A Poet Disappears: Writing in defiance of a memory threatened by chaos – Dami Ajayi

1.

We live in interesting times. 

A while ago, Bob Hicok, an aging white male American poet, wrote a self-deprecatory essay about how his poetry had become less relevant because his book sales have reduced considerably. He blames this partly on aging, but mostly on the rise of voices that used to be on the fringes of American poetry, notably voices of black women and gay Asian men.

Kenyan poet of Indian descent, Shailja Patel, recently proceeded on a self-imposed exile after a Kenyan court found her guilty of defaming the character of fellow writer Tony Mochama, whom she alleged sexually assaulted her a few years ago. 

Weeks later, she unleashed a series of tweets from an undisclosed location. A phrase caught my attention and puzzled me long after I read her tweets. 

‘They will not disappear me.’ 

I asked myself, how can a poet be made to disappear? Does s/he become a metaphor that has lost its meaning, an image that fails to conjure?

In what ways can a published poet disappear?

We know too well that poetry is not capable of affecting the fate of a poet’s mortal body. But can a poet disappear in the actual sense of being removed from the consciousness of a reading community? Can a poet be taken down from bookshelves perhaps in the case of an authoritarian and despotic government?

We know the answers to these questions. 

The books of Bob Hicok and Shailja Patel’s acclaimed Migritude will remain in print, in digital memory or, at the very least, in the consciousness of readers for years to come. Their mortal bodies, domiciled in a suburban American town or in the presumed safety of exile, will also remain at their disposal and that of benevolent time.

But one poet has got neither of these luxuries. 

2.

A poet vanished in South-Western Nigeria, circa 2014. 

Perhaps disappear might be a better word to deploy.  His name is Kolade Olubunmi Ajayi. He was a 400 level medical student at the University of Ilorin. Kolade Ajayi was yet to release a collection of poems, although he had published poems in online literary journals like Saraba magazine, Istanbul Literary Review, Klorofyl Magazine, Sentinel Nigeria Magazine and Nigeria Talk.

Kolade Ajayi won the Saraba/PEN Poetry Prize in 2012 for his poem published in the Music Issue #10, ‘A Poet Struggles’. 

He was becoming a literary talent to watch. He was often on Facebook, popular among aspiring writers from the mid-noughties, publishing poems on Facebook Notes and tagging other writers to help beat those poems into shape.

His poetry was undeniably exciting. His poems were difficult to comprehend, his register archaic and cryptic, leaning into medical jargon and whatever obscure books he was digging into and digging—but what it lacked in the ease of understanding, it made up for with the flair of flowery words and a quaint musicality that would bring Christopher Okigbo to the mind of an avid reader of Nigerian poetry.

Kolade himself liked Okigbo’s verse, but unlike Okigbo, he wasn’t given to the vagaries of life. He was neither boisterous nor vivacious. He was a quiet kind of guy who blended in with whatever locale he found himself. If you called him a chameleon, you wouldn’t be too far from the truth. He was soft-spoken, if I remember correctly, with a mild stutter and he seemed to find the very act of speaking a chore.

I met him once, at the presentation of the Saraba Poetry Prize which he won from a strong shortlist featuring the poems of Abuja based poet, Dike Chukwumerije and the late NLNG literature prize winning poet, Ikeogu Oke.

He must have been wearing a yellow long-sleeved shirt, rolled up at the sleeves. The most abiding memory that returns to me is Kolade leaning on the red iron bars of the snack bar where we repaired to after the prize ceremony for some celebratory beers. I can’t remember if he drank, but I remember his wry smile and his quiet disposition. He was different from the man I chatted with on Facebook. The man who messaged me anytime he had committed a new poem to paper. The man who wanted to know when my ‘Clinical Blues’ manuscript would be published. 

3.

Poet, scholar and author of Iconography, Peter Akinlabi also knew Kolade Ajayi, and hasn’t seen him since 2012.

His last memory of Kolade was of a visit to the home of an absent Peter Akinlabi. Kolade had dropped a bottle of wine and returned a book he had borrowed. 

This was shortly after Kolade won the Saraba/PEN Prize, perhaps a few weeks or months after. Kolade sought some kind of mentorship from Peter and got some. He also had unfettered access to Peter’s library of books, so that he could borrow a number of titles every now and then, and discussions with Peter with regard to his reading helped firm up his curiosity about literature.

My experience was not much different a few years earlier. Writers like Rotimi Babatunde, Benson Eluma, Yomi Ogunsanya, Niran Okewole, and Tade Ipadeola played the same role for me back then. 

