Tolu Oloruntoba’s Each One a Furnace
by Kevin Spenst


Each One a Furnace
by Tolu Oloruntoba
McClelland & Stewart,
96 pages.

Within an exciting trill of time, Tolu Oloruntoba has become one of Canada’s brightest voices in poetry. With his debut, The Junta of Happenstance, winning the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2022, Oloruntoba continues to soar with Each One a Furnace, a collection imagistically held together within varieties of finches and thematically flying through the topics of migration, diasporas, and the violence of capitalism and colonialism.

Registers vary dramatically as the book’s voice moves between relative lucidity and thickets of complexity. The first poem opens simply enough: “I’m a cutthroat.” This statement of identity (a bird and / or criminal) is followed by two bracketed clauses: “(as in, the one throatcut, / neck a red sash) / (they clutch their bags / and flinch).” Here we have two identities, the first receiving violence (assuming “throatcut” is a passive version of “cutthroat”) and the other reacting to the violence in the poem’s only verbs: clutch and flinch. This relatively simple diction ends in Oloruntoba’s central preoccupation, hidden in the word “flinch,” a reaction we might have seeing a throat cut. Given the migration theme, one imagines murder alongside the dangers of population displacement. Another poem that reveals its concerns in a relatively straightforward way is “Disorganized Attachment.” It begins: “I survived the old country, but at what cost?” The statement’s directness is underpinned by a colloquial idiom: “the old country.” Vulnerability marks the next stanza: “Touched little as a child except to be struck,” and the last line defines the poem’s title: “Forgive me. Don’t touch me. Don’t leave me.” The short phrases reveal the speaker in moments of desperate clarion intimacy.

Other registers are built up through overlapping lexicons. In “Rent-Seeking / Shaft Tail” the language of hunting, birding, and economics blend together where the word “rent” works as both tearing something away and receiving money. Here the lines themselves are serpentine, ending in precariousness. “You can’t tell the hunters” begins by describing men who can’t be communicated with and concludes with the word “apart,” which snaps us back to the title: tell them apart. Apart from each other or from the environment they wear like camouflage? We’re not told, and danger lurks in a forest that’s also an urban landscape: “in the forest of cured wood the city / is built on.” The past is revealed within the present and, as is often the case, lines start with one subject or meaning and end elsewhere, as if semantics itself were on the move. Even the shaft-tail thrush morphs into real estate: “the door I open in your chest.” One imagines the finch’s black-bibbed breast as an entrance to a home, a place of exploitation.

This density of phrasing produces a remarkable musicality that rewards the reader with multiple meanings. In “Zebra” (also a type of finch), the two-line opening stanza demands rereading: If / primeval forest, / made fire with cages of saws.” The central image of the titular furnace as a source of self-contained energy is contrasted with that of a forest cut down or burned, processes framed as a type of entrapment. As with most every image in the book, this opening phrase might be viewed in light of something natural; how, say, for the forest, fire is a process of regeneration. The “cages of saws” might be seen as the sheer force of an essential conflagration. We might see the zebra’s stripes as a kind of saw. The forest as habitat helps in the evolution of species.

Each One a Furnace astonishes in its density and diversity. The subject matter varies from the Yoruba culture of Nigeria to Nina Simone, videogames, La Niña, and climate change. The author’s curiosity includes poetic form itself: one of the poems consists of URLs. While the finch is the bird that flies through most of the book, the poetry itself is a terrain as varied as the planet. For this monumental effort of imagination—which also includes the poet’s experiences living in Nigeria, America, and Canada—Oloruntoba deserves all the accolades he has received of late.

—From CNQ 112 (Fall 2022/Winter 2023).

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