The Western poetic canon offers us certain things we can mostly all agree upon: John Keats, Emily Dickinson, John Ashbury and Langston Hughes. Chike Nzerue offers us this most generous and accessible debut full length book of poems, Architecture of Dust (LeapFolio, 2023), inspired by these classics. Perhaps experimentation has become the currency of the day, but this is not that book.
This book is a gift, and should the receiver be a lover of classic poetry, would love it for its newness, and say, “This is poetry, and it is beautiful!” and not ask, “What is this?”
These are poems that make sense of death, as the end of the embodied self, the last breath, in a way only a practicing physician can know. Nzerue is a nephrologist, a specialist of the kidney, in Las Vegas, Nevada. His poetics answers the question, “Why are you the only person who could attempt this poetic vision? Why could no one else could have said it this way?”
So take the familiar forms, of brevity, of meter, and to use that vehicle to bring voice to COVID and other illnesses, race and Blackness and African roots, Tupac’s death as well as a brother’s, North Tulsa and the Sahara, These poems do the heavy lifting for the reader, witnessing with care and clarity. Contrast the familiar forms of classical poetry, and the heightened subject matter of modernity, and something powerful begins to accrue.
It is an elegant juxtaposition. Nzerue comes to us whole and unabashed about all that has brought him into this present. Again, no one else could have. “Hiss of Oxygen: Silent Hypoxia” shares the doctor’s misdiagnosis:
“I, the healer, fooled
By his swan-like calm
Called it wrong—”
Of the doctor’s day to day work in the COVID era:
“It’s a blue art
to garden words,
catch their slippery drifts,
or read their hieroglyphs
behind a blue mask—
to unearth the diamond
in their coal dark gaol...”
Nzerue writes in “Lip Reading Behind a Mask” which while specific, speaks to the larger metaphor, too, that has been on our minds, or mine, for along time. About being hidden, about miscommunication and about being a writer. But how to say it and make it beautifully true? Turn to Nzerue.
There is a love here, a kindness, that extends across continents and millennia, a reaching back to go forward, to reaffirm a whole. The author is a successful Black doctor, born in Kano, Nigeria, educated at Oxford and practicing medicine in America, once serving as the dean of a medical college in Tennessee.
The poet’s biography is what brought me to this book.
In his hands, rivers and death, earnestness and romanticism are alive and woke and full of fire. “Flint River Anthology” begins the section “Singing America’s Rivers with Langston Hughes” the book’s most ambitious project:
“They were strong & tough
like their brick homes
that became stone boats,
a necklace of thorns...”
These poems embrace, clarify and advocate, in perfect meter, so the occasional cliché’ (“blanched petals”, “stiff lip”) is forgivable to the larger vision. The humor of “Middle Age is a Blue River” makes light, and what fun to ride the litany:
“You confront the stranger
in the bathroom mirror
& dart your wicked wink.”
It’s a poem that would fit right into Academy of American Poets’ poem-a-day email. It’s the first and last lesson: poetry is breath.
Karin Falcone Krieger’s recent essays, poetry and visual art have been published in Tofu Ink Arts Press, Viewless Wings Podcast, Tupelo Quarterly, LITPUB, Newsday, Contingent Magazine, BlazeVOX, The Laurel Review, and in the anthology, “A physical book which compiles conceptual books” (Partial Press, 2022). She taught writing as an adjunct instructor for 20 years, and was an adjunct union representative. She has an MFA is from The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, and published the zine artICHOKE from 1989-2008. She is a master gardener, personal chef and suburban homesteader. Links to these and other projects can be seen at www.karinfalconekrieger.com