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

Wangechi Mutu_Day 100_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary_April 6th, 2014

Wangechi Mutu_Day 100_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary_April 6th, 2014

On April 6th, 2014, Wangechi Mutu posted a picture on social media via Facebook and Instagram. It was the photograph of a woman whose somber pose was that of an exhausted spirit. She titled the picture #100Days #Kwibuka20 – and immediately, I knew what I had to do. The photograph provided me an “in” to the conversation that I’ve wanted to be a part of for more than twenty years. I wanted to think about what it means to be a witness, however obliquely, and how to create solidarity with people who have some idea about the experiences of people I know and love. I decided to write and post “100 Days,” a poem for every day from April 6th forward, inspired by Wangechi Mutu’s work.

Twenty one years ago, I stood in front of the television with both hands on my pregnant belly and wondered what kind of world my child was going to be born into. The burning of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, was live on TV. I saw the images and listened to the commentaries that attempted to justify why the actions taken by the State were valid. It was a trick of time and distance. I understood in that moment that there wasn’t a loud enough scream from me that could stop the horror I was watching on the screen. My feet would not carry me fast enough to Waco from my living room in Vancouver. And even if I was there in Waco, I didn’t have the authority to stop the order, or the strength to stop the firing on the compound that seemed unending in that moment. It was a moment of utter anxiety. I was reminded about how the pain and suffering of others can unite us by our connections to our own pain.

My own homeland, Acholiland, had been burning, so to speak, in a horrific war that pitted the government of Uganda against the Lord’s Resistance Army. As in other landscapes of war, it was the People of the land that suffered the brunt of it as thousands were maimed, killed, and displaced over time. That engagement had been going on since 1987 when the LRA rose as the only guerrillas that the Ugandan army hadn’t been able to quell. By April 1993, I was well aware of a powerlessness that tinges every accomplishment because of that knowledge that people you know are hurting and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

By April 6th, 1994, my son was a toddler. I was a young mother, used to carrying apprehension and holding on to hope. I wasn’t writing much in those days, caught up in motherhood as I was, but I knew that the downing of the plane that carried the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was the beginning of something awful. It might have been suggested from bits and pieces of news that trickled through to us in Canada. Time would bear it out that we were right. In those same one hundred days, South Africa had just conducted successful elections and Nelson Mandela became the first president of a free South Africa. The Bosnian War had been going on for exactly two years and wasn’t going to cease until the end of 1995. Kurt Cobain’s suicide on April 8th excavated a huge loss in the Grunge community and radio listeners who loved his music everywhere.

Not everyone was dying on the news. O.J. Simpson held the TV airwaves in a live chase in his white Bronco with the LAPD in pursuit – it was important that he was caught before he killed himself, the commentators told us. All this information was coming at me from the tube and there was nothing coming out of me. It was as if the knowledge congealed inside me and stayed put. Time went on as it does. The child grew, another came, and I got older but I never engaged with that knowledge.
Eventually, the news would become headlines and some media would write about or show horrific images of the death and destruction in Rwanda. Almost a million people would die in Rwanda in those one hundred days. Afterwards, the horror would spill into the Democratic Republic of Congo and over five million would die. The war in Darfur would be called genocide but the one in northern Uganda wouldn’t. Technicalities mattered as definitions do, but our pain wasn’t any less. Twenty years later and several declarations have come and gone, “Never Again” being the most common one. The Globe and Mail recently referred to April as “Never Again” Time, challenging the idea that it is enough merely to make the claim – yet the killings in CAR and South Sudan continue unabated.


“Never Again” Time:


I wrote to Wangechi and suggested that I compose a poetic response to her photos, and she agreed. I have been posting a poem a day, thinking about what it means to engage with such knowledge today, twenty years after. What do commemorations and declarations do for people who are still deeply haunted and scarred by those events that we think of as History? What is it to be in a world that witnessed yet did nothing about your suffering? How do we hold just enough bitterness to keep us focused on what needs our attention? Above all, what does it mean for us to witness the suffering of others? It is so easy to stay hypnotized by the swirl of information that comes at us from the internet, in print and, of course, on television. How much out there does not reflect the reality of our day to day hauntedness?

