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Samuel A. Adeyemi’s Confession of Unbelief

by Ancci

Samuel A. Adeyemi’s “Applying Psalms 121 to a Gentile”—a poem from his chapbook Heaven Is A Metaphorvivifies what Harold Bloom called the “recovery of the ironic,” in which Bloom cautioned that “ideology, particularly in its shallower versions, is peculiarly destructive of the capacity to . . . appreciate irony” in literature. But far from the imagination of blasphemy or ready ideological trappings brought to it, the poem is defense inversed, a gentle but sceptical response to the Psalms—one of the fifteen categorised as the “Songs of the Ascent”—or any biblical verse in which God’s supremacy, and His often unapparent demand for human trust and devotion is implied. It is also a response to the Psalms’ failure at achieving the material equivalent of their positions. It opens with knifing diction, Adeyemi confessing a gradual departure from religion:

Some years ago, I began shredding

my tongue, crumbling the chapel

once built in my mouth.

This figuration of the crumbling chapel is expressive yet vague as its message initiates the consequence of an experience we are yet to be aware of. The “chapel,” suggestive of Adeyemi’s Christian teachings, and its gradual, figurative destruction, speaks to nothing but the death of faith—not necessarily in the idea of God, but certainly in the concept of religion, Christianity in this case, which, through the scriptures, serves as the spiritual channel between the divine and man—the exact opposite of what Psalms 121 sets out to achieve in its grand pronouncements:

1. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.

2. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.

3. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.

. . . and so on. The ironic application of the Psalms enters the poem when Adeyemi “retired my eyes watching the hills” as the content of the first verse of the Psalms suggests. Even as his faith wanes, there is still residues of belief enough to watch “them”—a collective pronoun which is unspecified here but represents the other religionists whose belief is as strong as the firmness of the metaphorical chapel—sang, or more appropriately, prayed, for the help redolent of the divine promise by the confidence in the uttering of the Psalms. But nothing happens in Adeyemi’s experience, except disappointment: “they sang / help will somebody water down, but daily / I died of thirst.” This experience triggers a series of disappointment characterised by God’s deafness to his prayers and religious assertion, which in the first place is prescribed and motivated by the verses of the Psalms. This embodies the beginning of the speaker’s unbelief.

An earlier iteration of Adeyemi’s confession of atrophied faith is a conveniently titled poem “Epiphany.” In a line reminiscent of Stevensian abstractions, the undertone of the divine belief mildly implied is relieved only by the sincerity the same offered: “All my gods wear their deafness as idiosyncrasies.” He sings further expressly, as if not anticipating “Applying Psalms 121 to a Gentile”:

                                         O nirvana. Prophesy to me.

Let this be the beginning of my glorious ascent. Let

me pick up a thing with teeth & not see a vision of

my blood. Do not allow every shadow I touch

whittle me into its bride.

“Epiphany” being a retelling of what the title suggests, “Applying Psalms 121…” is a first step at moving forward, or toward the spiritual independence the poet yearns and believes achievable in both poems, since his wants are not directed to the divine that Christianity represents and ultimately answers to, but to the external reality or the final beatitude that goes beyond misery and karma that can only be accomplished through spiritual consciousness, or personal awareness.

The suspense sustained from the beginning is relaxed when he, still telling the story of his struggle with his faith, shows the reason for this struggle: “Once, I tried to fetch God / with language.” But instead of getting response in kind, nothing answers, and his calling made no difference whatsoever like “white ink / stitching white paper.” God becomes as impossible to reach as it is impossible to read the same colour overlaying on itself. Without any natural connection—as opposed to the spiritual, and often the immaterial—no relationship could be established between the poet through religion, his primary spiritual channel to God. Spirituality, distinct from religion; he seeks the former in himself, a phenom of nature like “nirvana” to which he directs his yearnings in “Epiphany.”

[Read the poem “Flight” by Samuel A. Adeyemi]

Adeyemi, not only aware but once of the belief that God hears all and knows all, finds this silence unusual. This unusualness is articulated in the construction of his image: using the verb “stitch” instead of “paint,” “white paper” instead of “linen” or “canvas”—tools and language which to painters are sacral just as much as meaning and truth are to philosophers, and as much as words are to poets. But instead of this peculiar employment of words that are not in any logical sense compatible, rendering the ideas of his lines unlearned or illogical, it strengthens it in that only through this apparent illogicality are surprise, originality and profundity achieved.

In his justification, he calls himself back, and gives these instances the benefit of doubt by doubting his own judgment, and admitting, if only for a short period of time, his own ignorance about how the divine works (the italicised ‘perhaps’ is  mine and for emphasis):

                                      There were no

angels to colour my ache. Perhaps

I’m oblivious to the dialect of heaven,

I gave God a wound to heal & he placed

a ribbon around the bleed. As if to say,

look at your blood, pray & it will blue into

a stream.

In this admission, he still faults, if subtly, the theology of the interference of the divine in worldly affairs. The “ribbon” symbolises the idea of God’s actions, however naturally and logically bad, heinous or inconceivable, as a means to an end of preventing the worse. Thus, everything about existence revolves around prayer: when the bad happens, religion asks us to pray; even if the good happens, man still has to pray to sustain the good, to make it last. In this case, prayer without any tangible evidence of its legitimacy, as suggested by the poem, becomes transactional. This stance becomes much more complicated when we consider that the speaker of Psalms 121 is not God or one person, but rather is written, or the part of it, in the perspective of the person to whom divine help is to be given, and the other parts in the perspective of a priest or Jesus Christ.

