Allegories of a Red Hot Angel

Viewing the Poems of Fumilayo Bankole

Allegories of a Red Hot Angel: Poems Let me write a few sarcastic things for a moment. First, here in Los Angeles there are an abundance of male and female African writers who are crawling all over themselves like crabs in a barrel to review poetry—especially the poetry of Black women that are perfectly unknown to your local Negro literature professor. So my participation in this vast sea of “competition” must be recognized. Clearly my motives for undertaking the task of writing this review are for my personal, grubby political gain. Who would dare assume that my behavior is literally for my health?

Now that the sarcasm is gone and all of the cynicism is exhausted, first, let it be known that Fumilayo Bankole is the only poet of my generation, a long-standing member of my community, that moves me to write in view and review at length. Ms. Fumilayo Bankole would vehemently disagree with me and would assure you, reader, that she is one of many, many! I just need to “get out” more often… She and I did not attend the same schools but we are from the same school of poetry and here is my chance to write about that A+ student who brought the teachers mangoes (instead of apples) and always got better grades than me.

So, to risk failing a test that no one to me gave, my first flippant assertion is that the “allegories” in Allegories of a Red Hot Angel refer to the objects in the multitude of images just pouring in a torrent from almost every page in this book. You can approach the word allegory from this definition:

A form of extended metaphor in which objects and persons in a narrative, either in prose or verse, are equated with meanings that lie outside the narrative itself.

The poems are written like a visual memoir, a tableau filled with noun fetishes—“Mom’s old address books” in “My Father”; “Syncopated knees” in “Mandjiani in Watts”; the “Kango brim” in “Punta Rock”; the “scented tangelo rinds” in “Walkabout”—and almost every move in “Gifts from th Retreat.” Poetry is pregnant with the expectation that meaning will “lie outside the narrative itself” and the meta-physical fertility of Fumi makes this escape captivating.

Ms. Bankole told me herself that Allegories of a Red Hot Angel is meant to be read from beginning to end and each poem comes in one of four parts. This information causes me to assert that each poem is a collage of snapshots from each succeeding moment in her life. And, since Fumi and my person shared a few years together at a congenial distance, in and out of mutual friends and public events, I can tell through familiarity that, roughly, this is the case.

Part I

So “Part I” shows the formative years—and, since this book is dedicated to the mothers of girls, many of the now classic-modern girl “issues” are covered Fumi style. Leading “Part I” with a poem called “My Father” flies right into the classic-modern girl “issues.” But Fumi is far from replaying a Sylvia Plath “Daddy” move. The collection literally takes flight in “Girl on the Swing.” Her answer, after the forgiveness in “My Father,” to any sense of “loss” comes to me in these dance moves:

W chains in hand
She leans into it
‘Cause love
What she give herself
‘Cause a man come close
Just to stare at th sun

An explicit expression of the desire to make music appears in this first part in the poem “Serenade.” The musicality is everywhere in the poetry so it should be no surprise that you can listen to Fumilayo Bankole in L.A. River here in the kinté space.

Part II

“Part II” promptly starts with the birth of her son in the poem “Day of Joy” but immediately muted by “On th Payroll” a barrage of images bringing back post-divorce, childhood memories for me of what we used to call being “on the county” or living off of public assistance. I remember a snack bar in the “County Office”—watching wieners roll on the warmers knowing we can’t afford to eat them. And, like any thoughtful mother, Fumilayo punctuates “On th Payroll” with a picture of the child in the County Office, the most important one of this situation:

Still th restless child
Don’t know why he here
Hush th temper tantrum
W Coolaid in a baby’s bottle
Wearing folded arms
W a jutted hip in th
Swelter of humiliation

Following “On th Payroll” comes “Th Border,” which seems to say that others in the world—right around the way—have it worse. It is at this point on the typical timeline that the poverty is meant to be crushing and inescapable without “outside” help. But we would forget about the girl on the swing who looked like she would flip over into ghetto oblivion to expect such a scene with a missionary position. By the time we journey through “Wading into Wednesday Night,” “Gifts from th Retreat” and the crowning achievements of “Nat” and “Rites of Passage,” it should be clear to any Negro fool that there is a healing, redeeming power in the knowledge of African self and the ancestral relationship. Notice that Fumilayo never makes any political speeches about this in her work. It is just there in the moment. Notice that there never the presence of a hate of an other but always the love of a known familiar.

