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.”