POEMS FROM NIGERIA (1963 – 1965)
Author’s Note: I wrote these poems at different times during my Peace Corps tour. I was a teacher at the University of Ibadan in Western Nigeria. We were in that lucky two-year window, right after Independence and right before the Revolution: Everything seemed possible, democracy was in the air. We weathered the shattering of being very far away from home during the assassination of President Kennedy, and we continued working.
I’m a writer now—short stories and plays—but these poems are, so far, my only writings (besides letters home) from my two years in Nigeria.
Away outside and looking down
Upon a stranger in the midst of strangeness,
A paleness looking out of place
Among kaleidoscopic vivid hues.
Somehow absurd; but which way, how?
Within, before, in step, in place,
Outside and looking down
Bravely smiling, barely stepping,
Dancing and, absurdly, waiting.
At first, just being
Is like someone else’s dream.
The surface slithers first away,
Gets peeled down to new tough skin
Only day by day
While smiling, dancing, waiting
Does then living ease to be
Absurdly and assuredly right.
And it is a dream of mine
My Technicolored fantasy
Where everything and all may come
To be or then may not:
Where black is white or not at all
And small things matter less and more
Where giving takes, and loving loves,
And Never may with cock-crow come.
A new remembered coolness stretching:
Fragrant coffee, cool banana,
Fresh cut grass and heat
Not fetid, sickly sweet,
But drily fresh and pungent.
Almost sounds of morning greetings
Hatchet chopping, bubbled laughter;
People, dogs, and roosters
Barely starting daytime arguation.
Nine month heavy sun
Begins to waddle,
Marching, crushing alternation,
Trods on possibilities
And leaves a day to live.
Baba lies in shade outstretched
One hand a brown star on his chest
His brown and varnished wrinkled head
Upon the other palm.
A brittle orange palm oil hand
Salutes and waves
At torpid circling flies
Descends beside his body
Stilly falls to earth.
Heavy quiet sounds:
Tapping scratch of lizard claws,
One fretting child,
Far off engine.
Of rustle, croak, or shiver
From the bush;
Heat and life
Everything and all
Each and every
We are very used to light;
Find darkness hard,
And even velvet darkness is uneasy.
In wrapping knowing warmth along your fingers
It makes them one by one to not exist
So that in touching you
I wonder what they touch and are they mine.
Walking even a familiar path in darkness—
Total blank, with vacuum-filling void
Beyond a stretch of arm
And just beneath a foot—
Is like a butterfly, alive
Immersed in lightless, still and thick,
Wings attempting, straining slowly,
. . . Always just about to move.
One foot must move,
Then stop before
I dare myself to move.
One too quick step
And I may find
Myself, without beginning.
Riding on the cycle past the airport
Coming back from town
With bags of books and butter clutched
We hit the storm.
The sky was yellow to the south
And overhead an ugly green
When winds came from the front and side.
We crouched and leaned
And stuffed the bags inside our shirts.
Children, walkers, all
Were gone when
Vicious, stinking, needles
Driving by a strong and fretful wind
Stung faces, arms, and legs.
We leaned sideways on the wind
While palms whipped round
And pea-pod trees threw branches down
Ahead and back of us
And rain gone mad made red
Our faces, arms and legs and eyes.
Circling round debris
Expecting buildings fallen,
Or at least an arm torn off
Still holding an umbrella,
Leaning on the needle wind
We made it home.
Standing in my tower I can see
That Sango is bombarding Oyo.
Puffs of light give one black palm,
One blackly swelling hill,
Or one torn cloud.
My glass is shit
Against the sudden wind
That wishes, pushing, strong re-entrance.
Horizontal curtains swinging
Banging doors and flapping
Rushing papers quiet now.
The glass is shut.
Softly stronger wind then wildly
Bursting on the nearer palms
Mad girls fling
Long hair around
Their Maenad howling
Heads snapping bending
Ecstatic in the rain.
Earthquake rumble from the sky
Repeated rolls across along horizons
Electric fingered hands that
Push through earth
Grab from sky
Fistfuls of water
Thrown hard against the glass
Drip and trickle.
One small frog, and then
About the storm.
Arrhythmic clang of banging hammered
Iron pots and kettles molded
Talking for unturned ears background,
Listening for attentive cries:
“Bread i re” and “Acara”
“Oyimbo wa” with outstretched fingers
Clamping down on upturned palms.
Unlooking feet in dirty mud
Step blindly now and detour round
Decaying mount of unsold greens
And heady smell. I know three things:
The dishes, meat, and mats.
The dishes: Straight up on the right.
The woman selling glassware who,
With hanging pints thick rounding glass
A tightened smile and one hand pushing
Up her head-tie know
We know hers is the price.
Bright enamel Hong Kong pans
Red blue orange yellow lids
And China china stacked in straw.
The women plait each other’s hair
And watch then smile at simple words
And think me whitely mad.
From here, across the gross repugnant
Swilling ditch, the hammer sounds
The Meat: More complicated—to the
Left one wanders up and down
Asks pidgin questions points and walks.
The butchers, bloody handed, matchets
Swing, sit cross upon their legs
Intent and holding bloody dripping
Cuts and tripe and flanks and thighs
Up at eyes of passers by.
The flies, gorged on the sickly
Sweetened smell are made with lust
Ignore the whirr of harmless whisk.
They land, and brood.
Wrapped in cool banana leaf
And tied with palm, and after bloody
Rhythmic pounding, browned and bubbled
On the stove the meat will make
A lovely stew.
