Andre Bagoo: “I am the Archipelago”: Eric Roach and Black Identity

View from South America up through the Caribbean Sea and its Archipelago...and beyond to North America...
“I am the Archipelago”: Eric Roach and Black Identity
By Andre Bagoo
THOSE who know Eric Roach, know how the story ends. This year marks the centenary of the Trinidadian poet who was born in 1915 at Mount Pleasant, Tobago. He worked as a schoolteacher, civil servant and journalist, among other things. Along the way, he published in periodicals regularly. But in 1974, he wrote the poem ‘Finis’, drank insecticide, then swam out to sea at Quinam Bay. The first-ever collected edition of his poetry only appeared two decades after his death. In it, Ian McDonald describes Roach as, “one of the major West Indian poets”. He places Roach alongside Claude McKay, Derek Walcott, Louise Bennett, Martin Carter and Edward Kamau Brathwaite.
Too often is the discourse on Roach coloured by his story’s ending. We cannot ignore the facts of what occurred at Quinam Bay, yes, but sometimes they distract from the poet’s genuine achievements. Notwithstanding the emerging consensus on his stature, he is still best known for his ill-fated death. Yet the journey is sometimes more important than the destination.
In an introduction to the same collected edition of Roach’s poems published by Peepal Tree Press in 1992, critic Kenneth Ramchand states: “in the English-speaking Caribbean, is there anyone who had written as passionately about slavery and its devastations before ‘I am the Archipelago’ (1957) hit our colonised eardrums?” Ramchand notes that Roach was, “committed, as selflessly and as passionately as one can be, to the idea of a unique Caribbean civilisation taking shape out of the implosion of cultures and peoples in the region.” For Ramchand, “the ultimate justification of [Roach’s] art would be that it contributed to the making and understanding of this new, cross-cultural civilisation.” That cross-cultural civilisation is the one Walcott speaks of when he remarks:
Break a vase, and the love which reassembles the fragments is stronger than the love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole….This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles….Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.
This is really a call for the new breed of Caribbean poets, the breed that reverses colonialisation’s history of plunder. Just as our colonial overlords of the past have done, poets, now, are free to pillage from whichever continent they choose. This is not a process of retribution, but rather the restoration of the resilience of the human spirit itself amid the sea of history. It also asserts the reality of the fact that we are as much a part of world culture as anyone else and cannot be marginalised from it.
Roach – sometimes called the “Black Yeats”– was one in a long line of poets for whom imitation and allusion are, in fact, blatant acts of rebellion. He also saw himself as key to the process of forming a West Indian Federation, a political union which he felt required a new poetry. Though that union never came to pass, Roach’s work still serves to engage key aspects of Caribbean identity.
The narrative of Black identity, whatever that may be, has to some extent played on the idea of separate black and white races. It has also called for a rejection of “white” ideas and a return to African ideas. But these are uneasy dichotomies which paper over the realities of history over time, the mixing of races and the idea that race itself is an invention. At the same time, these categories ignore the complexity of colonisation. That process of colonisation saw states and peoples being exploited for economic resources and then, in the mid-20th century, abandoned by colonial motherlands under the pretence of liberation – even as strong economic subservience remains in place to this very day.
And this is why Roach remains relevant: he not only asserts that the English language is as much ours as theirs, but also sings of the true implications of history, a history sometimes obscured by neat narratives of “independence” and “emancipation”. This is why Roach is still alive.
. . .
I am the archipelago hope
Would mould into dominion; each hot green island
Buffeted, broken by the press of tides
And all the tales come mocking me
Out of the slave plantations where I grubbed
Yam and cane; where heat and hate sprawled down
Among the cane – my sister sired without
Love or law. In that gross bed was bred
The third estate of colour. And now
My language, history and my names are dead
And buried with my tribal soul. And now
I drown in the groundswell of poverty
No love will quell. I am the shanty town,
Banana, sugarcane and cotton man;
Economies are soldered with my sweat
Here, everywhere; in hate’s dominion;
In Congo, Kenya, in free, unfree America.
I herd in my divided skin
Under a monomaniac sullen sun
Disnomia deep in artery and marrow.
I burn the tropic texture from my hair;
Marry the mongrel woman or the white;
Let my black spinster sisters tend the church,
Earn meagre wages, mate illegally,
Breed secret bastards, murder them in womb;
Their fate is written in unwritten law,
The vogue of colour hardened into custom
In the tradition of the slave plantation.
The cock, the totem of his craft, his luck,
The obeahman infects me to my heart
Although I wear my Jesus on my breast
And burn a holy candle for my saint.
I am a shaker and a shouter and a myal man;
My voodoo passion swings sweet chariots low.
My manhood died on the imperial wheels
That bound and ground too many generations;
From pain and terror and ignominy
I cower in the island of my skin,
The hot unhappy jungle of my spirit
Broken by my haunting foe my fear,
The jackal after centuries of subjection.
But now the intellect must outrun time
Out of my lost, through all man’s future years,
Challenging Atalanta for my life,
To die or live a man in history,
My totem also on the human earth.
O drummers, fall to silence in my blood
You thrum against the moon; break up the rhetoric
Of these poems I must speak. O seas,
O Trades, drive wrath from destinations.
. . .
Andre Bagoo is a Trinidadian poet and journalist, born in 1983. His second book of poems, BURN, is published by Shearsman Books.  To read more ZP features by Andre Bagoo, click on his name under “Guest Editors” in the right-hand column.
. . . . .

