consider weak and vulnerable in love. A sorry instance is Nigeria where rapist politicians and base Army Generals continue to ravage her honey pot with impunity all in the name of love of country. Genuine love should be able to liberate either the lover or the loved or both:
Though cast like rambling hyacinths in high seas
We’ll split the reefs
Billy goat, nanny goat
Classic cactus, royal rose
Doubly bonded – lovers, kin
Twin hearts sharing cloves of love …
“I Know the Smell of My Lover’s Skin ” doubles as the title of the above poem on page 64 and as the title of the collection. To a certain degree, the title of the poem connotes certitude in the speaker’s voice. The first line admits the fact of the persona’s awareness that he and his real or imaginary lover are separate entities. But there is willingness in the lines that follow to work things out in spite of their differences. Other lines in the last stanza arouse the emotion of a perfect chemistry between the duo:
… Eve’s string ringing Adam’s bell
Mystic string fusing big hearts …
It’s easy to tell that the cryptic alchemy between the two lovers fuels the speaker’s vaunted knowledge of his lover’s skin. Erotic love is the hunger for absolute fusion with another individual. Perhaps that is what makes it private and in most cases mislead people who take every intimacy as real love. Perfect chemistry can also be deceptive as that may not be enough to stand the tug-of-love. Erotic chemistry does not always translate to compatibility. Love requires a lot – above all, commitment. Therefore any passion that is not powered by genuine love can hardly lead to a fusion any more than a passing erotic conquest and capitulation. But because the speaker’s tone is cocksure, let’s presume that he sure knows the smell of his lover’s skin.
On a metaphysical plane, this lover could be God, Mother Nature, the Muse, or anything beautiful but a romantic partner. Line 3 of the first stanza says “re-fuse” suggesting a re-fusion of inner and outer reality. In the realm of poetic vision and imagination, spirit and matter are not separate and apart. They can assume any form just to commune with the man or woman who carries the vision. That brings me to my earlier promise to elevate some of the imagery beyond the reader’s banal understanding of love and eroticism. The forces that compel a poet or any creative mind to consider the spiritual source of man’s physical manifestations go beyond physical laws. In fact, the expansionist role of poetry and art generally should serve to help man reach beyond his immediate self-interest. In this state of contemplation which transcends recollection and meditation, the lover and the loved are one. And every selfish consciousness is evaporated because the vision and the carrier of the vision are fused into one. In this realm, the poet effortlessly becomes the poem. Because in union with the Beautiful the Beauty and the beholder are one. John Keats, the English romantic poet expresses the love of the Beautiful, the revered religion of ancient Greek in these famous words:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Agoi has perceived the smell of his Lover and he knows it – that is his supreme knowledge in the course of his epic journey. To know the beauty of God, Nature, and Art is to see the truth in life. True love is beauty and beauty is truth. Plotinus (A.D. 205-270), the Roman philosopher and the prima representative of Neoplatonism puts it this way:
To make our soul good and beautiful is to make ourselves like unto God: because God is beauty. Ugliness is the same as evil: its contrary is beauty and good.
The above quotation is neither a mere demonstration of Manichaeism – or a show of typical Western dualism on the part of the reviewer. Of course, such position will negate the fundamental thrust of this review which revolves around the paradox of love. I strongly hold that art should be a looking glass through which we authentically see the human condition. For example the role of satire is to debunk contradictions, and it’s not compelled to solve them. Although satire may, sometimes, choose to have a moral dimension which draws judgement against its targets. A satirical poem on page 125 titled “Seeing Heaven from a Crib in a Rock” ridicules the dystopian economic, political, and religious atmosphere that currently pervades Nigeria:
Blame not woodpeckers locked in royal groves
Hard-boiled bills playing jazz on sacred woods
Nor woodcarvers tied to royal courts
Meat-fed minds stuck on stately scraps …
The poem opens with a militant irony by asking the reader not to blame the objects of the speaker’s attack. The first four lines sardonically roast the smug functionaries and hangers-on who caterwaul for morsels in the corridors of power. Subsequent lines continue to blow the whistle on the brazen acts of brigandage perpetrated by septuagenarian and octogenarian gangsters in power:
Bold face of daylight robbery
Giant ass on sacred hills
Spraying scorn on aged skulls …
Smiling faces, lying lips leading hymns ..
Blame not palace priests seeing heaven in hashish pipes …
Cocky fowls spewing sermons, screaming ‘Fast!