They were the ones who tempered your hubris when you fancied yourself as the best sentence-maker since Henry James. They were there to remind you of the very nature of literature and the writing life which is a continuous struggle and an infinite rehearsal of one’s abilities. They were there to pull me up when the rejections kept tearing through the eaves, when the vicissitudes of life hit a precarious patch. 

Kolade had Peter to help him wade through these concerns, even though their conversations hardly strayed away from writing and literature. Peter was not a medical doctor so he couldn’t provide the mentorship Kolade needed to balance his literary interests and his academic performance. Peter knows very little about his personal life.  He only knows that Kolade’s mother also lived in Ilorin.

4.

Niyi Marcus and Kolade Ajayi were classmates at the medical school of the University of Ilorin. 

He remembers Kolade as a peace-loving and quiet soul, a man who blended seamlessly with the din of the skills laboratory where cadavers were dissected to understand Human Anatomy.

He also remembers when Kolade Ajayi began to disappear. 

It was sometime around 400 level after he had failed some courses and was required to repeat that academic year. This was when Kolade began to absent himself from school. It was initially for a few days and then it progressed to weeks and months on end.

He would re-appear and when he was asked where he had been, he would only smile and offer no further explanation. While his natal class in medical school progressed to 500 level, he did not seem to adjust adequately into his new class. A different schedule ensured that his old friends stopped paying attention to what was going on with him.

The first time I asked Niyi about Kolade was two years ago. Neither Niyi nor his classmates (all now practising medical doctors scattered around the world) have figured out where Kolade could be. A recent call on the Whatsapp group set up for Niyi’s graduating set still drew blanks. 

This guy simply disappeared.

5.

In their medical school days, Niyi remembers that Kolade had a relative who was a resident doctor at the time. They would occasionally bump into each other in the hospital corridors, exchange pleasantries and brisk inquiries but these encounters were so fleeting that Niyi can neither remember the face nor name of this relative.

As far as his poetry reveals, Kolade Ajayi also has sisters and a dead father. The following lines are from, “Lines of Sober Times”, an elegy written in the wake of his father’s death: 

This poem appeared in Giovanni’s New Room, a poetry chapbook published by Saraba Magazine in September 2010. Kolade was then using his other name, Olubunmi Ajayi. His short biography at the end of book noted that he “is currently studying Medicine at the University of Ilorin. He wrote his first poems between 2003 and 2004.”

Death left me pictures of your trends
and smiles and stories of various views
and not many friends.
These siblings that are daughters
throw me lots of aches
since you left me no brother.
I am son of your zeal―
a proof you ever lived.

A review of biographies from his published writings have so little to say about his person. For Kolade, there was no place for that chatty or tongue-in-cheek biography. In retrospect, what we have is trivia about his writing and a vague description of his major interest, poetry.

Clearly, he had more interest in creative writing than he did for medicine and this tendency is understandable, the further up the rung of medical school ladder you went, the closer you get to bare-faced disillusionment. 

Those who survive, sometimes, write poems. I also wrote poems to survive those days that Niran Okewole captured aptly in the poem, ‘Twenty-Five Seasons’ from his masterful first collection, Logarhythms.

Those Saturday mornings, on my way to the main
Campus to spend the whole day reading.
Always a nice way to start the day, those last days
in the pits of hell.

Poems of similar concerns are at the core of my first collection, Clinical Blues. Medical school was indeed hell, where your creativity and curiosity under-served you. The hectic syllabus was a heinous thing that insisted on nocturnal hours spent in cold lecture theatres with the over-rated warmth of textbooks and photocopied notes.

Perhaps Kolade had a love interest, who knows? But if his poems are anything to go by, he was given to affection of the heterosexual kind. 

He published a poem called “My Pacemaker” (dedicated to WA) edited by Kola Tubosun for Nigerians Talk Magazine sometime in 2012.  Here is the second movement of this poem: 

Come, make your nest turtledove, between my shoulders,
let me bear the pleasure of your love and kindness.

I’m your John leap at Mary’s voice…

my sea has lost its pluripotence, to commit along you.
If between rock-clefts, if among thorn-trees or thistle-bushes,

if the needle should signal Cush or Sheba, my soul will yet extend
to fetch you, my Onarami…

His poems embrace a multitude of metaphors and thematic concerns ambling around nature, religion and medicine. Watch how he replaces an avian metaphor with a biblical one, then how he finds haematopoietic ways of rendering aquatic metaphors, before harkening back to English woods and natural life, then back to the bible before he stops short of an ellipsis to mention Onarami.

What does Onarami mean?  Is it a cryptic metaphor understood only by Kolade and WA? This begs a more urgent question, who is WA? Was she a medical student in Ilorin? Or a student who happened to be in school at the same time with Kolade? 

