Facing You: City Lights Spotlight No. 19

Image of Facing You: City Lights Spotlight No. 19 (City Lights Spotlight, 19)
Release Date: 
September 1, 2020
City Lights Publishers
Reviewed by: 

Acclaimed poet Uche Nduka weaves a kind of simple intimacy into his collection, Facing You, opting for unsentimental sentimentality while also shattering any preconceived notions the reader may have of neologism and its use in poetry.

Nduka stays true to his (apparent) favorite technique in Facing You: describing the everyday in a bizarre, magnified manner that invites the outside world into the speaker’s own inner universe. On many occasions, this tendency leads to wonderful insight:

“And when I briefly came to your house

you were not bad enough for my taste.

I only wanted to talk to the fishes

in your pond.”

Here we know the speaker is self-critical; they are not prepared for a commitment and would rather digress from this topic completely by directing the reader’s attention to the fish in a lover’s pond. This pond, though we don’t know its depth or its width, may be considered the speaker’s sexual appetite. Nduka uses the natural world—the fish—as an entry point into the speaker’s inner romantic tribulations. The sentimentality is timid, but nonetheless apparent.

While Nduka excels at nudging the reader from line to line and creating a truly enviable urgency to his poems (the enjambment is hefty in this book!) he fails at convincing his audience, due to sheer overuse, that his word play is necessary. The author’s neologisms are novel, certainly, but the reader is left feeling hit over the head by Nduka’s constant distortions: “a cup licks its wounds,” “drowning arias to death,” and “the kneecaps of violets” all appear in one poem, just to name a single instance out of multiple where this nearly unbroken invention obstructs the reader’s enjoyment.

The author’s playfulness with language is admirable in that it is unafraid, as are all the poems in Facing You, of stating the plain in an ephemeral, elevated fashion:

“it’s not hard

to have a falling out

with an onion

for miles and miles

you give me every

good thing you can’t keep

we ride our agonies to death.”

Nduka masterfully uses the sting of an onion as a metaphor for the give-and-take of emotions, memory, and loss in relationships. This skill is evident in numerous poems throughout his collection; the author knows, wisely, that you cannot instruct the reader in how to feel—you must show them an image, an idea, a tiny heartbreak, that spurs them on whatever intellectual path they choose to venture down with that poem (in this case, the onion).

Facing You is a fascinating example of a poetry book that knows, intuitively, that the reader is always smarter than the writer: Nduka’s poems are so intelligent, they dare the reader not to think more about them hours after reading has ended.

Facing You is tight, compact, and short free verse. Each poem, for better or for worse, seemingly has a 50% chance of leaving the reader feeling an absence of something; it’s not always a feeling of wanting more, necessarily, but a feeling that a key detail was misshapen in the pursuit of crafting a “unique” experience for the reader. The author’s poems are short, yes, but they are heartbreakingly observant at their best, and missing something due to an overactive sense of brevity and a deathly allegiance to neologism, at their worst.

In short, the reader feels, at times, alienated from the conversations Nduka’s poems are having. The backmatter of Facing You describes the collection as “lovelyrics.” For this to have been successful, the reader must feel as though they are the third and most important member of the love triangle; this wasn’t always the case.

Where Nduka fell short of creating understandable and shared intimacy between the speaker, their lovers, and the reader, he excelled at doing so between the speaker’s mind and the reader. The best part of reading Nduka’s work is feeling as though you’ve been invited to tea at the roundtable of his conscious mind. There you meet Ego, Fear, Childhood, Love, Obsession, and all their friends—and you can’t wait until you’re invited over again, even though the tea was lukewarm.