Mildred K. Barya: Birmingham Postcard and The Promised Land

I See The Promised Land_book cover

Mildred K. Barya
Birmingham Postcard and The Promised Land
After eleven months in Birmingham, Alabama, I left for Denver, Colorado. I was excited about my new teaching and studying life in Denver, but also sad to be leaving a place that had been home to me in every sense of the word. I wondered if I would ever find the same generosity.
The moment I arrived in Birmingham, I was received with love, a welcome dinner, laughter, and in a matter of hours I felt at home. Love continued throughout my stay. Within two weeks I found an apartment—with help from my new friends and fellow teachers—moved in and was told to make a list of whatever item I needed. Within twenty-four hours my house was filled with every lovely thing—a beautiful brown couch, an orange armchair that became my favorite relaxing seat, got me floating gently into pleasantness, leaving all tiredness behind. I was also given a computer table and chair, a dining table complete with four chairs, a brand new bed and mattress, and everything that I needed for the kitchen: plates, glasses, cups, kettle, pots, pans, and utensils.
I felt lifted up, light, fluid, melted by all that love; I wondered what I had done to deserve such care and compassion. I had simply showed up, and the residents had done what they thought was theirs to do; for them hospitality was second nature. Humbled and eased into comfort, it was not hard to enjoy my job.
In my short teaching career, I had thought it was okay to like students, be friendly and helpful, but also to maintain a respectable distance. My students at Alabama School of Fine Arts changed all that. It was love or nothing. Bonding. Knowing that I was from Uganda, they were keen to introduce Southern cooking to me. Before I knew it we were having buffets in class: collard greens cooked Southern style, shrimp, ham, chicken, grits…And never did any one of them falter in their assignments or fail to submit work on time. Their stories were delightful, wonderfully crafted, heartfelt and compelling.
When it was time for my departure, all I could think of was my students’ warmth and laughter, intelligence and humor; their remarkable poems and stories; their honesty, enthusiasm, and trust. I was aware by then that most of them had shared with me truths and concerns they wouldn’t have revealed to others. They had sensed that I would understand and help. They transformed me, giving me the best alive experiences.
The month of February was especially packed with activities that involved marches, visits to the Civil Rights Museum, (just a few blocks away from the school), and, opposite the museum, the 16th Street Baptist Church where four young girls had died in a bomb explosion during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. I was glad to witness the 50th Anniversary celebrations at the church in 2013, and to chat with the “babies” who had been a year old during those turbulent times of the 1960s, and who were now mature men and women. I wondered how much they remembered, and if a lot had changed after all.
On a Sunday, in that baptist church with its red cushioned chairs, I sat in the chair that had welcomed Martin Luther King, Jr., and I listened to the energetic, soulful singing, feeling transported to a time in the past, a time before I was even conceived. I felt one with history, the present, and the future. Everything flowed seamlessly back and forth, there was no boundary separating the three. I had to pinch myself to know where I was and was not. In that moment I understood the impression of liminal spaces, when the curtain wall cracks just enough to let in a little light for one to perceive briefly another lifetime. I looked into the mosaic glass window (now restored) that had splintered as the bomb exploded that September day in 1963, claiming those four young girls. I glanced around me and wondered how I came to be so lucky to be in the past and present at the same time. I said a prayer for little girls who are still growing and don’t know the terrible times that befell those who came before them. I prayed for the little boys too, that amongst them we might have as many Kings as seashells on the shore.
The Civil Rights Museum taught me about what got “left out” in school. I learnt the true meaning of struggle; that revolutions whose time has come can never be extinguished; that the past is vital and breathing in the hearts of all who care; that the fruits of today are the pains of yesterday.  And when I set my eyes to the Vulcan, the world’s largest cast-iron statue – now 110 years old and still watching over the city – I realized that the god of forge and the goddess of fire are precisely what all men, women, and children need, and that that was what Birmingham had given me.
Back in class we ended the 2013 commemorations with two poems by Langston Hughes, Daybreak in Alabama and Birmingham Sunday, which we read out loud.
But the most wholesome tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy is Arthur Flowers’ book: I See The Promised Land, published by Tara Books in 2010. An extraordinary graphic version of King’s life, it beckons the reader to sit down and listen to a good story “replete with the Will of the Gods, with Fate and Destiny and The Human Condition.” Arthur, being a hoodoo Lord of the Delta, a Memphis native, strings out the narrative with griot rhythms and an invocation to Legba to open the gate. The story is riveting, and the book stands out as a distinctive collaboration with Manu Chitrakar and Guglielmo Rossi. Chitrakar’s free-floating images are rich with color and texture, deeply steeped in the Patua scroll-painting tradition of Bengal, India. Flowing in and out of the text, they are the perfect complement to the narrative. I See The Promised Land is a book everyone should read, an essential addition to any art or biography collection.
. . .
Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
Daybreak in Alabama
When I get to be a composer
I’m gonna write me some music about
Daybreak in Alabama
And I’m gonna put the purtiest songs in it
Rising out of the ground like a swamp mist
And falling out of heaven like soft dew.
I’m gonna put some tall tall trees in it
And the scent of pine needles
And the smell of red clay after rain
And long red necks
And poppy colored faces
And big brown arms
And the field daisy eyes
Of black and white black white black people
And I’m gonna put white hands
And black hands and brown and yellow hands
And red clay earth hands in it
Touching everybody with kind fingers
And touching each other natural as dew
In that dawn of music when I
Get to be a composer
And write about daybreak
In Alabama.
.     .     .
Birmingham Sunday
(September 15th, 1963)
Four little girls
Who went to Sunday School that day
And never came back home at all–
But left instead
Their blood upon the wall
With spattered flesh
And bloodied Sunday dresses
Scorched by dynamite that
China made aeons ago
Did not know what China made
Before China was ever Red at all
Would ever redden with their blood
This Birmingham-on-Sunday wall.
Four tiny little girls
Who left their blood upon that wall,
In little graves today await:
The dynamite that might ignite
The ancient fuse of Dragon Kings
Whose tomorrow sings a hymn
The missionaries never taught
In Christian Sunday School
To implement the Golden Rule.
Four little girls
Might be awakened someday soon
By songs upon the breeze
As yet unfelt among
Magnolia trees.
. . . . .
To read more essay-and-poem features by Mildred K. Barya at Zócalo Poets, click on her name under “Guest Editors” in the right-hand column…

The Rwanda Genocide, twenty years later: 100 Days of photographs + poems by Wangechi Mutu and Juliane Okot Bitek: Days 43 to 1


Wangechi Mutu_Days 3_2_1_The End_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Days 3_2_1_The End_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

 . . .

Juliane Okot Bitek
100 Days: a poetic response to Wangechi Mutu’s #Kwibuka20#100 Days
Day 1
I have nothing
I stand before you with nothing
I am nothing

You stand before me with nothing

I don’t know what I know
but I know that you know nothing

Having come from nothing
To nothing & from nothing
Let my nothing meet your nothing

We may find something there.
Day 2
This will not be a litany of remembrances:

We know who the guilty are
The guilty know themselves

This is a charge against the witnesses
& those who cannot speak

This is a charge against those who speak incompletely
& incoherently

Against nature who saw everything & did nothing
against the bodies that dissolved
& the ones that refused to dissolve
those that insisted on writing the landscape with bones

This is a charge against pain
against heartbreak
against laughter
against the dead.
Day 3
We were pock-marked by these things:
a torrent of accusations
bayonet sticks

We were mocked
by faith in tiny shards
by the cross, with its pliant figure
representing grace
or representing the presence of God

What God in such a time?
What God afterwards?
What God ever?

Wangechi Mutu_Days 7_6_5_4_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Days 7_6_5_4_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 4
Acel ariyo adek angwen
Acel ariyo adek angwen
Acel ariyo adek angwen
Acel ariyo adek angwen
Acel ariyo adek angwen
Acel ariyo adek angwen
We have run out of days
Day 5
What do I remember?
Nothing but the contagion of stories
What do I want to say?
What do I want to say?
Day 6
Images from those days return like silent movies
The available light of the rest of this life and I
can’t hear anything
Just the silent movies
Day 7
Then we stumbled into the place where words go to die
& where words come from

First we bathed in it like sunbathers
then we washed ourselves in it
we rinsed our mouths out
shampooed our hair
swam in the words
& at night
we covered ourselves in words
& went to sleep

at night
the nightmares returned
but the dreams also came
Day 8
Justice woke up and went to work
but no one showed up

Justine, not justice, went to work
but no one showed up

Justice and not Justine
woke up and went to work
but no one showed up

women woke up and went to work
no one knows what Justine and/or
Justice are doing these days
Day 9
These days
circle and circle
some days soar from above like kites
others circle around and around
like hyenas waiting for the story to die
some sit
some stand on long legs
vultures wait
some stay some change seats
others come and go
some dive in
some walk, crawl, cycle
dial on the radio to listen
to stories in embers
stories aflame
stories in stories
stories stoking stories
stories stalking stories
stories in circles & circles
those stories haven’t yet killed me
Day 10
What indeed
the criminalizing function
of language in media?

