Love and Death in Dami Ajayi’s A Woman’s Body Is a Country

  • Title: A Woman’s Body Is a Country 
  • Author: Dami Ajayi
  • Publisher: Ouida Books
  • Number of pages: 69
  • Year of publication: 2017
  • Category: Poetry

Dami Ajayi’s second collection, A Woman’s Body Is a Country, endeavours to carve a niche in the corpus of Nigerian poetry. In this collection, there are questions of affection and there is suggestiveness, both digging into the subject of social delineation. The 47 poems in the volume bear parallels of sexual and suggestive tenors, blending one poem into another. Laced with philosophy, lyricism and passionate intensity, the collection covers, amongst other themes, the psychological trauma of life and the tortured sensibilities of two unknown darlings whose romance is shackled by heartbreak and death.

Like Niyi Osundare’s Songs of the Marketplace, the collection begins with a manifesto poem that describes Ajayi’s ideological propensity. In Songs of the Marketplace, Osundare projects the centrality of his message with his sympathetic eye towards the downtrodden and his rejection of the first generation, Euro-modernist poets such as Wole Soyinka and Christopher Okigbo. Shifting focus from the societal reflection of second generation poetry to the emotional personalities of love and romance, Ajayi’s manifesto poem, ‘The Alphabet Laboratory’, is a précis of the collection’s entire thematic preoccupation. In his manifesto poem, Ajayi does not only define his stylistic and thematic thrust, he also reveals his ideal of art and artist for his generation, to wit, contemporary Nigerian poetry. In this vein, therefore, Ajayi, through his themes and styles, demonstrates the intergenerational affinity between the new and the second generation Nigerian poets. In ‘The Alphabet Laboratory’, one can observe the keen attention paid to the socio-political quagmires as well as deep affection that is caged by death. The poet showcases the need to write about the tales of the forgotten war in Nigerian society: ‘I found letters scattered on the ground, / vestiges of a forgotten war’ (p 1). Towards the end of this first poem, the interminable atmosphere of love, sex, and romance is given a loud voice. Using text message language, Ajayi metaphorically compares the significance of the addressee to the different parts of speech that make up his collection, thus:

All words are stolen from an alphabet pool
to undergo serial recombinant therapy.
The smartest scribblers are negotiating turns
in the race of verbs, nouns, adjectives.
Adverbs. Prepositions are clues for positions.
Another letter drops with a sibilant hiss.
Then I found U (p 1)

The poem ‘Sunday Afternoons’ dwells on the process by which a woman beautifies her face on Sundays in order to look attractive and sexy to every man. Using a comic tone, Ajayi draws the reader’s attention to the way and manner the girls in the house spend their Sundays cooking and plaiting hair:

Sunday afternoons were for white rice & fried stew.
Plaiting and unplaiting hair with wooden combs,
rubbing pomade between hair partings,
tucked in the crustacean embrace of mum’s thighs,

Seeing but not watching LTV’s lousy adverts
till NEPA strikes again
& hand fans replace ceiling rotors (p 6)

In ‘Four Phases of Passion’, Ajayi divides the process of sex into desire, excitement, orgasm and resolution. This poem recreates the sexual fusion between a man and a woman to communicate the practised rhythm of the body when it says ‘come for me’. Ajayi venturesomely gives a vivid picture of sexual orgasm from the point of desire to the ‘resolution’ when ‘only the bearer of fluid tires’ (p 43).

The cogent purpose of love poems is best captured in ‘The World According to Affection’. Ajayi emphasises that song lyrics are sent as text messages by lovers to appeal subliminally to the romantic sides of their partners. To the poet, all lovers are copyright infringers as they steal poetic lines from the artist in order to impress their partners:

Songs are the raw material of text messages
the crude oil of fancy voice notes
in the world according to affection, we are all plagiarists (p 56).

He affirms this humorous assertion on poetic plagiarism when he says, ‘You are my flagellation / I stole those words from Ofeimun’ (p 56).

He continues with the romantic tone:

I have started the poem, baby.
You are the sum total of the virtue I cannot afford.
You are my screen saver.
My madam-at-the-top.
My cocoyam.

You put a smile on my face when I sleep.
You are my flagellation.

