From an evolutionary perspective, shame is a puzzling emotion. Guilt is easier to explain; to feel bad about what we do can stop us from actions that threaten our standing with a group. But what is the adaptive advantage of feeling bad about who we are? Recent research has suggested some clues, but for many of us who feel shame, the question of What for? remains vexing.
In her debut collection, Rummage (Little A, 2017) Ife-Chudeni A. Oputa drives headlong into such unsettled terrain. In the book’s opening poem, “Ode to Shame,” Oputa approaches the emotion with respect, as someone might address an estranged parent or difficult partner. The poem’s action begins with a fitting embodiment of shame, by imploring an impossible forgiveness:
Forgive me all the years
I called you ash; I thought
you were a tree grown
inside me the way a girl
once told me a watermelon would
grow, if I swallowed the seed
and drank from her mouth,
my body already dirt.
The imagery throughout the poem identifies the speaker’s shame both with queer sexuality and racial identity, as well as the linguistic roots of her birthplace, Fresno. This intersectionality confronts one of the hallmarks of shame: while it is deeply personal, it is almost unavoidable for those whose complex identities are set against the drift of Eurocentrism and patriarchy. The speaker accepts this inevitability, telling shame, “my body is a wound / waiting to be made by you.” But rather than simply lamenting this fact, the speaker affirms her own hope to rise and be the equal of shame’s power, to be driven by and worthy of it—to become a force “that burns / one hundred degrees and more / and never turns to ash.”
The first section of Rummage unfolds by winnowing down a relationship to shame that becomes more and more binding as it closes in on the speaker. The section, titled “We Are Sitting Around Discussing Our Shame,” collapses poem by poem until we are left in the section’s final poem, “We are my shame.” As the layers of relationship to shame in these titles become stripped away, and the relationship to shame becomes more direct, the speaker acknowledges shame is “unwanted,” and claims it nevertheless as “a gift.” Interwoven through this section is an overlapping series of “Portrait of Memory” poems, in which tsunamis are trapped in jars, seals move into people’s homes to replace lost loved ones, and boys and bears become indistinguishable. These surrealist transformations complicate the apparent confessional mode and disrupt any sense of simple, linear narrative.
One of the most striking aspects of the early poems in Rummage is their complex exploration of childhood sexuality, which provides the baseline for many of the speakers’ expressions of shame. Oputa explores ideas of sexual experience at ages we don’t often allow it to be considered (except as abuse), and refuses to let that experience be simple.
For example, in “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” the protagonist at age five has been “bullied into loving a girl / who too was five and already a woman.” The blurring of childhood and adult identities immediately unsettles our expectations about kindergarten naiveté or innocence, and gives a sinister tinge to the narrative. Every verb of agency in the poem is granted to this adultified girl. She claims the protagonist’s first kiss; she takes, leads, demands. At the same time, the speaker admits to feeling that “your bodies made a strange kind / of sense,” and her memories of being manipulated remain tinged with sensual desire:
She buckled you into a kind of need only she could soothe
with seldom acts of affection—her last M&M,
the gentle bob of her knee against yours.
Two poems later, in “What the Muse Might Say, If I Let Her Speak,” Oputa reopens the narrative, giving the aggressor girl a voice to complicate the picture. “Context makes all lines a little blurry,” the girl begins, before reminding the protagonist that, “I never led you to the mouth a second time; / you had already memorized the way.” Through the give-and-take of these poems, we see the adult self looking back at the child self, puzzling out that which was agency, that which was inflicted. What was wanted, and why? And how does that want feed or predict or suppress what desire and shame mean now?
The poems in Rummage’s second section continue to confront these questions in the context of adult romantic relationships. In an ambitious sequence called “After the Hour,” Oputa cements the connection between shame and desire by returning to the ash metaphor:
I am thinking about thirst
(how strange to feel it
settle on the brain like ash)
The sequence offers lyrical renditions of the sorrows of being together and the sorrows of being apart—the rise and fall of a relationship condensed into a set of ten-minute fragments. The poem ends with a recipe for sorrow that leads us through the agonies of a hard breakup—the paralysis, the self-inflicted damage, the vain attempts to overcome—before yielding the reward of a broth “mild enough to swallow.” What makes this outcome so striking is how tempered it is; there’s no promise of pleasure or triumph, but merely of bitterness rendered mild, pain brought within tolerable range. Nevertheless, that’s enough relief for us to carry on—“to swallow”—hinting that even pain can be processed and used as sustenance.
