by Josephine Ornelas.
CW: suicide, self-harm
“Silence,” Ọbáfẹ́mi Thanni
“The one who takes his own life will be / Punished with the same taking, again & again.”
It is tempting to fall silent in the face of such a statement. The reality of suicide is already unspeakably shocking and tragic. An archaic law that declares this act yields eternal damnation leaves us further shocked, further speechless, and above all, hopeless.
And yet, in “Silence,” Ọbáfẹ́mi Thanni’s speaker refuses to fall silent, or give up hope. “I am here against her sung hadith,” he writes. “I am here against my mother’s warning wish.” In four simple stanzas, the poet drapes language around seemingly unspeakable grief. The departed boy is “wrapped in quiet white” and “fed to [the earth]; he “opened a vein and poured into freedom.” Slowly we are given scattered images, phrases thread together, that gently gesture at the person who was lost.
But these images do not come easily to the poet. Indeed, throughout he struggles against the urge to fall silent. The gasping spaces within each line embody the seeming futility of language, the unfillable gaps grief creates in us. Everyone who speaks in the poem—the speaker, the boy, the mother—experiences these gaps, these unclear holes that almost burst open with suffering.
Still, the speaker will not fall silent. He defies the damnation given to the suicidal boy, “redeeming” the dead (if they need to be redeemed) through his poetry. The boy “deserves more than a minute minute’s silence,” and this poem ensures he receives more. A memorial, an act of mourning, one that can be revisited, spoken, heard. And indeed, the poem ends not with silence, but with an act of listening, its own kind of hope: “I hear the boy / Become wound afresh & afresh —a bright bleeding.”
“My Mouth Holds a Funeral for the Loss of Words,” Ọbáfẹ́mi Thanni
It occurs to me I talk too much. An odd thing to admit, perhaps, when writing a review, but it’s true. The main channels over which I communicate—twitter, text, and honestly, Instagram DMs—encourage thoughtless glib, sentences ending in haha for no particular reason. It seems I am never at a loss for words. They pour out of me on every forum, every moment of my day.
And so, when I read the title of Ọbáfẹ́mi Thanni’s poem—“My Mouth Holds a Funeral for the Loss of Words”—I paused. What a lovely image: to lose words, and then mourn them. A slow and measured response to a rare phenomenon of speechlessness. The speaker of the poem has “a tongue heavy / with the taste of nothing to say. Another word fails.” The entire poem relishes in its own curious silence. Each line is clipped, often with long pauses between words. A funeral march of sorts, a tribute to the words that are not there.
If I were the poet, I would have written more—but that is my mistake, an amateur mistake. The poet is wiser. Each line is so dense with meaning and grief, I almost wish I could see the poet’s face as he writes. And yet, the restraint and poise and beauty this poem delivers are uncanny. By the last line, you are confident the poem has done its work: “I listen to her grief, / till my hands fall quiet / & a new tongue grows.”