Theresa Lola is a Nigerian British poet born in 1994. She was shortlisted for the Bridport Poetry Prize 2017, the London Magazine Poetry Prize 2016 and she won the Hammer and Tongue National Poetry Slam in 2017. Theresa is an alumna of the Barbican Young Poets programme. She was awarded an Arts Council/British Council International Development Grant to run poetry workshops at the Lagos International Poetry Festival in Nigeria in 2017. Theresa is part of SXWKS creative collective and Octavia Women of Colour collective which is resident at the Southbank Centre in London. She is currently working on her debut full length poetry collection.
The judges had this to say about Theresa’s poetry:
Theresa Lola seeks to articulate the frailties, complications and brutalities inflicted by the body through microscopic imagery that is grotesque and distorted yet surprisingly tender. Hers is a poetic where peeling is the recurring motif – we witness peeling of black skins and peeling of tongues. The poetry is also unflinchingly composed, whether she is portraying a daughter cutting her father’s spine or the ravages of a father’s illness where cancer has kissed death unto his kidneys.
Portrait of My Father as A Dead Man
While painting a portrait of my father as a dead man, I am also cooking dinner. I gorge out my father’s eyes and blend them with the red peppercorn seeds to heighten the sting of the soup’s spice. /////// Call me a cowardice, he is asleep, tired from work, even made time to ask how my day was. /////// I cut my father’s spine like it is the water leaf I am chopping to make eforiro soup. In his portrait I paint his bones as a white caterpillar, the kind that never grows into a butterfly. You think killing a man is enough to give you peace, but his body will collapse onto a seesaw that springs up all the buried trauma from the past. /////// To complete my meal, I peel off his black skin and blend it until it looks like Amala. I try to continue the painting of my father as a dead man, but truth is I want to feel his approval, to hear him clap at the brilliance of my talent. My father’s health has been failing anyway, a cyst in his kidney, a nose operation, a dim eyesight. My father’s eyesight is so poor he bumps into my ghosts and calls them obstructing decorations. /////// Before I began this painting, my father said art will not pay me as much as becoming a chartered accountant, but the world loves commodifying pain, this portrait of my father as a dead man should make me rich.
My father is reducing the radius of his friendship circle
to make it easier for him to spot death’s reflection.
The little he knows from the bible is Judas
was able to kiss death unto Jesus because they were close.
In this town, neighbours pray before shaking hands.
The rumour is that someone blended death into a soup
and fed it to my grandfather
and [abracadabra] he transformed into corpse.
My father dines alone, places mirrors on the other chairs,
paranoia is the arrow that has stabbed his Adam’s apple.
He once asked if tomato stew was blood.
He strokes the stringy hairs on his eaten mango with pity.
In a voice deep as a black hole, my father
tells me it is wise to be selective of your companion.
Half of my father’s friends are dead,
a small circle of friends is not his choice.
Today, the doctor told my father he will need further tests
to determine if cancer has kissed death unto his kidney,
my father is now numb, there is no one to blame
but his body, cancer is not a close friend,
he cannot call this betrayal.
Portrait of Us as Snow White
We inherited black holes for eyes,
so light was the benchmark we measured the beauty of skin against.
We sat in our dorm room
and discussed who the fairest of all was.
The Igbo girls claimed they could be cast as foreign
as long as the sun didn’t betray them.
The girls with skin the shade of the bronze masks
our ancestors carved directed the conversation.
The myth was that backstage curtains are dark colours
so that dark girls can camouflage into them.
We never said the word ‘race’, substituted ‘yellow pawpaw’ for ‘white’
as if we knew the word ‘white’ would peel our tongues down to a seed of guilt.
My bow legs hung from my bunk bed like question marks.
I was unsure of which shade my skin will grow into,
so I could not be the lead role in this fairy tale.
Now I know our ignorance is a kind of bacteria
bleach multiplies instead of killing.
One of my dorm mates used “Papaya Skin Lightening Soap”,
the scent was like every other soap,
she rubbed it on her skin until
she was cast as Snow White in the school play.
The myth is that despite all the light on her skin,
her soul remains a backstage curtain.
Today I woke up surprised I was still alive,
last thing I remember was my body swinging
from a ceiling of inadequacies.
In my head I have died in so many ways
I must be a god the way I keep resurrecting
into prettier caskets.
In Lagos, a photograph of Marilyn Monroe watches me
in my hotel room as I scrub my body
like it’s a house preparing for an estate agent’s visit.
I think Marilyn wants to say something to me,
the way her mouth is always open
like a cheating husband’s zipper.