These inconsistencies in the poem—easily mistaken as an error of coherence of the poet, is rather self-revealing of its subject—are another premise for the gradual death of the poet’s faith. And by extension, faith becomes a concept of confusion: “I do not know what to / weave from faith.” Prayer becomes a reminder of what an absent God does to the poet as the deity he supplicates to attains insignificance, so that when he repeats the ritual, he discovers that “when I fold myself to kneel as a saint, / a lily wilts before my teeth.” The zeal with which he once prayed and worshipped becomes irredeemable, weakening his faith more.

Adeyemi isn’t speaking out of the guilt of abandoning faith, nor out of regret, but out of love, care and painful understanding that his trial at attaining religious and, ultimately, spiritual independence will be as painful to his people as their unacceptance of his personality is to him. This is reinforced by the important question raised in these lines:

                                                  As if to say,

crawl to your mother’s feet & confess your

unbelief. How do say I am a church bell

swaying without its tongue?   Her heart—

a holy book my chaos must not set on fire.

The word “unbelief” is contextually stronger than “disbelief.” The latter implies not his sheer faithlessness in the Christian doctrine but rather a suggestion of his doubt in the faith. However, his acquired faith is deism as opposed to atheism: a system of thought which argues in favour of natural religion with emphasis on morality, which is the subject of his poem “Epiphany.” This alludes to Robert Frost’s answer when asked in 1951 “what philosophy has poetry, for a time like this?” during the Great Issues Course lecture at Dartmouth:

Well, the answer is that I don’t believe poetry has any philosophy to offer. To make a kind of poetic allegory or myth—Platonic sort of myth—let me put it this way: God sent into the world three things—just three, great things; the greatest things. Two of them were beliefs, and one of them was unbelief.

According to Frost, one of the beliefs is “true religion,” which goes always with “unbelief.” The second belief is “science,” which Bertrand Russell believed “is what we know, and philosophy is what we don’t know.” The Frostian unbelief is philosophy—“which is never its true self and never good when it isn’t doubting, when it isn’t pruning and trimming and combing the dead hair out of the two beliefs.” Adeyemi struggles with unbelief in the Frostian sense of the first belief and the misdoubt that comes with philosophy, which without the skepticism, he won’t attain spiritual freedom as opposed to religious liberty.

Adeyemi’s confession of unbelief in the last lines, or the consideration of the same, is an attempt to escape from spiritual pretension as opposed to religiosity, perhaps to escape the punishment of neutrality, according to Dante, detailed in his “Canto III,” religious neutrality in The Divine Comedy is understood to be “cowardly,” “rejected by God and not accepted by the powers of Hell.”

Adeyemi is faced with a dilemma that makes escape from religion impossible since his society, beginning at home, will not approve his irreligiosity. His silence and inaction can be deduced to be nothing but neutrality because the Dantean “great refusal” pioneered by Pope Celestine V is as abominable, at least in The Divine Comedy, as not believing in Jesus Christ at all. Perhaps it is even a greater abomination because a choice must be made to save our souls from the Dantean nowhere.

Adeyemi’s knowledge of the disapprobation of his choice to be free from religion justifies his employment of violent images in the beginning of the poem. Therefore, what Helen Vendler says in “Poetry and the Meditation of Value” is true of Adeyemi as much as it is of Walt Whitman, whom she originally addressed:

The value system of an original poet—and therefore of his or her poems—will be in part consonant with, in part in dispute with, the contemporary values of the society from which he, and they, issue. Were the poetry not intelligible with respect to those social values, it could not be read; were it not at a distance from them in some way, it would not be original.

Amongst the contemporary values of society in this case, paradoxically, is religious intolerance. Adeyemi knows the intolerance is real among the different religions in his society, as it is in our nuclear and primary relations, like family. So his belief demands of him unusual meritoriousness, of which pretension or occlusion of his true religious identity is included. But despite the consideration of admitting unbelief, there is a hint of acute struggle or rather unwillingness to dismiss the possibility of his parents’ belief being true, or his Christian teachings, so he respects this by concealing his true self—“How do say I am a church bell / swaying without its tongue? Her heart a / holy book my chaos must not set on fire”—however disappointed he feels towards his familial unacceptance, however painful toward the same, however alone in his ascent to liberty.

The balance achieved in the poem—not of argument as to what form of belief is better or true—and the reconcilable metaphoring Adeyemi employs to tell his history and ascertain his grievance, and his subtle contempt for the inescapable pretension of his personality, certifies the poem to what Pater, in his lengthy treatise on style called “absolute beauty” as opposed to “the merely relative or accessory beauties.” For this level of absoluteness cannot be earned without the Paterian truth—something “Applying Psalms 121 to a Gentile” provides with unadorned shamelessness:

In the highest as in the lowliest literature, then, the one indispensable beauty is, after all, truth:—truth to bare fact in the latter, as to some personal sense of fact, diverted somewhat from men’s ordinary sense of it, in the former; truth there as accuracy, truth here as expression, that finest and most intimate form of truth, the vraie vérité.

The poem reminds of Harold Bloom’s grandest pronouncements from the introduction, “The loss of irony is the death of reading, and of what had been civilized in our natures,” in his book How to Read and Why. Apparently, it is poets like Samuel A. Adeyemi he had in mind: who are capable of guarding irony from being lost to the kind of mediocrity Bloom believes we owe nothing “whatever collectivity it purports to advance or at least represent.” It is also true that if we strip irony from the poem, “it loses at once all discipline and all surprise” because the figurative application of the Psalms to “a gentile”—without which the poem wouldn’t exist in the first place—is not so much an application or reinforcement of the poet’s faith as it is a way of axing the Christian faith away from whom was once a believer when the Psalms failed to produce, or verify, their own material authority.◙

Ancci (b. Arasi Kamolideen Oluwapelumi) is a Nigerian.

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