Hunting words with my father
(For Ngugi’s 70th)
One morning I burst into my father’s study and said
when I grow up, I too want to hunt, I want to hunt
words, and giraffes, pictures, buffalos and books
and he, holding a pen and a cup of tea said, little father,
to hunt words can be dangerous – but still, it is best to start
early. He waved his blue bic-pen and his office turned
into Nyandarua forest. It was morning, the mist rising
from the earth like breath as rays from the sun fell hard
on the ground like sharp nails. Little father, do you see
him? – my father asked. No I said. Look again – the mist
is a mirror – do you see him? And I looked again and
there was a Maasai warrior tall as the trees spear in hand.
Shadow him, feign his movements, shadow him until
his movements are your movements. Running my feet
along the leaves I walked to where he was, crouched
like him so close to the earth, feet sinking deeper
into the earth as if in mud, turning and reading the wind
and fading into the mist till I became one with the forest.
For half a day we stayed like this – tired and hungry
I was ready for home. But my father said, I did not say
this was easy – you cannot hunt words on a full stomach.
And just as soon as he spoke there was a roar so loud
and stomping so harsh that hot underground streams broke
open like a dozen or so water pipes sending hissing, steaming
water high into the air. I turned to run but the Maasai
warrior stood his ground. As the roar and thunder
came closer, his hair braided and full of red ochre
turned into dread-locks so long that they seemed like
roots running from the earth. When the transfiguration
was complete, before me stood a Mau Mau fighter, spear
in one hand, home-made-gun in the other, eyes so red
that through the mist they looked like hot molten
cinders, the long dreadlocks a thousand thin
snakes in the wind, the leaves and grass and thorns
rushing past him. You must help him, don’t just stand
there, help him – my father implored but just as soon
as I had closed my little hands into fists, the lion
appeared high up in the air, body stretched the whole
length as the Mau Mau fighter pulled the spear like
it was a long root from the earth. The lion, mid-air, tried
to stop, recoiled its talons to offer peace but it was too
late and it let out another roar as its chest crushed
into the spear, breast-plate giving way until the spear
had edged its way to the heart. Dying then dead
it continued its terrible arc and landed. I waved
and the picture stood still. My father came up to me
and asked, why have you stopped the hunt? I said
“but we killed it – I have what we came for.” I pointed
to where the Mau Mau warrior was pulling his spear
from the carcass but my father shook his head and said
–you have done well but look closely – how can you
carry all that in a word? How can we carry that home?
It is too heavy. I laughed and said – “father, you help me.”
But he pointed to the ground, to a steady flow of a bright
thin red river furiously winding down from the grooves
of the spear to the earth. I too pointed unable to speak
– the beauty larger than my imagination. I was confused.
I had no words. Come, let us go home little father.
When you are of-age you shall find the words, he said.
But always be careful – to hunt a word is to hunt a life.
A Collage of Minds, Hearts and Revolutions Dissected
One step removed from your paint brush - I watch your skirt
wet with deep thick colors hiked and matted to your thighs
-your eyes drawn tight in wonder where to cut canvass next-
me - my heart contracting - then a release with sharp strokes
that paint labor to birth a pregnant woman marching for the death
penalty. Who does she protect? The unborn child? Herself when
her fruit goes bad? Then you, your best spent on the last stroke.
I feel no father's pride. Do you understand how small
I am to fight these things you create?
What we imagine to be a bomb but only a hare trapped
in lighting lines plunges our world into darkness - Pencil
flash light beckoning me to you - you to me - locking
me and you in its beam revealing only bits of you - your
hand on the wall to make a rabbit - your bowed head in laughter
its shadow and hair onto your breasts - light tracing you
- always you – navel- laugh – hands – lips - then lips find lips-
I trace you with my lips till warmth locks on warmth.
It's midnight. We remain unmoved at the slight jar of the world
shifting plates to ready the next day. I am blowing smoke into
the candle to create darkness with a single breath. You, tracing
fingers that feel like tendrils along my scars, each stroke softening
their jaggedness. Some scars are wounds we are born with,
others healed before our birth yet cannot be erased and others
we carve ourselves. "Why do you keep them?"
"Do you feel them...their wounds?" You ask after my silence.
