By Jerry Chiemeke
No one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark –Warsan Shire
Much is made about migration and seeking new beginnings in “saner climes”, but not many people are eager to have conversations about the uncertainty that comes with switching continents, with moving from one side of the ocean to another.
People are reluctant to talk about the loneliness that comes with navigating new cultures; the void that comes with being torn from friends, the pangs that come with being unable to mourn properly because departed loved ones are separated by time zones.
The awareness of these emotions is what Nigerian poet and business analyst, Abayomi Abiru expresses in his debut poetry collection, “This City Knows My Name”. In these 41 poems, the graduate of Business System Analysis and Design from The City University, London, sets out to document, in verse, what it means to navigate life thousands of miles away from home.
Culture shock is the overarching emotion in The Language of Rising, where, with the urgency of an album opener, Abiru yells, “here looks nothing like home/on mornings, the train hoots/the coop at our backyard is a worship centre”.
The silence in a sleepy London is a rude adjustment from the boisterous nature of Lagos, as our protagonist comes to terms with swapping buses for trains; and church megaphones for chimneys.
Bereavement is likened to the duller seasons in The Silence You Speak where he addresses the dead in lines like “you’re the origin/of torrential rain in people’s eyes/the wall holds onto your portrait as memento/I guess it’s the only one that speaks your language”.
The perils of (illegal) immigrants are captured in Seedling in a New City and memories of two generations of matriarchs are respectively served up in Portrait of Grandma As Home and Surviving.
In the title poem, Abiru reminisces with a huge sense of nostalgia but still saves a few lines to criticise the government for failing to provide basic amenities like shelter. It’s quick, really, the way “I hope the food stall on the corner still has that magic spell” transitions into “do the homeless still camp under the central bridge?”
Abiru reflects on mental illnesses and youth disillusionment in Rock Bottom, he then admits to being a little homesick in Cravings. A different kind of home is what fuels the flow of verses in I Once Called You Home, where he compares his heart to an old fireplace for a former lover, and mulls over fantasies of happy endings that have since evaporated into pipedreams: it’s difficult to ignore the earnestness of lines like “loving you was the last thing I felt really good at/it was effortless/flowed like water”.
A poignant picture of domestic abuse is painted in the poem, To Fold Memories where toxicity is the poison gas that hastens the decision to leave everything behind and create new beginnings in lands unknown. The dark side of being dark-skinned in a foreign country is espoused in the poem, History Lessons, and Headstones and Flowers is an ode to a deceased spouse.
Christian convictions are reaffirmed in On a Ship Fleeing to Tarshish in which the story of the biblical Jonah is deployed as a metaphor for crises of faith. Heartbreak is the anthem in Lost, while the danger of war is deftly illustrated in Gravity, and the murderous nature of a country that eats her young is called out in Trigger, which subtly hints at the Lekki Massacre that occurred on October 20, 2020.
“Grief is what we reach out to when home bids us goodbye.” In these pages, Abiru brilliantly explores the nuances of migration, the meaning of home, the dimensions of loss, and the layered perspectives that accompany the concept of displacement.
Leaving home to start all over again in a country where the Nigerian passport holds little meaning is not the paradise that many people (on the Internet) have touted it to be. Even in functional systems, the reality of being a second-class citizen always stares immigrants hard in the face. To quote Nigerian-British rapper, Santan Dave (whose music focuses on the black experience from a British perspective), “the least racist is still racist.”
Lyrical (in the manner of Dami Ajayi’s Clinical Blues), incisive, and at times poignant, This City Knows My Name serves as a poetic Bible for anyone seeking to leave Nigeria for Caucasian waters. The book details the conflicting emotions experienced by those who have made the big crossing, and it opens the eyes of those still back home to the realities on the ground, beyond fancy photos of snow and winter jackets.
This City Knows My Name is available in electronic format on Okadabooks, and print copies are accessible in the United Kingdom at InkDrops Press.
•Jerry Chiemeke is a Lagos-based award winning writer, editor, music journalist, film critic and lawyer. His works have appeared in The Inlandia Journal, The Johannesburg Review of Books, The Guardian, The Republic, Bone and Ink Press, and Agbowo among others.