Saltwater Demands a Psalm by Kewku Abimbola, Winner of the Academy of American Poets First Book Award: A Review by Veronica Golos

There are three themes of this prize-winning debut book by Kewku Abimbola: Bridge-making, Naming, and Symbol as Language, which I’ll be addressing. 

As a poet, Abimbola links the speaking world of Ghana into which he was born, and that of Detroit where he now lives. In single poems he transverses language, both his mother tongue and his acquired tongue, a kind of code switching along the way—or rather a bridge—making connections as he does in “Proverbs: An ode to black advice”: 

Faako a ësonoawuato, ëhônhahannyinaa fore:

Whenever the elephant dies, all the leaves are destroyed:

Death don’t see no difference ‘tween the big house and the cabin.

Deëoresusukosoara ne nsôreëm:

He who weeps cannot weep beyond

the cemetery: 

Every closed eyes ain’t

sleep, and every goodbye ain’t gone.

Here he switches between Adinkra and colloquial Black proverbs, working as a bridge between the two. This says something about this poet’s attention to language. In an interview with James Morehead on Viewless Wings*, he describes his use of visual Adkin symbols throughout the book: 

This attentiveness to language in a visual form inspired ‘Saltwater.’ Adinkra symbols are used as chapter breaks and even form long poems. The most difficult Adinkra symbol to create was the Sankofa, following some elegy poems in the collection. These are made up of the names of individuals who were victims of police brutality here in the U.S., shaped into the Sankofa symbol, which resembles a bird with its head looking backward. The Sankofa symbolizes memory and comes from the Akan proverb which translates to ‘It is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.’ This focus on memory and naming attempts to honor these names in a way that is shaped beautifully but does not detract from the fact these names bear a dramatic history.”

In this way, Abimbola decolonializes language by releasing it into symbol. This is one of his stated aims.  

I sought to understand Ghana’s role black diasporic history, particularly its history as a significant point along the Gold Coast where millions of enslaved people were transported to the new world.

I saw the Akan naming system as a symbol of rebirth. Even though African-Americans may not always be able to trace their ancestry as concretely as they might like, there’s a high likelihood their ancestors passed through Ghana. So, the act of assigning Akan names completes a circle, symbolizing a sort of homecoming.

This diasporic understanding, and the great grief that shimmers beneath, illuminates each poem.  

As Falkner famously said, “The past is not dead; it’s not even past.” So, Abimbola re-names African-Americans killed by police: Sandra Bland becomes Sandra Annette Ama Bland; Ama is the first name of God. For Tamir Rice, he names: Tamir Elija Kwabena Rice, blending the Akan way naming with those who in protest chant those names here in the streets of the U.S.  Here, as a poet and person, Abimbola is sensitive to the entire given names, holding them in space, while tying them to Akan names – keeping them alive in our minds.  His attention to detail as a poet reminds one of Denez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017)**. 

He begins his elegy poem Ebenda (for Tamir Eliah Kwabena Rice):

Water, Ocean: salt-

water, flood,


Abena / Kwabena

Death is not a way

to forget, but to remember. 

Time gone,

body time. 

Kwebena loved painting

with watercolors, being born

on my day. 

He  painted my water-

color best:

daubs of azure

tempered with a countermelody

of silver—just enough silver...

As poets and readers, we carry the names offered us. His naming, bridge-making and symbol come together.  In both Durag (to old timers:Do Rag) and Stank Face, he is using language that is known to a broad audience. Stank Face refers to A unique facial expression characterized by the wrinkling of the nose, squinting of the eyes, and swinging of the head, typically displayed by someone who is listening to a very impressive, usually soulful musical performance. But that’s a Google version. Here is Abimbola’s:

Oh, stank face, your origin

begins with rhythm

like the first ever jam session, 

somewhere beneath a tendriled canopy

and near brackish water,

where best we worship—

Here again, he references the Ring Shout*** praying done by enslaved Africans in America—so many of whom came from Ghana – his ties to them further his bridge-making. 

Abimbola’s work is part of a crossing-over, or rather a combining of cultures by those who have shared the transforming immigration experience as poets from around the world.  The “world poem” is being developed.  As Edouard Glissant writes****: We are aware of the fact that the changes of our present history are the unseen moments of massive transformation in civilization, which is the passage from the all-encompassing world of cultural Sameness, effectively imposed by the West, to a pattern of fragmented Diversity, achieved in a no less creative way by the peoples who have today seized their rightful place in the world. 

Abimbola as part of the wave of immigrant poetry populating American poetry, can be seen also as cousin to African American poets like Nathaniel Mackey, who explores “both sides of the hyphen.”

In his critical book, Poetic Investigations, Paul Naylor writes: For Mackey, song, which includes poetry, creates the possibility of what he terms a “discrepant engagement” between cultures. For me it seems obvious that Abimbola is part of this, coming from the other direction, but meeting this “discrepant engagement” head on, “Bodygraphics”:

The shasha of ankles and heels

a syntax of movement

How many letters

can the body shape

What is it our movement

wishes to spell

The cursive of black movement

forms a language

Of simultaneity and symbol

kinetic letter-making...

Kinetic letter-making, indeed.


**Denez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead, Graywolf Press, 2017. 

***Ring Shout: A shout or ring shout is an ecstatic, transcendent religious ritual, first practiced by enslaved Africans in the West Indies and North America. 

****Edouard Glissant in Poetic Investigations, Paul Taylor, Avant-guard & Modernism Studies, Northwestern University, 1999.

Veronica Golos is the author of four poetry books: GIRL (3: A Taos Press), which was awarded the Naji Naaman Honor Prize for Poetry; Rootwork (3: A Taos Press); Vocabulary of Silence (Red Hen Press)Winner of the New Mexico Book Award and Translated into Arabic by the poet Nizar Sartawi: and A Bell Buried Deep (Storyline Press), co-winner of the 16th Annual Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize, adapted for stage and performed at Claremont College of Theology, Claremont, CA. Golos has lectured at Columbia University Teacher’s College, Hunter College, Julliard School of Music, and Dine (Navajo) Technical College, among others. She lives in Taos, New Mexico.