by Ebenezer Agu
I read Logan February after a couple of mentions from my friends; first his online poetry, then his first chapbook—Painted Blue with Saltwater. His poems that I read online had set me off in an unenthusiastic way, so I went into reading the chapbook with an undefined expectation. By the time I was done reading the book, I had a new understanding of the poet and a stronger dislike for reading poetry online. Some poets are better evaluated in a collection, Logan might be one of such poets.
Logan writes about every silly and petty business on his poetic mind without apologies; readers with conservative inclinations will hardly enlist him in their tribe. But despite personal opinion—no matter how strongly founded—in an age of heightened liberalism, psyche reawakening, and a growing interest in the bare, Logan would surely slip into the game with ease. It is true that he has things to fix in his writing, but for someone his age who writes good poetry and at a prolific pace—two chapbooks in 2018 and a book length collection just out this year—with a very marketable name, I am at no loss of the attention he has attracted and the anticipated success yet to find him.
Painted Blue with Saltwater is a collection of 30 self-indulgent poems, all with a singular concern: attempting to describe what it means to be a person with joys, longings, and maximum complications. The complications take the upper hand though; in most of the poems, Logan’s speaker perpetually inhabits the in-between, a space where the psyche is continually indefinite.
This state first becomes apparent in the opening poem, “On Fridays, I Let Myself Hope”, with a complete hemming of outwardness. But, as with some of his other poems, there is an imposition causing the closure felt in the lines of the poem. The first lines read, “Dragon eyes are watching me/ & my home is no sanctuary”, very suggestive of something external and unbenign. Somehow, it is also a question of resistance to an unfavorable predestination, as in the fourth stanza:
I was born with my skin tattooed
in a dead language, infernal to translate.
and in the seventh to ninth stanzas:
How open my mouth must be,
to name things I have never seen.
The underside of my tongue is rancid
with rot and words;
my mother complains about being in the dark—
I complain of being born with it.
However, in spite of these preconditions, the speaker has mastered a way of being at home with his demons. Through a substitution method in the closing stanzas, the self must find a way to live and pretense serves it well:
On Fridays, I grow leathery wings,
& when the devil takes me dancing,
I pretend he is all the boys I have ever loved.
The sadness in Logan’s poetry is only bearable in the way art makes it possible to swallow bitter pills. The last two lines of “Feeble Attempts at Thaumaturgy” flash this feeling: “Fairy boy is lonely boy every weekend. / The night opens itself, a crocus.” But maybe this is the least striking thing to remark in a poem that dramatizes a persistent, nagging otherness. The speaker obviously seeks companionship in wanting “to be attached to something / that is also attached to something”, however, there is a forceful denial of this when we read “Apathy / cradles me, a mother I did not ask for.” All the trouble in the poem sources from the speaker “remaining the unsacred / exception to all of the rules.” The result:
Bitterness is the myth I left in my mouth &
Did not remember to swallow.
This is the pattern that runs through most of the poems in the collection. It affects exhaustion in “A Night of No New Things.” Three references, first in the second stanza:
Tell me, how does it hurt
to never catch your breath even after
you spend the whole night running?
Then, in last four lines of the third stanza:
I will tell you how the resignation
rolls off my solar-panel skin
as I play Rochambeau with my shadow
paper, scissors, look at my pieces.
And in the last stanza:
Tell me, how does it hurt
to never really reach yourself?
It is not possible to read through these lines without being caught in the same enervation the speakers expresses and the frustrated mood that tails it.
“On Fathers & Boiling Water” is a continuation of the same thought process, although in another dimension. The poem opens on a note of loss but quickly sinks into the latent conditions of that loss; the speaker mourns the death of the father with a peculiar sub-feeling. By the third and fourth stanzas, he opens up the fractured relationship which underlines his loss:
I pretend he would have looked
at my open body & called me beautiful.
I know he wouldn’t; I’m lying to myself,
Growing dizzy from steam & hopeless hope.
