100 Days, 50 Days In: A Poet’s Journey

I am keenly aware of the paradox in thinking about the halfway point of writing and posting one hundred poems. For those who lived through or must still live through their own hundred days, there is no luxury of knowing a halfway point and yet I’m exhausted by the knowledge that this is only the halfway point.

I’ve come to appreciate the ability to count and depend on the passage of days as a reliable indicator that time passes. I’ve been watching how Wangechi Mutu’s photographs have morphed from very personal, embodied experiences of pain and death to images that radiate loss and loneliness through the passage of time and neglect. And I have looked at the poems I’ve written, thinking about what I can see – and what remains inaccesible to me.

When I wrote the first poem, Day 100, I gathered my visual cues about the landscape from Sometimes in April (directed by Raoul Peck and starring Idris Elba and Carole Karemera) – a collection of delicious greens and mist and rain. I have never been to Rwanda, but this is familiar land, it does not seem very different from places I’ve been, places that are encased with an intense and terrible beauty. I thought about how impossible it would have been to try and read the land for any sign of impending disaster. I imagined what it might have been like to be immersed in those one hundred days, and I also remembered what it was like to be “inside” those endless days of uncertainty during the years of unstable government in Uganda when I was a teenager during the eighties. I thought about the people who lived through the war in northern Uganda (1986-2007) and those who were taken by the Lord’s Resistance Army, many who never returned.

And the ridiculousness of measured time when the experience of those days plays out like a rubber band – stretching, snapping, stretching and snapping, and every time differently. I’ve also been thinking about how much these 100 Days have a way of taking Memory of those days beyond the realm of public commemoration: speeches, flowers, and eternal flames. 100 Days of poems is not an accurate depiction for anyone to depend on, but they are a way to enter into the private space not reflected by events outside. They have to be an imperfect collection; they’re barely edited and most of the time completely unchecked – emotionally. There’s been no time to craft these poems, to practice an art; this is raw expression. These are what I imagine 100 Days would sound like, if I could have a conversation with someone who has journeyed twenty years without much to celebrate. What must it mean to look forward when all that provided the impetus for your future remains deeply embedded in the past?

Mid-May: almost halfway through a hundred days and I check in with myself. I feel stretched, vulnerable, worn out. I must post a poem every day and yet I cannot write a poem every day – so I write ahead when I can. I feel vulnerable to the voices that can prevent me from sleeping and are an insistent whisper in my head during the day. I read through the poems already posted and look for cues and patterns but it’s like looking at my back in the mirror. A friend tells me that anger becomes apparent in Day 59. Do betrayal and anger occupy different spaces in these poems? I don’t know how to read these poems but I know what I carry.

Twenty years after the genocide in Rwanda is twenty years after the ANC won elections in South Africa; there is mourning and celebration at the same time. And gratitude for having come through – how can there not be? But what do we do with the persistent heartbroken-ness? How do you remember the worst time of your life after twenty years? War persists. A powerful undercurrent of apathy buoys others who understand that war “over there” has nothing to do with life “over here”. Some things get done through obligation and sometimes pity, without any acknowledgement of the connectedness that binds us all. War is a contagion; none of us is immune. As long as commemorations continue to focus on the might and muscle of the winners, there may never be enough space to hold dialogue with those who are yet to heal from the wounds of war.

Juliane Okot Bitek

May 16th, 2014

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