Oputa returns to confronting the pain of loss in the book’s most ambitious sequence, “Girl as Matryoshka Dolls; or, A Brief History of She.” The poem’s arrangement applies the logic of a crown of sonnets to the sestina: each of four intricately interconnected sestinas tells a parallel story of a relationship’s demise and aftermath, as the speaker copes again with the absence of a beloved and the ongoing ache/ick of loneliness and desire in her wake. In an ingenious move, the envoi in each of these sestinas later combine into a fifth movement that parallels the action of each preceding sestina, embodying the matryoshka doll effect of the poem’s title.
Some of the book’s most moving moments appear in this sequence, as the speaker lets down her guard and lashes out with raw longing:
_______________________________________________What is a mouth
without her mouth. What is my waist, but her abandoned post.
What error of my judgment made her an absence, a lost bet,
the last wisp of heat from my waterlogged youth.
But as with the recipe in “After the Hours,” Oputa refuses sentimentality here by exercising syntactical restraint. By leaving off the question marks, she muffles any hint of self-pity and presents the error, the absence, matter-of-factly. She ends another stanza thus:
_________I am threadbare and undressed,
and in my nakedness, my body appears
a wax replica of itself—pallid, middling,
and nearly alive. Once-love, let me offer one more lie:
there’s nothing left to grow this gulf between
us; no: there’s no version of this where we were better off alone.
The speaker presents her own body as both undisguised and unconvincing, while the promise of one final lie is immediately undercut by the appearance of two. It’s as if the assured voice going forward can’t help itself, can’t bring anything to a close, can’t commit to what it knows or needs.
In these dynamics we can see the book’s most prominent strategy for survival in the midst (or wake) of shame. If shame works by convincing us that we are bad, by pinning us into a definition of badness, then the poems in Rummage resist by refusing to be pinned at all. Again and again, Oputa neglects to settle for a single perspective, a single rendition of a narrative, a single emotional trajectory.
The adaptive advantage of such refusal to be pinned is that it opens up multiplicities of action and identification for Oputa’s speakers. In three consecutive poems called “Analog”—another construction of parallel narratives—Oputa splices together syntactical fragments using Ammons-esque colons to bring contradictory realities into simultaneous being. The first “Analog” ends:
I mounted: his sapphire: her wide stretch:
the boy: the girl: once called me loose: spirit:
he held back: she took back: my grit: my
These quick alternations affirm queer agency even as they investigate the complicated fallout of queer shame. The speaker acts on desire without being limited by sexual binaries; the speaker wears labels both pejorative (loose) and celebratory (spirit); the speaker loses parts of herself to each lover, but leaves tangled the story of how. Another “Analog” confirms this pattern of refusal, characterizing the speaker’s story as “whole and full of holes” before an exhilarating close that feels both liberating and self-protective:
wired to confess: break: bless: my padlock:
my egress: I offer none of this alchemy:
none of me
The final two sections of Rummage expand beyond private wranglings with shame and desire into a broader confrontation with the body’s limits and, ultimately, with the fact of death. While Oputa’s poems here approach death with varying degrees of intimacy, ranging from the familial/private to the politicized/public, they continue to blur the boundaries between poles. For example, as soon as “How Not to Itch” begins by stating that “Someone you don’t know is dead,” it immediately makes that not-knowing bodily: “and now here he is again, / an inching, a chigger in your side.” And as in the earlier poem where a promised single lie quickly becomes two, this poem goes on to break its own promises to override the speaker’s insistence on distance:
You have learned how not to itch
ink on the underside of skin,
how not to dredge up a boy’s cool-
mud hands, smaller even than your own
firm grip on his wrist
Not only does the poem immediately dredge up the image it insists it has learned not to; it personalizes the image, makes the touch of those “cool- / mud hands” as intimate as possible, and binds the speaker to the dead “someone” through the memory of a guiding grip.
It is in such blurred borders and exceeded singularities that Oputa’s speakers have learned to live. In the book’s closing poem, Oputa writes of eyes worn “like a veil of mourning, pupils in total eclipse: / black open to black: prayer of equilibrium.” Here the source of the poet’s vision can be veiled, eclipsed, yet remain open—her syntax turns occlusion into aperture. And how can a prayer be of equilibrium? We hear it both as a prayer for equilibrium and as a prayer composed from equilibrium, placing us again between fulfillment and desire, and teaching us, as Oputa does throughout her remarkable debut, to live in multiple directions.