Pumped full of bullets
& left to rot on the street


People murdered
Calculated and rated on a per hour basis
& sometimes exacted to ethnic & tribal

Never people you know,
Until they are.

Day 11
Savage savage savage
sa vedge sa vedge
sav edge sav edge
save edge save edge
saved saved
Day 12
What now?
That we must create our own world
That we use the right words for the world we want to live in
Like God: Let there be light
And there was light
Let us forgive our enemies
Let us be good examples for the next generation
Let us belong to one another
Let us be friends
Day 13
There was a rainbow in that sky,
the day a chain-linked fence separated us.
You probably saw the rainbow in the sky;
The chain-linked fence, you probably saw it as well.
Day 14
Now their eyes flit flit flit,
dragonflies in the afternoon,
their hands are calm as they write
but clammy in the handshake
– what can we do for you?
– what can we do for you?
Their eyes like dragonflies,
what can they do for me?

Day 15
And so I am now a slow burning woman
Creeping through time like a gecko through a tree
I’m shedding skin then eating it up
Shedding skin then eating it as I crawl along

Height like time has a hazing effect
but wonder remains
exclusive to the uninitiated


Day 16
We were the carriers of the events
Days and nights worked in tandem
to make us forget
We carried proof of place & proof of time
We recited these details over & over
We marked our steps
We marked the cadences into a rhythm & held them close to heart.
Day 17
This is the horror that did not turn you into stone.
This the poem, the mirror with which you can behold
that you did not turn into stone.
This is true: you’re still not stone.

Wangechi Mutu_Day 18_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 18_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 18
Yesterday tripped and fell into evening
As it plunged deep into the night, voices rose up
from the abyss:
Come! Come!
They called
We never slept, trying to makes sense
whose voice was whose
Yesterday tripped and fell into a long night
of calling, of voices beckoning, recalling
things done, things undone by time
Today, I’m trying to sort out the differences
whose voice was whose
which place, what time
They all sound the same now
— the dead and the unborn;
they all sound the same.
Day 19
So this is what the Greek storyteller foretold:
First, the pity-inducing event,
Those poor, poor people,
Pity in the numbers, pity in the grotesque photos that followed,
the writing and the reading that followed.
There was nothing, nothing we could have done different;
Everything was beyond us.
Then came the fear it would spread like contagion,
Uncontrolled like a forest fire.
Now it is time for catharsis.
Day 20
It has been called a harvest of death.
It was more like a net that was cast,
A fisher net
A fisher net cast by a man
A fisher of men
– Christ, was that you?

Day 21
A ring around a rosie
A ring around a posy
A ring around a peony
A ring around a buttercup
A ring around a baby’s breath
A ring around a bouquet

A pocket full of posers
A pocket full of diamonds
A pocket full of memory
A pocket full of justice
A pocket full of ideas
A pocket full of shit

Ring around a rosy
A pocket full of posies
Achoo! Achoo!
We all fall down!
Day 22
Twenty years later we’re young again
as we should be
Welcome to this country

Come and see how we live
Come and see how we get over everything
Come and see how we exhibit skulls
Come and see how we caress skeletons and tell stories about who these bones were
Come and see how easy we are with things;
Come and visit.

Our country is now open for tourism.
Day 23
Some of us fell between words
& some of us onto the sharp edges
at the end of sentences

And if we’re not impaled
we’re still falling through stories that don’t make sense

Wangechi Mutu_Day 23_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 23_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 24_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 24_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 24
& then there was just the two of us
everything in flames

There was the two of us
your arm around my shoulder
mine around your waist
we hobbled on
just the two of us

we hobbled on
just the two of us for a while
& then there was just me
Day 25
Bones lie
Bones lie
Bones lie
About their numbers and bits and parts

Bones lie in open air, in fields, under brushes, along with with others in state vaults,
in museums as if they belong there
in piles, as if they would ever do that in life.

Bones lie about being dead
pulverized, as if we who are not all bone
don’t live with nightmares

Bone have nothing to say
Nothing about who it was that loved them the most
Day 26
That day dared to set
As did the one after it and the one after that
Days became long nights
That became mornings which appeared innocent
of the activities of the day before

That day shouldn’t have set

The next day
if that other day had collapsed from exhaustion, should have held the night sky at bay
That day should have remained fixed in perpetuity
so that we would always know it to be true
Day 27
Glory be to the Father to whom all this is His will
Glory be to the Son who claims to have died for the sins of all men
Glory be to the Holy Spirit that guides the tongues of flames of the believers
As it was in the beginning
As it was in the beginning
As it has always been

As long as we need to hark back to a beginning
that only exists in the memory of the elusive Trinity who can only be accessed through Faith
Nothing will ever change
Nothing will ever change except by Faith
So nothing will change
Day 28
When I (survey) look out at the world around me
(The wondrous cross)
On which (the Prince of Glory) every one that I loved died,
(My richest gain) My richest gain? My richest gain?
I count (but) as loss
It was all loss – all of it
And so I pour contempt on all (my) the pride
That seems to think that there is anything to celebrate.

Don’t ever forbid it, Lord,
That I should (boast) dare to speak out
(Save in) on the deaths
(of) Christ, my God, everything, everything that mattered,
All the vain things that charm (me) You most – the sky scrapers, the clean streets
& the moneyed vendors
(I) You sacrifice (them) Your own morality (to His blood)

There is nothing to party about, nothing.

See from (His head, His hands, His feet) this vantage point
Just how much sorrow and love and bone and blood flow mingling down
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet? Did ever?
Where did ever such a twisted sense of wreath-making come from?
Or why would thorns compose so rich a crown?
Can you not read the land?

Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were a present far too small
Love so amazing so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all

So it took my soul, my life, my all.
Day 29
Time is a curve
so long that it seems to be a straight line

I can see myself walk away
I see
& then remember my heel striking the ground first
the weight of my shoulders
the back of my head & the low hang of my neck

Circle forward
What does my face matter if my heel is still cracked?