I have started the poem, baby.
It is you & I,
Holding hands,
Strolling into the sunset (p 57)

The analogical composition of romance in the view of a woman’s body engenders the last poetic delicacy of Dami Ajayi’s A Woman’s Body Is a Country. The title poem of the collection is an allegorical composition to the lyrical song ‘Chan Chan’, composed in 1984 by Compay Segundo. ‘It’s a love song about Chan Chan and Juanica / a man and his woman / building a house’ (p 68). The poet, with a quasi-erotic undertone, describes the romantic mood between these two lovers in the context of love and sex. The shaking of Juanica’s body is a clarion call for the erection of her man’s penis. To the poet, the duty of the patriotic man, due to his woman’s sexual magnetism, is to safeguard and provide a bounty of joy and pleasure for his woman:

But this too is patriotism,
the loyal swelling of a man’s body.
Because a woman’s body is a country (p 69)

‘Ode to an Untimely Obituary’ is a requiem for a man mourning the demise of his loving woman. The verse commences with a rhetorical question that spurs the reader to sympathise with the man’s grief: ‘& how do you console a man / when death snatches his woman / from his arm’ (p 10)? The second stanza of the poem advances the reader’s emotional devastation through imageries of the deceased woman and her significance in the life of the man:

No waist beads to say prayers with
no lanugo hair to trap conjugal heat
no kerosene−see the lantern’s dying wick
the room is still as if nothing left” (p 10).

Ajayi’s emphasis on the vanity of life is unveiled in the last two stanzas of the poem where he compares life to dust and a dying bulb:

Life goes on like dying is a bulb
but when you switch it on,
the room is empty & gloomy
& her portrait gathers dust.

Life is everything and dust (p 11)

In ‘On Chibok’, Ajayi captures the confusion of Nigerian political leaders as they wave flags of indifference, denial, amnesty and deliberations in the face of death and carnage. The peaceful serenity of Nigeria sinks in social and political quagmires. Using the Chibok girls as a case study, Ajayi foregrounds the abduction of schoolgirls and how the insurgent leader, Shekau, kills in the name of God:

Shekau is singing
I’ve got girls, girls, girls, girls
on CNN with pointed rifles
& trusty aides
He kills in the name
of an anonymous, blameless God (p 36).

In the ninth stanza of the poem, using a Marxist revolutionary undertone, Ajayi wonders at a peaceful revolution to bring back the abducted girls: ‘Who says hashtags can’t fan revolutions? / Catch a fire, my friend’ (p 37).

With romantic, erotic and somewhat baleful tonalities taken into account, Dami Ajayi’s A Woman’s Body Is a Country reenacts the imaginative voyage of both the writer and the reader through the passionate realms of love and death on the cusp of social change. The only avoidable weakness of the poet is his failure to divide the 47 poems into sections in order to sustain thematic continuity within distinct sections and without missing any valuable and cogent point. A Woman’s Body Is a Country divulges Ajayi’s investment of thoughts, and the interpretation of his musings is aimed at mesmerising and triggering emotions, thereby educating the reader, consciously or unknowingly, on the subjects of affection and demise.

Social commentary in Dami Ajayi’s “A Woman’s Body Is A Country” -Olukorede S. Yishau

When you think of a country, chances are that the words ‘loyalty’ and ‘patriotism’ may cross your mind. Leaders expect citizens to be loyal and patriotic. So, when a woman’s body is equated with a country, it connotes power and influence.

In his second collection of poems A Woman’s Body is a Country, Dami Ajayi exercises the power and the influence of the poet to give words and phrases meanings beyond the ordinary.

This 69-page collection with 68 poems unveils the social commentator in Ajayi. Nigeria has been unable to provide stable power supply for its people, a situation which has led to the collapse of many a business and has frustrated small and medium scale entrepreneurs. The poet subtly criticises this when he croons about “listening to the orchestra of generators”, which, he adds, “sing a symphony of a failed State”.

The government’s failure dirge also resonates in the poem ‘Sunday Afternoons’, in which the poet cries about how “NEPA strikes again and hand fans replace ceiling rotors”.

The poem ‘Twenty-two couplets’ laments the missing Chibok girls, but it is in the poem ‘On Chibok’ that the poet really examines the travails of these girls held captive while seeking knowledge.