Hope! Fast, starvation being food for salvation …
Dry fasting! Fast now and feast later
Cry tonight, smile at dawn …
There is no better way to ridicule the leading figures in current Nigerian politics, economy, religion, and other prominent realms of power than the above lines. They boldly confront our collective imaginary by exposing the rascality and criminality of leaders and authorities who ought to be paragons. Personally, I had been asked during press interviews “whether satire is still very much an effective literary device in the 21st century?”. My answer was, and still remains yes. Satire, particularly the pungent Juvenalian model provides hortatory insights into our collective psyche as a people and when directed effectively exposes society’s power structure. I think that real satire should be abrasive enough to arouse outraged and violent reaction in the corrupt authorities.
A glance at the boxed section on page 128 spoon-feeds the reader with a good dose of what the poem is all about. The position of the nation’s media managers on “mendacity” is a typical case of venal salesmen with a useless commodity, who cannot function economically without lying. Although that doesn’t exonerate one bit the salesmen’s criminal resolve to earn their bread by compulsively lying. And I do grin each time I hear PR luminaries harangue the current spin doctors of Aso Rock for embarrassing rather than presenting their boss in a positive light. Of course, I know such criticisms are borne out of envy for the juicy job. However, in the practical world of marketing, when a product completes its life cycle you rest it. No realistic owner/custodian would want to continue wasting money, time, and resources on a dead brand. Only fraudulent marketers sell fossilised brands to gullible consumers. Because no philosopher’s stone can rejuvenate it. Giving the brand eternal rest is called brand euthanasia. But folks work in the morgue, anyway, tending to cadavers just to earn a living.
The role of organised religion in sedating the masses to enable the smooth operation of political robbers is also revealed in the poem. In traditional African society, old age and grey hair symbolise wisdom, experience, moral rectitude etc.. However, the senior citizens we encounter in the poem are “spraying scorn on aged skulls”. In all, the poem holds up a mirror to the iniquities and hypocrisies of an amoral ruling class without conscience. We see in the same mirror “… vultures cheering, mammoth vultures tweeting ‘Life is sweet!’
As I remarked earlier, love manifests and expresses itself in our world, more often, in strange and wicked ways. “Macabre Dialogue” is a narrative poem that partly portrays remorseless sadism in a villainous personage and whatever he represents on page 129. For so long, the corridors of power and the entire political scene in Nigeria had been infested with pigheaded and purblind characters as leaders. The most obtuse and brutish of this set are found in the military. In fact, the military poses, to say the least, a social, political, economic, moral and spiritual threat to the progress of Nigeria. Whether they are in battle dress or in civilian attire, the Nigerian Army remains a constant nightmare to the civilian population:
Staring over golden specs sitting astride a lustrous nose
Weary eyes panning the ball in the sprawling hall …
And standing tall – proud iroko tree, he calls, booming like a bomb:
‘Cinna the Poet – good old fellow, I salute!’ …
I love you
Says Ol’ Soldier, facing the poet – sober soul, silver-haired
I do, by God’s breezy breath!
The boxed section of the poem on page 133 hints at the Nigeria/Biafra civil war as the historical antecedent that inspired the work. A meeting between two protagonists, albeit on different frontline, thirty four years after the war – Prof Wole Soyinka and General Yakubu Gowon apparently activated the making of the poem.
The Ol’ Soldier sights one of his victims among the sea of human faces and hails him as a “poet” and a “good old fellow”. On the surface, the greeting appears like a move to make up for a wrongdoing archived in the remotest region of the mind. After all, placation has many voices – but this is definitely not one of them. The Ol’ Soldier’s voice clearly resonates impenitence and condescension towards the victim. Even the victim’s status as a poet means nothing to the piggish philistine Ol’ Soldier considering the mocking tone with which he heralds the poet. After thirty four years, he still considers his automated mentality as something to be proud of. As far as he is concerned his zombified status as a soldier is better than that of the poet. The junk and mean-spirited Ol’ Soldier goes on to express love for the poet even swearing by God. But his profession of love is graceless and smacks of contempt. Love should be the child of freedom and penitence and not of wickedness and arbitrary confinement. From all indications, the android Ol’ Soldier is calcified in his ways.
In the last stanza, the narrator draws a paradoxical conclusion:
Love and hate are moon and sun
Like war and peace
Or friends and foes;
Friends are good
Foes are fine …
We need foes
Like plants need water
Like men need women
Like the world needs Satan
To teach man
To fear God.
