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On Virtue and Vengeance
Love, then, is an ethical method.
Answer truly, if only for a moment and to yourself: how are you in the home of your body?
Feel free to give six months’ worth of answers.
I recall little sensation from the din of days. All I can say then, truly, is I have been reading and writing and nurturing my solitude.
On Virtue and Vengeance
A few months ago, I was opening at a friend’s listening party in Lagos.
The poet who had gone before me whipped the room into joviality. Minutes later, after my first poem, the room became grave. By the second poem, the event host leaned towards me, asking, in a whisper, for something not so heavy. Unsettled by the air in the room and in spite of myself, I was willing to oblige and read something lighter, outside my line-up.
I found nothing not so heavy. I read the third poem. Joviality died.
In a moment of bewildered remorse, I apologized for the sadness. I had not, in a long time, read my words to others. Words plumed in the glooming room, and the gloom was mine. When remorse lost its hold on me, a morbid gratification tickled my spine.
Ocean Vuong, in his conversation with Björk, described the process of making poems as creating atmospheres people can embody. However gloomy the air, however angsty the atmosphere, I made it large and skin-close enough for a room to enter. Despite not intending those levels of gloom, I felt, long after the tickle in my spine, joy.
“Melancholy: an appetite no misery satisfies.”
―All Gall Is Divided by Emil Cioran.
I acknowledge my predisposition to melancholy.
Sometime in September, I was thinking about da Vinci. I seem to have grown, over the years, a list of his attributes I am enamoured with. From this list, my September thoughts focused on how he fashioned an artistic and scientific practice from sheer obsession. His masterful strokes, unique perspectives, sfumato technique, elusive standards of perfection and single-minded attentiveness to detail are all relatives of his obsession.
At the risk of projecting onto da Vinci, I find some melancholy nestled in his obsession. Particularly with the concept of saper vedere—knowing how to see—a cornerstone of his practice. A lifetime of seeing culminated in, among other works, the Mona Lisa. To think one of the most renowned and mysterious depictions of a woman was achieved by a man who had next to none in his personal life. Perhaps, in practising his art of seeing, what he saw most clearly were voids.
A friend of mine, one of the finest and most ambitious poets I know, was born on the 23rd of April. Same day as William Shakespeare.
Bitter bristled. “I eh know it was going to be like this!”
“Yes, people rarely do when they pray.” Miss Virtue tapped a marbled nail against the table.
—Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi
For a few days in August, I revisited one of my favourite cities.
I travelled through old Lucille, at the height of its rot, teetering a descent into revolution. Many sights held my attention, from the personalization of Virtue and Vengeance, to the nuancing of moral questions and the momentous rejection of a miracle.
The last time I was in Lucille, I travelled through a different hole in time, one closer to the present. Akwaeke Emezi’s Bitter ferried me to this old world with an immersive prequel to their young adult novel Pet. There is, as always, much to talk about by way of fascination and the sights that held my attention. Yet, one of the threads in the novel that I sat with for weeks after was Akwaeke Emezi’s handling of moral questions.
Frustrated with the state of her city, Bitter—a teenage artist with the fantastic ability to animate sketched and painted creatures with her blood—animated an angel. To resolve her nervous concerns around naming, the towering and strange creature said with lethal charm: call me what you wanted, child […] Call me Vengeance. Vengeance would go on to exert the force in its name by, among other acts, hosting a public execution of Theron—the novel’s epitome of vice and corrupt capitalism—at the heart of Lucille.
In Bitter, Akwaeke Emezi fashions moral questions into light rays and trails them across a spectrum of characters, dispersing different results. What does it mean to want a certain reality? What are the costs of this want?
What can we know, when making a moral choice, when praying?
The closest the novel comes to offering an answer is through Ube’s conversation with Miss Virtue. Ube replied to her question—how do you know your way is the right way—by admitting, I don’t. But we moving with love, and I figure that can’t be wrong. His notion of love, far from sentimental or specious, drives change and improves the lover and beloved. His is a vision similar to Rilke’s in heft. Rilke wrote of love as an exalted occasion for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become a world, to become a world in himself for another’s sake. Ube had said, before Miss Virtue’s question, the angel had a point when it said the world gotta burn before we can build a new one. We just got different ideas about what kinda fire we need, you know.
On the 28th of September, an exquisite biopic, Blonde, based on Joyce Carol Oates's biography of the same title, premiered. Before learning of the announcement, two weeks before, I had rewatched Some Like It Hot and lingered on Marilyn Monroe’s description of a memory as suicidally beautiful.
I was rewatching with Anne Carson’s Norma Jeane Baker of Troy in mind.
Carson: The truth is / a cloud went to Troy. / A cloud in the shape of Norma Jean Baker. / The gods arranged it, sort of.
Recently, one of my favourite writers got married. For her afterparty, she was dressed as Marilyn Monroe.
The gods arranged it, sort of.
To think of the question—what can we know when making a moral choice, when praying—another way.
