Sacrament of Bodies by Romeo Oriogun
University of Nebraska Press, 2020, 63 pp., $17.95, ISBN 9781496219640
“When we end our silence,” bell hooks tells us, “when we speak in a liberated voice, our words connect us with anyone, anywhere who lives in silence.” This liberatory instinct is at the heart of Romeo Oriogun’s debut collection of poetry, Sacrament of Bodies. It bears witness not only to the experiences of the poet, but to the lives of many others, a shared memory of pain and survival, as well as joy and desire.
The opening poem, “Before Your Mama Knew us as Light,” is both a prayer and a rite of passage. Here, silence is framed as a form of imprisonment, a joyless safety that thrives in the dark: “I thought this is it, the way to stay alive / is to be silent, / is to imprison joy inside our bones.” The contrasts are many, and deeply spiritual: the day wrestles with the night, the flesh with the spirit, and dirt with cleanliness. To be silent, the poet argues, is to insist on these binaries, to preserve the distinction between them. Ultimately, the figure who embodies the futility of this venture is clad in religious garb: “The man in a white gown washed the Arabic letters / for salvation into a bucket / instructed us to wash ourselves clean of desire.”
Coming to voice also entails giving names to suppressed truths. But even this activity is fraught with uncertainty. In “The Ritual of Giving a Body its Name,” the speaker asks: “Who are we to give what is heavier than blood a name?” Indeed, as several poems in this volume also show, names can serve both to empower and inhibit. In “Cathedral of a Broken Body” the speaker recalls an instance in which this gesture can be fear-inducing: “All I knew was him calling my name / as if his desire was an ugly beast / as if my face was the enemy / I was afraid. The room was smaller.” Nevertheless, in “Departure,” it is the absence of love—or “hate that sinks a name / and turns water into homes drowning boys.”
By far the most dominant motif in the collection is the imagery of the body—a complex interlacing of desire, violence, and beauty. All of these coalesce into the poem “An Elegy for a Burnt Friend,” a haunting indictment of a society that looks on in silence—unmoved by the sight of the “burning skin.” Hounded by light, lovers take shelter under the cover of night. But—as we find in “Before you Leave”—even in the shadows, the body glistens: “Under moonlight your skin / cracks into the finest black and I want to tell you / how sadness makes us lost and visible.” In “Coming Out,” the body is an object of worship, and will dance only for an audience that recognizes its divinity; and in “Denial,” a lover “offered his skin” to the speaker “and said eat.” The frontispiece—the work of photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode—encodes the paradox of the male body as strong and frail, masculine and feminine, its fullness and beauty revealed through a process of self-unmasking.
The body is also the vehicle for the cultural work of Oriogun’s poetry, a political vision that speaks to the African condition, but also elsewhere. In situating the discourse on love and queerness in the language of the body, the poet invites a reflection on not so much the morality of irate mobs as the sanctity of human life.