This is a sign of what would have been—or what the speaker wishes to had been—quickly overridden, in the succeeding stanzas, by a resigned acceptance of the true condition of things:
I’m sure there’s nothing flawed in heaven;
the manna is sugar-free &
they have heterosexual sons &
perfectly grilled fish &
he probably has forgotten about me by now.
Yet the whole situation becomes hypothetical for what the speaker reveals in the penultimate stanza: “I should have packed him a little box of salt / & my truth.”
“Tea with My Grandmother” takes a full leap into the navigation of self and personhood through dialogue, dealing in tentative and subtle ways with every politics inherent to the matter. Words are traded for words in a trial of wit, carried in a language that expresses itself more in an ironic mode. The interaction is mostly of a self that is urged to evolve its identity and truth, an evolution upon which survival rests. At some point in the poem, the grandmother says, “[child you cannot expect to stand still / when all the ocean does is move you have / to be a mew or a version of yourself / that is plastic].” At first, it seems as if the poem has set out to set things straight, but that anticipation is abandoned at the end. Things are left lying about where they have always been.
Logan’s writing arouses a handful of mixed feelings; sometimes he brings the things he wants to say home, sometimes they elude him. In “To Worship Pollution”, second stanza, loneliness (maybe dejection or the word ‘spent’) is already depicted—in the finest possible images: “a bunch of verbs”, “refrigerator hum”, “moonlight fracture”, “crickets by the river”—before we read “loneliness” as the very last property of that stanza, duly understated. A very masterful way of showing. Some other poems catch wonder but fail to sustain it. The inferable reason is, Logan becomes too free with the lines, sets them at such extreme liberty that they begin to accommodate things which the internal matrix of the poem can hardly account for as it has been doing from the beginning. “Lonesome Bodies”—a rather beautiful poem—begins to throw off this feeling of discontinuation from the second line of the ninth stanza to the end of the poem. We still read “bird”, “name”, “fog” but they neither complete the sense in which they have been introduced nor function as successful conceit. The words no longer correlate sense, the poem becomes hasty in wrapping itself up; the ending of the poem is rather flat. Maybe a slowing of pace, a bit of careful deliberation of thought and the poem would have left a stronger, memorable ending.
“Are You Fucking the One You Love” and “Self-Portrait with Foreign Tongue” are both regrettably inadequate. The former poem reads as trifling, while the latter reads as appropriated and lacks emotional truth. “Crying as a Sacred Ritual”, on its part, has potential. Logan could have achieved more with it if he had paid attention to depth, clarity, and precision; but he left the fulcrum of the poem passive and flippant. The poem lacks a strong center that would have pinned it down.
Self-portraiture is a fancy mode of poetry, but not as easy to explore as it is fancy. My favorite of the self-portraits I can remember reading is in John Burnside’s All One Breath (Safia Elhillo also writes fine self-portraits); therefore, for a first lesson in self-portraiture, I recommend “II Self Portrait”, by Burnside. Most of Logan’s self-portraits could take a good lesson from how Burnside explores that form, precisely in the way Burnside renewed it, avoiding all the ways in which it could be predicted. Towards the last pages of Logan’s collection, I either became weary of reading or his voice becomes weak; I couldn’t feel a punch from any of the poems in that section of the book.
Logan still has work to do on his voice—I felt an intrusion of some other contemporary voices speaking through him—and a stronger handling of language, especially since his style dwells on the casual. If I would recommend three poems from Painted Blue with Saltwater, they would be “In the Light of the Prayer Room” (a way better version of “Are You Fucking the One You Love”), “Tea with My Grandmother”, and “Kuebiko”. The memorable poems in the collection hold true. Although I might not have been blown away by his poetry, Logan is still deserving of every credit he has received and I very much look forward to reading his latest collection, Mannequin in the Nude.
Ebenezer Agu is a poet and essayist from Nigeria. He is editor-in-chief at 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and poetry editor at 14 Queer Art. He tweets at @BoyfriendOfAdaa.