Nduka Otiono

 

Archive Fever

(For Jeannine Green and David Gay)

 

Chaucer didn’t look happy when we visited.

He sat on a horse hemmed in between

musty Ellesmere’s covers, a tired pilgrim

who had lost his honour.

He didn’t know where he was either—

inside the special collections section

of Rutherford library, calm as a cemetery.

But he kept sparkling company, fellow

Talebearers from the United Kingdom,

All, part of a colonial bequest.

There was John Bunyan, lost in his pilgrim’s progress.

Milton was there too, rediscovering his paradise lost.

Jane Austen glowed with feminist pride and prejudice,

not persuaded by Emma and concerns for memory and

time, nor by the temperaments of sense and sensibility.

She didn’t seem to care about Cupid any more

and all the hurt that wraps love.

Oh, and there was William Wordsworth, romanticist

trying to recollect emotions in tranquillity.

“This is from Jonathan Wordsworth, the

literary executioner of Wordsworth’s estate,”

says the librarian, passionate guardian of the archive.

Her eyes are like apertures to the writers’ lives.

Forever smiling, she maps the treasured walls

between the pages like reels rolling.

Enter Shakespeare, so content with his stature

as a playwright he doesn’t mind being called W.S.

So great he left poetry and name to honour Wordsworth.

King of the stage, he’s magnificent in a fourth edition folio.

And the visitor’s eyes widened with great expectations,

smothered by a smouldering reputation

shouldered by time, art and fame.

Finally, there was Charles Dickens, vagrant of the city,

Master of romantic side of familiar things, staggering

with nineteen pamphlets of David Copperfield,

but with our mutual friend, Oliver Twist, nowhere in sight.

“Dickens was so fussy about his illustrations,” says

the librarian, as if in an old curiosity shop.

In two months it will be Christmas. But there

was no time to contemplate a Christmas carol

as we rose to leave our enchanting new buddy,

bodies tempered by a new archive fever.

And someone remained to converse with Chaucer,

to confirm whether his name really meant ‘shoemaker.’

 

 

Rooms We Live In

 

We walk from streetlight to streetlight

silence to silence

how to speak about human heart and memory

how to speak about all the rooms we live in

            —“Anna,” Patrick Friesen

 

As from shadow to dream, so from

Birth to death we live from room to room.

Conceived in a room inside woman,

We swim in forever-warm amniotic waters

Until nature evicts us, debtors with unpaid

Boarding and lodging bills out of sight.

So what is man that I am mindful of him?

Forever a child searching for teats, from

Mother to wife, like a butterfly in flight,

   We walk from streetlight to streetlight.

 

How do I begin to sing about mother?

Tireless creditor to errant children,

Always welcoming all to her room.

Only yesterday, I saw her in a dream,

Rosary in one hand, in the other olive oil

To anoint a son constantly travelling in silence

When the road is spread-eagled, famished

Like grandma’s pipe yearning for tobacco--

Inside her room, smoke and ashes become incense,

    And the air is still, blowing from silence to silence.

 

Some rooms come as rights of passage—Classrooms,

Offices, bars or one I was given at adolescence,

Where I learnt to sing songs of experience,

The fire of pubescence burning in my loins.

Each day was riddled with escapades and then

Returning from one friend’s room with a story

Or another after sharing unspent cigarette stubs,

And remnants in elders’ palmwine kegs—

How do I remember all the rooms with my history?

     How to speak about human heart and memory?

 

How do I speak about that eternal, lonely room

Into which I’ll retire, unaware of its location or for

How long I’ll live there before the last Judgement?

How do I know what happens amongst the dead?

“Death makes us all look ridiculous,” a poet said.

Between casket and grave which is the last room?

There, we’ll return, sand house and bones, uninvited

Tenants with unpaid boarding and lodging bills.

Between the womb and tomb where’s peace within?

How else to speak about all the rooms we live in?

 

Band of Worshippers

 

At Mama Bomboy’s street corner shack,

They call every evening,

Proverbial wayfarers so heavily burdened

But with no one to give them rest.

 

First to call this evening is Awalu,

Tall, dark Fulani man with hazel eyes

Telling muted stories of a pilgrim,

Tenant of memories of miseries.

 

Next is Samanja, so named after his

Legendary walrus moustache curved

Upwards at the corners as if pointing heavenwards

And accusing God of complicity in his painful fate.

 

And then there are half a dozen others—

Slaves of paraga, herbal alcoholic brew

Advertised by Mama Bomboy

As gbogboshe, a cure for all ailments.

 

Before every gulp they pour libations

In salutation to the guts

And for each gulp they hope for renewal

After a backbreaking day at the construction site.

 

Every shot is for the famished road

But “the last is for missus,” a potent

Mix of gburantashi, an aphrodisiac,

Taken to make war, not love.

 

 

Then once upon a cold harmattan evening,

The band of paraga worshippers arrived at their haunt

And found the site razed by the General’s bulldozers

Paving the ground for an Officers’ Mess to sprout...

 

 

 

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          Nduka Otiono

Sentinel Poetry (Online) #50January 2007   ISSN 1479-425X

THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF POETRY & GRAPHICS...since December 2002

Editor-in-Chief: Amatoritsero Ede

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