Poetic Ambiguity in Ola Ifatimehim’s “Decomposed Rhapsody” ~ Ismail Bala


Decomposed Rhapsody 

by Ola Ifatimehin

I have another favourite song
I'll love to share with you.

You and I lost
Our rhythm
In the cacophony of sounds
That is neither music nor silence.

I have a favourite song
That makes
No sense
Because you're not here
To share.

A song that reminds me
Of your soothing smile,
Sinful beauty,
Forbidden charm.

I have a favourite song that scares me of you.

Oh yes!

Oh no!!

I have a favourite song
I'd love to share with you
For it has moved from my heart to my lips.

A symphony of pains and loneliness.

Of muted desires.

It was the preeminent English critic, William Empson who introduced “Ambiguity” into the critical currency with the publication of Seven Types of Ambiguity in 1930. As confusing as Empson’s delineation of ambiguity is — he confuses ambiguity with all types of multiple meaning in poetry — he has invariably transformed critical attitude towards ambiguity in poetic analysis.

      In general, what I mean by ambiguity is the belief that poetry (like all works of art) contains a multitude (variety or indeed sequence) of meanings, and that it is in the very nature of poetry to be ambiguous, and that no single interpretation (analysis, critique, explanation and whatnot) can capture the meaning of a poem completely.

      Another way of looking at the concept of ambiguity, one which would give us “the word order chiasmus” to read Ola Ifatimehim’s poem, “Decomposed Rhapsody”, is the question of incomplete figures and the art of reading poetry.  As we know, rhetorical tropes such as metaphors, smiles, synecdoche, etc. (whose various terms are contained or designated in a particular way within the language of the poem) work through juxtaposition and comparison, for example, Baba Dzukogi is like a cheetah; or Ola is a Pantomime villain and so on. But there are some texts in which the term of the figural structure (e.g. Dzukogi’s transformation into a cheetah or Ola’s villainy) exceeds and spills out of the text in many ways. And one such way is through symbol, symbolism and the symbolic. These structures that go beyond the immediacy of the text is what I call incomplete figuring and I will use that in analysing Ola’s poem.

      What Ola Ifatimehin’s poem is offering the readers is mean to “stand for”,  represent something outside the text, which though is named as a song, but is further from any supposed song or an instance of singing. The title, for a start, points at the supposed song in form of a rhapsody (which means either 1. an epic poem or part of a poem of a suitable length for recitation at one time, or 2. ecstatic expression of feeling), but in line with the poem’s symbolism, the rhapsody is decomposed, no longer useful, needed or just simply rotten.

      Rhapsody (or as the poem variously calls it: “another favourite song”, “rhythm”, “cacophony of sounds”, “music”, “silence”) is presented as a figure for some other term, outside the poem, but the poem does not clearly define what that other term is. Other than ambiguously stating what the persona wants to share with the absent beloved, the poem withholds what its figure (rhapsody, song) is a figure for. By so doing, the poem keeps ambiguously open what the figure is meant to represent. In other words, it is akin to saying A stands for, is a figure for, B; but Y is though named variously in the poem within the text is yet ambiguous and is outside the text. What the song/rhapsody signifies is not explicitly specified within the poem and this deliberate lack of specification is quite central to the poem and may in effect never be resolved.
       A rhapsody or a song may be a song may be a song; but obviously not the one offered in the poem; for clearly this very song stands for something other than a song. At least in western lyric tradition, the song has a long history of association and figural affiliation (just like the rose for example). Here, song (or rhapsody and its many variations in the poem) it appear to tally with, represents, and stands in, for love and loving. But here, there is a “decomposed rhapsody” in which “You and I lost/our rhythm”.  The “lost rhythm” and the “cacophony of sound”, “the sinful beauty” and indeed “the forbidden charm” stand for some kind of anomaly, some kind of corruption and lack, which turn the “favourite song” into a “symphony of pains and loneliness”. But what is the “favourite song” anyway?

      The whole poem’s figural design depends on this “song”. “Muted desire” suggests something sexual, so sex itself might be the song offering the poem is ambiguously hinting at. The poem also includes language usually associated with music: rhapsody, song, cacophony, sound, symphony, mute and even silence. As such, the poem does appear to connect music with love, song with sex: “a forbidden charm”, “a muted desire”, which has been reduced to a favourite song that “has moved from heart to the lips”.

     The point of an incomplete figure reading of this poem is not to uphold or choose from among the possibilities in order to “finalize” what the song or favouriteness is a “symbol” of; for the term symbol derived from the Greek word symbolon means two halves of a coin, each of which is a piece of a promise, a pledge to be pieced together as one. But it is also important that the symbol also means the separation of the two halves; for there still remains a gap, a chasm, a divide and gulf, a missing part (or parts), which the reader must ponder and which is deliberately withheld. And if the symbol is a sign, what it signifies remains postponed, suspended or held back. The deliberate suspension should not be ignored. In the case of the favourite song, a number of possible implications readily come to mind: music, desire, sex, love. It is the ambiguous structure of the poem, however, and little or no specification which leads the reader to ponder all of them, and not to decide among them, but to regard the accumulation of associations between these different possibilities of meanings. 

      The level of ambiguity or different\differing meanings for the “song” and indeed the poem as a whole do not make it disjointed or choppy, and nor its interpretation wilful or arbitrary, subject to any reader’s vagaries. The poem (as all good poems do) suggests its implications and suggestiveness. This little effort at interpretation is not an occasion for goading but is governed; governed by the relationships between the terms that the poem offers in a subsequent relation with terms that suggested but deliberately withheld. The varied suggestions of the poem’s symbols need not, and in fact may never be drawn into one single meaning or interpretation. Yet this does not in any way render the poem “indeterminate” in the manner of defying or collapsing or indeed resisting meaning.  

      In the end, what this poem probes, is that poetry is its own best enemy. As James Longenbach argues, for centuries, poems have resisted themselves more strenuously than they have been resisted by the culture in which they are written. As “Decomposed Rhapsody” shows, poetic language is the language of self-questioning: metaphors that turn against themselves, syntax that moves one way because it threatens to move another, voices that speak because they are shattered. Poets who embrace these aspects of language are inevitably schooled in the art of self-resistance, and they consequently tend to recoil from any exaggeration of the cultural power of writing poems.   

Ismail Bala writes in English and Hausa. His poetry and translations have appeared in the UK, the USA, Canada, India and South Africa, in journals such as Poetry Review, Ambit, New Coin, Okike, A Review of International English Literature and Aura Literary Arts Review. Born and educated to university level in Kano, he did his post-graduate studies at Oxford. He is a Fellow of the International Writing Programme of the University of Iowa.  


  1. Isma'il's review has indeed shown that, at a point, meaning is readily discoverable outside of the text I.e through poetic imagery and symbolic action.

  2. This is great especially in the content and form on the metaphorical and symbolic magnificence


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