Saturday, June 27, 2020

Tolu Oloruntoba’s Writing Day: Like a Boxer Beating the Air

5:30 AM, Tuesday: I wake up daily and continue my prayer: I want, I want, I want.

I want so much, have so little—time, endurance, day-lit hours when I have both time to lay one thought upon another and the wakefulness to do so. Right now, I want to unplaster my eye lids, wake up, and unfurl my body from the painful pretzel it has become overnight, and get ahead before my daughter (who has joined us in bed) wakes up.

I try the old method: irradiating my brain with rage from Twitter to wake up fully (also because I’m addicted). This morning’s fare: the now familiar pandemic with unfamiliar twists—of the knife; the cruelty of empire; skirmishes and insurrections; and tweets that give me the first of the day’s many stank faces. I shouldn’t use adrenaline in this way, but it works: I’m awake, my generator of rage seething in the background. That would do. Let’s do this.

5:55 AM: I remember I slept early last night so that I could get some work done this morning. I curse the neighbors beeping car alarm as I start to swing my feet over the beds edge. I will be so mad if it wakes the kid. It stops. I settle back, close my eyes, and grope for my thoughts. Feeling my way for some calm, warding the grasping hands of the things I want to do, be, have remembered, give to others, believe of myself. The sigils of my bondage are the same as they ever were—pretzel, ouroboros, Sisyphus wheel.

The first strains of the phrase “I wake up daily and continue my prayer: I want, I want, I want” occur to me. Open eyes. Kid’s still asleep. Good. Go. Grab pants, laptop, charger, phone. Leave room stealthily. The thought crystallizes as I descend the stairs. I type it in my Notes app at the bottom of the stairs, into a note where other fragments from these pandemic months wait.

6:10 AM: I skim through tabs I’d opened last night: “6 Ways to Take Control of Your Career Development If Your Company Doesnt Care About It”; “Designing for the Quadruple Aim: How Can the Built Environment Support Quadruple Aim Goals?”; “The 7 Things You Need for an Ergonomic Workstation.”

6:20 AM: I begin to type this note. I collect my thoughts from 5:30. I have finally found, I think, a way into this article about my writing day that Rob requested. It remains to be seen if this will indeed be a writing day.

7-8 AM: Her Maj is awake. I hear what must be hunger tantrums, get to pacifying and feeding, showering and getting her ready for school, posting on LinkedIn to keep ye Olde professional persona alive.

8:25 AM: At my bedroom desk to start the workday. More rage, this time from LinkedIn: “Canadians who've transitioned to working from home permanently face another change: a potential pay cut.” There is no depth, it seems, to which extractive capitalism will not sink. I take the phrase I have been holding in my head, and combine it with the other fragments that had been waiting:

I wake up daily and continue my prayer: I want, I want, I want.

I use the anaphoric I want to string the disparate nonsenses from the past three months together:

I want poetry again, poetry as patricide, poetry as effigy-burning;
I want the pen, mighty against my thigh in swordless alleys;
I want to perform heresy against the silence of my culture;
I want to medically-examine this question, leave it flayed, filleted, laid open and bled out, dehusk the innuendo.
I want to see, unlike others, the imp of the perverse playing us all like lithophones at the edge of train platforms

9AM-6 PM: A blur of project management spreadsheets, emails, Skype meetings, the spine of my wooden chair chafing mine. 30-minute break for lunch downstairs, another 30 to pick the kid from school. I glance at the typed out note a couple of times, add, move, remove.

6 PM-11:30 PM: One hour break to feed the kid. Handle the evening’s meltdown. I don’t remember what it’s about. Caroline’s doing the bedtime routine and putting her to bed tonight, so I can get some editing done for the new journal gig I just got. I’m glad for this one, because I’d lost another to COVID in March, but moonlighting is a laughable term that doesn’t begin to describe the anguish of freelancing. For each batch of articles, I spend a month or two doing work that will be paid for at least six weeks after I’m done. I spend some time acquainting myself with the academic style guide. I edit exactly one 12-page article. I work out how much I have earned in 5 hours of work—$10/hour. Lol. More rage. Why do I do this?  (I know the answer: more money, however little, helps us tread water a bit longer). Perhaps I can go faster tomorrow once I’m better acquainted with the style guide. There’s a mutiny in my vertebral column, and in the lampshade crook of my bent neck. Let’s continue this tomorrow.

I don’t, I can’t look at the garbage I put down earlier today. It doesn’t have that animating spirit to gather flesh around. All I know is I want: every day is the same; I am encased in glass; I am confined to my wheel; my psychic screams do not cut the dome. I’ll wait to see if a new direction will occur to me.

But I drag myself into bed, just, you know, for a change of posture. Caroline’s asleep already. I hate sleep because it feels like dying before my work is done. I get N.K. Jemisin’s “The City We Became” as an Overdrive Superloan. I’ve heard good things about it and begin to explore the narrator’s paranormal New York, the light text, running off the dark page, clawing my bleary eyes. I don’t remember falling asleep.

I lost the developing poem two days after, before I could save it, but I am thankful that the originating fragments were still in my Notes, and I was able to feel my way around what the poem was, and how it wanted to grow into what it became. I had panicked when I realized I had lost it, but that want helped me feel my way through the rest of the poem. A fragment that helped me complete it was my regret at missing the joint burial of my grandparents (who had died within weeks of each other), and remaining unable to fully confront my grief. This haunting thought returned just as a neighbor’s smoke alarm went off, and I wondered what I would try to salvage if fire from one townhouse spread to ours. Grief, frustration, and powerlessness often feel like sleepwalking through a house on fire, when you know with certainty (although your body cannot move fast enough) that you cannot save yourself yet—because there are other things to take with you. But all that came two nights later, when I had some time to search out the end of the poem. I am very grateful that it came back to me. To give an idea of my speed in slow periods, this is my second poem in four months. Here it is in its “final” form:

I wake up daily and continue my prayer: I want, I want, I want.
I want the poem again: poetry as patricide, poetry as effigy-burning;

the pen, warm against my thigh in swordless alleys;
the performance of heresy against our silences;

the medically-examined question—the flayed drupe, the flesh disrobed,
the extradited, planetary—stone in a chaos of sluice;

to ambulate from the pupa of sleep, the bonds of no, the dome beyond,
for the absolution of the dead that cannot forgive me

for deserting their double grave, for the elegy withheld;
to be cleansed by the finally-burning house

of memory, the one I calmly pick curios within,
under a galactic entreaty of alarms.

Tolu Oloruntoba is the author of the Anstruther Press chapbook Manubrium, and The Junta of Happenstance, a full length collection of poems forthcoming from Anstruther Books in 2021. He lived in Nigeria and the United States, and practiced medicine before his current work managing IT projects for BC health authorities. Tolu’s poetry has appeared in Pleiades, Columbia Journal Online, Obsidian, This Magazine, and elsewhere, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

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