Ajayi also mocks suicide bombers who die hoping “to fuck virgins in heavenly suites” and wonders why they always shout “God is great” as though it is a hidden fact.

If you are not careful, you may miss the poet’s jab at Lord Lugard for the creation of Nigeria, which the poet sees as an “eternal mistake”.

The good doctor alludes to the power of hashtags in fanning revolutions wondering “who waters the placards planted under Falomo bridge”— a reference to the Lagos arm of the Bring Back Our Girls movement.

In the poem ‘Poet Harcourt’, Ajayi laments the absence of gardens in the Garden City, which only boast of “roads that shine black with night drizzle”. This subtle jab at the Rivers State capital reminds us about the inability of leaders to protect well planned metropolis inherited from the colonialists.

Unlike Port Harcourt, which receives a mild rebuke, Lagos, the city described by novelist and poet Toni Kan as carnivorous in nature, gets jabs from Ajayi. He describes it as a city where dreams die in the poem ‘Lagos Bunnies’ and ‘Lagos Bunnies 11’.

When dreams die in Lagos, the poet says “we incinerate them” and he says day dreams suffer more because “we impale them, banish them to cisterns”. He also sings about Ikoyi, which “rarely sees beyond finery” and “an occasional power cut”.  His jabs at Lagos, of course, include the ubiquitous gridlock that makes commuting within the city a curse.

Do you remember those UNICEF adverts that give the impression that there are no rich kids in Africa? They do not escape the social commentator in the poet.

In ‘Die A Little’, the poet asks if he has met a little girl and answers “perhaps in some UNICEF poster”. He laments the facts that “anaemia is the antithesis of capitalist ads” and “bad air blotches mosquito-kissed skin”. Poverty porn and malnutrition also receive ‘honorary’ mentions.

On page 57, Ajayi, with the line “my madam-at-the-top”, brings back memory of the spokesman of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) who wobbled and fumbled during a Channels Television interview and trended for his line “my oga at the top”.

Ajayi’s collection is not just about the ‘serious’; the ‘mundane’ such as sex also gets his attention.

In the poem ‘Four phases of passion’, Ajayi tells us about voyeurs, sexual tension, and curling toes induced by orgasm. He also remembers to tell us that “only the bearer of fluid tires (olomi lo ma re)”.

In the title poem, Ajayi continues the ‘sexual connection’ and tells of how a man gets aroused because “she shakes herself” and how “the loyal swelling of a man’s body” amounts to patriotism since “a woman’s body is a country”.

With A Woman’s Body is a country, Ajayi delivers a collection that reimagines perceptions, probes interactions and makes day-to-day events haunting. The poems sing, hum, breathe, and walk on all fours.

What more is there to say about the pictures this sophomore collection paints of the author? Well, it screams, and loudly too, that Ajayi is a dazzling, convincing and stirring poet who deserves the attention of all and sundry.

The World According to Affection

Dami Ajayi is in touch with his emotions. In his latest book, A Woman’s Body is a Country (2017), Ajayi writes what reviewers have called ashawo poetry; unafraid to evoke the erotic, to use vivid sexual imagery, to write about love and the loyal swellings of his body. But beneath the exuberance, the jolliness, the love for music and life, there is a recurring feeling of pain. Like his second collection of poems, Clinical Blues, this book is dedicated to a loved one who passed away. Several poems in this book are reminiscent of loss.

In ‘Taste of the Evening Stew’, he writes:

Death is the hawk
mother hen wishes away
but it perches to strike
again & again & again.

And similarly in “Songs of Bachelorhood”:

Who said that the past
has no stranglehold on the future,
that what is past is past,
& the present fends for itself?

But Ajayi’s poems, as the poet and novelist Chris Abani puts it, also reach for the redemptive. He however does not do this by giving anecdotes on how to deal with pain or loss (except how to deal with being in a room with five ex-lovers). On the beauty of literature, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

Ajayi is a social commentator, even in his poetry, with poems about addiction and insecurity. He writes about universal experiences and seemingly mundane things; how a city undresses dreams, Sunday afternoon rituals during childhood, relationships that are failing, relationships that are going well, friendship, anxieties, beer. He is keyed into the happenings in his society, the “Chibok, Lagos, poverty and malaria scourges” – “The Anatomy of a Failed State”.