The mats: Always an accident
Wonderful and pleasant as a gift.
A quiet darkened cool corner,
No tin roof, but shaded tree,
And one old man who always sleeps
In among upon his wares:
Mats for standing on in doorways,
Shady mats of slitted bamboo,
Brittle palm mats, firm and stable,
Mats for loving, fasting, praying,
Thin with Moslem stars and sickles;
Reedy mats of spongy texture
Dyed a royal diamond purple
Wet swamp smell still lingers,
Fragrant, rolled up, wait for sleep.
Such rest and quiet peaceful murmur,
Not quite here or there, suspended:
THE WEST END CAFÉ
One fan moves round
Into tahina, pilaf, beer;
From greeny walls
Across the floor
Cat covered with attentive eyes;
Smells with kitchen
Musk smoked meat
And brains in egg yolk batter;
To the night
Smells plodding by at hand.
Iron snakes diagonal slash
Across the belly of the Oyo road.
And while we wait
With others, marking time,
One taxi driver pees
Into the ditch, another
Takes his yellow duster, slowly
Flicking dirt from off his mjudguard.
Small snake-headed girls
Their easy head-held trays\Piled high cry, “Bread i re oh”
Stare at me from sideways eyes. The too small houses bake
The women sit and chat and pay
Me no attention, joking
With all passers by, they greet
A chosen few.
No sign as yet.
The driver ties the duster back
Onto the handle. Sits
And waits with me
His fingers silent, eyes unfocused
On a somewhere silent;
Now: a sound: the smoke: the sign
For engines coughing starting
Talk and laughter movement
Louder: now: a whistle: then
The cattle oil lumber cars
The freight the first-class car
The new Opels the second third
With people hanging one who waves
The last and it has passed.
One old man who must
Unhook the pinks
Undo the chains
And push each gate
With paper hands.
One old man is much too slow.
The middle of an Alec Guinness flick:
White shirts, sock-covered calves, and voices
Modulated: and below, the click
Of billiard balls or cheese-shaped bowls, the choice
Is there. The women, Shandy-handed, coiffed,
With cigarettes, and one who always fans
Herself, drops Mayfair when the children doff
Their trousers, says, “Now, John, I will, I can
Not stand for this. We’re going home!” “Oh, Mum!”
He whines, the siren starting, “Mummy, why?!”
No heads are turned, no swallow stopped, the hum
Of chatter rolling through her dreadful sigh.
Old Observer Magazines and Punch
Are read and stacked and read again. The cool
Steward reads behind the bar, and munches
Slyly kola, reads of Football Pool
Wins, and dreams of owning his own shop.
Their classes finished, academics sit
In tennis garb and use their arms to mop
The sweat from eyes too used to being hit
At by a sun that throbs and pulsates, glad
Of living, but of life not sure. A quick
And easy hollowness? A Sham? Quite mad!
So bottles pop and ice-blocks clink and click.
“Tea and biscuits?” “No, I’ll have a beer.”
“And then he had the nerve…” “A pink gin—double.”
“Yes, I agree.” “You’re right, it’s deuced queer.”
“Oh well, they’re always getting into trouble.”
“Pop round tonight, I think we’ve got a fourth.”
“Oh! Sorry, George! Here, let me buy another.”
“Dear God! I thought he’d transferred to the north.”
“Oh no, dear boy, that was his first wife’s brother.”
A lonely swimmer, splashing in the pool,
Slashes through blue chlorine blur, a knife
From end to side to end. Somewhere it’s cool
He knows, somewhere there’s breath and life.
Wide-toed, knock-kneed walk,
Splayed sole-white feet
Thumping callous on linoleum.
A separated face:
Eyes above, black shadowed,
Knowing more than crooked
Toothful grin below
Will not in English tell.
And in the midst: unsculptured nose.
With high falsetto Ibo songs
Pounds dirt from clothes,
Tucks neatly rhythmed blankets,
Sweeps bent with palm frond broom,
Cooks fish stew, fries plantain,
Or stands and gazes, thinking, singing.
He liked the pictures from
The Calendar of Modern Art
And so I hung them in the kitchen—
Cezanne fruits, Picasso plums—
Where he could see them.
He got married, and then promised me
To wed in church when he had money.
He learned to write, enough at least
To keep a market book,
With pencil gripped and bearing down.
When I left
He rode behind me on the cycle
With my suitcase on his head.
I gave him money
And I cried.
A name to conjure
Your heart a smile
From deep inside
And light filled eyes
Whose laugh infects
A voice that whispers,
Sings, with sparks
Of golden velvet,
Hands that flow
While fingers speak
Of loving needed
Found at last:
Skin of velvet
Silk, so smooth
Most rich and kept
With loving care:
Through our kiss
Your caged bird heart
Beats wings against
My own and knows
She must be very old
For when her dark blue cloth slips down
Her breasts hang pendule-like,
Empty and thin,
But very smooth.
Nipples black against deep brown,
Puckered, warped, hanging
Like drops of sweat upon a water bag.
In the morning when she walks
Bent forward, eyes upon the ground,
She holds her breasts with one firm arm.
All day she sits,
Feet deeply rooted in the ditch
As market women bearing haughty-headed loads,
High voices in their hands
Glide past her stare;
And stare in turn at never braided hair
That shoots out from her head
As though her hands that never move
Had torn it straight.
I know her eyes contain no pain
Yet dare not look into her face
For fear, perhaps, that she might see
The questions in my eyes,
And, raising up her head,