Wangechi Mutu_Day 29_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 29_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 30_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 30_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 30
A grid
a fence
a field
some grass
some stumbling

a ditch
a broken slipper

a tear
a sheet
some fumbling
a groan

a metal plate with a faded rose in it
a rusty kettle that will never boil.
Day 31
Here: it is daytime now
We’re here
It is now twenty years after a hundred days that we did not plan on living through
We wanted to, prayed, yearned to make it

Not that those who didn’t didn’t
Day 32
In Eden
We heard birdsong and didn’t hear it
We saw the soft flutter & sail of a falling leaf, but we didn’t know how to read it
We worked the earth, lived off it, trampled it back and forth, back and forth

In Eden
We never thought about the difference between house and home
we never even thought to call it; we were it, it was us and ours
gang wa

Now as we fall unendingly
we know different
we understand belonging as transitory at best
& as elusive as the future we once imagined.
Day 33
So we mothed along towards the fire
With the full knowledge that there couldn’t be anything else beyond this
We mothed along
with bare arms, wingless

a light step here
a light step there
sometimes no step at all
& other times dreamless stops

We mothed along knowing that it was possibly death
& not fire that beckoned
Day 34
So we saw, tasted, smelled, touched, felt and heard what we knew to be true

We had to see, taste, smell, touch, feel and hear in order to know this word
How much made it valid?
Would one less death have disqualified those hundred days from being called a genocide?

And more?
Day 35
There’s no denying the flap of an angel’s wings
for someone who felt it fan her face in those days

The salve of a gentle touch
The stretch of an arm to catch you as you reached for the top of the wall
the strength of a wail
the depth of a moan
the light of unending days
the consistency of seasons
as real as angel wings

There is, however, a slope that leads
from these days of fiction
into nightmares that are real.
Day 36
Oh, I curse you.
I curse you long and hard and deep and wide
I curse you with fire from my mouth
I join everyone with fire in the mouth
Wherever we live & wherever we lay
We curse you, we curse you, we curse you.
Day 37
When Christ lost a beloved friend, he cried out:
Lazarus, come out of the tomb
Lazarus, come out of the tomb

Imagine Christ crying for the beloved on this land:
Lazarus! Lazarus! Lazarus! Lazarus!
Lazarus, come out of the tomb!

Imagine Christ with a croaking voice:
Lazarus, Lazarus, Lazarus

Christ in a whisper
Christ mumbling:
Lazarus, Lazarus

Christ spent
Christ crumbled
Oh, Lazarus

Christ either had no idea of these one hundred days
Or he must have lost his voice in the first few moments

Christ may just have not been capable
He might have noted the endless and boundless losses of the beloved on this land
He might have hung his head down, powerless in the face of this might

Christ, look to your mother
ask her to pray for your intercession.
Day 38
If there’s a breeze tonight
We might think for a moment that it is sweet

There is a breeze tonight
& it is sweet

I can’t remember if the breeze was sweet in those days
There was a breeze
There might have been

Why not?
It might have been the same sweet breeze that kept us from burning
Day 39
If we were to go back to the time before these hundred days
We couldn’t return without knowing what was to come

How could we?

If we were to swear off, that we couldn’t return to these days
I don’t know that we could; we know

We’re marked by this knowing
We know that we’re marked

& this knowledge taints us
& so we can never absorb your innocence

Your innocence will not shield you from these days
Because your innocence does not cleanse
& so your innocence cannot save you from what you must know.
Day 40
She is my country

Every time she goes
I am a leaf in the wind
Every time she goes
She takes with her
All the home that I can ever claim

What use do I have for the carrier of bones?
What anthem can I sing for the graves of children?

She holds my home in the country that she is
& every time she returns, she is my flag
& I am home again.
Day 41
If justice was in a race with time
Peace would have no medal to offer

If peace sat at the table with justice
Time wouldn’t be served

If time wanted justice, so bad, so bad,
There would be nothing that peace could offer
Either by seduction or reason
Day 42
I kneel before you

I kneel before you but this is not an act of supplication
I kneel before you because I cannot stand
I kneel before you because I cannot speak right now
My gestures are wordless articulations
& the dark in my eyes is not an indication of anything you could imagine
& there is nothing, nothing that you could ever give me

Wangechi Mutu_Day 43_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 43_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 43
After all the madness,
& it had to have been a madness,
You hear the arguments and explanations
That it was inevitable
That it was coming
That it had to happen after all those years

Knowing what we know now
What else should we have expected?

I hear that my loss was inevitable
I hear that my loss was coming
I hear that my heartbreak was written in the stars
& in historical documents & even in the oral stories
We had to have been blind & deaf & dumb to not have known
We had to have been oblivious, thinking that we could live
to a full life of family and community like others

After all, who misses the inevitability of a mass event like a genocide?
. . .

To see / read Days 100 to 44, click on the ZP link below:

. . . . .

In Search of Dylan Thomas: Andre Bagoo in Wales

Andre Bagoo in Laugharne_photograph by Ann Marie Goodwin

Andre Bagoo in Laugharne_photograph by Ann Marie Goodwin

And all your deeds and words,
Each truth, each lie,
Die in unjudging love.

Dylan Thomas, ‘This Side of the Truth’


WE ARE in the strangest town in Wales.
It is a Sunday afternoon and we walk through the lych-gate and up the long asphalt path leading to the church. Where is his grave?
The path forks. To the left, a graveyard and St Martin’s. To the right, another graveyard, added more recently. The sun is setting.
St Martin’s Church has a service every Sunday at 6 pm. We hesitate at the entrance. Is a service going on? Will we interrupt the worshippers inside? From behind the thick 13th century walls, we can hear the faint sound of an organ. Are those voices? The wind.
We walk in. A small group of old ladies—and one or two men—are huddled together in the sacristy at the far end. There are shields and flags and statues. The stained glass makes everything a kaleidoscope. On one wall near the back (where we stay, looking on respectfully) is a plaque in honour of him, bearing two of his verses: “Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea”. The light seems dazzled by these words, throwing long shadows on the rough stone walls.

Everyone in the church is kind, weirdly so.
“What took you so long? You should have come inside sooner,” one lady says.
“Here for Dylan Thomas, are you?” the rector adds, greeting us after the service and shaking our hands warmly.
Outside, we search among the graves and give up trying. It is quiet, the light is dying. We are tired after travelling for half a day. We will come again, we say, later in the week.

. . .

In the bar of Brown’s—the guesthouse/pub where Dylan Thomas spent most of his time drinking—the young bartender struggles to explain it. A sign on the wall advertises Laugharne as “the strangest town in Wales”.
“You’ll understand after a while,” he says, pouring a pint. “People here are really, really nice.” He says we are lucky the town is dead, because hundreds – if not thousands – of tourists will come for the Dylan Thomas centenary later this year. Our bartender is the youngest man we see all week.
A couple from a rival guesthouse a few blocks down on King Street stop in for drinks. They stare at us.
“You’re both so beautiful,” Janet says, eyeing my hamburger. Her husband, Peter, whispers into my ears that he has a hearing problem. She tells us a story about how she met Peter, who is her second husband. After her first marriage she was single for 17 years, she says, proudly. Then, she met Peter through an advertisement in the newspapers. She gives us a card for their inn, and says they have better rates. She never mentions her first husband’s name.
“She could get away with murder,” Peter jokes before they leave. I take a picture of them – just in case. That night in bed, I think of the town’s famous clock tower, standing black and white against the sky, just two blocks away.


Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea one hundred years ago, in 1914. He worked briefly as a reporter before his first published poem (‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’) appeared in 1933. He skyrocketed. His stentorian voice and beautiful language made him particularly popular over the wireless; his most famous work – Under Milk Wood – was, in fact, written for radio.
Thomas spent two major periods of his relatively brief life at Laugharne. He lived there when he first married. Then, after living in several different places (London, Oxfordshire, Iran) he returned, settling with his family in a boathouse overlooking the estuary at the mouth of the River Tâf. Near the end of his life, he developed a routine at Laugharne, right up until his trip to New York in October 1953. (It was there, after a night of heavy drinking, that he died at St Vincent’s Hospital.) He made his third, and final, voyage to Laugharne, where he was buried at St Martin’s graveyard. Thomas was 39.

Dylan Thomas' grave at St.Martin's, Laugharne, Wales_photo by Andre Bagoo

Dylan Thomas’ grave at St.Martin’s, Laugharne, Wales_photo by Andre Bagoo

Today, the grave looks fresh, covered with yellow, red and purple flowers. A simple white cross marks the spot where the poet who was once Wales’ most famous son is buried. “In Memory of Dylan Thomas,” it says. His wife Caitlin, who had a tempestuous relationship with him and who had not been with him in New York, would, years later, have the last word. She was buried in the same plot, and the other side of the slender white cross carries her name. There is no poetry at the grave.


When you travel, nothing is as it seems. Everything has something of the air of the unreal. Each city, town, inhabitant, each landscape – becomes a mirage. But to the persons who live there, you are the one who is out of place. You are the apparition.


It seems every single thing in Laugharne is connected to Dylan Thomas. Or if it is not, it fast becomes so. The entire town is a memorial to him; a living and breathing tomb. It is a monument comprising: pubs, book-shops, a clock-tower, ruins of a gothic castle, and St John’s Hill.
And all of this can be found in Thomas’ poetry.
But how much of a poet’s life and circumstance do we need to know? Do we need the back-story in order to enjoy each poem? Is it not better the less we know? Must we see the writing-shed, learn of the love affairs in New York, visit the favourite drinking haunts, the neighbours, the aunties? Of poetry Thomas once said:

All that matters about poetry is the enjoyment of it, however tragic it may be. All that matters is the eternal movement behind it, the vast undercurrent of human grief, folly, pretension, exaltation or ignorance, however unlofty the intention of the poem.
You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick, and say to yourself, when the works are laid out before you, the vowels, the consonants, the rhymes or rhythms, ‘Yes, this is it. This is why the poem moves me so. It is because of the craftsmanship.’ But you’re back again where you began. You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.
I use everything and anything to make my poems work and move in the directions I want them to: old tricks, new tricks, puns, portmanteau-words, paradox, allusion, paranomasia, paragram, catachresis, slang, assonantal rhymes, vowel rhymes, sprung rhythm. Every device there is in language is there to be used if you will. Poets have got to enjoy themselves sometimes, and in the twistings and convolutions of words, the inventions and contrivances, are all part of the joy that is part of the painful, voluntary work.

With Thomas, there is a focus on what is not in focus: on crafting effects and experiences within the poem which hint at deeper ebbs. In addition to the devices he lists, there is also careful attention to form and an overriding sense of rhythm which propels the poetry, giving it a zealous, almost evangelical energy.
Many of his poems reflect these qualities, including some of his best-known, such as: ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’, ‘Poem in October’, ‘Fern Hill’, and ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’.  A good example is also his poem ‘Twenty-four years’:

Twenty-four years remind the tears of my eyes.
(Bury the dead for fear that they walk to the grave in labour.)
In the groin of the natural doorway I crouched like a tailor
Sewing a shroud for a journey
By the light of the meat-eating sun.
Dressed to die, the sensual strut begun,
With my red veins full of money,
In the final direction of the elementary town
I advance for as long as forever is.

Thomas deploys rhyme, alliteration, paragram, memorable and unexpected imagery (“meat-eating sun”; “red veins full of money”) all to commemorate a moment; a feeling. The opening line startles, inverting the normal cause and effect relationship we associate with the provocation of tears – it bathes the poem in ambiguity. The poem is, for me, an act of grief, and seeks to point to a life force able to overcome it (“bury the dead for fear that they walk”). Ultimately, this is a snapshot as meaningful or as meaningless as life itself, grieved for or celebrated.
But if for Thomas poetry’s enjoyment is conditional upon a kind of cultivated mystery to the text, how useful is it to scour over the biographical details of Thomas’ undoubtedly tumultuous life? While Laugharne was central to his persona, is Laugharne central to the poetry? The whole point of poetry, according to Thomas, was its experience. Would he advocate that school of thought which states the reader need not get distracted or bogged down by the details of the poet’s personal life?


The Dylan Thomas Walk is approximately two miles in length and takes you uphill around the shoulder of St John’s Hill, which overlooks Laugharne. Along the walk, we see views of the marshy Tâf estuary, which fans open like a sponge at low-tide; of Thomas’ boathouse; the Gower; north Devon; Caldey Island and Tenby.  If you’re keen you can download an app specially made for the walk (
This “walk” was opened in 1856 by the Laugharne Corporation to enable cocklers to access by foot the valuable cockle beds on the upper and lower estuary marshes, when the dangerous high tides below would prevent access along the old cart road. Today, the path has been turned into a walk commemorating Thomas’s poem, ‘Poem in October’, which is ostensibly an occasional poem written by Thomas to mark what was his 30th birthday on October 24, 1944.

The Dylan Thomas Walk_Last verse of the poet's "Poem in October"_photo by Andre Bagoo

The Dylan Thomas Walk_Last verse of the poet’s “Poem in October”_photo by Andre Bagoo

Reading ‘Poem in October’ today it remains as vital and alive as it must have been in 1944. Thomas was writing during World War II and perhaps this context alone gives the poem a certain charge. His retreat to the Laugharne landscape allows a perspective and distance. The marsh environment comes to mirror the processes not only of war, but of economy and society generally. But reading the poem on the page is nothing like reading the poem along the specially-designed walk which now exists. At several spots, stations have been made bearing sections of the poem relating to the landscape, as well as old, faded maps and drawings of the view. Only by taking the Dylan Thomas Walk can you fully appreciate what he meant when he wrote:

My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In rainy autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke….

Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

If we admit the landscape is in the poem, is the life not there too? Is the poem – even when stony, mysterious, obscure – not an artifact of a life, however shrouded in mystery? And if the life is there, can learning about the poet enrich our appreciation of what he sets out? For me, ‘Poem in October’ is a richer experience having been to Laugharne. Reading a poem is like reading a poet and, in turn, everything that has touched him. In this way, the reader and poet converge and something universal sparks between them. This is not to say this is compulsory to the enjoyment of a poem, or to advocate the limited readings so often lazily slapped onto poems when people find out about the lives of the poet, but rather to acknowledge that sometimes more information can reveal and deepen mystery simultaneously. Sometimes, the more you know, the less you know. And the more we know of a poet, the more possibilities are inherent in the text the poet leaves behind, even if the poem, like the poet, remains unknowable.
. . . . .

