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“On the Train to Hell” Review: Throes and Consciousness Helm Tolu A Akinyemi’s Poetry Collection

“On the Train to Hell” Review: Throes and Consciousness Helm Tolu A Akinyemi’s Poetry Collection

The emotions of the poet burn through the pages of On the Train to Hell. We feel this pain. It is perhaps one of the finest qualities of the collection and Akinyemi’s artistry.

By Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera 

Reading Nigerian poet, Tolu A. Akinyemi’s On the Train to Hell brought me to the realm of a poet expressing consciousness through his poems. In this collection, he bares the anguish in what he writes, and he has taken his side against oppression, and the forces responsible for the anguish he and others like him suffer. To the attentive reader, it would seem that the poet is calling us to take sides with him. Sometimes this is how a poet operates; in matters of conscience, it would be a near tragedy to extol that which is inhumane or devious. 

In reading Akinyemi’s collection, one is taken into the world of the poet’s sadness and anger. The book is a product of pains expressed by a poet who bemoans his grief and the ugly tragedy of the country which he once called home.

Akinyemi’s On the Train to Hell contains 53 poems; while most are short, they are deliberately constructed to deliver their messages with punchy metaphors. The best poems in the collection pass their message very strikingly, and are capable of leaving their reader suspended in thoughts. 

The poems, autobiographical in conception, present some of the poet’s qualities in their message: a conscientious, devout, and heartbroken patriot, anguished over the corruptions and misgivings of his land of origin. 

On the Train to Hell” by Tolu A Akinyemi | Review | Afrocritik
On the Train to Hell by Tolu A Akinyemi

One is immediately taken in by the power of the first poems in the collection. These poems draw attention to the anguish of life; death, the soul connection we share with people, suicide, reincarnation. The poem reads like works that could have been written by a priest trying his hand at poetry, writing antiphonal verses about life, and meditating on the melancholy of existence. The second stanza of the first poem, “Dust to Dust” reads “Humans |Dust| Memories/The metamorphosis of life into death/Drums into me: leaves me.” Here the poet expresses a peculiar introspection of the meaning of life in the transitory nature from its beginning to its end. The poet introduces himself as a medium in which the tentative emotions of the transience of life play out. In “Ghosts in Scotland” he writes, “Darkness plays a riddle in my mind/ Pulling at the strings of my soul/ By a whisker, I/ Escape…” Here, the poet expresses his navigation of the maze brought about in his mind in its contemplation of life’s deeper mysteries. The more life happens to the poet, the more he writes, and in this collection, he abundantly gives us a share of his melancholy. He invites the reader to come share in his disillusionment about life. And this disillusionment, though not taking away every fascination of life, comes with its own pains, “My silent moans are a turbulent wind/ That rages against the night” the poet writes in “Mystery”. But it is in the poem “Vanity”, where he fully reveals this disillusionment, “On this passage of time/ I chased the wind/ And before Harvest time/ The end was nigh.” Here the poet’s cynicism rings loud. And throughout the collection, there is no starry-eyed pronouncement of hope, especially in the face of the state of things. Akinyemi continues to write an on-the-spot expression of things.

In addition to being a melancholic philosopher, Akinyemi spends the bulk of the collection lamenting the broken society from which he comes. In the titular “On the Train to Hell”, he writes, “I don’t want to die for a dying nation/ With my name forgotten after the rising sun”. In these lines, Akinyemi draws the reader’s attention through his stated defiance of the futility of being patriotic to the point of death for a place like Nigeria; a country which does a great disservice to the citizens affected by the incompetence of how it is run. In the poem “Shocked”, he satirises the irresponsibility that characterises most of former President Buhari’s regime in office. “Our president was shocked to the teeth/ They sunk into his bone marrow/ He wallows in shock, yesterday, today and tomorrow…” With this beginning to the poem, he paints the picture of the presidency constantly playing the role of a surprised man, always astounded at the calamity befalling the country, and rarely rising to the occasion to bring the perpetrators to book. The poet continues his critique beyond the presidency, extending it to the decrepit brand of journalism practised in the country and instances where even the most reliable media houses are being shut from covering certain events. The poem on the death of Chinelo Megafu, the doctor, who was shot on the train moving from Abuja to Kaduna, and the inhumane reaction some of her tweets got on social media, was quite touching, and thoughtful.

The emotions of the poet burn through the pages of On the Train to Hell. We feel this pain. It is perhaps one of the finest qualities of the collection and Akinyemi’s artistry. It is easy to regard him as a conscientious poet burning with the passion to put his art to an activist cause. He is socially conscious and generous with his concern about society. 

On the Train to Hell” by Tolu A Akinyemi | Afrocritik

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As good and socially conscious as he is, however, the poet’s craft could do with the reinvention of language, and a better introspection of his imageries and poetic devices, to prevent the poems from being too cliche as they often are at times. It is notable to point out that a number of the poems are not fully realised and some of the poems could have done away with their vulgarities. In “Pray for Me” written for Chinelo Megafu, Akinyemi writes, “Terrorist bullets have made this body an empty hole/ But this torrent of hate snaps all that was left/ ‘Are you dead yet?’ A waste of sperm asked…” This is not an innovative way to further the cause of a poem. A good poem, I think, is not concerned about pronouncing insults, but it paints the picture and allows its audience to get the message. 

While emotions can be tools for creating great art, they must be refined and sharpened by introspection and artistic insight. And while poetry can be simple and powerful, the poet must be careful to avoid his poems being oversimplified to the extent that they can no longer be differentiated from prosaic statements, like Akinyemi does a few times in the collection. In “Till Death Do Us Part” he writes, “We are dying under the rubble of bad leadership/ The North-South divide is a wide gulf/ the chasm of tribalism has swallowed us…” These lines can as well fit into an essay decrying the Nigerian predicament, and so cannot make for good poetry. The language of that poem seems not fully realised, and it seems to me that the poet could have done great justice to it if he kept the poem a bit longer and allowed the right metaphors to come to him.

Most of the poems in Akinyemi’s On the Train to Hell are enjoyable, and as a lover of conscious arts, I am a bit sentimental to the cause, and quite impressed with the sincerity and the writer’s level of awareness. Any advocate for self-determination will definitely find some pearls in the emotions that the collection conveys. However, as a craftsman, it is equally clear that there are a lot of cliches employed in the poems, and some of them seem to be written in a rush. The best poems are those in which the poet philosophises about life generally and the anguish of his pains. But the best thing about the poet is how the genuineness of his efforts is evident in his work. On the Train to Hell is a good effort at this time when we are in need of more conscientious poets. 

Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera writes on culture and literature for Afrocritik. He is the co-founder of Eagle Nest Literary movement and the director of Umuofia Arts and Books Festival. His novel, “Loss is an Aftertaste of Memories” will be published in May by Mmuta Books. Follow him on Twitter @Chukwuderaedozi.

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