Sycamore: Finding the Bloom written by Betty Zainab is a book of poems. The collection, published in 2023 by Grand Touch, Ibadan, Oyo State is a collection of 97 poems of varying lengths and thematic tilts.
The poet’s predominant theme in the collection is pain. And this is portrayed in the opening poems in the work. In the poem: “What it means to Mourn,” the poet persona is pained that a thing is allowed to die, even though the very reason for nurturing it is to keep it alive. The hurt is even more intense when you experience torture and you are not able to explain or say it out. Thus in the poem, Pregnant Skies, we see a situation of the unspoken, and the poet persona informs us of “hold[ing] secrets that must remain untold” (p3) even though with the passage of time, these secrets will come to light. This is also accentuated by the imagery of tentative unwillingness of the poet to break free from the pain. This is the thought expressed in Self-Loath (p4) where the poet persona chimes: “This pain doesn’t fit my body/Yet I carry it like extra fat/Unwilling to shed the weight…”
And in what seems like being an accomplice in one’s own torture, the poet’s unwillingness to vehemently protest produces metaphorically, death (p5). Hear the poet:
“Death came in stages
First a blow to the head
And while I laid on the floor
Writhing in pain and confusion
Death parted my legs …
Death took my flower.”
The abuse suffered by the poet persona looks to be multi-dimensional. Apart from physical abuse and sexual exploitation, the poet hints at psychological abuse stemming from societal stereotype. The socio-cultural conviction that the young ones are condemned to be perpetually exploited by the elderly plays out in this poem, ‘Elders Never Lie’ where the poet persona is rather hurt that no one believes the tale of the child who suffers bodily humiliation in a society that equates sainthood and inerrancy with age. Here is a heart-wrenching tale from the poem: “Each time you shoved yourself between my thighs/You had no need to swear me to silence/The weight of your fist was threat enough/In this part of our universe, elders never lie/So, when you say you strike me for my insolence/No one raised a brow/I learned to swallow my screams/Clean my bruises and enjoy hell/For while elders never lie, children should tell no tales.” (p6)
This thought is also expressed elsewhere (p9) as the poet is angered that the abused is blamed for being good looking, or for lying especially against the elder. A recurring motif in the collection is society’s perception of women, and its concomitant stigmatization. The poet is put off by the criminal assumption that the woman is always the culprit when her husband dies, whatever the circumstance. In the poem Communion, even the poet is aghast that the first person to throw the first stone is a fellow woman (p10), who has now joined the rest of society to castigate the widow.
The poet perpetually challenges the patriarchy and male chauvinism that hold sway in the land, both holding the woman back. Even if what she says is the truth, she doesn’t have a point. Her ambition threatens and only her failure is acceptable. And her never-ending grief continues (p14) as her head is shaved, her bosoms bared and she is made to face the shame if she is not able to give her husband a male child. She is tagged a witch (p17) and as her daughter comes of age, she is forced to endure the pain of female genital mutilation.
Again the poet jumps into the fray of advocacy against spousal battering and gender based violence. She describes a scenario in which a woman keeps going back to a man who repeatedly beats her and she (and society) calls it love. But the poet (p20) is bothered that such toxic relationships do no good, other than ’’another statistic’’ and lessons to others. That is after ’’one of you is too broken to continue’’ or ’’until the day she lost her breath/And there was nothing left to punch.’’ (p24)
In the collection, the poet writes about the absent, irresponsible father as a “cracked mirror” who “will only sow oats and leave the field unattended.” (p21) The poet writes about deceit and depression (30), averring that depression eats up hope and sunshine, pushing its victim into darkness, despite the call to “cheer up”.
The poet pens verses on love and about love, lust and infatuation, as well as joy and sorrow. Yet in the midst of the gloom, unending abuse, grief and betrayal, the poet persona is able to dig deep and find light again. And the light of hope and grace shines forth, bringing in its wake, gushes of love. There is yet again, bloom and blossom: “She made her heart a garden of flowers/A castle for butterflies on happy days/And when the skies turned gloomy/She resolved to smile;/Be her own ray of sunlight.” (p66) And in a burst of sweet emotion, the poet persona declares Jesus as her source of renewed life and happiness (p67) in the poem, Grace, thus: “Your love makes me want to jump from heights untold/Knowing you’ll always be there to catch me/I am undeserving of it/Yet, your love warms the coldest reaches of my heart….”
Then the poet persona finds love, genuine and mutually stamped and energising. Especially, this is expressed in The Birth of Dawn (p72) where the poet persona chimes about “a lovely tango” in which none clashes with the other and “steps are graceful” and signify the beginning of life. And as the poetic voice in Sycamore finds her bloom, she also finds her voice: the voice of a disruptor and fighter – a freedom fighter and gender advocate. So in Unlearning (p78), the poet persona decides to shed the toga of the silence to which society had pinned her mother: “I taught myself to be queen and goddess/To stand and fight in the face of injustice/To speak when society’s silent command/Is nothing but a bar/To tow my path and carry my weight/And when a king comes along/To build with him a place for princes and princesses/None inferior to the other.”
In the final analysis, Sycamore: Finding the Bloom is a journey of trials and triumph. It is a call against the culture of silence that shrouds abuse in society, making the victim a victim all over again. And Betty has been able to beautifully show the reader the path to victory and bloom.
Her poetic prowess is sweetly aided by her deployment of vivid imagery and a strong command of language.
. Olatunbosun is a broadcast journalist, fact-checker and book reviewer at Splash FM 105.5, Ibadan, and he can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org, and X and Instagram @miketunbosun.