I am like an old painting, even blemishes belong. Instead I say
"Not when I am here with you." Why do I lie? Darkness.
It’s a plunge to the bottom of the cliff - a fall with no respite
-falling - unnamed pain as flesh scrapes against sharp edges
of darkness - rocks and broken glass jutting out the walls
of my mind till I am at the bottom of the pit. Where do I look
to crawl outside myself? Where are the stronger poisons?
Where are the fanged asps to heal my wrists? I crawl up- piecemeal
- fingernails broken to cuticles, hands and knees bleeding, skin
sanded in a million places till I get to the top to find one clean
metaphor that knows sometimes there is no climb after the fall.
The curse of words - to always be inside yourself - always
an open wound - a slave to their wounds. Carefully, I pocket
this perfect metaphor and tip-toe to our doorstep. I am drunk
again you say when I lift it up to show you what I found this time
in the pit of my mind.
Yesterday was warm, a breeze with no past. I felt so pampered.
The sun was lodged several inches into my skin. I even started
thawing! My jaws unlocked. Laughter once exiled traced
its way back as a song. It was a lullaby. I was so close
to being home. Looking out the window, today is so
brutal, so cold, without memory. The trees are naked. The clouds
rain their acid. Today is lovable, blessed only for yesterday.
Two cups of coffee and I find you armed with brush, canvass
and paint. You pause to look outside. "Sometimes it’s easy
to create when you have something to work against" you say
between two sips of coffee. Soon, it too will be cold. Forgotten.
Sharp tip of Shaka's assegai one inch into the flesh above my
heart - there is madness and fury in a river that does not know
its source - that destroys all that lies in its way - even that which
it runs to feed. I never knew my grandfather though he knew
his - so sunrise or sunset - I end at the point where my eyes cease
to see. Forge assegai into a pen and pen will write itself into a gun.
Our children must have their source.
Needs, true courage comes in the form of hunger. We must
brave the outside. Your shoes on mush snow, my numb lips
tugging on a last cigarette. Middle East Restaurant, Mass. Ave.,
Boston, MA. It's a quiet lunch till you speak of your dream
- paintings in blood. "Isn't that always the case?” And then-
"Whose?" "Whose what?" "The blood, whose was it?"
"I don't know, probably yours" you say. Then you lean
and rescue one solitary curry spiced cauliflower from my perimeter-ed metal plate. "This plate, it’s like a prison's"
I say. But I feel elated to have probably been in your dreams.
Any given word sometimes can be good-bye. What is a poet's last
thought? Regret? Song? Must I hurry? So I try not too look
too deep into rivers so inviting in their swift, wet and furious
madness or trains so heavily set in their ways. Can we ever
truly own that which we cannot take with us? Memories
too turn into ash, and a poem that graceless urn. So what good
does it do that I refuse to bathe my feet in fast moving rivers?
Warmth. It starts with numb hands rubbing numb hands to kindle
a fire - paint peeling of your hands- mine your canvass – I scream – send
the sun back to its hell. At times like these, who needs the world?
To your question I say reason has been lost in rhyme - words skirting
of pavements like smooth pebbles that delight in living of a lake's
surface for the stay of their bounce- boxed sonnets that pretend
to a life but contain only dead secrets of alliteration. The adventure
always begins, always begins, always begins with the surprise of death.
And in New York, the torch with bound feet is still at sea, a beacon
amongst savage rocks to wreck ships for sweat, brain and blood
on board. You, see plantations have mutated to coal mines but named
after the same god. So I left for New York again only to find it too had
mutated, spawned off-springs with new names. What brought me here?
Like a dog, I was only following my master home.
It's Midnight. We were here yesterday and yet today
has a new phrase. We walk back to our beginning
flipping through memories as though photo albums.
Who remembers the sigh of the days when the sun
does not rise? We have died in so many ways, our
urns graced so many homesteads and many more
unmarked graves. Who will name the world for us
if not me and you? You smile. It's warm. The candle
throws flickers of light around our room. In glimpses,
I see a portrait of my grandfather in Burma, then
at home armed with history. Tonight, I will dream
of my blood feeding your paint brush.
