Chukwuma Ndulue’s Boys Quarter is an exquisite, difficult, sometimes haunting chapbook, a collection of poetry that deeply explores time and space and self and, along with them, the haunting, violent presence of coloniality.
Ndulue’s epigraph comes from Hart Crane, a snippet from “Voyagers” that sure sounds like it’s kissing goodbye to the innocence of youth, pointing out that “The bottom of the sea is cruel.” The bottom of the sea is cruel, and Ndulue takes us to it straight off, words and imagery powerful and sometimes painful. “Docks” explores the beauty and camaradarie of a summer with the guys, sure, but also it remembers pain: “you can smell // personality cooked / over tin foil—tears // with every jab / blood with every blow.” It’s a powerful image, made even more arresting for the beauty of Ndulue’s words.
We traverse a lot of space with Ndulue, from densely-populated urban spaces to underpopulated rural ones, yet throughout Ndulue’s focus is on the self and the person who traverses those spaces more than the space themselves. The pipes are stopped? There are bugs in the Kentucky night? It’s another way of exploring the speaker’s innermost thoughts, sometimes clear, sometimes a tangle, always beautifully worded.
Boys Quarter was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2017, yet there are moments that feel almost painfully prescient to these plague times. In “Summer Skin Trade,” Ndulue writes “this body susceptible to so many / tiny vehicles of demises.” There are so many vehicles of demise! Ndulue covers so many in “Summer Skin Trade” alone, even more throughout Boys Quarter. But I can’t help but read those words now, in this year of our discontent 2021, and think of COVID and its accompanying mortalities.
Moments of Boys Quarter are quite funny, but they often tie to sadness in the end. Others carry the weight of the world throughout, sometimes with perfect, painful elegance. Ndulue writes of povery throughout the chapbook, though not always speaking of it directly. (Stopped pipes are a mark of poverty, though, and of landlords who don’t care—and believe me, they’d care if their renters were wealthy.)
In “Sacrifices at the Altar of Chicken” he’s far more blunt: “There is no romance / left in an empty / wallet. There is / no fondling in a shallow / pool. Once upon a time / all us muties believed in the possibilities / of moonlight and popcorn sermons.” Does the false romance of poverty help us deny its realities? Would we as a nation be more likely to support a liveable wage if we couldn’t look away? I have no idea, but I know that “There is no romance / left in an empty / wallet,” no matter what anyone may think.
Boys Quarter is beautiful, even when it looks into the most shadowed recesses of our souls, or pokes at the violent edges of coloniality. It is powerful poetry, unromantic and unstinting and lyrical with it, and I will certainly read it again.