This week, I read Skeleton Of A Ruined Song, a collection of poems by Bola Opaleke. The poems in this book are well-crafted and eloquent pieces, which document the experience of living in violence, and seeking refuge in other countries. The voice is what really drives this collection. It’s like the speaker is holding you by the shoulders, and telling you his story. It commands to be heard. It’s fabulous and fierce, and at times, full of gravitas.
In “Home That Would Not Let Us Stay,” the speaker says, “After thirty years I finally managed/to figure out what home means/ to a refugee.” In the piece, the speaker rents a house, thinking back to what “home” has meant for them, as a refugee—a place that wasn’t safe, where deaths and violence occurred on a regular basis. Even here, the speaker feels threatened—by the landlord, by the police. The speaker accidentally cuts his finger, while cutting fruit. There’s a sense of overwhelming menace and apocalyptic imagery. There is so much tension, which is created by the speaker’s expectation for things to spiral out of control at any moment.
The piece ends with the speaker saying: “I look out/through the basement window, /my eyes traversing oceans/and mountains calling home, waiting/for something beautifully naked/to crawl ashore and say stay here.” There is so much aching in that line, and I really feel like the poet nails that ending. I kind of sat for a moment after reading it for the first time, just enjoying how that line completely takes the poem in a new direction. I mean, mostly, there’s this dark feeling that inhabits the piece, and then it ends with this line about what the speaker wants—it lifts the poem, in a sense.
In “Because My Knees Are Darker Than My Body,” the speaker says: “I gave my body & soul/to the skeleton of a ruined song./ My waist rapidly twerking/to the rhythm of that abandonment.” The violence and frenetic motion that this line evokes, creates a sense of total chaos. The image is completed, when the police torture a deer, causing it to become a wolf. The poet is saying here that violence causes the innocent to become something dangerous, feral, in order to survive.
The epigraph for the poem, “Stolen,” reads: “Every captor – every captor attempts not only to enslave your body but also your soul; to seize your language & make it his.” For a person, to have your language taken from you is a crime. For a writer, to have your language taken from you is an atrocity. This book is a reclamation, of language, of power, of life. I highly recommend this collection. This chapbook is forthcoming in June through Ice Floe Press, and is currently available for pre-order.