I imagine that writing for him is a way to deal with his emotions. Stories heal. Poetry heals. And the beauty of reading Ajayi’s emotions is that you realise your longings are universal longings – dreams, pain, anxiety.

“writing is really editing”

A keen observer of Ajayi’s works would notice that his chapbook, Daybreak and Other Poems was reincarnated in A Woman’s Body is a Country. Of the 14 poems in the chapbook, 12 are in the new book; several others have appeared on his website. How does one rewrite a book? What informs a poet’s choices and changes?

Ajayi says he considered a lot of things while making the edits, he thought about the messages he wanted to put across in the poems and to cut off the exuberance in his chapbook, which was released in 2013. Four years had elapsed between the two publications. Time is an editor. The poet had grown and trimmed some edges off. Specifically, Ajayi says, he wanted to make “the poems less dense and more lyrical without making it prosaic. Rhythm was germane to the programme.”

Did he achieve this?

In Die a Little, Ajayi ruminates on poverty porn and his country’s malaria scourge,

Needle kisses skin with practiced ease,
Rips into blood conduits.
And a part of me leaks into this bag.

I die a little to quell this child’s thirst.
Mosquitoes are to Africa what vampires are to Hollywood.

Africa’s towering giants won’t conquer little David,
No, Jehovah is my witness.

(Die a Little, In: Daybreak and other Poems)

Die a Little is condensed into couplets as it re-emerges in A Woman’s Body is a Country, driving home his point in a succinct manner. He erases mosquitoes, perhaps realizing that mosquitoes are not the only David that Africa’s towering giants won’t conquer.

Needle kisses skin with practiced ease,
rips into blood conduits.

A part of me leaks into a bag.
I die a little to quell this child’s thirst.

Africa’s towering giants won’t conquer little David,
no, Jehovah is my witness.

(Die a Little, In: A Woman’s Body is a Country)

As the poems transition from the chapbook, they are condensed to make their point succinctly, removing questions or lines that imply uncertainty. Ajayi reduces repetitiveness, and goes straight to the point. Rather than telling, he is showing.

‘You are my Flagellation’ trans morphs into ‘The World According to Affection’; he opts to not liken love to drugs, perhaps wary of the drug epidemic, which he has written about.

Love poems are like Cocaine,
Heroin, Met, LSD, Marijuana for
Those in touch with their feelings…

This is why love songs sell and crooners
Make a career singing the same songs till their voices break.
Songs are the raw material of text messages, ladies.
They are crude oil of those fancy voice notes.
In the world according to affection, we are all plagiarists.

(You Are My Flagellation, In: Daybreak and Other Poems)

This is why love songs sell
& crooners make a career,
of singing the same songs

until their voices break.
Songs are the raw material of text messages.
the crude oil of fancy voice notes.
In the world according to affection, we are all plagiarists.”

(The World According to Affection, In: A Woman’s Body is a Country)

The poet’s loyalty may be to a woman (or women), but he knows that affection is not a one way traffic. And perhaps, conscious of this and the politics of gender, chooses to erase ‘ladies’. He does something similar in the poem Daybreak,

Day held his peace (In: Daybreak and Other Poems)

Day holds its peace (In: A woman’s Body is a Country)

A Woman’s Body is a Country is a catchy title. It is apt to call this book the world according to Ajayi’s affection, and since there are multiplicities to human experiences – the world according to affection. But its title, a woman’s body is a country is perhaps not a misnomer.

My knees touch the ground / & I beg you to say yes. (Begging, A Woman’s Body is a Country)

The book has been called the exit notes of a retiring bachelor by the writer, IfeOluwa Nihinlola. Apt. If we liken the book to souvenirs of his sojourn through life thus far, journeying through different places and spaces, the title poem implies a happy ending that perhaps he is home.

a man and his woman/ building a house (A Woman’s Body is a Country).

