Blood & Beauty in Zaynab Iliyasu Bobi’s Cadaver of Red Roses | Ibraheem Uthman

Much like poetry captures an emotion, an experience, or a notion, the first thing we notice when we look at a photograph is that it captures a moment frozen in time. Winner of the Ninth Derricotte/Eady Prize, Zaynab Iliyasu Bobi‘s Cadaver of Red Roses captures moments in time of human experience amid trauma, conflict, and resiliency, much as a photograph might portray an individual, a place, or an abstract idea. These poems reflect the confluence of history, culture, and individual lives, ranging from the biting indictment of institutional injustice to the personal investigation of identity. Bobi combines allusions to historical events and cultural components to give the collection’s finery a startling urgency. She draws on her Nigerian-Hausa roots and the socio-political context of current Nigeria to express the spirit of contemporary Nigeria and the larger African diaspora.

“SET OPERATION OF A COUNTRY IN THE BELLY OF WA(TE)R,” the first poem in this collection, explores the allegory of a country and its citizens in great detail. The line, “to sing our bones from running out of its body, / we marrow more music than wa(te)r & learn the language of survival” captures the nation’s people’s fortitude and will to persevere in the face of adversity. Blood throbbing beneath flesh is a powerful metaphor for the primal reality of violence and misery, emphasizing the deep psychological effects of conflict on a nation. The poem’s examination of the relationship between individual and societal trauma highlights issues regarding the cyclical nature of violence alongside the likelihood of recovery and change. Through the use of an anatomical metaphor, Bobi provides a moving remark on the interdependence of people and the manner in which their life experiences influence society.

The poet presses further into the aftermath of conflict, “FRAGMENTED SCENES OF WAR” where she explores the contrasting moments of devastating loss with glimmers of optimism and resiliency. Expanding on the concepts presented in “SET OPERATION OF A COUNTRY IN THE BELLY OF WA(TE)R,” she traverses the human cost of violence and the disjointed nature of life in a war-torn environment. In addition to showing how people find comfort in the midst of destruction, the poem portrays the unfiltered feelings of those coping with tragedy and grief, as seen in the lines, “i cut her body out of the scene when she was about to sleep / in her blood and hid her in the echoes of her mother’s du’a,” investigating how prayer may change people’s lives and how people hold onto their faith throughout difficult times. This demonstrates the human spirit’s resiliency and its capacity for hope even in the face of sorrow. The imagery of memories clinging to the landscape like flowers also highlights the need for healing and reconciliation by highlighting the long-lasting effects of trauma on people and communities.

The poem also forces the reader to consider the human cost of violence and the realities of conflict. The phrase “warning: no character was harmed in this movie” is a sobering reminder of the contrast between the media’s sanitized portrayals of conflict and the brutal reality faced by people experiencing it. Bobi challenges the audience’s voyeuristic gaze, imploring them to witness the real tales of adversity and resiliency concealed behind the news headlines.

The poem “MARTYR OF DAILY BREAD” is a tribute to Ra’afat Al-Issa, a Palestinian worker who was murdered while trying to get to his place of work close to the Israeli apartheid wall. Through his portrayal as “the martyr of daily bread,” which captures the immense sacrifice made by people trying to support themselves and their families in the face of economic hardship and occupation, the poem elevates Al-Issa as a symbol of the struggles faced by Palestinians.

The systematic injustices that Palestinians—especially those who are residing in the West Bank and Gaza under occupation—face are powerfully denounced in Bobi’s poetry. In illustrating the erasure of personal identity in the face of state-sanctioned atrocities, the excerpt “Ra’afat’s name was stripped from its meaning” emphasizes the dehumanizing effects of oppression and violence. By eloquently narrating Al-Issa’s misery, Bobi illuminates the wider backdrop of Palestinian labor exploitation and the manner in which the apartheid wall functions as a roadblock to economic opportunities and fundamental human rights. The poet further emphasizes how crucial it is to stand together and battle against further tyranny by placing Al-Issa’s passing in the larger context of economic marginalization and governmental violence.

With its imagery of a decaying floral symbol, the titular poem, “CADAVER OF RED ROSES,” is a melancholy and study of the complexity of existence. The title phrase has a lot of metaphorical resonance; it alludes to life and death as well as beauty and decay. Thoughts of the transience of life and the certainty of death are prompted by the contrast between the fragile, vibrant red flowers and their lifeless state. Engaging readers to reflect on the immensity of the universe and the interdependence of all existence, the lines “let’s say there is an eye above the cheekbone of the sky. / though, not shaped like a star, / but like a mouth that sneaks light into our bodies” create a sense of marvel and intrigue. The idea of light breaking through darkness alludes to the transformational power of optimism and fortitude in the face of hardship. The general idea of discovering beauty and meaning in the midst of degradation and misery is reiterated by these snapshots.

Bobi stressed further with a question, “here, there is an inheritance the tongue holds; / revisiting the same saltwater that we’ve driven in. / do you see how everything that sips water rusts?” exploring the subject of inheritance and memory, arguing that life experiences mould our identities and leave enduring imprints on our spirits. While hinting at the possibility of growth and transformation resulting from hardship, the metaphor of saltwater rusting is an intriguing representation of the corrosive effects of time and suffering.

