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.

 

 

 

BEGINNINGS

 

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,

But now?

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

Quite slowly,

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.

 

 

MORNING

 

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.

 

 

 


 

AFTERNOON

 

Baba lies in shade outstretched

One hand a brown star on his chest

His brown and varnished wrinkled head

Upon the other palm.

Blinks

Rouses

Stirs

A brittle orange palm oil hand

Salutes and waves

At torpid circling flies

Descends beside his body

Scratches

Stilly falls to earth.

 

Heavy quiet sounds:

Tapping scratch of lizard claws,

One fretting child,

Far off engine.

 

Heavy absence:

Of rustle, croak, or shiver

From the bush;

Of footsteps,

Speech,

Or sound:

Only

 

Breathing

Heat and life

As one

Everything and all

Together

Each and every

Thing

Asleep.

 

 

 


 

DARKNESS

 

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,

Almost moving.

. . . 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.

 

 

 

STORM I

 

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.

 

People vanished.

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.

 

Very slowly

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.

 

 

STORM II

 

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

Become demented

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

 

Forever.

 

Until quiet.

Drip and trickle.

One small frog, and then

Another sings

About the storm.

 

 

 

DUGBE MARKET

 

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

Are music.

 

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:

Home inside.

 

 

 


 

THE WEST END CAFÉ

 

 

One fan moves round

Revolving slowly

Dripping flies

Into tahina, pilaf, beer;

 

Stirring smells

From greeny walls

Across the floor

Cat covered with attentive eyes;

 

Mixing body

Smells with kitchen

Musk smoked meat

And brains in egg yolk batter;

 

Blending gritty

Sweetened coffee

To the night

Smells plodding by at hand.

 

 

 

SANGO

 

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 CLUB

 

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.

 

 

JOHN NWAZOR

 

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.

 

 

 

 

YEWANDE

 

A name to conjure

Flashing birds,

Deep-jeweled fish

Your name.

 

Your heart a smile

From deep inside

And light filled eyes

Whose laugh infects

Our souls.

 

A voice that whispers,

Sings, with sparks

Of golden velvet,

Diamond tears,

And sighs.

 

Hands that flow

While fingers speak

Of loving needed

Found at last:

Our gold.

 

Skin of velvet

Silk, so smooth

Most rich and kept

With loving care:

My own.

 

Through our kiss

Your caged bird heart

Beats wings against

My own and knows

Our goal.

 

 

 

THE MADWOMAN

 

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,

Might answer.

 

THE END



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