Facing You

Facing You is a collection of love lyrics, as well as an exploration of what goes into making the public and private self, from acclaimed Nigerian American poet Uche Nduka. Passionate and erotic, Facing You resists being hermetically sealed within the relationship, and is subject to the intrusions of “the dubious world” war, exile, protest, and police violence intrude but cannot defeat Nduka’s expressions of desire, where reality and surreality are one.

For decades, Uche Nduka’s refulgent poetry has shone out amid the various national and cultural contexts in which he has found himself, from Nigeria to Germany to Brooklyn. The brief poems of Facing You showcase Nduka at his most iconic. Casual and elemental, Surreal and Blue, these poems are like fuses: exactly equal to their tasks. Facing You proves the pliant strength of the lyric, its ability, in a handful of blunt and turning lines, to reverse reality with the ease of an upraised mirror. Nduka’s poetry models the principle of agile, flamelike survival amid this most leaden of worlds.–Joyelle McSweeney

Uche Nduka’s lyrical abstractions are razor sharp and lighting fast. Each poem turns several corners in the blink of an eye. A Nigerian-American poet by way of Germany and Holland, Nduka has honed his genius on the whetting stones of a tri-continental cosmopolitanism. His voice is both courtly and sensual, and his poems as frankly sexual as they are defiantly explosive. Like Rimbaud, Nduka sings the pride of exile, the debauchery of imagination, with wile and wit. We are lucky to have him.–Kit Robinson

It’s not enough to be in love. These poems want to lose themselves in you. In Facing You, Uche Nduka conjures up the kind of romance that ends up in movies and songs–a love so strong you dissolve into your lover. At the same time, Nduka’s short and leaping phrases play hard to get. Just when you think you might be closer to making contact, he pivots, leaving you to feel like a rug has been pulled out from under you. What do we make of this push-and-pull dynamic from a speaker who says, ‘I need a hell of a lot / of love to run my life on’? I think it means that Nduka’s poems understand how difficult intimacy is, how it can feel like chasing a dream, how it requires constant courage to overcome the fear of being hurt: ‘You must have the guts / to tear absence apart.’ It’s much easier to run away. Facing You lives in the gap between the desire for intimacy and intimacy itself, the exact place where meaning-making both comes to be and breaks down. It holds us suspended between language and sense, speech-sounds and communication, where we can feel the full brunt of our yearning.–Ana’s Duplan

(published in https://www.portersquarebooks.com/book/9780872868304)

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by Mark Scroggins

“I see no difference,” the poet Paul Celan wrote, “between a handshake and a poem.” At this time of quarantines, of social distancing, many of our familiar physical interactions — a handshake, a hug — have become longed-for memories. Recent books by Uche Nduka and Catherine Wagner remind us that poetry, which can seem more and more dematerialized as pixels on screens, is rooted in the human body: its movements, noises, desires, and articulations — and its interactions with other human bodies. Poetry, in short, can be sexy, as Lord Byron and Edna St. Vincent Millay well knew. And, as Sappho and Whitman knew, no words can address and interrogate sex as deeply as poetry, words hummed and caressed on the tongue, sounded in the body.

Uche Nduka’s Facing You (City Lights, 2020) is a collection of short poems, none of them longer than a page, some of them only five or six lines; Nduka is a master at making every word count. The poems are sometimes awkward, sometimes quizzical, and sometimes resonant, like a proverb or a Zen koan — but they rarely have an ounce of flab. Many are in a fragmentary, paratactic vein, the poet laying down his statements and inviting us to work out their connections, as in “Air Around a Vase”:

     We prayed before
     and after war and felt
     sick about it later.

     I want, if possible,
     a little bit of an insane world.
     I’m a sucker for toy-shops.

     Tuesday fled on a boat.
     Inside an azalea
     is an exclamation point.

The poem moves from the second-person plural, and the social cohesion brought about by conflict, to the poet’s desire for the irrationality of childhood (“toy-shops”) — perhaps an escape from the greater insanity of global conflict — to a recognition of fleeting time: Tuesday’s escape on a metaphorical boat, the arrest of an “exclamation point” within a necessarily ephemeral flower blossom.

The bulk of the poems in Facing You, as the title implies, are love lyrics of one sort or another, poems addressed to a beloved. The phrase “facing you” can designate both a stance toward another and — not to put too fine a point on it — a sex position; and a great number of the poems take us into the bedroom (or the floor of the study, or the kitchen, or wherever the muse seizes the poet and his partner). These are, as “No Replication” has it, “poems in various states / of undress.”

Nduka’s erotic poems are gentle, tender, and, for the most part, quite hot. There are moments of explicit description, outright tellings of the acts in progress — “Keep parting my buttocks / with scented fingers” (“Double Act”); “Juice alone does / not define us as you / sit on my face” (“A Return to Beauty”) — but such moments are surprising when they crop up, piquant or musty turns, unexpected and emphatic shots of physical punctation. More often, the poems’ erotic elements are part of a more general heightened, sexualized atmosphere, a kind of free-floating horniness or “beautiful confusion” (“In a Textile Mill”) in which the desire to merge with the beloved is inextricable from the desire to create. This is erotics as poetics: “At the peak / of writing,” Nduka writes in “Table of Noon,” “a blank paper / becomes wet.” “This poem smells / of both of us” (“Of Imprinting”).

Facing You is by no means entirely erotica; it touches on a wide range of experience, including Nduka’s own Nigerian-American identity (“There’s no better weather / than this to africanize / the lexicon” [“Fishing Rod”]) and the social crises of our moment, as in “Poetry”:

     When I asked
     why he was shot
     on the street by a cop
     they counterasked:
     What does that have
     to do with poetry?

That last question, the poem implies, is misguided: poetry’s province is all that is human, from the intimate tendernesses of the bedroom to the brutalities of the street. If Nduka’s poems in Facing You tend to focus on the former, they have not at all denied the tragic immediacy of the latter.