Philosophers have spoken more articulately than I can manage on the distance between a moral reality and a moral abstraction. For one, abstraction is an effort to divorce moral choices of their nuance and, to borrow a term, ambiguity. Without such nuances, the choice is often easier between the typical binaries of a consequentialist or utilitarian moral choice and a deontological one. Yet, even in the absence of abstraction, a binary endures between emotional and logical moral responses. Scientific American has an interesting article about this divide.
As I said, philosophers have spoken more articulately.
Simone de Beauvoir, in her Ethics of Ambiguity, wrote: It will be said that these considerations remain quite abstract. What must be done, practically? Which action is good? Which is bad? To ask such a question is also to fall into a naïve abstraction. We don’t ask the physicist, ‘Which hypotheses are true?’ Nor the artist, ‘By what procedures does one produce a work whose beauty is guaranteed?’ The field of ethics does not furnish recipes any more than do science and art. One can merely propose methods.
Love, then, is an ethical method.
On a walk one evening, I saw, only a few minutes into my stroll, a girl of about seven or eight.
Good evening, Sir! she called out, brightly.
Hello. Good evening. I replied. Then: How are you?
She answered in the positively firm way only children do. Fine!
She skipped over to the other side of the street, and we walked with a paved distance between us. The pink hood of her sweater bounced as she skipped. With no earphones on, I listened to the call of birds and the swish of breeze through bushes and shrubs. Her pink pleated skirt twirled.
Hey, I was urged to say, I like your sweater. She wrapped herself in its pink cotton warmth, smiling.
She left the walkway and skipped near the stuttering white lines halving the street.
Try to walk here, I offered, tapping my feet against the walkway I strolled on, on my side of the paved distance, because of the cars.
She nodded under her pink hood and leapt to the walkway.
Car is coming. She called out a while later.
Hmm hmm. She nodded.
This was a Tuesday evening. I don’t, typically, take my hour-long walks on Tuesdays. I won’t, all things being scheduled, have seen her.
To think of the [non-]question—by what procedures does one produce a work whose beauty is guaranteed—another way.
Rainer Maria Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet, answered: You’re asking the wrong questions! There is only one thing you should do. […] confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.
Toni Morrison, in a 2004 interview, provided an alternate question: What is it I have to do that’s so important that I’d die if I don’t?
Morrison answered: And there were two things. The first one, was mother my children. And the second one, was write.
How would you answer Morrison’s question?
From a fragment of a new poem: Like Abraham, I squandered / My years praying to a wrong god. / I kneel now before the body / Surrendered. Willing. / “Bear with me long enough to distil beauty. / To hem language’s laces and silks. / Bear with me [….]”
From an 18th July ‘22 journal entry: […] the sacredness of syntax, my singular obsession; my peculiar vision of hell as the absence of language […] I belong, most, to language.
I remember an essay by Mary Ruefle titled I remember, I remember.
I remember a line from Cheikh Anta Diop’s Precolonial Black Africa read: Against the camel’s mange use tar, and against poverty make a trip to the Sudan.
I remember the profound sadness I felt after reading that line.
I remember listening to Toni Morrison read a sentence from Song of Solomon and thinking she had crafted a rare and perfect image: Lipsticks in soft white hands darted out of their sheaths like the shiny red penises of puppies.
I remember the name of the robot used during Akwaeke Emezi’s hysterectomy was da Vinci.
I remember Norma Jeane saying, in an acting class, I wasn’t thinking. […] I was remembering.
Every now and then, we have the pleasure of surpassing our preconceived limits. I thought I was at the heights of admiration for Akwaeke Emezi’s work until my last visit to Lucille, where I experienced their narration of a rejected miracle.
Before Vengeance travelled through space with the members of Assata who were on board with its hunt, it asked Ube a question.
Would you like to be healed, child? […] So you may walk.
Only when I read the sharp rejection that followed did I realize I had held my breath. Sweet relief filled my chest as Ube replied firmly, then softly, as if telling Vengeance a secret: I am not broken. I am already whole. […] I am already whole.
An alternate narrative choice would have easily perpetuated harmful and paternalistic notions within models of disability. Heady with hindsight at my new heights of admiration, I wondered if they could have made a different narrative choice. They, who—not unlike Ube—are disabled and furiously alive.
It is a peculiar time to be listening to music. The Nigerian music scene is blossoming with the force of a renaissance. The range leaves you breathless, and the global recognition is unprecedented.
While I use the term renaissance loosely, I recall listening to an interview where a poet distinguished between a renaissance of production and one of attention. The distinction being that with the former, artists produce at their finest and most feverish rate, while with the latter, it’s not so much about the art but the gaze waiting wide-eyed to recognize and praise. Like most binaries, the distinction is anything but clear-cut. Yet, adopting it can be useful in recognizing how the individual and collective success of Nigerian artistes is a combined result of their undisputed talents and the fortuitous times.
Talent and time combine to place Tems on the tip of tongues the world over. And as I said, the range leaves you breathless, and anyone could list favourite artists fusing genres and crooning to niche tastes. But if I must mention, with a final breath, an artiste who thoroughly delights me: Asake.
Tune into 1,000,000,000.1 FM and enjoy listening to Show Dem Camp’s sheerly beautiful album, Palmwine Music Vol 3.
Be tender with yourself.