A Poem for Arthur Nortje
Your forehead jutting outwards swelling with the wretchedness
of inheritance, watching your trail of black dust, ashes of a cremated
past swirl and twirl, a dance with voiceless ghosts that see through
the film of your eyes. Your eyes frozen deep in the monotony
of the past holding a black and white photograph of a stillborn
baby's wail. Your nails thrust deep into the palm of your right
hand until it explodes like a grenade reading blood will flood
the River Nile, your reflection lies face down in Thames River
I see a corpse in an Ocean sized fitting room. Consult neither
the Yoruba gods nor oracles, what you need is an internal shift
of perception, find beauty sufficient enough to thaw feeling.
Once you found beauty and said a true word, one true word spills
its truth at seams, swells beehives until the honey trickles
down to oasis. You said, lift up the cup gently to your scorched
lips and drink lest you spill. The warm sun light seductively
filters through the BaoBab branches onto my hungry skin, oval slits
of light swaying with the wind that moves the palm shaped leaves.
Is there a true word so terrible to face? That creates such
anguish? Only in its absence, the vagueness of an articulated
absence that churns ghosts, births easy theories of dualism and
memory of a childhood that dreamt what it cannot now fulfill
leaving a solitary poet staring into the abyss with nothing in front
or behind, the sole saxophonist in the middle of Oxford Square
playing long after the mourners have left. It once was beautiful.
Wearing your martyr's cap, you sat too long defenseless, the lone
aeolian harp battling a screaming wind that has upon itself the role
of redeeming the world. Thames River cannot not mummify as winter
is not here. City lights flicker industrialization onto the river's glass
your face distorted by the city's disco lights, two dark eyes peering
into the display of orgy that dances before them. Every day the world
ends with our eyes glued on the next shipment of happiness.
Nightmares of land mines, sequestered Palestinians and Zulus
who no longer believe in either the pointed tip of Shaka's assegai
nor in the poet's pen. Let it hurtle along at the pace of my mind,
Bao-Bab fiend sprout a branch, trip a thought, middle of inferno,
take a plunge into the fire next time of a mind through which the world
whistles tunes of its madness. Shoot a straight arrow into the sky, create
wavy parallels, dance opposites in its wake, I see your face actualizing
the possibility of life, the fact of death. The Police records show your
fingerprints on a beer bottle, a witness who watching the orgy of depression
asked you to dance,"I have to leave, I am almost late, but thanks", he said.
Another time then?" she asked. "Maybe, but not here." She watched your
black coat that hid your back till it was swallowed by the dancing bodies,
one slice of darkness and the you spilled onto Wordsworth Street.
Kenya – A Love Letter
Inside looking out, snow is falling and I am thinking
how happy we once were, when promises and dreams
came easy and how when we, lovers covered only
by a warm Eldoret night, you waved a prophecy
at a shooting star and said, "when the time comes
we shall name our first child, Kenya" and how I
laughed and said "yes, our child then shall be country
and human" and we held hands, rough and toughened
by shelling castor seeds. My dear, when did our
clasped hands become heavy chains and anchors holding
us to the mines and diamond and oil fields? Our hands
calloused by love and play, these same hands – when
did they learn to grip a machete or a gun to spit hate?
And this earth that drinks our blood like a hungry child
this earth that we have scorched to cinders - when we
are done eating, how much of it will be left for Kenya?
My dear, our child is born, is dying. Tomorrow
the child will be dead.
UW – Madison
January 4, 2008
- commissioned by the BBC World Service
Letter to My Nephew
For Ken Saro-Wiwa
The sun is locked in evening, half shadow
half light, hills spread like hunchbacks over
plains, branches bowing to birth of night.
It's an almost endless walk until the earth
opens up to a basin of water. You gasp
even the thin hairs on your forearm breathe,
flowers wild, two graves of man and wife
lying in perfect symmetry, overrun by wild
strawberries. Gently you part the reeds,
water claims the heat from the earth, you
soak your feet, then lie down hands planted
into the moist earth. You glow. Late at night
when you leave, you will fill your pockets
with wet clay. But many years from now,
you will try to find a perfect peace in many
different landscapes, drill water out of memory
to heal wounded limbs of the earth. You
will watch as machines turn your pond
inside out, spit the two graves inside out
in search of sleek wealth. Many years
later, after much blood has been lost and your
pond drained of all life you will wonder, shortly
before you become the earth's martyr, what
is this thing that kills not just life but even death?