Passport to Her Foreign Land | Review of Dami Ajayi’s “A Woman’s Body Is a Country” | IfeOluwa Nihinlola

In 1998, Cuban-American anthropologist and writer Ruth Behar reviewed the Cuban geishas painting by visual artist Rocio Garcia in an essay titled “A Woman’s Body Is Her Country.” In 2017, Nigerian poet Dami Ajayi published his second collection of poetry and titled it A Woman’s Body Is a Country.

It is easy to jump on a comparison of the possessive pronoun “her” in Behar’s title and the indefinite article “a” in Ajayi’s, and use this as a platform to launch into the differences between the work of a MacArthur Fellowship Awardee, who has written extensively about women and their bodies, and that of a male poet, whose meditations on women don’t extend beyond his love poetry. But the title to Ajayi’s collection is a red herring.

Ajayi is on record as saying that, but for his publisher, who must be praised for choosing a catchy title, he’d have named the collection The World According to Affection. That seems an apt title for what he accomplishes in sixty-eight short poems written in free verse. He simply broods over affection in its many forms: for family and friends lost and living, and lovers who compare writing love poems to “eating mature cheese.”

In A Woman’s Body Is a Country, affection is brewed by loss. The poet seems to flit between lovers, across cities and countries, with the virility of a young man confident that time is on his side. Only in death or heart break—which is also a kind of dying—does he realise the value of what is lost. His are not poems written to serenade lovers. Rather they’re the exit notes of a retiring bachelor.

“Time is not like the elasticated band of my underpants, / bought off a Brooklyn store. / Time does not obey Hooke’s law,” he writes in “Hooke’s Law,” one of the few poems devoted to affection still aflame. This was written for writer and art critic Emmanuel Iduma, Ajayi’s friend and long-time collaborator. Affection, after all, isn’t restricted to romance.

Time is what has quelled the sybaritic desires of the bachelor poet. And a parallel can be drawn between the meditation on time in “Hooke’s law” and the poem “Twenty Years (for Yinka Shyllon).” He opens the latter saying, “They say twenty children cannot be playmates / for twenty years. / Time spools & shifts / from the playground,” embracing the fatalism of the Yoruba expression “Ogún omodé kìí seré f’ógún odún.” He goes on to admit that “Time is a currency / we do not spend wisely,” extrapolating his personal failure and making it a commentary about all of us in that aphoristic way poets expect us to accept without protest.

In this collection, Dami Ajayi hasn’t just grown in his filial and erotic affections, but also in confidence as a poet. Where his debut, Clinical Blues, is filled with references and allusions that look like an attempt to project his bonafides as a maker and consumer of poetry, his second time at this book business is more relaxed and self-assured. The formal inventiveness and frequent risk-taking in Clinical Blues is jettisoned for an outpouring of the heart here—often for better, sometimes for worse. What he retains in both books, however, is a love for music, beer and traveling. And Ajayi is fluent when writing from any of these.

Ajayi is also known in some poetry circles for his openly sexual poems, a genre that the Nigerian literati affectionately calls “ashawo poetry.” (Ever since a popular Nigerian poet was exposed for taking his lecherousness beyond the page and preying on young girls, this reader has grown increasingly wary of that genre.) But with Ajayi, ashawo poetry appears in light servings, perhaps most notably in “Four Phases of Passion,” where he tries to chart the progression of coitus as David Kessler and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross did grief. This, too, is apt, since in The Gospel According to Jolly Papa (as Ajayi’s friends call him), love and grief are often inseparable.

Now, if his title is to be taken seriously, and a woman’s body is indeed a country, Ajayi’s collection isn’t very interested in making any fatherland metaphors out of feminine flesh. He isn’t even passing commentary on the territorial implications of that statement. And neither does he consider the female body a frequent site for contests—for it is where culture wars on sexuality are often fought—nor question their claim to physical sovereignty—as men always do when they legislate on matters such as abortion.

“But this too is patriotism,” he writes in the book’s final poem, “the loyal swelling of a man’s body. / Because a woman’s body is a country.” It is clear that his penchant for aphorism fails him here. Ajayi is only interested in the biological response of one man’s body to a particular lover. He probably agrees with Ruth Behar without knowing: A woman’s body is her country.