It takes a strange sense of irony to realise that that which threatens our existence could also set us free. And that which cuddles and pampers us could even ruin our lives forever. Life is full of incongruities. Things we earnestly pray for distance themselves from us. And things we fervently pray against intrude on our spaces. The experiences that transform our lives are not always the pleasant ones. But they come even against our will and sometimes shape us into better human beings based on our ability to learn and grow. That brings me back to the subject of paradoxical logic. Although it would trespass the perimeter of this review, I shall mention a few authorities with concise quotations in order to make my point more intelligible.
Lao-Tse, Heraclitus, Socrates, Apostle Paul, Hegel, Marx and many proponents of paradoxical logic profess that man can perceive reality only in contradictions. According to Lao-Tse, “Words that are strictly true seem to be paradoxical.” Heraclitus holds that “We go into the same river, and yet not in the same; it is we and it is not we.” Socrates thinks that “To know and yet think we do not know is the highest attainment; not to know and yet think we do know is a disease.” Apostle Paul believes that “All things work together for good to them that love God (Romans 8:28)”. In modern history, Hegelian and Marxist dialectical reasoning express similar principles. For Hegel, the formulation of “It is and it is not” is positive. Marx asserts in his celebrated eleventh thesis on Feuerbach that “The philosophers have interpreted the world in different ways – the task is to transform it.” Considered through the prism of contradiction, Agoi’s work is a bold poetic experiment in conflict between opposites which is the basis of all existence. Most poems in the book are imbued with nasty and rugged experiences that end up transforming the personages.
Agoi’s collection is a testament of a persevering genius, a poet who labours over his craft until it reflects precisely his vision, which must be crystalised in the process of composition. In I Know the Smell of My Lover’s Skin, Agoi focuses on the phenomenon he cares most about – love. The poetic vitality with which he speaks and dramatises love in all its manifold manifestations are extraordinary. In the 167 page book, love assumes the weight of the world and challenges the place of humankind in it. The entire poetic journey reawakens in the reader the force and energy embedded in the word love, particularly, when put into practice. As one of the exponents of the Beat Generation, Allen Ginsberg evokes in his poem titled “Song”:
The weight of the world
Under the burden
under the burden
the weight we carry
is love. …
but we carry the weight
the weight is too heavy …
Despite the heaviness of the weight of love on his shoulder, the hero of I Know the Smell of My Lover’s Skin trudges on. Regardless of the lost and won battles, his search for love, the ultimate truth continues:
I seek a woman
A real woman
Not a walking shadow …
I seek a woman
A real woman
Not a mere piece of gorgeous flesh …
I seek a woman
A real woman
Not a pretty bimbo …
The postscript of the collection has a poem titled “I Seek a Woman” on page 164. In the end, the hero searches for the highest good of all. He yearns for union with the ultimate good represented as a woman. Having experienced joys and sadness, conquests and capitulations in the hands of love; the hero finally seeks the matriarchal and all-embracing love. In the real world, this envisaged perfect corporeality cannot be found in a flesh and blood woman. She must belong to the empyrean realms to possess those infallible qualities. The seeker himself is not perfect either. And he feels a deep discord right in his soul. Like a little child, he weeps in the dark for his home. He is aware of his separation from something total with which he wants to be reunited.
Generally, the tone of the poem suggests that the speaker is not happy in the constituted conventions of his time. Love becomes his choice weapon to cut a path through the clutter of social, political, cultural, religious, and spiritual contradictions of his time. He has come to the realisation that money, power, fame, and sexual conquest only mean a little life and a little death. He therefore seeks to travel from the unreal to real; from separation to union; from death to immortality. The unshakeable faith and ultimate hope of the hero’s reward for his poetic valour lie in the conviction to find this real woman who will accept him in spite of his flaws. If there is anything to take away from the collection it’s that the hero does not stop at the supreme knowledge of his lover, but demonstrates his love whenever the need arises. He is aware of his existence as a single hand that cannot produce any sound in isolation. Rumi, the Muslim poet and mystic puts it this way:
No sound of clapping comes from one hand without the other hand.
I shall conclude by quoting Hafiz, the great Sufi master and the 14th century Persian (Iranian) poet in a poem titled “Why Abstain?”
Why abstain from love
When like a beautiful snow goose
Someday your soul
Will leave this summer camp?