My mind carries more weapons
than all war-torn countries combined.
Every day I survive is worth a medal or two.
I celebrate by buying more clothes than I can afford.
I must be rich, my void is always building
a bigger room to accommodate new things.
Marilyn’s photographer, Lawrence Schiller, said
Marilyn was afraid that she was nothing
more than her beauty.
You can call me arrogant, call me black Marilyn,
come celebrate with me,
I am so beautiful death can’t take its eyes off me.
What keeps me up at night is the fear
I am as bland as the water
I am made up of.
My mother urges me to carry my blood
likes it is water turned to wine
and I am drunk
on miracles the way the women in my family are.
I want to call myself strong enough to carry on the legacy
of the women before me,
but my skin is a flimsy bucket,
I almost trickled out of myself once.
Sometimes the body stops believing in itself,
chews away its skin with venomous thoughts.
God begs you to stop performing.
I once saw my mother’s face slack after a long day
at work, a glass of wine laced between her fingers.
This was when I learned
no miracle comes easy.
My Aunt’s Recipe for Cooking Rice
Step 1: Rinse the starch off
as if the grains of rice are rosary beads
and you are praying your husband never goes hungry
for another woman.
Step 2: Drain the rice,
let water slide off like sin after baptism.
Boil the rice until tender enough
to not feel like a rain of bullets from a voodoo recipe.
Step 3: Add salt,
a plain meal is a forgotten woman.
Serve with tomato stew,
plantain, and pieces of meat.
Note: Don’t be like those feminist,
they invented a word
so they can use the knives meant for the kitchen
to slice off the faces of the men
that would have given them a surname.
I took in the recipe like an unholy scripture.
The next time I cook rice
I will let the fire keep burning
until the pot can’t recognise its own face.
The Pastor’s Daughter Refuses to Be a Circle
You are a diameter slicing your mother in half
and crucifying Jesus in the centre.
A circumference of prayers has yet to circle you back to God.
You defend yourself as good enough,
a rebel to the strict rules for holiness.
The aunties wearing hats as big as their mouths
shake their heads like a tambourine
when they see your seat empty in church.
Your mother etches scriptures on your tongue,
says you are destined to become a prophet
because you once had a dream about hell.
You just want to be a child,
you fantasize about an earth
where the explanation for grey clouds is simply rain.
When your mother circles the house spewing out prayers,
you walk past her so fast your body splits open the air.
If you make a mother choose between God and her child
she will slice her body in half to be available for both.
Your mother shapes her mouth into an aggressive circle
and urges you to get ready for church.
You wear the same outfit every Sunday: a stubborn spirit.
The sermon today was on hell,
after church, you lay in bed and curve your body into itself.
You are a moon being stabbed by its own edges.
My new-born brother wailed into existence
and my grandfather’s eyes became two stopwatches
counting down his own exit. At the naming ceremony
my grandfather was quiet as a body cut open for autopsy.
He broke bread and sipped on fresh orange juice.
The pause between each sip elongated and I knew
the mathematician in him
had remembered the equation of equilibrium.
As my new-born brother was crowned with a name,
my grandfather’s body began to forget his.
When the Soldier Returns from the War
The soldier begs his home, stop
running away from me,
I risked my life trying to save this land.
Home replies, you chose the world over me,
was protecting me not a loud enough victory
to make a flag with?
The soldier begs his wife, lay with me,
with all the dead bodies I have touched
I could do with the warmth of your love.
His wife replies, I am in love with someone else.
Did you not notice that your side of the bed
was warm when you arrived?
The soldier begs his son, let’s go play
catch in the park. I might have lost one arm
in the war, but your father is strong as superman.
His son replies, the moon raised me,
it has been around more often than you are
and it floats in the sky like superman.
When the soldier returns from the war
the ghost of his wife’s face becomes a trigger.
The faint image of his son floating away
from his hands becomes a trigger.
The reflection of his face becomes a trigger.
The soldier realises there are more ways
to go to a war zone than to travel to one,
It is to become the war zone yourself.
There was no umbilical cord tying us together,
it was no surprise that a telephone cord
was not sure what do to with my father and I’s bodies.
My father grew into a voicemail,
a permanent “sorry the caller cannot be reached
at this moment”.
The matron in boarding school said no phones were allowed,
but I never tried to smuggle one,
you do not need a phone to listen to your father’s silence.
He spoke on the phone
to his friends for hours about Nigeria.
He complained the country’s interest rates were rising,
My father said we need less corruption
and more attention on home affairs.
I was unsure if he was referring to the country or us.