Review: "The Unbnd Verses" by Kwame Opoku-Duku

[This review was first published in Lily Poetry Review Vol. 1 Issue 1, Winter 2019. Thanks to Eileen Cleary for giving it a home there.]

Kwame Opoku-Duku and I follow each other on Twitter, and have interacted on that platform several times, always in positive ways. I've enjoyed the individual poems he has shared there, as well as his interviews with other poets (such as Devin Gael Kelly). So I was excited to read his chapbook The Unbnd Verses (2018, Glass Poetry Press) because I sensed a keen and thoughtful poet at work.

And so I had. The Unbnd Verses unfolds more with each reading, as I learn to read Opoku-Duku's personal poetics, to follow his leaps and turns through poems that shimmer with holy music:

the rain has ended, and up the block Lauryn Hill blasts

out of the back of somebody's car.

And they pray that I violate.

They pray to you, Lord.

I've been murdered by the eyes

of thousands. (i. Ghosts, p.1)

In these lines I hear the percussive sounds of consonants — the /d/ and /b/ sounds, the /k/ of “block” and “car”, and the gradual giving way to the vowels found in “eyes” and “thousands”. I also hear echoes of Paul Celan, particularly his poem “Tenebrae”, with its invocation “Pray to us, Lord./We are near.” and its amplification of the voices of the silenced dead. The poems in this chapbook also amplify voices, though not of Celan's silenced dead, but rather those living lives made difficult — sometimes deadly — by racism. I have wrestled with how to quote or excerpt these poems, given the essential and nuanced manner in which Opuko-Duku uses variations of the n-word as integral elements in his poems. In reading these poems I never felt unwelcome, or like I was being shown something I should never see, but I was certainly aware that these are poems that make use of language and poetics that my own writing will never access.

And this is no bad thing. In fact, it is a good thing to read poems that are challenging (and also, in this case, beautiful and lyrical) and to wrestle with how one responds to them. I like to say, half-joking, that poetry is the closest thing to telepathy that we humans will ever experience, but the serious side of that is that we can briefly enter the world of the poet through their words and voice. And so I will never know the same sense or the same experience as Kwame, but I am no longer able to consider just my own sense or experience, either. So I am changed, and the speaker of the poems changes, too:

i see you my son i'm looking at you i can see that

the lord wants to work through you the lord favors

you he wants you to own your own business the lord

has a woman picked out for you son the lord's will

the lord willing my son guide you through the lord son

has a plan the lord wants my son he wants my son in

mysterious ways my son the lord wants you to go to Africa

the lord is the lord is the one who can guide you through

this time son the lord lives the lord lifts up your troubles

son he wants the lord to heal you son i'm looking at you

son i see you son i've got chills all over lord my body lord

the lord my son my body what is it that you want my son

have you ever truly wondered what it is you have (viii. prophe-see, p.17)

What are we to make of this burst of familiar phrases, of stock exhortations like “the lord favors/you” and “the lord lifts up your troubles”, of the familiar-yet-distant “son”, of the lower-case “i” throughout? The speaker in this poem feels to me like an elder (or “old head”, as other poems throughout the collection might have it) trying to reach across a generational divide through the rhetoric and rhythm of religious invocation. I hear the voice of a humbled messenger of divine truth, but I also hear the voice of a parent who cares clumsily, without a nuanced understanding of this son who may not want to hear all of these things the lord wants him to do. It's a vulnerable, desperate speaker I hear, rushing to connect, pinned between the lord and the son. The tension in this poem, pulled taut by the lack of punctuation, is never resolved. We don't know if the son hears the parent's exhortations. We don't know anything after the last line ejects us from the poem: “have you ever truly wondered what it is you have”.

Opoku-Duku's precise use of tone in these poems is a marvel, and showcased so well in “ix. afro-beat paradise with the disembodied spirit who now believes he can love”:


i'm sho there was

times I talked slick in

the past

&

everything i'm about

to say is true

(beat)

i want to take you back

to africa/ i want to father

many children with you/

dress them with red earth

& leaves/ put their photos

on instagram for all the

haters to behold (p.18)

The full poem, which runs another 8 stanzas, maintains this heightened tone, which rings of the promises made by one person to another in an attempt at seduction, and we the readers are led to wonder how sincere these words are. Is this a speaker who believes these words himself, or is this a speaker who is manipulating us? Is the speaker working to convince himself of the existence of an afro-beat paradise, beyond the effect of “all the haters” and in the rarified realm of Michelin-starred restaurants? The first ampersand feels like a leaning-in, the creation of a physical intimacy (desired or not — that, I think, is up to the reader.)

There are three intrusions on this narrative; the first takes the form of parenthetical stage direction-like notation to indicate that the speaker has paused, which you can see in the excerpt quoted above. The second is similar, though more complex: “(short beat, thinks of words carefully)”. We're given a view of the speaker's thought process here, at a time when the intensity of the discourse increases, with 4 short lines putting tremendous pressure on the words:

to

only

dream

in twi

Each line feels like someone leaning in, speaking low and forceful directly in the reader's ear to lodge this notion directly into the reader's mind. And then, after these four lines expend their power, there is the lean-back with another ampersand, followed by a stanza that leaps to a future in which the speaker and the reader have become a “we” who return to their children after a vacation together. This is where the third intrusion on the narrative exists, in the voice of the children singing:

mama & papa have come

home to see their children/

now the war is over

mama & papa have come

home to see their children/

now we will have peace (p. 19-20)

What I read as this poem's physical choreography is remarkable, giving the sense of motion, of intimacy, of setting without ever actually describing the here-and-now of the speaker and the addressee. And I'm reading this as a seduction in a bar or a club, but that's the baggage of my experience, and I suspect anyone who reads this with different experiences will understand that choreography in a different setting — but still as choreography.

Due to limitations of time and space I chose to focus on some exemplary poems from this chapbook, but I do want to call out the series of linked poems that occur throughout The Unbnd Verses, sharing the title “the old head verses (ecclesiastes)” followed by the numbered lines contained in each poem. The Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, traditionally attributed to Solomon, is one of the “Wisdom Books” of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and it engages with “the big questions”, including the meaning of life. So, too, do “the old head verses”, functioning as a collection of wisdom passed from elder speaker(s) to younger listeners, without judgment flowing from either side. This voice, or these voices, carry deep affection for a beloved-but-imperfect community, an identity that grows with each successive generation.