Painted Blue with Saltwater,
// review by Francesca Ekwuyasi //
Released by Indolent Books, Logan February’s Painted Blue with Saltwater is a victory.
As a fellow Nigerian navigating queerness and the wounds of its intersections with religion, identity, culture, blackness, and family, this collection comes to me as a revelation. Painted Blue with Saltwater is a coming of age narrative, gifted in its telling by Logan February’s unique yet familiar voice. While reading February’s collection, it is impossible for me not to think of the courage that the poet exhibits in speaking taboo so gorgeously, so bluntly, seemingly without concern for the way that his required vulnerability stinks of innocence. Yet it is the poet's innocence that makes this collection striking.
With each poem February invites us into his family, to his bedroom, to his kaleidoscopic imagination, to his honest desires, to the ‘underside of his tongue’, to the ways that simple language can open windows to an otherwise sealed house. Queerness in Nigeria, is taboo. And not just socially. In fact, in Nigeria, the government considers queerness so abhorrent that the former president Goodluck Jonathan signed into law the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act* (SSMPA). The SSMPA leaves queer people, and activists seeking marriage equality vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and imprisonment. By signing the Act into Law, the government has implicitly permitted, or perhaps simply sharpened the teeth of, violent and institutionalised homophobia in the country. Within this context, this collection of poems defies an understandable—understandable only because of the country’s history of colonisation, and the rigid homophobic religiosity that comes with it—yet repressive aspect of Nigerian culture. It is a cold drink of water on a sweltering day. It nourishes.
Painted Blue with Salt Water is acutely tender in its gorgeous explorations of queerness, boyhood, spirituality, and family. Logan February’s words are alarmingly sharp, the poet leaves readers little choice but to fall into the fantastical, yet solemnly grounded narrative that this collection builds with each poem. The poet is undoubtedly deft with words; in the opening poem "On Fridays, I Let Myself Hope", February draws you in with ornate imagery, family tension, and themes of religion/spirituality and queerness that run through the entirety of the collection. "Crying as a Sacred Ritual" douses you with a yearning so earnest that it bites; February talks of spirits, of emptying, of an afterlife, an aftermath, an attempt to be acceptable in a space that will not necessarily hold you. It is both an age old yearning voiced anew, and irreverent.
In "Are You Fucking the One You Love", lines like
You leave fingerprints in the wrong places when
you have to fold your wings under a shirt
stink of a familiar impulse to hide in the face of vulnerability; familiar because it must be a common human trait. February’s clever allusions pluck strikingly at the concessions made to avoid the cold weight of loneliness found in the ‘closet.’ It illustrates how everyone in this closeted dynamic loses; the femme character that acts as the narrator’s mask—evidence of his false heteronormativity—loses out on the joy that can come from being the object of authentic and reciprocated desire; the narrator loses out on the lover for which they long; and the true object of desire, this unnamed person, remains out of reach.
She is the mask that gnaws on your face,
makes you pendulum swing,
this way & that. This way
you stay undiscovered & that is that.
Your ankles are hard to manage
in these moments,
but at least your bed is warm at night,
and you are fucking somebody.
"Self-Portrait as a Child Who Isn’t Yours" skillfully shares the nuanced layers of queerness within one particular Nigerian context; it invites you to the custom of naming, deeply rooted in religion, and the ways in which it contends with or reconciles to queerness. In many Nigerian cultures, the naming of infants is a ceremony, truly, a party. To feel “the opposite of what my family named me” is deep grief, one that the poet shares acutely:
They pin a word to my body that translates into
this is what God wanted to happen
and they are wrong in a way that is tragic.
February’s language is direct, and you feel the depth of this particular tragedy simply because it is honest.
In "Even the Birds", the poet gives a gorgeous illustration of longing. The imagery is vibrant, and you are there with the poet, covered in dust, warm with the heat of yearning to be elsewhere when the place that holds you will not suffice. You are enveloped in the “loneliness that smells like old paper & sweet mold”. Despite its delicate allusions and bright sharp punctuations, there is a sober frankness to this poem.
In "Self-Portrait as Pussyboy", February moves from the tender illustrations of longing and desire found in "The Ghost of Valentino" which opens with “Sometimes, I wonder if I should have come as a medium instead of a fag”, and onto the often onerous pains that can come with being queer and out and without the shield that class can provide, in Nigeria. With lines like “Their blood is thick with hate, laughter so loud / it may echo for all fourteen years of prison time”, February references the criminalisation of queerness and LGBTQ advocacy. Yet in these lines:
survival is the only victory to fondle.
You do not have to be a wolf
to survive. You run off into the shadows,
tail between legs, but still breathing.
there is a hint of hope, a glint of some triumph in simply staying alive.
Words can sink you into the skin of the poet, and this collection does just that; then it takes you a little further to interrogate how these words and their meaning manifest in your life. February truly bares himself, and his words are an invitation to partake in the sacred vulnerability of Nigerian queer boyhood.
*Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s former president, signed the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill (SSMPA) into law on January 7, 2014. Although the notional function of the SSMPA is to ban same sex marriage, the actual implications are much wider. The law prohibits cohabitation between same sex partners, as well as any “public show of same sex amorous relationship.” The SSMPA enforces a 10-year prison sentence to any person who “registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organization” or “supports” their activities. Punishment for violating this law ranges from 10 to 14 years of imprisonment. Although this is based off existing legislation, the SSMPA goes much further in effectively “criminalizing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons based on sexual orientation and gender identity”. [Human Rights Watch “Tell Me Where I Can Be Safe…”(2016)]