Title: Clinical Blues
Author: Dami Ajayi
Publisher: Write House
Year of Publication: 2014
Reviewer: Echezonachukwu Nduka
In Ben Obumselu’s critical commentary on Obiwu’s Rituals of the Sun, the writer argues that reading a new poet is like ‘travel in a strange country’[i]. It could literally translate to a reader on a journey striving to create paths where very little or none exists. This shares a rather strong similarity with my earlier argument that a poet is an artist on a journey of discoveries[ii]. While Obumselu refers to the reader, I refer to the poet who with his poetry, seeks answers to many unanswered questions, asks questions which nobody dares to ask, and creates a pathway where no feet has ever trod. I refer to the poet whose poetry is being read and thus leads the reader on a journey. Here, a common ground on which I would like to stand is that both parties (the poet & the reader) are on a journey of discoveries. This could mean that for a poet to lead a reader on a journey, he has to find his pathway first. While it does appear that there are many pathways in a poetry collection which each reader must find and take to decipher meanings which are often diverse on the basis of personal interpretations, the poet must first of all demonstrate that he is not lost. This would lead me to one of my favorite quotes from a poem: “Not all those who wander are lost”[iii]. In Clinical Blues, Dami Ajayi wanders, but demonstrates a clear sense of direction. Thus, Clinical Blues becomes a journey in which he wanders, finds and maintains his bearing so that his readers will not be lost.
Divided into three main pathways, the first is love poems. Twenty-two in number, Ajayi seems to be nodding to Remi Raji’s school of thought that “a poet’s first duty is to make love”[iv]. While this does not connote “love-making” in a literary sense and further refers to language, land, liberty et al; Ajayi takes on love as his first theme. Reading these poems, it often strikes me that his modernist style which, of course, is not very common in the poetry of his contemporaries, could lead his readers to read and read again so as to follow his path and not miss their way. As evident in many poems, sometimes one makes a particular meaning after the first read only to come away with several other diverse meanings after another encounter. This explains the diversity that is poetry. “Promenade” makes a great start. It is not only a clear announcement of the love theme, but of the poet’s style. I like to think that first poems in collections are sometimes there to make statements. It could convince a reader to take the journey with the poet or let him be. Here, the poet-persona asks a question that lingers:
Aren’t love poems love letters
Written in the hieroglyphics
Of the soul? P.14
With such lines in the fourth verse, one could be forced to ‘throw caution to the wind’ and journey with the poet. The next poem “Table for Two” comes with a certain mood that many lovers often do not wish to indulge. Here, the poet-persona appears with a rather difficult love test and leaves the readers to answer for themselves. The third verse starts with a question:
When the drunk returns home
Knocking your window pane,
Will you shut your louvres
Will you wish him away
With toxic words, these words
That are false and heartfelt,
These gorgeous words that leap
Out of your throat with irreverence? P.15
Love, a phenomenon that transcends a mere happenstance is given attention in Clinical Blues with its own set of narratives not devoid of profound imagery. In “Love Songs”, the poet-persona pours out serenades with an exciting spirit which is gradually overwhelmed in despair as the poem comes to an end. Love could be a chameleon. Colours change and lively serenades sometimes turn to blues. In “Konji Blues”, most brilliantly is how the poet-persona sings of sex with a vivid imagery devoid of offensive expressions. Hear him in the second verse:
The first time was raw
Like the pickled onions
In a salad of insatiable libido
Bodies glued with passion
As sweat wriggled down flesh
With serpentine recklessness, p.27
Now, this is great poetry. His imagery fires you up and puts you right in the scene of the event. You feel it happening. You want to touch the characters. This is what Dami Ajayi does with poetry. In “Break-Up Instructions”, the poet-persona makes a salient impression that sometimes, love could mean the reverse of what it seems. Here, to let go is to love. The rest of the poems in this theme also posses imagery that tend to vivify the personae.
The next pathway is hospital poems. Eleven in number, the poet-persona makes known his true identity as a physician in the first verse of “Clinical Blues” where he writes: I am a lonesome observer/ The clinical sentinel/ Who sits still to wage/ Wars against infirmities (p.42). From this point, the physician’s stethoscope is also identified to be (or becomes) a pen which writes for the society on themes such as love (which the following themes now build on), all degrees of societal maladies, happenstance, music et al. Dami Ajayi paints the world from the perspective of a medical doctor and tells revealing harsh truths with the temerity of an insider. That a physician could get confounded because “diseases wield their many forms in a game of hide and seek”[v] may not be entirely a new experience to some; but coming from a physician whose stethoscope doubles as a pen is a confirmation of sorts. In the fifth verse, the poet reveals a menacing decay in the medical institution as he writes:
Three hearty cheers
To the Registrar who gave
Rave morning reviews
At the sitting of grey
Obstetricians and medical students
Who warmed his bed and beer table. P.45
While this sort of academic corruption which has since become a ‘norm’ in many Nigerian institutions could be ‘overlooked’ with regards to courses which have no direct contact with human health and well-being, the field of medicine is as esteemed as it is delicate. A dying tuberculosis patient may end up taking an injection for malaria from a physician produced by this kind of system.
The first verse of “If Tomorrow Comes” underscores the uncertainty that overwhelms the physician as stated earlier. The last verses clearly portray the futility of life and the inevitability of death where the poet writes:
Death is transaction, bills we
Pay, bad debts made good,
The Law of diminishing returns,
Last breaths are gavels at the auction:
Going, going, gone.
But if tomorrow comes and your
Ailing bodies choose to sit still,
It might just be for another tomorrow. P. 55
Like many of his contemporaries who are wont to explore themes on the failures of the Nigerian state hinged on corruption, indifference and ineptitude of many leaders, in “Graffiti Too”, Dami Ajayi bemoans the carelessness of the ruling elites who fail to provide adequate health care for ordinary citizens. It is the same people who would catch the next flight to Germany, India, or London once they cough more than thrice in a minute. In this case, the inability to settle issues with striking doctors lead to more deaths because the politician does not care. The rest of the poems in this category are fine medical narratives that tend to lead readers to hospital wards, medical meetings and surgery rooms. While the language is laced with medical terminologies, they are not outrageous or repelling for the uninitiated in the medical profession.
The next pathway is barroom reflections. Thirteen poems in number, the poet leads his readers to a bar peopled with some intelligentsia discussing highlife, Fela’s Lagos and philosophies, politics of an ailing nation and continent over bottles of beer, highlife and afrobeat. In “Look and Laugh”, the poet vividly paints a picture of misery caused by unemployment and prescribes laughter as an antidote. The political class is again indicted. Interestingly, a political party gets (dis)honorable mention amongst other miseries that plaque the unemployed Nigerian. Other poems in this pathway share the same theme. Obviously, one would follow the poet’s argument in these poems that the explored themes are often discussed in barrooms over beer and music. In this journey, “Golgotha” becomes a metaphor for the poet’s nation as a harbor for suffer-heads. “Amnesia”, the last poem in the collection ends with a prescription. This sums up the journey with the poet. Here, the stethoscope finishes diagnosis on an ailing society, transforms into a pen and writes:
Amnesia is the cure
Administer two milligrams stat. P.88
Amnesia is the cure? Who am I to question the prescriptions of a stethoscope-turned-pen whose handwriting I am striving to decipher? Amnesia, being the loss of memory, could mean to forget or do away with all maladies including dying romance, lost love, bad governance and leadership, health failures and all other possible personal and societal ailments. As it is, when one tends to remember and keep all these ailments in mind, it is one easy way to die too soon. The poet’s finale is assertive and decisive, like one who is sure of himself and his performance.
On a pertinent note, the suggestive simple nature of the book cover design is at variance with the content of the work. While the cover is plain white with two blue straight lines that meet at some point, the poems therein are advanced and weightier even though they share similar themes at some point which I would argue the meeting point of the double straight lines symbolize. While I admire Clinical Blues for its sophistication, my critical evaluation of the poems in the collection faults the poem “Clinical Blues”, not exactly for being too long but for trying vainly to maintain connection like separate narratives with a denominator forced to become one unit. However, this does not take away my proposition that beyond its authenticity, it remains a rhythmic and sublime flow of artistic testament.
In all fairness, Clinical Blues will remain one of the most influential collection of poems in years to come. Journeying with this poet is worthwhile. Get your ticket.
[i] Here, I refer to the first sentence in a critical commentary by Ben Obumselu to Obiwu’s first collection of poems (Rituals of the Sun) published in the appendix section of Obiwu’s Tigress at Full Moon, p.49, African Heritage Press.
[ii] Here, I refer to my argument in an earlier review of a poetry chapbook published by Saraba Magazine which I titled “From affirmations for Poetic Pedagogy to Cosmic Realms: The Poet as a Teacher” published on African Hadithi.
[iii] Here, I make reference to a famous line from J.R.R Tolkien’s seminal poem for The Lord of the Rings titled “All that is gold does not glitter.”
[iv] Here, I refer to an often quoted line from Remi Raji’s poem dedicated to Odia Ofeimun titled “Duty”.
[v] Here, I refer to the last three lines in the second verse of Dami Ajayi’s poem titled “Clinical Blues” in the reviewed collection here.
Echezonachukwu Nduka, poet and music scholar writes from Kingston University London, UK. He tweets @nduka_echenduka
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