YEUKAI Winnie Benhura’s 2017 slim volume of poems, Undressed, is a somewhat seductive undressing of the meaning of life’s experiences like that of a stripper — slow, teasing and exciting.
The poet starts off with a word study in which she explains the meaning of the title “undressed” and rolls off her pen a list of its synonyms: nude, bare, unclothed, unclad, stripped, denuded, disrobed, undraped and exposed. In the process, she lets slip an example that probably explains the context of the collection, when she writes: “She was undressed and ready for life.”
In this light, one is tempted to believe that it takes some form of “undressing” to be able to see life for what it is and respond accordingly. Undressing, therefore, can speak of experiences as the collection is full of poems that speak of mainly love experiences, the good and the bad. In the foreword, Benhura explains that context in which this offering of poems is poured out, describing these pieces as “mostly less a celebration and lamentation of love.” (pp7).
With the collection divided into three broad sections — Loving Devil, It’s All About Moe and Undressed — all the 27 pieces collected here are untitled. Perhaps the poet wanted to do away with the restrictions that titles often bring, especially if a poem is painted on a broad thematic canvass. The absence of titles easily allows the reader to come up with their own interpretations. I remember speaking to a young emerging poet Robert Mugobi recently, and he was confessing his struggle to craft titles for some of his new poems.
These poems are written with sweet cadence that easily makes them a pleasure to read regardless of some of the dark themes of pain and loss.
Benhura’s creativity is demonstrated right from the beginning. The first poem carries a lot of double meanings. The young persona encounters her Adonis, who is both an attraction and a threat, and so she paints images with double entendre. His eyes are “ravishing”. He wants to “devour” her and to “burn” her with anguish. Pain and pleasure, therefore, are spoken of in the same breath. It is an oxymoronic play on words.
The persona pouts her lips in readiness for a kiss from the one who “will dry out your soul”. This speaks to how people generally struggle to resist the lure of things that will burn their fingers. This man (or is it the devil?) does not even make secret his intentions to “seduce you and make a follower out of you”.
The persona seems to have a weakness for fatal seduction. In the second piece, a terse and compact flash poem, she wonders why she still loves the men who brings her harm, for she quips: “I felt you coming/The wind whispered your name/It warned me/My Armageddon . . . /Why do I still love you so?” (pp.13). This rings true of life, where the lure into harm’s way is often too strong to resist.
The third poem treads on the same path. A woman falls for the wrong man, and “it is like loving the devil”. Biblically, the devil is relentless, and it is the apt metaphor in this poem where this man “Pursues her heart despite her rebuttals/Wearing her down with his charms/Enticing her with gifts and poetry/Promising her the world that he does not own.”
(pp14). Remember during the temptations, how the devil promised Jesus the world if he worshipped him?
If temptations are entertained long enough, then falling is nigh, for soon enough, “she begins to believe her heart when it says he loves her.” The poet juxtaposes images. In this context, it is the devil who holds up this lovesick woman as an idol for worship as his goddess. This is lethal seduction at its worst.
The transient nature of pleasures drawn from yielding to temptation is captured aptly when the poet says the persona continues to yearn for the “devil” long after he has had his feel of her and left: “She stalks him/She nags him/She screams at him/She smoothers him with affection…” (pp14).
In another piece, the persona reflects on the array of men that have paraded across her life. In the aftermath of the long chain of relationships, she lists their names and reminisces on what each has meant for her. Sadly, the verdict is chillingly similar for all as they echo each other: “You who worshipped me for a moment/when I deserved lifetime devotion/You who made me think I was not worthy/yet you were the undeserving.” (pp16) Herein lies the tragedy of desperate love, for it makes one susceptible to abuse — to such a point that a woman believes she is not even deserving of that man who treats her like a doormat
The romance with the devil leads the persona into something like a Catholic confessional in search of absolution from guilt. In another poem, the poet lays out biblical allusions with great effect. We hear of the cleansing waters of the River Jordan, scrubbing salts from the Dead Sea, the incense of Aaron and Samuel’s holy oil.
As the next piece opens with the line, “Loving you is like dancing with the devil”, one begins to get the feeling that all these poems, with the recurring image of the seducing devil, could as well be just different stanzas of one endless poem.
All in all, the collection is a great read that portrays Benhura as a noteworthy poet who cannot be ignored.