‘The Arc of Sight’: Poetic Voice and Displaced Desire in Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike’s “Guitarist on the Landing” ~ Ismail Bala


Guitarist on the Landing
By Uchechukwu Peter Umezirike

she strums her Cellotaped guitar,
slight woman who sings on the landing at afterwork hours;
her jacket bleached, sneakers frayed, hair jumbled, face rucked,
eyes a hint of distance, & voice like sand but – 

you rarely pause to hear her sing, always in a dash against the push of bodies,
until forced this evening to idle on the landing a moment;

…train momentarily delayed

the loudspeaker voice chafes your ears, sighs of commuters like gnats,
odours treacly you nearly spit; should you Facebook or Instagram?

her song is what grips – energy of the wind on which a hawk glides,
your body unclenches to its currents, prodigious in their sweep;
outspread as the hawk, you climb past the arc of sight, 
above what she sings about:

a father whose mind is a raft on the sea
mother who sees shrapnel in her sleep    
daughter who seeks love in syringed arms
son whose desire draws blood wherever he goes  

you’re soaring above butterflies bright like saffron, 
soaring from cloud to cloud, between longing & abandon,
gladness & what is unsaid; you hear not the din over the tracks
only the upsurge of song;
see how brokenness textures her soul?
how art for some is forged on the anvil of agony?
& what is music if not broken flesh or healing?
what is music if not goose skin, tears, or hunger?

the air is a chute now,
spiralling outwards; its force reaches for your wings,
snapping you back to earth,
& bodies nudge you aside;

next stop: Century Park

you steer onto the train,
wishing you could gift her a new guitar
for what she might never piece together.

Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike

In his seminal essay, “The Three Voices of Poetry”, T. S. Eliot argues trenchantly that “a good love poem, though it may be addressed to one person, is always meant to be overheard by other people”. He goes on to add that “surely, the proper language of love—that is, of communication to the beloved and no one else, is prose”. Eliot’s submission begs the question as the American poet, Edward Hirsch asks: “why can’t lobe also speak a transcendental idiom?” The love poem, even a displaced and an indirect love poem like “Guitarist on Landing”, is the medium of a specialised discourse which is successful only when it eventuates that discourse in the reader. This eventuation process is occasioned by the kind of voice the poet chooses to deploy.      

     In lyric poetry, voice is often assumed to be the voice of the poet through what is called the “lyric I”. However, even when the poet (Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike in this case), there is always the individual person. In other words, when the poet speaks in her own voice, she is nonetheless speaking as a poet, in a poetic language and not just speaking in private or informally. Conversely, lyric poetry assumes or implicates the presence of the reader to whom the poem is offered: i.e. audience is implicated in the poetic utterance, yet there is always a further point of reference in the poem also. For in addition to the voice speaking in the poem, the speaking person, the persona, there is the person spoken to as well, and their response or expectation, reaction, action or inaction may also be felt, noted or even missed by the reader and may also be taken as point of view and which is acknowledged in the text of the poem.

     Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike’s “Guitarist on the Landing” is one such lyric which doubles its voice quite clearly and makes it key to its discourse, for it has seamlessly built in itself the “presence of readers” (the fact of an audience): someone being addressed (an addressee). The title of the poem, like most titles, is ambiguous. But upon reading the poem it appears fit for purpose, forming a significant part, a displaced “opening” line of the poem. Typographically, the whole poem is rendered in small letters save the word “cello tape”. Some readers may not even notice the upper case but for a discerning, discriminating reader, the capitalization does not just stands out stylistically but it underlines the centrality of not just the guitar but the idea of things being held together rather precariously; for the cello tape symbolizes both the guitar and guitarist. Being cello taped means some state of being broken and of some level, some attempt at repairment. Could the cello tape in any way affects the acoustic or the tenor of the singing? Right from the first line of the poem, everything about the guitarist is out of sync; she is not only a “slight woman who sings on the landing at afterwork hours”, but her jacket is “bleached”; her “sneakers frayed”; her “hair jumbled” and to boot, her “face rucked”. The speaker, the lyric I to which the reader listens to speaks in the poem, identified only with a deixic “you” is, in a way, literally forced to hear the song while “idling on the landing moment” because his “train [is] momentarily delayed”. We assume the voice is that of a man not only because the guitarist is a woman but largely for the fact that the kind of scenario being played out in the poem, for which the reader is a keen viewer and listener, is a kind that is most likely to transpire between a man and a woman.

