The Junta of Happenstance by Tolu Oloruntoba

Tolu Oloruntoba’s The Junta of Happenstance is an impressive debut. It has many qualities I find admirable in a first collection: passion, a large number of poems, and a certain playfulness (of music and tone) that relays poetic confidence. Perhaps most importantly, Oloruntoba’s speaker has a developed, multifaceted sense of self. The book’s final poem reads: “Within I’m more darn than breach, / an eruption of stitches, / an avalanche of thimbles as sweat.” Divided into four parts, The Junta of Happenstance grapples with the blurring of physical, mental, and social anxieties—tackling subjects such as illness, immigration, and the dread of being placed and/or misplaced within chaotic systems. I didn’t find these sections particularly distinct—rather, they bleed into one another in an aesthetics of surplus and surprise. I came away from this book in a beautifully muddled state.

Oloruntoba is skilled at a kind of galloping descriptiveness, a frenzied precision that matches the energy and dislocation of encounter. His poems are also excessive—in scope and language—yet their excess is careful and attuned. At times, Oloruntoba’s style reminds me of Lucie BrockBroido’s lavish precision. Consider, for instance, this moment in the poem “Mantis Corps”: “their swarm / a biblical maw with a cape of dusk, / a wake of dust, a bust of molten / rain.” The horror of “biblical maw,” paired with the (mostly) single-syllabic tempo of the rest of the excerpt, makes for a striking juxtaposition of dread and candour. I love a similarly careening moment in the poem “Has Anyone Studied This?” when the poet writes: “I keep hoping for the rockslide of books, / the horology of logs in a turn of phrase / at the vertex of impact, / to boost something in me.” Each phrase in this collection comes across as an associative layer—a world of multiple, overlapping worlds. The texture of these poems is incredible.

“I first read Tolu Oloruntoba’s astonishing collection outside, in a shock of sun, as mud daubers smacked the window behind me. The poems felt like a natural extension of that landscape: ie. warmth and chaos.”

Oloruntoba is not an easy poet, but I found the difficulty of his book a relief from the accessible, conversational tone of many poets these days (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with those kinds of poets, but I’d rather have my head lopped off). Instead, Oloruntoba’s poems do away with the banality of understanding. In “Via Negativa,” the poet writes: “I suspect I have no idea what I’m doing, / and these detours may kill me, / but if I cross off every road, / my tally may pave a final one for me.” I love the idea of this book as a “tally” of detours. And the poet never seems to forget that what he knows is temporary (and yet part of some great, devastating uncertainty). In the short final section, we get a real sense of the speaker’s vulnerability: “I’ve been seed, singular, false / eye of peninsula, storm-lashed, shorn by / nutcracker teeth of a shore entry.” This kind of list is Oloruntoba’s specialty: he brings us simultaneously closer and closer towards a vision of wholeness, yet farther and farther away from safety in knowing. The phrase “the junta of happenstance” appears more than midway through the collection, in a poem called “Sieve.” In partial criticism of visa lotteries, Oloruntoba writes: “The amulet of meritocracy has failed, obviously. / This is the junta of happenstance.” While being immersed, aesthetically, in a poetics of happenstance, this book strikes me as being rather anti-“sieve”—in the sense that Oloruntoba’s poems embrace excess and convolution, and come across as an outpouring (rather than a whittling away) of possibility.

I first read Tolu Oloruntoba’s astonishing collection outside, in a shock of sun, as mud daubers smacked the window behind me. The poems felt like a natural extension of that landscape: ie. warmth and chaos. I also learned a ton of new words. For instance: guano, cotyledon, wormcast. But Oloruntoba uses language so devotionally, that words I think I know are being endlessly defamiliarized, and thus made beautiful. He writes, in “Heretic: Taken”: “an opera of grapnelled / wetsuits, an applause / of skylights / in the cymbal clash of pupils.” Meaning beyond meaning, I know, is a general poetic feat, but few poets achieve Oloruntoba’s vitality. In short, this is the best new book I’ve read in a while. I’m thrilled this poet exists: Oloruntoba’s strange mesh of language has certainly boosted something in me.

Tolu Oloruntoba is the author of the Anstruther Press chapbook Manubrium. His poetry has appeared in Pleiades, Columbia Journal, Entropy, and other publications, and his short fiction has appeared in translation in Dansk PEN Magazine. He founded Klorofyl, a magazine of literary and graphic art, and practiced medicine before his current work managing projects for health authorities in British Columbia. After a somewhat itinerant life in Nigeria and the United States, he emigrated to the Greater Vancouver Area, where he lives with his family.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Anstruther (May 1 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 80 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1989287727
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1989287729

Dominique Béchard is the author of One Dog Town (Gaspereau Press, 2019). She is currently working on a Ph.D. at the University of New Brunswick.