In Defence of Simplicity: Review of Tolu’ Akinyemi’s I Laugh at These Skinny Girls

At first blush, the title of this book would suggest body-shaming, a particular kind of body-shaming targeted at ‘skinny girls’ who are possibly influenced by the glamourization of ultra-thin models in the entertainment industry; ‘skinny girls’ who have possibly been brainwashed by the media to pursue skinniness through self-starvation and other unhealthy means; skinny girls who should rather be ‘understood’ and even celebrated.
I Laugh at These Skinny Girls is a simple book, but a somewhat serious one, which somehow ends up serving a didactic purpose without necessarily setting out to do so. Simplicity may be another viable solution to winning back a world which appears to be growing intolerant of ‘sophisticated’ poetry with every passing day. Perhaps, spoken word poetry has continued to gain more acceptance over its written counterpart to a large extent because it speaks in ‘everyday’ words which even street kids understand.
Lovers of traditional poetry are bound to be put off by what Oscar Wilde would term ‘the dreadfully prosaic character’ of I Laugh at These Skinny Girls. The book is not studded with simile, rhyme, metre, metaphor and any other markers which this class of readers identifies as the essential ingredients of poetry, forgetting that the arts have come a long way from the days of Shakespeare and Wordsworth. Of a truth, the significance of form cannot be downplayed as George Santayana rightly notes in The Elements and Function of Poetry that:
… if language therefore is to be made perfect, its materials must be made beautiful by being themselves subjected to a measure, and endowed with a form.
However, apart from form, there is also content to be considered; and favouring the former over the latter will only limit one’s appreciation of literature in particular and arts in general. Even in its simplicity, I LAUGH AT THESE SKINNY GIRLS paints concrete pictures and sounds clear-enough notes.
Mainly, I LAUGH AT THESE SKINNY GIRLS exhibits one of the remarkable features of postmodernism— populism, which according to C John Holcome in Postmodernism in Poetry:
Employs what is well-known and easily accessible in vivid montages. It welcomes diversity and seeks to engage an audience directly, without levels of book learning interceding… The work seems fragmentary, lacking in skill and overall purpose, which it unashamedly is, from broader perspectives.
The first poem in the collection, ‘276 Girls’, is a more engaging and humourous version of Martin Niemöller’s ‘First they came for the Communists, but I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist…’ The poet conveniently uses ‘Jòná’ (which the reader would easily connect with Dr. Goodluck Jonathan who was the President when the Chibok girls were abducted) to represent all those that remain apathetic to ‘other people’s’ problems. The poem shows that there are consequences when we fail to be one another’s keeper; when we fail to speak up in the face of tyranny.
‘… Jòná says “who cares?
It is not my fowl”…
Jòná says who cares?
It is not my goat”…
Jòná says “who cares?
It is not my cutlery”…’
(‘276 Girls’, Pp. 25)

But it is only a matter of time before the chicken comes home to roost. The thief, which doesn’t come except to steal, to kill and/or to destroy, comes knocking “On the centre of ‘Jòná’s door”.
Quite often, internal forces drive people to keep running about in search of the ‘real’ life, or to at least project personalities that would endear them to the world around them, yet they hardly ever stay satisfied for long with whatever they are able to achieve just as can be seen in ‘Hair Business’ (Pp. 48) where one girl takes pride in her artificial hair, while the girl down in Brazil, whose hair might have been exported to the former, is pissed, most certainly looking for something else to make her feel alive. The persona in ‘Busy’ (Pp. 70) resorts to impression management just to save face. Hear him:

And it seems
Everyone has found love
While I am busy
Pretending
I’m not searching.
(‘Busy’, Pp. 70)

Sometimes, this pressure to conform is external but it comes in the guise of a helping hand as can be seen in ‘Mother Said’ (Pp. 28), ‘Halima’ (Pp. 30), ‘Which One?’ (Pp. 33) and ‘Saturdays’ (Pp. 35).
Tolu’ Akinyemi has the ability to show and not just tell. Here, communication is two-way. He presents the skeleton and the reader pads it with flesh. In addition, it is the very simple words with which he communicates that makes the reader more able to taste and to touch the experiences such as loss, anguish, anxiety, transition, love, etc.

