The Vastness and Reserve of ‘Gbenga Adeoba’s Exodus

Exodus by ‘Gbenga Adeoba. University of Nebraska Press, March 2020. $17.95

‘Gbenga Adeoba’s remarkable first collection Exodus attends to the experience of those who have been forced to migrate from their homes by wars, disasters, and enslavement. Like the sea at calm, Exodus maintains a surface of composure over the uncounted losses of life and home it contains. The stately formality of Adeoba’s diction, “retelling parables of no return,” lends the poems an oratorical quality of an epic or a Bible passage (3). And yet the authority and evenness of the poetic voice attunes the reader all the more closely to disturbances that register emotion.  

Knowing the correlation that often obtains between sonic density and emotional intensity, it can be tempting for a poet to reach for this resource unsparingly. Adeoba’s approach is more reserved, preserving these effects for the moments when they are most warranted. Small clusters of sound thus acquire an unwonted power to move and unsettle. We might remark, for instance, the clusters of “r” sounds that accumulate in the collection’s first poem, “Resurrection:”

On the fortnight of your return,
they would bunch around the evening fire
to learn of our resurrection: the unhallowed season
of the sea, the throes, the convention of birds
on the route where the smugglers
joined you to a truck toward the waters . . . (3).

The first cluster of “r” sounds is “fortnight of your return.” First, we have the formality of “fortnight” that the assonance with “your” slightly disturbs, drawing our attention to repetition. We might not yet notice the “r’s” of return, given the shorter vowel sound. But then by the time we get to “fire / to learn of our resurrection,” this sonic thread of “r” sounds becomes more prominent. The harshness of the string of “r’s” including the double “r” of “resurrection” evokes the “unhallowed” nature of this process. The path to resurrection is “on the route where the smugglers / joined you to a truck toward the waters,” and here the harshness of the “r” sound fully emerges as physical roughness. Then the string of “t” sounds in “to a truck toward the waters” creates the effect of sputtering, as the “you” is dragged toward the waters of “no return.” The emotions that disturb the serene flow of Adeoba’s language have deep roots in sound. 

The book begins by attending to the expanse of the sea, and the significance the sea has for those who have to risk their lives and identities crossing it. The “gray vaults of the sea” hold lost lives, but they also hold lore and a source of collective identity for those who are displaced (“Child of the World,” 10). In these first sea poems, experiences of forced migration are mediated by transformative acts of telling and witnessing that blur the boundaries between the living and the dead. The first poem, “Resurrection,” alludes to the myth of Lazarus who Jesus brings back from the dead. In the poems immediately after, the living and the dead are both seen as “lost at sea” (“All the Little Lights Going Out,” 8). 

In the poem “Thresholds” and those that follow, the speaker establishes a clearer boundary between the living and the dead, the present and the past. “Thresholds” looks back to the time when the speaker’s grandfather was alive, “the music of his lore, riffling the air / like the lifting of birds” (11). The first line of the next poem “Half Acre of Water,” alludes to the absence of birdsong that weaves the particularities of history into the fabric myth: “Gulls, too, are fleeing / that portion where their / bodies were drowned, those” (12). The poem then goes on to describe the experience of 26 young Nigerian women who drown on their way to Italy. More poems follow that attend to particular historical situations that are not woven into myth until we reach another poem about the speaker’s grandfather, “A Funeral Hymn in Falsetto,” which ends 

It is a decade now
and sighs have replaced hymns.
The elegies, too, return to me
the way an empty alley
returns our gift of words in multiples (19).

As soon as sighs replace hymns, there is the possibility for the return of a new kind of song, the elegy, or the song of mourning for those who are lost. The remainder of the first section of Adeoba’s book returns to the power of song to enable those who have been displaced or enslaved to knit themselves back to their present lives. A particularly striking example of this occurs in “Middle Passage” in which “slaves / huddled in the ship cell as a cluster, singing, / knitting their singsong into the thick of the hurricane” (22).

The poems in the second and final part of Adeoba’s book can be seen as a calm after the storm. After the earlier poems that reach into the long history of forced migration and the unrecorded past, this final section turns also toward the songs of the more recent past of childhood. The poems participate in children’s alertness to songs that have a source more superficial than the experiences of suffering that have shaped them most profoundly:

Their ears quick
to thunderclaps weaker
than the booms that claimed
their kindred five months earlier.

Despite that downpour,
the sing-song of school tunes (“The Morning After,” 39).

These are the songs that can lead forward into what to do now, what new thing to make of life in the aftermath. Much of Adeoba’s collection is permeated by birdsong, but this final part foregrounds the smallness of “songbirds” (“Here is Water,” 34). But these poems that deal in what is small have no less gravity than the earlier poems: “the tiny things are heavier” (“Here is Water,” 34). Indeed, it is the small and informal words such as “video-game,” “kids,” and “radioing” that ultimately wash ashore at the end of Exodus (36, “20, Gbogi Street,” 38, “Numbers,” 47, “Promenade”). What lends these tiny words and toys their gravity are the experiences behind the reserve and formality that inform the syntax, if not the diction, throughout the collection. Such reserve is ultimately needed not only for self-preservation, but also to preserve the weight and smallness of “love” (“What Birds Sing of in Libya,” 20, “Rain Coral” 37, “Kites,” 46).

Exodus is a small and large book—relatively short for a full-length collection, at 47 pages, but huge in the scope of experiences it speaks from and brings together. The shortness of the book seems of a piece with its commitment to saying only what is felt to be essential. Adeoba’s collection shows that this commitment does not shut down any important possibilities. On the contrary,

This light, the burst
And softness of its insistence,

bidding you to be still, is holding
the expanse in a meld of brown and red
There are no limits
now to the leaves,
blown seaward, yielding,
unfurling their inner lives (“Nightshift at the Coast,” 6-7).

The light that bids stillness holds the entire expanse of what there is to be experienced, enabling a limitless unfurling of inner life. The gravity of the voice and the measured quality of diction and syntax certainly does not correlate to a limitation of imagination in these remarkable poems. Behind the imagination of these poems is a stillness, and behind the stillness are surely experiences of forced exodus to which this reader does not personally have access. In wondering at the stance behind these poems, I am reminded that Exodus is the collection’s title and deep inner core. 

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