The whole collection, therefore, is like the passport of a weary traveler who has grovelled for visa to cross many nations. These are his pages, stamped all over with affection, proof of a man who has sought approval, found it, and repeated the process again and again. For as he writes in “Kissing Thorns,” “obliging is subliminal, but consent is a conscious thing.”

Not Mind-Blowing, But Reflective – A Review Of Dami Ajayi’s “A Woman’s Body Is A Country” by Jerry Chiemeke

Nothing is impossible after a few drinks

nothing insurmountable, not even celibacy

if it is awkward like two left feet

if it is bulging from tumescence

if it is throbbing like whitlow

or worrisome like a feisty wife…


Lagos is locked out, shuttered away,

The grind of tires on asphalt

are eons away from this room,

this room where your bosom

holds primacy.

It is always a first time.”


It would be extremely difficult and downright mischievous to discuss modern Nigerian literature, and poetry in particular, without mentioning Dami Ajayi. The poet, essayist, music critic and medical doctor (that last part is easy to forget) has clearly made his mark, successfully curating the renowned Saraba magazine, and having his poems appear on notable platforms, including Prosopisia, World Poetry Book and Enkare Magazine. His debut book, “Clinical Blues” (published in 2014) was well received from a critical point of view, and a second full-length offering was always a question of when rather than if.

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“A Woman’s Body Is A Country”, published by Ouida Books, is a collection of forty-seven poems which stretch across barely seventy pages. The verses take us on a journey through various cities across the nation’s regions, from Lagos to Ekwulobia, from Chibok to Ibadan, and each poem tells a story, from the personal to the relayed.

“The Alphabet Laboratory” (which ends with a cheesy QWERTY joke) has Ajayi ponder on the use and application of words, “Ode To A Work Day Beer” is about drinking after office hours, “Dreams” is a poem exploring a bard’s fantasies, ‘Sunday afternoons” bears lunchtime nostalgia from many childhoods, “Finding Addiction” chronicles a plunge into alcoholism, “On Time” is an introspective piece on aging, “On Airports I & II” portray the blend of goodbyes into hellos, “I Know What Lagos Does To Dreams” is an acknowledgment of the choking nature of Nigeria’s commercial capital, while “Ode To An Untimely Obituary” extends condolences to Sylva Nze Ifedigbo on the loss of his wife.

“Blue Room I and II” give us a peek into hotel rooms and sticky sheets, Ayo’s Dance” addresses a young cousin snatched by Death, “Twenty Years” is a tribute to longtime friends, “Poet Harcourt” tells the story of debauchery and club bouncers in the Garden City, “Taste Of Evening Stew” subjects existence to a number of similes, “Our Man In Ibadan” details a friend’s night-time preferences, “Four Phases Of Passion” is a brief summary of Lust, “P.S: Memorabilia” celebrates the art of seduction, “Kissing Thorns” is a commentary on blue balls, and “Songs Of Bachelorhood” is a sober piece about departed friends and lovers past.

The book starts out with verses that seem like memoirs, then floats into the realm of human interactions, before settling for the more sensual lines in the latter pages. The poems here dwell on a number of themes, including loss, regret, lust, friendship, seduction, loneliness, and the passage of time.

Ajayi’s effort here may not be as “socially conscious” as Bash Amuneni’s There Is A Lunatic In Every Town (even if “Chibok” and “Die A Little” point in that direction), nor is it likely that it would “appeal to intellectuals” like Ogaga Ifowodo’s A Good Mourning”…but the 2015 ANA Poetry Prize nominee never set out to inspire placards or stir up lecture halls with this one; what he wants you to do is sit and think, remember that friendship you’ve allowed to go cold, mull over that romantic relationship you screwed up, touch yourself where the lines demand thus. It is the kind of poetry you lie down to read on a windy Monday evening, with a James Arthur or Dave Matthews Band track playing in the background. It is subtle, it is reflective, and even where it will not cause you to snap your fingers, it will get you nodding at least.

“A Woman’s Body Is A Country” shows how far Dami Ajayi has come, as a writer and as a man. If it were an album, it would be John Mayer’s “Born And Raised” with all its introspective and self-deprecating honesty, stopping short of a mea culpa. There isn’t too much to gasp to, but there is more than enough to feel, to raise one hand, and to put the other on your chest.

Rating: 6.7/10