William Carlos Williams, the much-respected poet of the American vernacular, and a medical doctor who sought the dual life of a medical practitioner and a poet, once said that both areas of his life served as “two parts of a whole.” Tolu Oloruntoba has similarly observed that the role of the doctor is always to explore and look at life both as part and then as a whole, much like a poet.
In his second full length book of poetry – Each One A Furnace – Oloruntoba has provided us with an engaging and thoughtful read. The winner of the 2021 Governor General’s award for poetry does not disappoint in this most recent collection. The collection is broken into three sections and most of the titles are the formal names of various species of the Finch family. Why finches one might ask – well they are ubiquitous in terms of presence in the daily life of a human – anytime you hear a bird song in the morning, it can be assured that the bird in question is a finch regaling their audience with the celebration of the day. However, in Oloruntoba’s collection, they take on a greater taxonomy and registers in life; and it is this metaphorical sweep that we are introduced to Oloruntoba’s themes of the living.
Early in the work, Waxbill/Death of David Oluwale is a short documentary poem that is shaped like a formal in-court record of testimony. The jarring details of how two police officers killed David Oluwale, and were given convictions but with light sentences, is eloquently captured in this poem. Through the staccato effect of formal deposition (only the facts) reportage, the poet invites the reader into the harrowing young life of a homeless black man in the racist England of the late 1960s. It most likely is one of the earlier records of police brutality of a black man to be covered by the national press. In an ironic twist the title includes the finch species most likely found in Nigeria; home country of Oloruntoba and of Oluwale.
It is with this kind of naming of birds that Oloruntoba journeys through a poetry collection that is contemporary and lyrical. A distilled series of short poems that elucidate the struggles found in immigration and life in the diaspora.
Through Protea Canary, the poem explores the change that a colonized people undergo when they move from their traditional life in the “grasslands” to go live and work in the colonial cities created by the British. The lives given up for privilege and passports:
See how continental we be now,
watch our changes to tongue and passport hand,
our distrust of nationality,
our allegiance to survival.
Through this transformation, the Nigerian pre-contact becomes the subject of colonialism.
Oloruntoba also explores a vast range of themes through his inventive phrasing and constricted verse. In River, Kill and Eat he explores capitalism, neo-colonial enterprise, and industry
… and calibrates the valiums of domestic, and corporate life. But
200 years into the revolution of industry, the furnace is demanding
more meat. The daily hunt in exercise
The poem inundates the reader with image upon image of what corporatism looks like from the view of the poet in the current landscape of post-industrial exuberance.
There is a vast space of poetic phrasing in these poems that are insightful and inventive. For example …and the leprous fingers of our glass spires so brilliantly juxtaposes two images - one of them animate and the other inanimate. Or another image – ventilate those trees in my lung forest so beautifully captures the need for breath to the body.
Olotuntuda also offers a poignant office poem in the form of the ghazal where the refrain is always a riff on this line “… office of hope.” Through the poem, the author drives forward his observations about life as a new recruit in an office setting pre, during and post financial crisis. The poem is an incisive read rich with the language of surveillance and tracking.
Oloruntuda’s existential exploration links into unanswered questions of how one lives, how one conducts oneself and how one writes towards life. In a recent pod cast interview, he says “science and being a medical doctor also works at the cellular levels, societal level, and navigate the roots and etymology of language, much like poetry.” He adds that his poetics is a kind of metaphysical research project. He goes on to say that he unpacks areas of life like the fragility of life in health care, the futility of life, and precarity of human existence and “[t]hat awareness follows me into the poetry. Learning new words along the way.”
Each One A Furnace enthralls and engages the reader with its distilled eloquence and asks the reader to seek and explore language. It gifts us the perspectives of what place and displacement look like for this author.