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).