Mildred K. Barya: On “Donal Og” and How We Remember

A blacksmith's forge with an iron in the fire_photograph copyright Sergey Dolya

“Donal Og”

It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.

You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.

You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.

You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.

When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.

It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday.
And myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.

My mother said to me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.

My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith’s forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you that put that darkness over my life.

You have taken the east from me; you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!

How We Remember

The last stanza of this old ballad translated from an anonymous 8th century Irish poem by Lady Augusta Gregory, has been ringing in my head, all the time thinking it was a song I may have heard over the radio, at the mall, or another poem I read some time ago but whose particular source or author I could not recall. Its strong declaration and overwhelming fear of loss kept me looking:

You have taken the east from me; you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!

So I started to reread both familiar and new poems I’d just encountered to see if that’s where the lines were from. I also looked up popular love songs because of the energy and lyricism in the lamenting voice. I even read the Psalms and the book of Job, since I recognized the incantatory tone and hymnal-like repetition. I was amazed at my process in actively trying to remember, and the urge to experiment with various sources. I found myself thinking deeply about the steps we take in remembering things that happened a long time ago but come back to us in fragments or phrases. How do we unravel the whole? Could that be the real reason we take pictures, for instance? To help associate images/symbols with words/stories or events; to have the albums to go to when we need to bring back lives and whole scenes; not just to celebrate the moments when the pictures are being taken, but to have something that aids memory in future, as a point of reference and remembrance?

Anyway, my appeal to memory to rearrange itself and bring me the whole led me to Antonio Machado’s short poem, “Lord, You Have Ripped Away,” which has an almost similar rhythm, plea and echo to Donal Og. So I thought, even if it wasn’t what I was looking for, I liked that I had stumbled on it. And so I’ll share it.

Lord, you have ripped away from me what I loved most.
One more time, O God, hear me cry out inside.
“Your will be done,” it was done, and mine not.
My heart and the sea are together, Lord, and alone.

Antonio Machado, a native of Spain, lived from 1875 to 1939. While Machado’s poem is said to be about the death of his young wife whom he loved very much, Donal Og addresses a lover who goes away and never returns. The voice in the two poems cries out to be heard, to share the anguish of those left behind.

I had given up looking for the lines of Donal Og’s last stanza when I started to file and clean my work station, only to find the poem beneath a pile of papers on my table. I now knew why the lines were haunting me. Months ago I had wanted to write a piece for Zócalo Poets featuring the poem but the piece wouldn’t happen. I read and printed a copy thinking that if I kept looking at it on my table something wonderfully magical would be triggered. Nothing. Eventually, other poems and papers piled on top and that’s how the poem was forgotten. I think that tells you more about my organized mess and belief in random resourcefulness.

I will not go into details about the poem’s timelessness or what it has in common with modern-day songs and ballads, how it handles love, betrayal, broken promises, responsibility or translation, but rather how, when we have forgotten about its existence, it will have its own way of nudging us back to itself, to marvel at its sacred and secular emotional position, neatly brought out in stanza six:

It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday.
And myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.

Lastly, because I listened to a couple of songs while I was searching for Donal Og without knowing that’s what I was looking for, I came across Leonard Cohen’s The Darkness song, first stanza:
I caught the darkness
It was drinking from your cup
I caught the darkness
Drinking from your cup
I said, “Is this contagious?”
You said, “Just drink it up…”

And it made stanza eight of the poem remarkably significant, not just in the similes but the compounding of blackness and darkness:

My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith’s forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you that put that darkness over my life.

I think the experience of acknowledging and letting out the darkness in music, poetry, stories and so on, helps the heart to transform and go on, even in profoundly devastating situations. The cry from the writer, reader, singer, or audience becomes the light that keeps beating. If nothing else, this simple act of the experience of letting out could be the greatest gift of creative works to humankind and animals.
Enjoy the reading and the letting out.

Mildred K. Barya

.     .     .

Juliane Okot Bitek: 100 Days: a poetic response to Wangechi Mutu’s #Kwibuka20#100 Days

Wangechi Mutu_Day 100_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 100_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

The Rwanda Genocide, twenty years later: 100 Days of photographs + poems by Wangechi Mutu and Juliane Okot Bitek

Wangechi Mutu_Day 44_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 44_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

The Rwanda Genocide (April to July, 1994) was one of the 20th century’s many horrific episodes in what has come to be known by the clinical phrase of “ethnic cleansing”. The Genocide was the culminating event in a civil war involving the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa peoples, and 800,000 people were killed in a mere three months. Both perpetrators and victims have had to re-build their traumatized nation, coming face to face with each other’s capability for depravity and also with that miraculous human need to acknowledge what happened – and to forgive.

When I tell you that the photographs of Wangechi Mutu are poems I honour her visual artistry in the highest way I know how: to give it the name of that uniquely human skill – poem-making – that I value above all else. At Day 100 she commenced with a moving image of a clay-caked woman whose eyes were – mercifully – closed. Other human figures followed. Why were they all women? Was it because it is mainly men who do these mass-killings worldwide? Then came photographs of limbs – hands, feet, bodies bagged – and these are piercingly close to “documentary” photography.
But she goes further still with images completely devoid of people or their “parts”. These may be the most powerful of all. Because of the hand-drawn number cards placed somewhere within each photograph, these person-empty pictures seem to indicate that something we cannot look upon has been left out. My mind wanders toward a hacked-up body dumped at a building site or an abandoned lot; by a rusty gate or in the loneliest corner of a concrete yard.
Juliane Okot Bitek happened to see Wangechi’s first Instagram picture, Day 100, from April 6th, 2014 – that being the 20th anniversary of the beginning of those awful events of The Genocide. And she responded as only a poet might do: to commit to an epic poem-making journey for 100 numbered poems. If Wangechi’s pictures are raw or allusive, Juliane’s poems are everything that words are most suited for: questioning/wondering aloud; feeling all feelings, wherever they go / thinking all thoughts, though they be inconclusive. This is the very core of poetry, and there is no other kind of language that can handle such horror and humanly touch all the marks: to speak of the un-speakable. It is Poetry alone that best honours suffering, loss, shame, responsibility.

Wangechi Mutu and Juliane Okot Bitek are both African-born. Each has lived far away from the land of her birth for a long time now – Wangechi in Brooklyn, New York, and Juliane in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Is it possible that the geographical distance each has achieved – from Kenya and Uganda respectively – both countries having felt seismic social effects from the terror of Rwanda’s Civil War – has helped them to turn Pain into Art? For this is, surely, one of the greatest goods of artistic achievement: to do something beautiful with our pain. These two artists – one a collagist and sculptor who is experimenting with photography for the first time, the other a poet who is creating epic poetry in real time – merge empathy, an imaginative rendering of the facts, and the search for meaning to create unique works-in-progress: call them 100 Days.
We invite our readers to scroll down through ZP May 2014 to read and reflect upon Juliane’s poems and to behold Wangechi’s photographs thus far. And to click on the links below and follow their journey through June and into July – until they have reached Day 1.