Niyi and Peter have no memories of Kolade having a girlfriend. He also hadn’t confided in them about a love interest.  This begs the question whether WA was even a real person?

6.

When friends disappear, Facebook becomes a shrine to remember them by, a place to drop wreaths and bouquets fashioned out of words.

Kolade’s header on Facebook has him spotting an afro, a frown, a squint, a black long sleeved shirt, one strap of a carry-on bag on his left shoulder as he stands back, against a body of water. 

A Facebook user asked, “where’s dis?”  That question has remained unanswered for five years.

Kolade’s Facebook homepage is a clutter of shared news items and the major culprit of these is Femi Morgan, one half of the now defunct press, WriteHouse Collective. Femi Morgan is notorious for tagging at least forty-nine people in his advertisements. 

Sometime in August, I wrote Morgan on Facebook inquiring about Kolade’s whereabouts. He said he did not know where Kolade was. Then I told him Kolade had not visited his page in six years.

Besides Morgan’s tags, Kolade Ajayi’s page is full of old birthday wishes, occasional notes inquiring about his well-being and yet the rare video web link to incestual porn between two actors of Asian descent.

The last time Kolade Ajayi updated his Facebook page was January 14, 2014. He shared a picture of the Portuguese striker, Cristiano Ronaldo who had just won the FIFA Ballon D’Or. He had simply captioned this image with one word, “Yeah!”

Less than a month later, like clockwork, Femi Morgan tagged Kolade yet again.

7.

I read my old conversations with Kolade via Facebook Instant Messaging with dread and longing. 

I pray that this lively and gifted person is alright wherever he is but this prayer feels bland on my tongue.

We began chatting sometime in 2010, after the publication of Giovanni’s New Room, after I shared Unoma Azuah’s hostile critique of his poems in her review of the chapbook with him.

We continued to chat at regular intervals about medical school, poetry, authors we were reading, our peers and older writers that we admired. We both agreed that Rotimi Babatunde, Benson Eluma, Peter Akinlabi, Niran Okewole were the unsung literary heroes of their generation. 

We exchanged poetry: He sent me drafts of what became ‘My Pacemaker’ and ‘The Poet Struggles’; I sent him the manuscript of “Clinical Blues” which he raved about insisting that those poems would travel. I took his enthusiasm in good faith, with a pinch of doubt. I kept reworking those poems like he kept reworking his poems too.

I once crystallised his thematic interests. Told him his writing at the time was concerned with the triad of agriculture, medicine and religion. Told him to read some John Steinbeck. Had I known at the time, I would have suggested some Wendell Berry as well. We both agreed that my biggest influence was Fela; that his biggest influence was Okigbo.

Sometime in February 2012, he sent me the draft of a poem to look at. A fierce, repetitive poem full of invectives like,

I want Lazari on the tables, Aso-men on crumbs
I want Shango, Shapona on your clouds,
Ogun, Eshu on your beds

In retrospect, this poem could have been written after he failed a class or after WA left him. The poem is an attestation of rage. The source or object of his anger was not divulged and we segued into another matter. 

The last time we chatted was November 7, 2013. I asked him where he was and he said he was shuttling between Ado-Ekiti and Ilorin. He also congratulated me on the publication of my chapbook, Daybreak. He said I had not disappointed.

8.

It has been four years and eight months since Kolade Ajayi was active on Facebook. His classmate, Niyi Marcus has not heard from him since 2013. I last communicated with him in 2013. Peter Akinlabi hasn’t heard from him since 2012.

In our last conversation, he said he was spending time in Ado-Ekiti. What could have been happening in Ado-Ekiti that could have been more important than his education in his own estimation? Who was in Ado-Ekiti? A lover? A friend? A relative?

I have more questions than answers, and yet I have more questions.

What happened to Kolade Ajayi?

Did he fall sick—and by this I mean a physical illness? A physical illness cannot rage beyond four years without some resolution or remission, some return to previous routines like Facebooking.

Did he suffer from a mental illness? Here is a possibility. Perhaps a severe mental illness could make him drift downwards so that sensibilities like poetry and activities like social media would no longer interest him, who knows?

Is he dead? Of course, this is the grimmest of possibilities but condolences are also expressed on social media. People would often repair to the social media pages of friends and loved ones to regret their transition, as if the dead has access to internet bandwidth and mobile phone technology in the afterlife. 

These rituals are performed by the living mostly for themselves because grief and the act of grieving are ways through which the living grapple with the sense and eventuality of an ending. And this might be the basis of this essay. To meditate on the act of mortal disappearance as the guiding principle of death. To write in defiance of a memory that is threatened by the chaos and frenzy of mundane life. To remember and memorialise a friend in full. 

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