Tolu’ has featured in various poetry slams and spoken word events in the UK and beyond so it’s unsurprising his poems features memorable phrases. The collection is split into three sections. The first looks at the expectations of others place on young men and the consequences. The second turns political speaking out against a negligent, unaccountable state. The final turns to relationships. From the first section, “Petulance” is in the voice of a young man and starts,
“We wore labels with no trademarks
Petulant. Recalcitrant. Worthless.
Our backs had lashes tattooed on it
that became nicknames.
And some of us were tagged street boys,
we were jailed in the prison of our habits.”
“It” at end of line 3 should be “them” since “backs” are plural, but this is a strong beginning. “Labels without trademarks” is indicative of the labels having no financial worth and no commercial advantage. The labels become tattoos, as if visible on skin, so the men start to live as their nicknames. The “jailed in the prison of our habits” is a surprise since the poem seems to be building up the idea the men are behaving as others expect and therefore have no agency or control over their destiny. The poem suggests this is a bad habit that can be broken, although it won’t be easy to do so. Not made obvious, but the reason for the men being written off is racism, the “lashes” from a whipping could be dolled out by a sharp tongue, or more literal, the whipping of a slave. Tolu’ is Nigerian, now settled in England. The idea of turning a rough deal into something positive is revisited in “Chocolate Skin Man” which starts,
“Wearing my skin like a hard nut & a tough cookie.
I wore my dreams on my sleeve –
chocolate skin does not crack.
Show them that melanin is the new gold,”
It ends on a throwaway “The chocolate skin man is self-made.” That’s not entirely true, judging by the page long list of acknowledgements, and the cliche does the poem no favours. More interesting is “Kill me slowly”,
“Tell me of my mate who went to the moon
& kissed the sun. Don’t forget the one who
built a mansion in Mars.
Tell me one at a time.
Blurt the words till I freak out
& my life becomes a blur.”
The exaggeration adds to the sense of being left behind, of friends’ achievements slowly chipping away at someone’s self-confidence.
The political poems look back to Nigeria, in “The Pastor has lost his voice”
“You see exaggerated killings, I see bloodbath,
I see clueless men in the corridors of power
I see a pastor who has lost his way.
Give us a national minister of mourning.
Never say errand boy, star boy divides opinion.
I see filth, I see dollars in Kano,
I see bigotry, ethnicity, a cabal-controlled government
& a pastor who has lost his voice.”
These are didactic and lack nuance. The final section, on love, is the shortest. “One Woman” starts “Teach me to love one woman till my bones grow frail/ & my skin wrinkles” and continues,
“Teach me to dance with one woman,
teach me to dance with her song alone”
It seems writing poems about happiness is harder. I can see a live audience being more forgiving of a grasp for a familiar, immediate turn of phrase and allowing their focus to hone in on the more interesting metaphors that offer depth and room for engagement. On the page, however, the weaknesses detract as ideas that are interesting aren’t explored in depth. Page-readers have the advance of being able to pause, reflect, come back and re-read. This poems don’t yet offer readers the space to do this. There are some good ideas, plenty of memorable phrases but the poems feel like prototypes, not yet the ready-to-market completed production.