      While the guitarist is playing or singing, there is a cacophony of other voices and loud speakers as well as “sigh of commuters” and even odours wonderfully captured in an image of a treac. Despite the guitar being cello taped and a whole host of oddities about the guitarist, “her song is what grips”, and the grip, or indeed the song (as in the phrase, a gripping song or music) is compared to the “energy of the wind on which a hawk glides”. And the effect of the song/acoustic on the speaker is instantaneous: “your body unclenches to its currents, prodigious in their sweep”. Dreamlike and in a state comparable to a nirvana of some sorts, the persona surreally “climb past the arc of sight/ above what she sings about”.

          But what does the guitarist sings about to warrant this heightened experience? She sings about a family (her “song”, the 6th stanza, rendered entirely in italics to delineate a voice different from that of the speaker). A father with lost mind (“a raft on the sea”); a mother afflicted by nightmare (“who sees shrapnel in her sleep”); a daughter who dates drug addicts (“seeks love in syringed arms”) and a son with a bloody streak of love (“whose desire draws blood wherever he goes”). 
      As the guitarist continue to sing—it is not clear whether she just plays the guitar and sings along the acoustic; or she only plays the cello taped guitar without any accompanying singing—the persona’s ecstasy from the singing continues as he soars above the butterflies and the clouds, caught, as it were, in-between extremes: “longing and abandon”. Butterflies portend to the swarm of people around and also the expression of one having butterflies; while saffron (the colour, less the flower) is associated with the goddess of dawn, Eos, in Greek mythology and Aurora in Roman mythology as well as a host of other allusions including the Indian flag. The longing and abandon that the singing induces in the persona is equally likened to “gladness and the unsaid”, so much so that the din (of a train station which is presumably the setting of the poem) is lost on him and what is audible is unsurprisingly “the upsurge of song”. Here, too, the unsaid is key: the persona is obviously caught in a whirlwind stirred by the guitarist song. He could not have responded to the song verbally, hence the unsaid. But the unsaid could also be on the part of the guitarist who could not possibly say her song in all its complexity. Yet again, the unsaid could belie the inadequacy of language to capture the guitarist song and the persona’s experience of it.

      The next stanza asks a raft of questions which though only the persona could ask, being the sole witness of the guitarist singing. In the nature of lyric poetry, reading the questions asked by the persona for the readers is like listening to or eavesdropping on a conversation and the reader is led into the mysterious song and given a peep—a peep hole—into the soul of the guitarist; for going by the oddities about her, her soul is also broken. Her song epitomizes agony, “how art for some is forged on the anvil of agony”, which could prompt the reader to ask whether the guitarist doubles up as the girl she sings about, because the persona further asks: “what is music if not broken flesh or healing?” Here, it is pertinent to note that the poem achieves doubling up at three levels: the doubling up of the poet voice (the poet and the persona), the doubling up of the protagonist (the guitarist as singer and the guitarist is the subject of her song”, as well as being caught in-between longing and abandon and also between being broken and healed at the same time, like her musical instrument, the cello taped guitar which still plays acoustic even when broken.

      At the very moment the persona is brought back to “consciousness” when the “air is chute”, he realises where he is after being “nudged aside by bodies”. The persona then gets on the train, wishing he could “gift her a new guitar” in exchange for her crocked one, “for what she might never piece together”, ending the poem with an ambivalent tone; for that which she might not piece together ranges from her guitar, to her jacket, sneakers, her hair, her face, her eyes, her voice or even the family she sings about, each of which needs some kind of piecing together.  
      In the end, what the poet achieves with this poem is what T. S. Eliot called the meditative mode or “the voice of the poet talking to himself—or to no body”. The voice and its doubling up in the poem, like a quintessential lyric poem, points to the condition and purpose of poetry: the presence of the poet before her readers, recreation of emotion in a specific context, a fleeting moment, which is compressed and stylized and shared to the readers beautifully.       

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.