Alexander Best
Editor, Zócalo Poets
May 31st, 2014

. . .


. . .

Juliane Okot Bitek
100 Days: a poetic response to Wangechi Mutu’s #Kwibuka20#100 Days


Day 44
A hundred days of shallow breathing interspersed with deep sighs
A hundred days zooming into nothing
A hundred days of years and years that morphed into decades
of life as a gift, of life as worth living
A hundred days on a hundred days-ing, we weren’t counting

It wasn’t as if after all those days
a veil would lift and it would have taken just those days, nothing more
It wasn’t as if after all those days
there was a chance that normal would morph back
as if all the seeds that had sprouted in those one hundred days
would un-sprout themselves into nothingness
Day 45
We watched as faith crumbled off the walls in dull clumps
We watched as prayers dissipated into clouds which then returned as drizzle to mock us
Although sometimes it rained
& sometimes it rained hard, as if the earth was sobbing
but it was never so – the earth remained dispassionate to our circumstances

Eventually our superstitions burst like bubbles
or floated away like motes in the light
There was nothing left to hold on to, not even time which stretched and then crunched itself wilfully
Cats and dogs roamed about, feral and hungry,
People crouched in the shadows, not all feral and all the time hungry.
At a half past all time, even decay stopped for a moment

Ours remains Eden, not even a spate of killing can change that.
Day 46
If truth is to be known in order to be acknowledged, then this is the truth that we know:
we know the numbers
we know the number of days
we know the circumstances
where the machetes came from and who wielded them
where the dotted line was signed
we know who fled
who advanced while chanting our names out loud
the names they called us
and the papers and airwaves on which these names can still be found

we know who claim to be the winners & the victims
we know where the markers are for where we buried the children
we know the cyclical nature of these things

the impossibility of knowing everything that happened
we know that the true witnesses cannot speak
and that those who have words cannot articulate the inarticulable

we know that there are those who died without telling what they knew
we know that there are those who live without telling what they know

we know that some people choose to tell and some stories choose to remain untold
Day 47
I remember how my sister used to look up when she remembered
Sometimes she would have a small laugh before she started to recall a story
Often she’d be laughing so hard at the reveries that we all started to laugh
Soon enough we were all laughing so hard because she was laughing
And then she laughed because we laughed
And the memory of that story dissolved into the laughter and became infused with it

My sister is not here anymore
I wonder if she remembers laughing
I wonder if she remembers anything

Wangechi Mutu_Day 48_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 48_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 49_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 49_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 50_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 50_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 48
So what is it to be alive today?

I no longer think about the hard beneath my feet
or the give of my body into sleep
or the way my skin used to dissolve so deliciously from touch

Is this what it is to become a haunt?
Day 49
There we were, lining up like frauds
There we were, receiving medals and commendations
like frauds
There we were, listening to speeches and reading the adorations
about us as heroes – like frauds
There we were
holding in ourselves, like frauds

All we did was stay alive
While many, many others died.
Day 50
This is the nature of our haunting:
silent witnesses & silence itself
neither revealing nor capable
of explication
of what any of that meant

What do we need nature for?
All it does is replicate its own beauty.
. . .

The Rwanda Genocide, twenty years later: 100 Days of photographs + poems by Wangechi Mutu and Juliane Okot Bitek

Juliane Okot Bitek
100 Days: a poetic response to Wangechi Mutu’s #Kwibuka20#100 Days

. . .

Wangechi Mutu_Day 51_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 51_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 51
I waited for my heart to harden after the kids were gone
I waited for the years of love to dissolve as if they never happened
I waited for the day when the remembrances of silly family laughter
would disappear with the setting sun
& I would wake up innocent,
as if I had never known anything good

It was starting to happen in small ways
I couldn’t recall the last good day

And then all the flowers poured in
In wreaths and ribbons and bouquets
Thousands and thousands and thousands of flowers
Each dead at the stalk
All dead from the moment they were cut
Every single one dead in their glorious & beautiful selves

Just like the people we lost
In those one hundred days.
Day 52
So what if we were all Christian,
Would the media brand it
Christian on Christian violence?
How do the dead declare the part of their identity they were killed for?
Day 53
There were echoes if one listened for them
This wasn’t the first time

There were echoes in Acholi
There were echoes in Armenia
There were echoes in the Americas
In Bangladesh
In Bosnia
The Congo
There were echoes in Darfur
There were echoes in England
There were echoes in Finland
In Georgia
In Germany
In Hawai’i
In Herero
In India
In Ireland
There were echoes in Orange County
There were echoes in Ovambo
In Poland
In Palestine
In Queensland
In Russia
South Africa
Southern Sudan
There were echoes in Xenophobic attacks everywhere
Yugoslavia, Zimbabwe.

Where on this planet has not been touched?
The earth palpitates with violence
as if it needs violence
as if violence is a heartbeat – if not here now it’s over there
if it’s not over there now, it’s on its way here

Ours wasn’t the first or the only one;
It was our most painful.
Day 54
It is absurd to think that a little girl will forget
how her mother’s hands felt when she used to plait her hair
some tugging, some lining the scalp with an oiled wooden comb
for clean patterns

some cool oil, some warmth when her hands gently repositioned her head like so
sometimes a last pat on the back of her head, sometimes her neck.
Okay, it’s done, you can go out and play now

Absurd that any little girl would forget that – and has.

Wangechi Mutu_Day 55_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 55_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 55
Our lives became both
endless and immediate

There were no guards at the door
There was no door
& the only tax required was a last breath out

One moment you were alive
& the next gone
One minute you were alive
& moments after that you wouldn’t die
your chest gargled endlessly
we were afraid of being heard & then we weren’t
One minute we cared & the next nothing mattered
Day 56
Before the maiden voyage
we heard that every water-faring vessel
needed sacrifice

The sacrifice had to be young
The sacrifice had to be blemish free
The sacrifice had to have no dimples, no piercing in the ear
The sacrifice could be male or female

Stay close to home, we were beseeched
Stay close to home lest the sacrifice gatherers came by
We stayed close to home, in those first days
We stayed close to home but the sacrifice gatherer didn’t seem to care for details
They came to harvest all kinds of bodies for a ship whose size has never been measured
Day 57
We were halfway to dead when we were reminded
that we were halfway to dead
Hovering, suspecting, tripping
or tiptoeing over the terrain
lest any semblance of confidence betrayed us again.

