Sentinel Poetry #49 December 2006 ISSN 1479-425X
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF POETRY & GRAPHICS...Since 2002
Guest Editor: Nnorom Azuonye
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.
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!