A moving examination of the relationship between individual grief and media sensationalism in the setting of conflict may be found in another poetry in the collection, “WHAT THE MEDIA MEAN WHEN THEY SAY ‘TELL ME YOUR STORY.'” Bobi challenges readers to consider the dehumanizing consequences of media coverage of the real-life experiences of people impacted by violence through brilliant imagery and introspective narration. 

“A minor crisis occurred with few deaths,” the headline says. / With a pool beneath our eyes, we stare at the nothingness beside us. few, few people?” captures the heartbreaking contrast between the detached language used in media stories and the acute anguish felt by those who are affected by tragedies. The need for empathy and camaraderie in the face of loss by criticizing the trivialization of human pain and the reduction of intricate storylines to simple statistics were expounded in this poem.

Bobi also explores the power dynamics in representation and storytelling, raising ethical concerns about the hedonistic consumption of other people’s suffering. The phrase “we bid the corpse farewell with an offering of peace / assalamu alaikum, we said” stresses the deceased’s humanity and dignity in contrast to the sensationalized images that are frequently spread by the media. By presenting this contrast, Bobi asks readers to reflect on their role in maintaining stories that dehumanize underrepresented groups.

Each poem presents a different angle on these subjects and encourages readers to interact with the minutiae of the stories it presents. In “SET OPERATION OF A COUNTRY IN THE BELLY OF WA(TE)R,” for example, the line “to sing our bones from running out of its body, / we marrow more music than wa(te)r & learn the language of survival” expresses concerns about how resilient people can be when their country is in turmoil. The passage “we bid the corpse farewell with an offering of peace / assalamu alaikum, we said” from “FRAGMENTED SCENES OF WAR” details this resilience and emphasizes the humanity and dignity of people impacted by conflict. However, as “WHAT THE MEDIA MEAN WHEN THEY SAY ‘TELL ME YOUR STORY.'” illustrates, there is also severe loss and sadness amid this resiliency. In reaction to this discrepancy, “SHUSH” reviews the subtleties of silence as a tool of oppression as well as resistance. The passage “this is what a voice does to the body / it reshapes it when the blade passes by / & teaches it to repair itself, whole, again” challenges the silence forced upon marginalized voices and highlights the transformational power of speech in the face of hardship.

Bobi’s adept use of metaphorical language gives Cadaver of Red Roses an array of feelings and striking visuals, as she combines metaphors with symbolism to arouse the reader’s emotions viscerally throughout the book. For instance, in the poem “SET OPERATION OF A COUNTRY IN THE BELLY OF WA(TE)R,” the musical metaphor of “singing bones and marrow” highlights how resilient and strong people can be in the face of hardship. Similar to this, Bobi explores themes of identity and belonging in a bizarre yet emotional way in “CYBORG ATTENDING MERMAID FESTIVAL WITHOUT INSERTING A BREATHING LANGUAGE,” where she adopts the imagery of a cyborg navigating a mermaid festival.

The courage with which Bobi explores trauma, resiliency, and the human condition in the face of violence and discrimination makes her poetry exceptionally moving. Her raw, deeply felt, and intensely emotional poetry pulls readers into the real-life struggles of people coping with the terrible realities of violence and displacement. The collection’s capacity to arouse powerful emotions in readers and promote empathy and compassion for the challenges faced by marginalized populations constitutes one of its most significant features. Each poem in the collection has a universal relevance that cuts beyond cultural and geographic barriers to speak to the shared experience of humanity owing to the collection’s broad palette of themes and rich narrative structure. Cadaver of Red Roses stands out in that it makes readers reflect, feel empathy, and bear witness to the enduring spirit of humanity in the face of adversity.

With its exploration of the complexities of identity, displacement, and resilience, Cadaver of Red Roses is a tour de force in modern poetry. It challenges dominant narratives and oppressive social practices. Through stirring poetry, Bobi illuminates people’s lives on the periphery of society by navigating the difficult terrain of trauma and survival. As Bobi puts it in a powerful line from “Bless The Broken,” “every phone call resets our sorrow to default / when the news pours out of the transmission waves / our minds become porous to this unsettling thought” She captures the never-ending cycle of loss and suffering that oppressed populations go through. Through her arresting imagery, Bobi reveals the suffering, longing, and rage that come with living in a society that wants to suppress and obliterate the voices of the marginalized. Cadaver of Red Roses is a potent activist weapon that raises the voices of the marginalized and calls for equality and justice for all. Offering a direct and unaltered exploration of the human experience and advocating for the rights and dignity of every person, Bobi’s work stands out as a vital and required addition in a literary world where marginalized voices are routinely overlooked.

Ibraheem Uthman is the author of Mind Of a Bard, a poet, essayist, and thinker.

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One thought on “Blood & Beauty in Zaynab Iliyasu Bobi’s Cadaver of Red Roses | Ibraheem Uthman

  1. Congratulations to the poetess if this collection. From the review, the book is a beautiful work. It is yet another entry to the growing beautiful literature from northern Nigeria.

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