Ghosts flitted about
attentive to our progress
Chrissie knew

Chrissie could see that having never left ourselves
we were never going to arrive
Day 58
Karmic proportions may indicate
that we wanted, expected, earned what we got,
that we wanted it
that we had to go through it
that we had to overcome the trials of life

And you who hasn’t gotten it yet
were and/or are lucky

think again
think again
as long as we’re caught inside the neveragainness of things
we will remain blind to the hundreddaysness of others

Wangechi Mutu_Day 59_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 59_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 59
You want me to talk about what happened
because you say you want to understand
because when you engage with people like me, you say you can make a difference
because you say we all need to make a difference
because all of it, as you say, begins with me telling you what happened

Change the blue dice
Choose the cast
Lock up the hypnotic evil-thought-bearing others

When you engage, you say, you can relieve me of my nightmares
you say you can help me to heal, to look forward without anxiety

When you engage, you say, you will do so with understanding
because you think that at the level of articulation that I have
you say you will have understood
because you will have gotten it, you say,
because you feel me, you say,
because you’re incensed, you say, & will continue to be.

Dear God (or whatever is left)
save us from all the saviours of the world
Day 60
I’m coming to understand what seems to be so apparent in nature:
time passes
things change
some live, some die
none escapes this life without an end

I’m coming to understand that there isn’t much more else to it:
time passes
things change
some live, some die
none of us escapes a final end.
Day 61
Incredulity is a soft-paced wonder
& in the thick of days
Memory is a slippery thing

What do we remember from those one hundred days?
What happened on the tenth day or night
Might have well happened today, or yesterday
Incredulous is word from an innocent space
It is tepid, blubbery sometimes
because everything can happen and everything did.

Wangechi Mutu_Day 61_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 61_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

. . .
. . . . .

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

.     .     .     .     .


The Rwanda Genocide, twenty years later: 100 Days of photographs + poems by Wangechi Mutu and Juliane Okot Bitek


Juliane Okot Bitek

100 Days: a poetic response to Wangechi Mutu’s #Kwibuka20#100 Days

. . .

Wangechi Mutu_Day 62_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 62_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 62
Unless you believe in the eye of the needle
This kind of poverty will never be about material
It won’t be about ragged clothing
or mud huts with broken walls
or river blindess
or murram roads
or bad humoured fields that hoard curses
There won’t be a harvest this year or next

This isn’t the poverty of sleep
or for that matter, dreams

This is my deep loss, my poverty:
He will never touch my hand again
He will never touch my hand

Day 63
Walter says life is hard
He says that there is nothing we can do about it
Walter says I have to be happy to be alive

Walter says to be alive is better than being dead
Be happy, Walter says
Be happy to be alive

If being dead is not all that it’s cracked up to be
Then what was that all that rush about?
For my happiness?

Wangechi Mutu_Day 64_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 64_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 64
There have been three so far
Three men who walk with your gait
Who turn, head first, the way you used to
Walk like you did, sauntering like a cat

Laugh with your laugh
Flick the wrist the way you used to
just before you pointed your finger to make a point

All three men wore you face for a moment
Lighted mine up

You mean to say?

And then you were gone again
and the men were just ordinary men
doing ordinary things

Three imposters
Three who acquiesced to your tricks of reminding me
that you used to be by me

Day 65
Often times I want to become words
I want to inhabit forgetting as a state of being

Other times I think that if we wore a cloak of silence
Then our invisibility would not be seen as repair
or a sign that everything was good

The problem of becoming silence is that silence doesn’t exist

It wasn’t ever completely silent
Nothing stopped to pay attention
Nature chattered on, busy with life cycling
And subsumed us into the process

Day 66
Sometimes I want to melt into the earth
I want to imagine that some time in the future
Children will run over the soil that I’ve become
Day 67
Some days
I want to stare at the sky
Perhaps I can learn something, anything
Some days I think about how important the sky has become
I think about it so much and in so doing, I make it exist
I make the sky an endless and expansive backdrop of blue

If there was a sky, how could it witness what it did
& maintain that calm hue?
Day 68
There’s no denying that these haunted days
Are not necessarily days of grey
There are flowers everywhere
Beauty is always undeniable
These hundred days are haunted days not grey ones
These hundred days are filled with ghosted moments
just like every day

Day 69
The world turns as it does
Spinning on its own axis and then around the sun.
Perhaps this galaxy is also spinning around something bigger
Perhaps all the worlds spin in order to avoid dealing with the numbers:

All of them
Six from my in-laws
and all of my siblings, parents and their children
Twenty seven
All of them
My husband and all my children – seven in all
I don’t know
I can’t count anymore
Nobody came back
I don’t know if they ran away to safety or
If they’re just all gone


Day 70
Too close for comfort when everyone around looks like you.
Too close when they speak your language
Too close when you’re from the same house
Same meal at the table
Same sofa
Same containment of the heart

We became other people
We were them, those ones
And in being slaughtered and reported as slaughtered
We lost any claim to intimacy or self
Even animals don’t commit slaughter

Wangechi Mutu_Day 70_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 70_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 71_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 71_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 71
Who says alas in the presence of betrayal?
Who dizzies away, swirling skirts & claims of nausea
Alas, alas all the hand wringing!

It shouldn’t have been this way?
It shouldn’t?

It shouldn’t have been
forms the dregs from the past

It shouldn’t have been this way
Would it have been better that this was lobbed at your head?
Would it have been better if yours was the stuff of our nightmares?

Day 72
The difference between the top screw
and the bottom screw is this: direction

We are squeezed in by the past and the present
Everything is relative, they say
God and religion and offer escape from the screw
in the name of forgiveness, reconciliation & clean heartedness

Be like Jesus, forgive
Be like Jesus, remember to pray and to pay taxes
Be like Jesus, wear robes,
Have your first cousin shout in the streets about the second coming of yourself
Be like Jesus, hang out with prostitutes – love the sinner and all that
Above all be like Jesus and demand an answer in the moment of your cross
Why, God, have you forsaken us?

Wangechi Mutu_Day 72_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 72_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 73_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 73_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 73
There are witness stones along all roads
Between Jinja and Kampala
The road to Damascus
The roads leading to Kigali or Rome
Even the road less travelled
The old majesty of Kenyatta Avenue
Khao San, Via Dolorosa
And the Sea to Sky highway
where every few steps they say
is marked by the blood
of a foreign and indentured worker

Did you ever know stones in the road to scream?
They did in those days, you know
They still do sometimes


Day 74
In thirty- nine days there will be no more hindsight for sure
Today already there’s hardly any
No foresight
No insight
No encryption

In thirty-nine days, like today
There will be the same dullness about
The same powdery taste to everything
The same floaty feeling — the eerie pull to something beyond now

Ants keep busy
They have figured out that life is for living
And death is for dying

There is no space for those of us
Who are not dead and have yet to be resurrected


Day 75
There is evidence that this was a conspiracy of silence:
the insistence of green grass
the luminosity of a full moon
the leathered skin of the dead
the smile of skulls
the roar of the rushing river
endless, endless hills
If there was a shocked response
If this was an unnatural state of being
If this was a never, ever kind of situation
Why didn’t the world turn upside down?


. . .


Days 76 – 100: