“I, / Too, often fantasize about my impending engagement / With the side of the law that marks me beautiful / Enough for the kiss of death. Because, / It’s only a matter of time, is it not?” – “EPITAPHLAMIUM”- (Falomo 1)
In this collection, Falomo carries us through both linear and spatial time. In the poem “FULL MOUTH, OPEN MOUTH,” we read conversations from the speaker’s childhood and are also placed in childhood memories: “It is 2007 : I walk into a country that is not : mine with a full mouth.” We are given a moment after migration not as it happened, a fixed past, but as it is remembered, a continuous past. This vision of the past is re-membered with every new experience of othering: “It is 2017 : and my mouth is still full.” With this, Falomo gives a slightly altered, but repeated image. Ten years have passed, and the memory still echoes. His poems linger on details that outline differences from others—“what they call soccer: I call it football”—but emphasize the visual specificity of the self—“my foreign drips down my chin from its overflow”—that never let us forget the center of this space-time convergence as we negotiate it with him.
One of the side effects of living through diasporic trauma is learning to navigate a historical-emotional past, present and future all at the same time. This paradox of Black existence is a writer’s challenge: fiction often offers a linear perspective with occasional jumps through time; journalistic writing tends to hyper-focus on the present or use the past to look towards the future; creative non-fiction is often nonlinear and travels through the past, present, and future. In his chapbook African, American, Ayokunle Falomo uses poetry to show not only how to navigate space-time all at once, but also how to carve it into the human psyche with all its memory, weight, and breath.
Time and space work so particularly in this collection, not just in the words, but within the craft of writing. In his poem “LORD TEACH MY THROAT,” exploring a brief and dwindling phone conversation, we experience the physical and emotional space between the speaker and his mother, down to the space between the letters:
“to speak of the years
of silence that ran
like r i v e r s
through two continents”
Time, not just distance, becomes its own space between the two over the phone, allowing readers to experience the weight of the unsaid in a matter of seconds. The spacing between the letters produces a stutter in our otherwise effortless reading, slowing our experience of the poem even if by fractions of a second. We as readers then take more time in the experience of language. Later, Falomo introduces a somewhat choppy conversation:
“Mother asks: how are you
I say: fine / I ask: how are
You / She says: fine / She”
We see the space between each response, every “I say,” “she says,” every slash, we see more and more space between the speakers, and we begin to stop-start through this exchange, mimicking what could be a choppy phone signal and/or an emotional disconnect throughout the conversation.
One of the treats Falomo offers the reader is space to stretch; every conclusion a reader could make is rooted in the freedom of the writing. In 2020, Falomo offered a workshop entitled “The Poetics of Miss Heering” (mishearing) with Write About Now that explores how we embrace agency with assumption and meaning-making. What little pleasures can we find in the things we think we hear? What echoes amongst the words that are present? Is anything truly ever absent? These questions require equal and opposite trust between the poet and their readers while also practicing intentionality and genuine engagement with the work.
An excellent example of this is the poem “EPITAPHLAMIUM,” (not) to be confused with “Epithalamium” meaning “a song or poem celebrating a marriage.” With Falomo’s spelling, we are given the words epitaph, meaning “words written in memories of someone who has died” and “lamium” a type of flowering plant, offering us the ideas of celebration/unity and laying flowers on a grave, simultaneously.
Not only does this title deepen our understanding of the speaker’s experience with writing, but the poem catapults readers back into the center of the space-time continuum where the speaker imagines a future and past within the present of the poem. Falomo allows us to move with him as he considers the joys of living and the ever-present tragedy of it. He writes “It’s only a matter of time, is it not?” and the matter of time becomes a tangible weight, a bearing upon the shoulders of the speaker.
Within poems like “IN WHICH I ERASE [AND ADD TO THE] N-652, MY NATURALIZATION INTERVIEW RESULTS” and “IN WHICH I ERASE [AND ADD TO] ‘ERROR ON MY MAY/JUNE 2007 SSCE CERTIFICATE’ & ‘SWORN AFFIDAVIT–CORRECTION OF ERROR ON DATE OF BIRTH’ & FIND MY BIRTH AN ERROR” we explore erasures and expansions of legal documents. Once again, Falomo writes a present into the past and grapples with the colonial nature of documentation: “I / recently / discovered / an error / my birth,” with more space in between on the page, due to the removed words. The constraints of an erasure speak to the finite nature of being, yet the added elements speak to its expansiveness, its continuous existence. Falomo balances “I am seen” with “I must make myself seen”: the invisibility/hypervisibility of a documented Black body.
Falomo writes poems that explore the Black body through other Black bodies; the poem “MY BROTHER, TAMIR” sits as a pondering of a younger brother viewed as Tamir Rice, a twelve-year old boy murdered by police in Cleveland. In this poem, Falomo writes of “parapraxis,” a subconscious slip of the tongue that blurs the lines between two Black boys who could share the same fate. We hear “para” and think “paranoia/paranormal”—every word, an echo of another. These poems do not shy away from ghosts, from an anxious relationship with time. We understand the people in these poems in some way connected to one other. The “historical-emotional” as a concept rings true when we consider what links the past, present and future. Material documents, cultural events, even names carry historical-emotional weight and change the way we experience time and how we navigate it in written form.
Perhaps, the simplest, but heartiest example of this is where he cuts deepest: “daddy, I think you must’ve been a / bird, too, or how then do you explain these wings of mine?” Falomo’s deployment of metaphor sits like a planet upon the space-time continuum, creating a dimple in the sheet, slowing down how we experience time and space. We as readers may not have the language for it, but we can feel the shift in the moment as we engage with the poem.
The speaker in the poem “THE ONE IN WHICH MY FATHER REMINDS ME YET AGAIN OF THE GROUND, OR MY FATHER IS A PEACOCK? AN EAGLE? IDK.” explores his relationship to his own desire, to his own quest for freedom, and to his father. He considers their similarities, their instincts and their histories and ends with: “and although I still don’t know / what kind of bird my father is, / I sure as hell / hate what flying across the ocean / has done to his wings.” We encounter the weight of that space, myth-making and its truths. We experience the sobering reality of coming to terms at the same time as the speaker, though written, in its certainty, like the speaker may have always known.
In “POEM IN WHICH I AM WRAPPED IN THOUGHT & SO WRAP MYSELF IN MY COUNTRY’S FLAG” Falomo writes:
“there are many
ways to write and rewrite history,
i know. so let this space
be a monument / an ever present
reminder / a catalogue of failures.
I imagined me reimagining”
And it’s as though he is ripping through the sheet of space-time himself and watching it ripple, every memory piling over itself into the future, awaiting a present self to encounter it and so on. Falomo anticipates reconsideration in every poem, as though it is a site for space-time exploration that still offers moments of clarity and endless space for questioning, like any good theory would. We are able to view histories and ponderings simultaneously, while also giving room to potential futures and sitting with them like ghosts. Falomo gives us living, breathing memories that stretch and kick and try on new clothes through such a genuine and vulnerable speaker willing to guide us through.
About the Reviewer: Aris Kian is a Houston enthusiast and a student of abolition. Her poems are published and forthcoming with The West Review, Obsidian Lit, Write About Now and elsewhere. She is a Pushcart nominee and a 2020 Best of the Net Finalist. She ranks #10 in the 2020 Women of the World Poetry Slam and pursues her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Houston.
African, American (New Delta Review Press, August 2019) by Ayokunle Falomo