In Search of Equilibrium (Nine Arches Press) is a deeply felt response to grief and a closely observed portrait of family, heartbreak, survival, and the evolution of personhood.
Trauma is a peculiar thing. Once the immediate shock of a traumatic event or episode subsides, the world becomes a different place. For those who survive, death becomes the subject of heightened preoccupation; every moment becomes horrendously alive to the prospect of further suffering and life is —paradoxically— unbearably lucid in its possibility for rapture as well as pain. It’s an obsession that pulsates throughout Theresa Lola’s striking debut collection.
A beloved grandfather is at the heart of this work, alongside the rhythms and dissonances of family life. The unnamed grandfather’s death after years of enduring Alzheimer’s disease propels the poet to explore the meanings of existence, identity, faith, and suffering. Biblical imagery and wordplay are central to this collection and each of Lola’s poems is a question that seems to ask: why did this happen? How could it be so? But the poems are also a statement: there will be no easy surrender here.
Page after page, Lola deftly deploys form, texture, and shape to interrogate the meaning of death and the suffering of family. Poems are variously presented as computer coding, live reportage, prayers, algorithms, Wikipedia entries and hip-hop lyrics. A questionnaire in the poem ‘Closer’ asks ‘If I die will you cry?’, ‘Do you still want to be an accountant?’, and ‘Was your mother a better father?’. It recalls Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers: ‘How will you / have you prepare(d) for your death? Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother?’. It is as if interrogating an issue from multiple angles might dislodge some truth or carve out an alternative ending.
In ‘The Unedited Version of The Lord’s Prayer’, the poem-prayer which opens the collection, Lola reworks the prayer in thirteen verses. She writes:
1 Our Father, who art in heaven,
shadow be thy face
2 for thy kingdom has been obstructed
by my grandfather forgetting my name.
9 My grandmother scrubs the urine off his body.
10 This is love, this is not trespassing,
she need not ask for forgiveness.
11 Lead us not into temptation
to curse thy name.
12 My grandmother holds the rosary beads
like a line of pills she wants to overdose on.
This poem is variously a prayer, and a questioning of faith, as well as a command from the poet: ‘curse thy name’. Elsewhere, it’s the call to ‘Give us a day…Give us a day…Give me a day’. There is an underlying tension that is underscored by the dominant sibilant sounds of ‘scrubs’, ‘trespassing’ ‘forgiveness’, ‘curse’, ‘rosary’, ‘beads’ and ‘pills’. By calling the poem ‘The Unedited version of the Lord’s Prayer’, Lola implies there was a failure of disclosure in the original.
The face, as in ‘shadow be thy face’, is a recurrent theme throughout the collection, as is the language of leakage and spillage of urine and body parts. A subtle hesitancy and conditionality in the poet’s reworking of the poem can also be discerned, indicating a faltering faith: ‘Thy will be done / in his body, maybe’, ‘I guess thy will be done in his body, / But on the condition he ends up in heaven’.
Death, mortality and suicide are recurrent motifs, and the collection is interspersed with three different definitions of death. In ‘Black Marilyn’, the poet approaches the topic more obliquely through a photograph of Marilyn Monroe in a Lagos hotel room:
Today I woke up surprised I was still alive,
last thing I remember was my body swinging
from a ceiling of inadequacies.
In my head I have died in so many ways
I must be a god the way I keep resurrecting
into prettier caskets.
You can call me arrogant, call me black Marilyn,
come celebrate with me,
I am so beautiful death can’t take its eyes off me.
These brilliant lines, emphasised by their leanness and staccato effect, are defiant and dramatic. The subtext of this poem is that only full-bodied bravado – ‘I must be a god’ – will give you any chance of survival.
Death and grief may drive the collection, but there are many moments of joyfulness and beauty, and many observations of the daily habits of love. Lola recounts in poignant detail the love between her grandmother and grandfather as they sing Johnny Nash’s ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ while she bathes him, the aloe vera her grandfather grew giving ‘a new shine’ to her hair, the ‘village of hands acting as each other’s crutches’ at the funeral. These moments form the basis of personal mythologies of family that endure. In ‘wikiHow To Find Things You Have Lost’ the poet writes:
(4) Search thoroughly for your item
I led my grandfather to the tomato stew pot in the kitchen
and prayed for him to inhale memories.
Grandma says the aroma of food is a nest
where vivid memories of when it mingled with us is stored.
The smoke from the stew thick with Maggi cubes rose up
to his nose like a sky lantern released by a grieving loved one,
and my grandfather became a trigger spilling with memories.
He told us stories of Sundays when his children and we
the grandchildren gathered to feast on jollof rice and plantain.
To keep the triggers pouring I begged him to search my face;
though I do not resemble him, I can recite back our conversations
in his spitting image.
The layering of images of the tomato stew pot, the Maggi cubes, the sky lantern and that final eviscerating conclusion evince the extraordinary quality of Lola’s work to portray the potency of intimacy in the midst of all indignities.
It is deeply moving work. This poet speaks boldly of prayer as a call to arms for family, for love, for a survival, which as she concludes in the final poem, ‘Psalm 151’, ‘I prayed my fists into’. It is work that speaks of struggle and honouring the fight, though we may not survive. It is testament to the fact of our endeavour, as ill-equipped as we may be for the journey ahead.
Learn more about In Search of Equilibrium from Nine Arches Press.