Vowels under Duress: An Anthology



Vowels under Duress is an anthology of eighteen poems by seventeen poets coming to let their words speak for them. The carefully selected poems cover various themes from existentialism, love, rejection, to rape and religion, amongst others. The emphasis in the collection is on sexual abuse, the silencing of victims and the attendant effects. The age range of the poets is generally between twenties and thirties. This is important considering the major themes that is explored. One notes while reading the work that the conventional African tradition or political stance that would be noticed in the poetry of older poets is not loud in this work. The poems, with the exception of Shamsu-deen’s ‘Naa Dataa Tua’ do not really have geographical landmarks and could have happened anywhere. Another slight exception might be Ojelabi’s ‘Gratitude’ which gives a hint of a post-colonial Commonwealth nation. The poems in this collection are largely sombre. They have the advantage of being written in a simple – but not simplistic – manner. There is an extensive use of pun and strong images, which run across the majority of the poems.

The collection opens with the title poem ‘Vowels under Duress’ by Jide Badmus. On the surface, it talks of a man who has to bury vowels under tongue while struggling with choking consonants. The night bears witness and life notes as the persona loses much. Eventually his desires and passions die while he struggles, ‘vowels under his tongue’ while he chokes on consonants. As one goes through, thoughts of several people come to mind: those people who become politically correct; people who bury their passion behind fear and die a thousand deaths; people who lose themselves and never say things that they should have; people who walk the earth and eventually lie in the grave with their promise – flowers which should have unfolded into seeds that would blossom to bring more; people who should have been more but could not for whatever reasons… And you wonder what vowels they could have uttered that would have made all the difference.

Mohammed Shamsu-Deen takes the next turn with ‘Naa Dataa Tua’, titled after a place in Yendi, Ghana, where men who had sex with the paramount chief’s wives were beheaded. The poet uses images of this site, including the baobab tree and an executioner’s sword, in addition to rivers and bangles to craft his verse which conjures images of strong violence.

‘Joba Ojelabi’s ‘Gratitude’ plays on the five vowels to deliver a poem that ends in deep lines, touching on death, that show the poet’s sensitivity. The poem which is similar in rendition to Badmus’s ‘Vowels Under Distress’ speaks of how sometimes there are pains which cannot be said but which eventually have to be mumbled, not in the consonants that make all the sense but mumbles from loose vowels.

Drawing on death in its many forms is Wisdom Nemi Otikor in his ‘Requiem.’ The poem is a verse on abuse – the abuse of a boy by his uncle, the abuse of trust by this uncle who should have been a father. The poem begins with a plea for prayers by the poet persona: ‘Say a prayer for me/Please, say a prayer for me, sister.’ The persona is a broken male who holds his peace in the name of ‘love’ and does not tell anyone of how he was raped of everything, of love and faith. In the end, with nowhere else to go or seemingly no one to turn to, he asks for prayers. Thus, the poem becomes a cycle ending almost where it started. Following in the line of abuse and a call for death is Adaora Chinedu’s ‘Last Death’ which can be interpreted from a certain perspective to be the voice of a lady who has been raped. She cries that her ‘thigh is smitten and drips of bawling blood, shoulders in shame shudder.’ This persona has ‘been crucified without a cross’ with her chapel broken. The scars of this encounter have left her in a dark place and she considers committing suicide. Towing a similar line is Chinedu Nzere whose poem ‘Voices’ describes the silencing of a girl’s voice after being molested by her stepfather.

The mother is the perpetrator of sexual violence in Oyekunle Oyedolapo Ifeoluwa’s ‘Motherly Scars.’ This mother prepares her daughter for prostitution daily. Soon, the persona lives on pills and alcohol waiting for death. ‘Yemi Osadiya Fad’s ‘The Plea’ has a persona who seems to be an experienced ‘stick’ on fire who wants to be quenched by a river in which no man has ever swum. The owner of the river cries for mercy, which the persona contemplates. The continuing silence of all these victims is also looked at in Jide Badmus’s ‘The Arsonist’ told from the perspective of a boy, who is not allowed to talk but who devises a means to survive. Tukur Loba Ridwan explores this power of speech in his ‘(M) Oral’ which looks at the loss of voice and the pretence of morality in tradition that upholds the unjust wealthy above everyone else.

Chisom Okafor looks at lust and religion in ‘On Discovering God.’ The persona and ‘the other boy’ have sexual encounters, swallowing ‘the Word of the Lord.’ Drawing on this theme too but from the view of the pulpit is POET’s ‘Trapped’ which looks at a homosexual religious leader who rapes a boy. There is silence in the end as the boy cannot really talk. In this wise, we are told: the ‘boy wishes to speak/but how you indict god/without being trapped in /quicksand of blasphemy?’ Opeyemi Oso pushes this same theme from the pulpit further in his ‘The Preacher.’ This preacher is a hypocrite who sleeps around while condemning the act on the altar. In the end, the poem suggests that such ministries have become like the various instruments of death that will be their own doom.

Damnation through the loins is explored in Pamilerin Jacob’s ‘Blood Covenant: Tale of Wrongs.’ The poem also tags the line of abuse and a virus (probably HIV) passed through sex. The persona has been a victim of rape by his/her cousin and was infected with the HIV at nine. This persona grows with the pain and is bitter, painting a picture of his/her eventual passage while visiting the past. There is that slight note somewhere that (s)he would want to kill the cousin that sentenced him/her to the pain. The poem ends with the persona noting that his/her lover has also been infected and would share the death sentence as a token of love.

It is easy to note that Vowels under Duress is a thoughtful collection that covers several themes with an emphasis on a bold theme. Sexual abuse, the silence of victims and the destruction of their lives is an important discourse that is fortunately being promoted across (social) media with the rise of such movements as #MeToo and the like helping victims to come out. It is hoped that the conversation continues and that those affected by sexual violence would have a chance to tell their stories while they get justice and find healing in what ways they can.

Every poem has an audience, and it is my belief that these poems would not need to be under any duress to find a home in several hearts.



Poet and author, Home Equals Holes: Tale of an Exile



Download book here: VOWELS UNDER DURESS

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