“Part II” winds to a close with more “ethnic” music street scenes in “Punta Rock,” a sensual, pungent road trip in “Walkabout” and the mother’s watchful eye on her precious child in “Poem for Mani III” and “Poem for Mani VI.” Recall that “Part II” began with a County Line but ends with disdainful employment in “War,” a seamless mix revealing that being a schoolteacher often means doling out standardized tests to make obedient soldiers to die in the ’hood overseas or right down the block:

mercenaries/no defined enemies
wagon patties of casualties
stated objective: increase
standford nine scores by some percent
scoot off the thirty-ninth pile of dirt
on th floor of th worst/n i’m being paid
to fight deep in th jungle off crenshaw not teach

Part III

This part represents to me establishment of maturity as our “Red Hot Angel” makes passage through our timeline. “Butter” opens with a high resolution, humorous introspection of raw sexuality. When a woman knows to use words like, “Got your muscle velvet // In my naked // Butter,” we are free to assume she is well on her way to a grown up relationship with orgasm. “Your Face” follows with more of the Eros and I know, personally, that “Zoom Zooms n Wham Whams” is a direct dedication to a young man that was very, very close to our angel.

But “Changed by Love” is not sexual. I will not even dare to claim at the time of this writing what this poem is exactly about. My considerable instincts struggle to grasp for a sense of reconciliation for another adult loss and an internal revision that leads to poems like “Love Poem to Self IV” and “Love Poem to Self V” later on our timeline in “Part IV.” What is clear is that the sexual play is over in “Political Nature,” “Innocence,” “Self Defense,” “L.A. River” and “Poot.” A running thread through all of these poems is a sense of ‘after the innocence’—a sense of aging and the real price to pay for a playful youth. Our angel looks into the lives others—especially the lives of other women—to render clear images of the underbelly behind the scenes of a “social life.” This move, for example, from “Self Defense” a brilliant way to avoid the incorrect application of the word “prostitute”:

Girls living bare-legged
In headlights

Another move from “Poot” resonates:

Overcooked manners served
To men in public

The concealment of flatulence in “Poot” reveals another, larger concealment going in on so-called adult life. It is no laughing matter to see the tragedy of how a person—in the case of “Poot”—a woman can preemptively suppress herself based on her assumption that gender roles will be enforced. After these years in Iraq, no one should argue that Americans do not have a problem with preemptive strikes based on fear (and greed).

“Sky Teeth” ends this third part with the affirmation that savagery rules this age of technology. The girl on the swing ascends to new heights, flying over the cityscape finding hints of brutality, “birds promise nature in a city.”

Part IV

Allegories of a Red Hot Angel on My Desk We’ve already mentioned the two “love poems to self” in this last part of Allegories of a Red Hot Angel. These two characterize the final episode on this particular timeline. This part is a space of what would be called “the present day” in a typical Hollywood movie filled with flashbacks. “Voices in My Mother’s Ear” announces that “now” is the time to reflect the past of the mother of the mother. This is another rite of passage for the developing woman: the woman has obtained the power to escape the ego-bounds of her “own” life and begin to deeply investigate others that are close to her. “Sound Bites” directly follows the intent of “Voices in My Mother’s Ear” and continues along the family line into the grandmothers and grandfathers.

“Alligator Wisdom” is an abrupt turn away from the ancestral line and places us into a prose painting of container-ship commerce:

Tired of hazy Port L.A.
For its lack of gusted sails
Gearing for China n Japan
‘Cause gurgle empty hull

This is an excellent demonstration of the poet for poetry’s sake—the romance of the artist as a mature, developed artist.

“Almost to th Beginning” serves, to me, as a bookend to the very first poem in this collection, “My Father.” Following is “View from a Tree,” a poem that is simply beyond my scope at this time of writing—just like “Long Division.” However, the works “Untitled” and “Personal Ad” strongly resemble both exercises of the craft and moments of deep self-examination. And I mean to be very exact when I declare with a swagger that “Off My Chest” (definitely) and “Girl II” (perhaps) serve as sequels of whole closure to “Zoom Zooms n Wham Whams.”