Nostalgia will soak
Like a bread loaf in a wet bowl
As memories tumble
Downhill like rolling stones…
Now it’s late
To relive a childhood
Gone in a haste…
(‘Blur’, Pp. 31)

Like a book
The clouds open…
Then the sudden end
Of what was a start…
(‘Another Day’, Pp. 37)

Last night the boy was thirteen
This morning he is thirty…
But that is truth and that is life
To sleep a child and wake a man…
(‘A Pot of Mud’, Pp. 42)

The book touches on relevant issues among which is this generation’s fear of missing out (FoMO) which ensues from its obsession with social media. In ‘Today I Lived’ (Pp. 44), the reader encounters a persona celebrating for finally escaping ‘Today… /From the prison/ Of my computer screen.’ And in ‘Instagram’ (Pp. 45), the persona bets all on the ephemeral gratification that addiction to social media yields:
… Since you have dyed your life out
To make 10,000 strangers
Fall in;
Lust—
With your body
You thought their words
Would warm you up
But they didn’t do plenty
For your empty-mess—
You only burn for more.
(‘Instagram’, Pp. 46)

I LAUGH AT THESE SKINNY GIRLS contains a good number of love poems à la Songs of Songs, which are musical enough to make even the most stolid of hearts to dance. The reader encounters a lover constantly thinking about his or her beloved and about their next time together, even to the point of obsession.

You are my sun
And every morning
You wake
And make my day.
(‘6: 45 AM’, Pp. 105)

A beam of your smile
And the look in your eyes
Cures the hunger of my heart.
(‘White Rice’, Pp. 110)

The hardest thing in the world
Is losing you.
To lose you
Is to lose my life.
(‘Hard Things’, Pp. 113)

It would appear that the confession of love upsets the seesaw, lowering the confessor and lifting the beloved higher. Indeed, love throws open the doors of one’s mind and heart. Love entails giving; it entails submitting and surrendering. To be in love is to be vulnerable, which could be why certain persons consider it a sign of weakness. Needless to add, love comes with a potent dose of black bile which drenches the lover(s) in loneliness, helplessness and hopelessness. This fact is obvious in ‘Love and Geography’ (Pp. 108) which is akin to Katie Melua’s Nine Million Bicycles in which she admits feeling ‘quite small’ for loving just one person out of the billions on earth. This admission of loneliness, helplessness and hopelessness continues in other poems:

To sigh and to wait
Is all that is left
To do and to say
(‘A Choice that Cannot be Chosen’, Pp. 79)

You tie my tongue
In a hopeless twist
Which ties me up
In a helpless heap…
You have stunned my mind
And enchanted my sight.
(‘Blank Stares’, Pp. 104)

As you read
The streets are lonely…
My bed embraces me
As I embrace dreams
Of you.
(‘11: 45 PM’, Pp. 106)

Tolu’ Akinyemi’s work targets a constituency- people who hate poetry- which, to be candid, is in the majority. And this feat is worthy of emulation by other poets who often wonder why a lot of people shy away from poetry and poets who they find, in Tolu Akinyemi’s own words, “ostentatious” and “egoistic”. Needless to add, it would do readers of this book a whole lot of good to not skip the PREFACE in their haste to devour this poetry collection.

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About Uchenna-Franklin

I am Uchenna Ekweremadu (with/out a middle name ). I write. Poetry and prose, mainly. Nonfiction too. My works have appeared in Grub Street, Coe Review, Saraba Magazine, Imitation Fruit Journal, The Write Room, Wilderness House Literary Review, A&U American AIDS Magazine, Kalahari Review, Sentinel Nigeria Literary, Flashquake and elsewhere. I have interests in music, history and photography.
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