While I Yet Live by Gboyega Odubanjo

A review of the poetry pamphlet While I Yet Live by Gboyega Odubanjo.

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While I Yet Live, the vibrant debut poetry pamphlet from Gboyega Odubanjo, explores the seriousness of discrimination while still managing to pack a sense of joy, hope, and life force into its pages. I assume the title is a sort of inversion of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. In any case, both works present an evaluation of a whole lifetime while the speaker and reader reel.

Identity is the central theme of this pamphlet, but the writing is not self-centred at all. If anything, it feels giving, generous—an answer to the adversity faced by the voices in this work. The poems in this pamphlet feel big, grand, epic, and Odubanjo allows himself to relish the feeling of being alive, as seen in the poem ‘White Bronco,’ in which he cheekily writes:

when i let my arm hang out the passenger side i smoke
but do not inhale i know everybody’s watching now
watching as we drive slow

The author is so present in the writing, but could so easily be dead, as described in the opening poem ‘OBIT.’ There is a sense of accumulative history and storytelling in this pamphlet, as seen in ‘Swimming,’ which unfolds up to the current time of the author.

There is also a sexual energy present in the pages of this pamphlet, as seen in the poem ‘Ineffable Name,’ and it is raw. We see this sexual energy throughout the pamphlet in different poems and in various forms and doses, combining with other ideas. Partly because of this energy there is an intimacy to Odubanjo’s work, meaning that much of his writing has a confessional feel.

Humans view time linearly, and yet there is a different, strange sense of perception going on in this pamphlet. The past and present are viewed at the same time, along with the future, or possible futures. This, of course, is directly linked to the experience of being black and the fear of meeting a similar fate to that of other young black men. As a writer of colour now, if you are living in the real world and breathing air, it’s impossible not to write about race. It’s part of your lived experience every day, whereas white privilege allows a non-BAME person to have the option of whether or not to write about race—to be a person before their colour.

The blurb of While I Yet Live describes Odubanjo’s “lightness of touch,” and it’s true that there is almost a mean sparseness to this work, although nothing is lacking—only the most essential, distilled expressions have licked the page. These ‘light’ poems feel heavy, devastating, because there is so much more to be said, and somewhat because of this effect, everything that needed to be said has.

The speaker’s mother is a figure woven throughout the pages; she shapes the writing as she must have done the speaker’s life. She is also a symbol of history, a history that is old, rich, and highly relevant to life now.

This is a curious, beautiful pamphlet written by a promising, emerging poet, and it’ll be interesting to see where Odubanjo’s career takes him. As anyone who has ever been severely ill, suicidal, or in fear of their own death will tell you, you have a peculiar sense of self when you’re always considering your end. The conclusion that I drew from this was live and love while you can—feel. You can do this without being blind to injustice.

Setareh Ebrahimi performs regularly, and is a poet working in Faversham, Kent. She is the author of In My Arms from Bad Betty Press.

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