Sentinel Poetry #49     December 2006    ISSN 1479-425X


Guest Editor: Nnorom Azuonye

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Ogaga Ifowodo


The Frightened Tree

         (for Bola Ige)


Death strolled into your bedroom like a bosom friend     

for whose easy ingress you had sent the guards away.

Death, indifferent and steady in hired hands,

felt at home enough to spend just one bullet.


The careful killer in them saved the unfired guns,

the hoarded slugs, for the next bidder for their skill.

They left as they came, trailed only by the kindness

that saw the guards to question their mission


sharing meat at a distant table as your supper

grew cold. And they left jubilant to report,

“Your enemy is dead,” to their hirer — the lethal

shadow stalking our haunted halls of power.




Oh the madness never to end till the madman swallows

his head! Arguments are not won or lost at the podium,

a blow or bullet will speak louder for me,

says the man of deadly ambition, wagging


his finger like a gun. But pity, you who watch

us dance naked in our joyfully spilled blood

and walk away — pity us who set our

heads on fire to end the scourge of lice.


A folly loosed on our country at its birth

forever stands reason on its head. And they govern,

the best among them armed to the teeth

with greed and spite for the discipline of words.




But for whom does the wounded house grieve?

Whose entrance shall its shaking doors forgive –

the murderer or the flying governor

invoking God for his trail of blood?


But for whom do the shrieking cocks crow?

Whose warped time’s minute hand is aglow

as victim and villain cry alike

their tears pooling in the same dyke?


And why is the tree in the street still, its foliage

folded in as with a widow’s mourning scarf —

because its leaves were fated to fall on soil

that will not mulch with all the mangled lives?




(for David Anyaele*)


When they had chased him to the end of the world

and frozen him between two fresh mounds

in the graveyard, then thawed him hysterical

to offer money, gold watch, shoes, clothes

(all the world he had left, nearly as good

as dust now), his knees sinking into the grave

as he prayed, they laughed, amused by God’s silence,

and one levelled his AK-47

to prove the new divinity, to save time

for pressing needs of the revolution.

But their captain remembered the cause,

the dimmed glory of his city’s name;

he silenced the gun for axe and matchet

and in homage to freedom asked, “Long or short sleeves?”

It was a riddle too hard for his heated head

so he sank deeper into the grave and wailed,

“Long sleeves! what I’m wearing, I have nothing else!”

They needed to teach him the vocabulary

of the new age for its choice sacrifice,

so they set his hands on a fallen headstone;

the bright edges of stainless steel flashed, dazzled

the sun with the arc of the strike. Only one wrist fell clean,

the other flailed, hanging on slender hope

as the city’s defenders stressed the lesson

and marching to another front, the old school

that thought learning served the cause, they made sure to set

at the head of the band the four boys abducted

on their way to school a week before – promoted

sergeant-majors of the people’s army

and led home to enact their first acts of valour –

each wearing back to school the dread-digit diploma.



* A young Nigerian double-amputee of the rebel war that ravaged Sierra Leone almost throughout the last decade, a war stamped notoriously in the mind of the world by the gruesome amputation of its victims by the rebels. "Freetown" was first published in Poetry International, special issue featuring English language poetry from around the world, 7/8 2003-4, and to be included in the forthcoming anthology, Voices from All Over, by Oxford University Press (South Africa) to be released in December 2006.



History Lesson


For the first time, history lost its wrench

when a diary of defeats opened to Ethiopia.

We were fourteen to fifteen-year-olds

drinking in every word from the master’s mouth.

It wasn’t childish pride that so moved us,

it was the out-of-this-world names –

like the sibilant Selasie (hail!),

the tactile Tafari (your hand in it

for a walk), Ras Tigré (you saw a Tiger!)

and the muscular Menelik (superman)!


Menelik, more than a match for Mussolini,

denying haughty Italy the glory

of empire in Africa. We no longer

sat at desks, black faces to blackboard;

we had fled to the hills of Tigré,

invincible tigers prowling for Mussolinis.


At term’s end, in the back of the Mazda,

leaving boarding school in Warri for Benin,

a dream of rivers opened my eyes

to the Ethiope as we crossed at Sapele.

And now I wished the car would cough and stop,

catch the mechanical flu or migraine

so I could merge hills and river in one course.

Its waters were the darkest I had seen

and seemed to me the inkwell of the world.

Legend held it the deepest watery womb.

I believed it. Under its luscious weeds

was the aorta to the primal heart.


But cars bow only to their will, and this scorned

my prayers, offering only to break speed,

forced by the Don’t overtake on bridge

on a truck finding the crossing tough.

It was enough for me. And I confirmed

the Ethiope’s majesty by the absence

of boats and fishermen; the sacral silence

mysteriously black. And oblivious

to what local history had to say,

I traced my river’s source to Ethiopia’s high ground.


NB: First published in Drumvoices Revue, Spring-Summer-Fall issue, 2005.



The Lunch Bag


A white cloth-bag, very domestic

where it lay close to the dried parsley.

She sliced into two equal halves, neatly,

the last salami sandwich. To manly

tasks! — such as opening and closing a brief-

case to robe the moment in the authentic


suit of worthy business, such as wearing

one’s shoes and calling out impatiently —

anything distant from the tenderly

worked aromas of food, as if only

at pain of death would one sit at table

or touch the home-made pie without swearing!


I squelched the goodbye kiss, pleading time.

She said, “Here, a little lunch. And beer,”

her wishes for a pleasant journey echoing

down the hall into the street to kill the sneer

of a churlish day. The train was on time,

and soon the anguish of the image and the rhyme


to free a poem. Five hours after setting out,

I eat the last sandwich and snap open

the second beer, following her from the oven

(where she bakes now, I know), to the garden

(for the scented air), to the couch by the window

(where words leap from a book to possess her mouth.)


I balled the bag — now empty, and looking

odder and odder by the minute in

a man’s hand — set on stuffing it in the bin

beside me. Then I saw it, sitting

on my lap, the voucher of her last shopping,

folded and intent, it would seem, on being seen.


I studied the groceries. At the bottom

was the supermarket’s oily courtesy:

“Thank you for choosing us. We value you dearly.”

Shamed I muttered: “Bless her for the timely

lunch. And make forever perfect the hands whose gift

glorify by touch the token and the common.”





He feels himself falling apart, cries

I am ceasing to be I!

as the road he’s traveling,

bordered by the intimacy of familiar bush,

by the fields of manioc and corn,

breaks at the next footfall –

as if at command of a wounded imp –

into oiled sponginess,


and the friendly footpath of childhood,

where he heard the world’s primal sonatas

and breathed the purest air,

veers at his heart’s drumbeat

for the deep stream that taught him to fish,

into a great river in spate,

and the inscrutable mystery of an ocean,

to stun his compass and his feet.


And he’s undone by the unfathomable

moment, when the house whose porch

should beckon with the warmth

instilled in it by the sun of his life

turns, as in a ghost story,

into a dead tree, foliating before his eyes

with the dark wings of monstrous birds

and he cries: I am ceasing to be I!





The birds have lifted their awful wings

and flapped slowly away.

Out of the dense shadow

too warm and too cold for any blood

the tree dances to a brisk wind,

and its branches — stretched out

to all the world — are green again.


His road is once more the known route,

the infinite ocean shrunk back

into the child’s happy stream.

And, yes, she’s there — first

on the blistered beach

surrendered by the waves

raging back to sea,


and then at the door, preparing

a kiss to smooth the valleys

of fear. To his frowned puzzle

Is this my house, or a ghost tree?

her arms reaching out

to him and no one else in the world,

she answers: your tree of life!



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