When goodbyes are not your own: Review of Akwe Amosu’s Not Goodbye

Cape Town: Carapace Poets Series, 2010

Reading other people’s goodbyes make for a paradoxical dilemma. On one hand, the tenor of the language, the colour of the memories, and the scenes etched into remembrance can never be one’s own. Other people’s goodbyes are foreign. On the other hand, other people’s goodbyes are inherently one’s own – after all, to paraphrase Alain de Botton’s poignant question: ‘Who are we sad for when we cry over the goodbye of a fictional character?’ After one’s first experience of saying goodbye, in every goodbye thereafter (whether yours or not), one cannot help but feel a sense of empathy.

As someone who herself is leaving home at the end of the year, it was with keen interest that I picked up Akwe Amosu’s debut anthology Not Goodbye. Half Nigerian, half British, Amosu was born in London, but soon moved to Nigeria. As an adult, she has spent time in many African countries, including South Africa (as is clear from the two poems titled in Afrikaans) and England. Goodbye and leaving thus seem etched in her DNA. However, as the title claims, this collection of poems is also about remembering and returning.

The opening poems, in fact, suggest that Amosu is more concerned with returning than with leaving, more taken with the continuation of belonging and attachment than with detachment and separation. ‘Debut’ describes her son as ‘a returning star’ interacting with the neighbourhood children ‘flinging / his easy love to the four winds’. In ‘Tropisms, various’ we read how the little boy grows towards her in bed, ‘groping / hopeful toward life’. ‘Not innocent’ warns us not to be fooled by the sweet domestic simplicity of her first few poems. The simplest act – here, a farewell kiss – demonstrates how an ‘innocent ritual’ may be something else completely as ‘time buckles / and drags as we bend in’. Goodbyes change everything – how the present is lived, what the future holds, and how the past is remembered.

It is poem number four, ‘After O’Keefe’, that seems to unlock memories and loosen words. Moved by an exhibition of the artist’s work (presumably American artist Georgia O’Keefe), the speaker and her companion(s) leave as ‘our own / colourful secrets / began to bleed into / the grey velvet / lining the canyons / between us’.

Hereafter, snapshots of her home, now in the Western world, are interspersed with memories of the African countries she has left. The poems speaking of Africa express a striking intensity, matching in resonance with the vividness of colour and life described in ‘After O’Keefe’. ‘Maputo peace talks’, ‘Cacimbo’, and ‘Luanda Despatch’ contrast with scenes of ordinariness, loneliness, and quiet in the First World captured in poems such as ‘Rush hour’, ‘Tall American’ and ‘Against hope’. The contrast in raw colour between the new and old is particularly well caught in ‘Choosing exile’, with home colours of purple, brown, red and gold left behind, as ‘some juju / makes [my feet] follow the route / of our trouble, a long grey road / out from the heart of the hinterland’.

Much in the same way, Amosu ties her feelings of loss and detachment to a sense of the precariousness of life. Death, the ultimate separation, permeates the poems. I find ‘Keeping you with us’ particularly poignant, with its suggestion that the speaker and her companions ‘find your memorial plaque / polish it with jokes and Brasso’. Words and memories are indeed are a way of holding on, and Amosu deftly weaves in stories of people who have passed on.

Her poems make relatively easy reading, sometimes taking on the form of regular free-verse stanzas, sometimes prose poetry. I struggled to settle into a strongly identifiable rhythm, however - but perhaps that was the underlying point of it all. Goodbyes are never closed-off; rather, they are fragmented and unsettled. Ultimately, her words hold an identifiable pathos, one that draws the reader in, making a reading of her volume worthwhile and enjoyable. She writes, in ‘Flowers from her daughter’, about an angry shopkeeper: ‘She missed you. I know what that’s like’ (26), and so it is. Having come to the end of the Amosu’s collection, I too can say to Nigeria, South Africa, Africa and England: ‘[S]he misses you. I know what that’s like’.