SO, WHEN DID YOU DIE? A review of Tolu A. Akinyemi’s On The Train To Hell by Jide Badmus

This is an account of personal and communal grief—grief without borders. The book has death at its core. Of course, death is the heart of grief.  Tolu Akinyemi, in this poetry collection, mourns the death of loved ones, friendships, truth, justice, faith, dreams & ultimately, that of a nation… he explores death as a plot twist, a carnival, a ritual & fate.

This is a journey through the pitch dark of loss with the torch of language. Grief has never been this soft! The 53 poems in this collection are reels of heartbreak with the mercy of metaphors. I opened the first page with the fear of being swallowed up by shadows, but somehow, the truth in the lines offered light.

The opening poem seeks to understand the human life cycle. Dust to Dust establishes that death is the ultimate fate of the living. Humans become dust, then memories…The poet searches for a metaphor for death—death is dust, death is rust, death is memories…death is dreams swirling into the wind.

Father was first dust

Before mother’s immaculate steel turned

Into iron rust

Death, apparently, isn’t only biological.  The poems in this book are conscious of its metaphysical nature. Sometimes, death comes while you’re still breathing & your heart’s still beating—you just lose elements of you that made you buoyant, lively. In the poem above, father died & mother lost her colours. Orphan (page 7) continues this story:

Father left with no goodbye notes

And mother’s shoulders shrunk

From lifting a cross too heavy to bear…

Last year, mother snapped and disappeared

Into the void.

The poet establishes that death isn’t only a function of the body. I am a bag of emotions/My body carries me. A person incapable of empathy is already dead. There’s a connection between death & the human identity—our humanity. Grief connects us. This is evident in Tolu’s choice of documentary.

The poet mourns the death of humanity—the loss of faith in institutions that are meant to build life & provide sanctuary. From Texas school shooting to a Catholic church massacre in Owo—from the war in Ukraine depriving ailing kids access to health care to the public lynching of Deborah for blasphemy in Sokoto


Have become death traps (Shocked, page 21)

Schools have become slaughtering labs

And children sacrificial lambs (Republic of Guns, page 23)

Children are fighting unseen wars in their


We call on the spirit of vengeance;

Wash away our enemies before dawn

So, we can enjoy the twilight of our lives. (Heartbreak, page 45)

Let our God fight!

Let our God fight!

Let our gods right

This wrong… (Blasphemy, page 53)

In these poems, we see the fury of a poet spreading like wildfire. Burning questions defying answers. These deaths make a mockery of faith:

In the morning, I rain an ocean of curses

On unseen forces…

I kill imaginary spirits.

The gods have been sent on a trip to hell (Mountain of Fire, page 14)

Mountain of Fire is both sarcastic & satirical in nature but Fire of Fury is more sombre in expressing its frustrations. Grief brings memories, real enough to touch yet mirages—the loss of peace, justice & faith is seemingly permanent. I love this line from the later poem,

My book of lamentations is a deep sea of

Regret (Fire of Fury, page 5)

How I would have loved that expression to end at “sea” as lamentation already screams regret. It remains a beautiful line, especially in juxtaposing the “mirage” before it. The author tries to construct a bridge of memories to keep the dead alive in the mind but his inability to do so leaves him buried in regrets. I imagine tears & deep sighs…

There’s that aspect of death that deals with existentialism. Yes, the body dies but the name & the deeds attached to it, good or evil, live on. He laments that good people have been served as food for/hungry Gods.

What keeps many going after the loss of a loved one is the hope that the dead are somehow watching over them, guiding them—that hope of reuniting in the hereafter. Thus, it is unsurprising that the author continued his exploration of grief by interrogating ghosts, & the concept of reincarnation & resurrection.

A dead lover is keen on their lover joining them on the other side. But the poet persona doesn’t want to die. The spirit of an old flame wants a companion/In the afterlife. (Ghosts in Scotland, page 4). The poet persona in Soul Ties is unable to untangle from life’s wreckage after he lost a lover. He no longer has random sex with strangers. He hears voices, imaginary footsteps…Time and again, the memories/open like fresh/wounds.

The Lion of Newcastle is not lacking in wits. Can you imagine ghosts roaming the earth’s surface, falling in love with each other? They met on Tinder. Imagine first-date questions like, So, when did you die?

But don’t we live in a ghost town? Here, dreams end at the door of death—we mourn them daily!

Dreams are piling up at the door,

At the door of death

Dreams are ashes at the door,

At the door of death (page 49)

I was born in a ghost town:

The silence of dreams (Ghost Town, page 16)

The air is colourful tonight

And our bleak future has been traded

For renewed hope (Megalomaniac, page 37)

Amid these sorrows, there’s yet a sad cloud hanging over us—a stretch of blue silence. The wind is crying. There is a dearth of truth & justice. Unknown gunmen remain invisible legends, out of reach of the law. Martyrs are restless in their graves, our lives, a betrayal of their sacrifices. Eerie Silence, Larger-Than-Life, & Fake News recounted the loud silence of the media & prominent public figures on the crime that claimed Deborah Samuel’s life.

Today, the truth died…

Death to free speech

Death to free speech (Eerie Silence, page 54)

The poet grieves the death of journalism, the death of morality, death of a nation & infers to his own end, too. I no longer have a home/I no longer have a heart/I no longer have emotions. Yet, he longs for immortality or something close.  In A Poet’s Prayer, he asks for mercy unending:

I want to ascend the hill of life;

Sit on grey chairs

Counting the stars…

I don’t want to be a forgotten song

An advocate of sparse verses myself, I enjoyed Tolu’s brief poems. A few, however, would have done better shedding their ambiguity & tending to the readers’ curiosity, rousing profound emotions. But like the author said in one of the poems, grief has no manual—grief has no sequence and its ache is/immeasurable.

We compose ourselves

Only to fall apart (Pitch Dark, page 30)

Jide Badmus is an engineer and a poet inspired by beauty and destruction; he believes that things in ruins were once beautiful. He is the author of four books including Obaluaye (FlowerSong Press, 2022) and What Do I Call My Love for Your Body (The Roaring Lion Newcastle, 2022). Badmus has curated and edited several anthologies, and his poems have appeared in Agbowo, The Muse, Maroko, Kreative Diadem, Jalada Africa, No Tokens, Afrocritik, Black Bough Poetry Anthology and elsewhere. Badmus is the founder of INKspiredng, a Poetry Editor for CỌ́N-SCÌÒ Magazine, and a mentor in the SprinNG Fellowship. He also sits on the board of advisors for Libretto Magazine. Jide writes from Lagos, Nigeria.

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