If these should be a hundred days of thinking about what a genocide means in our time, I hope that we can make time to think about the impact of the intimate losses of so many of us, everyday that we forget. I’m humbled and happy to be invited to post these poems at Zócalo Poets. These poems are not meant to be a monument or even a voice for anyone who lost and was lost in the Rwanda Genocide. Rather, I hope to seek solidarity with those who continue to mourn the promise of the past and find strength to get through another day.


Juliane Okot Bitek

April 30th, 2014

. . .

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


Day 76
Another angle would have you believing that this is how it went down
This and specifically this.
And they will be right.
This is how it went down:

There were days upon days
Days upon days
Days upon days
Days upon days
Days that never seemed to end
Who’s to say when the first of a hundred days began?


Day 77
We tried to sing but ended up croaking
We who used to be songbirds
In time, our throats had gotten dry
This is what happens when you start counting
Days in hundreds from a date that never was

Wangechi Mutu_Day 77_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 77_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 78_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 78_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 78
Insouciance must be blue
How else could we explain a sky that witnesses
And still insists on magical hues of its self?
Insouciance has to be blue
From royalty to madness
From the marked maleness of babies
To those that stayed death
From indigo at midnight
To the peasant hue of the mother of God
Another young woman to whom a hole in the pale sky announced
That she would bear a child
That she would bear
A boy dressed in madness
How else can we explain the resonances, echoes and exceptions?
The mother of God in us mothers of sons who had to be killed
& God in the mothers whose sons had to be killed

Day 79
A piece of cloth in a breeze
A clump of mud
A memory of desire
A broken yellow pencil with black stripes
Staedler Noris HB2 Made in Germany
A small stone
A clump of grass
A day
A pinched nerve
A delicate smell
A hill
A faded sign above the shop
Reads oca Cola It’s the Real
A child runs across the way
A list of jumbled images

None of which takes me away long enough to forget
Day 80
There is something inconsequential about all of this
One foot in front of another
One foot in front of another
To what end?

A nothing in front of a nothing
Round a round
Round a round

Never again and reconciliation
Like wayward birds about my head
Round a round a round a round a round

Blindfold me or not
Here’s another spot on the map
Where people are walking
One foot over another
One foot over another hundred days


Wangechi Mutu_Day 81_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 81_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 81
Nine times
Nine times they called out
Nine times, just nine
We know this because each call caused a finger to fall
We know this because there was one finger left
The ringed one
Only the ringed one

Day 82
This is to confirm that there is something to be said
For tying the waist really tight
Tight, tight, tight, tight
Tighter than when spoiling for a fight
Tighter that when getting ready to receive a heavy burden
Tight enough for days that rolled upon days

It was the tightness in our waists that kept us going
Day 83
We failed to read the clouds
As we had been taught to do in high school
Cumulonimbus chasing cotton balls
Cumulonimbus alone
Cumulonimbus with or without rain

What did it all mean?
What did it mean that we failed to read the sky?
It wasn’t in the cowrie shell readings
It wasn’t in the tea
Perhaps Cumulonimbus was a script in the sky
A writing that was not familiar
Not then and definitely not now
Day 84
Impressionistic moments follow each other
Like Monet come to life
It’s after two in the afternoon
Now it’s evening
Now suddenly night

Food, blanket
No food, no blanket
It’s all the same

There were no hundred days
Just a jumble of impressions
Moments that sometimes piled up
On top of each other
Sometimes moments lay side by side
Holding hands
Sleeping hungry
Or without blankets
Day 85
And God said: Let there be light
And there was light from the beginning of the world
There was light on this day like all the other days
Every day there was light enough to see everything
We didn’t always need to see
We didn’t need to see everything everyday

Wangechi Mutu_Day 86_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 86_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 86
My country belongs to God.
These are our scriptures:

Happy shall he be
that taketh and dasheth
thy little children unto the rock
Psalms 137:9

Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord
Romans 12:19

I will be there
where there are two or more gathered in my name
Christ proclaims in Matthew 18:20

Jesus must have a permanent presence in the church
Where the door has been propped ajar for eternity
Jesus Christ must live here
Where congregants were struck in supplication
Pleading for their lives, pleading, pleading for their lives

Where shall we find comfort?
Where can we go in this country of God?
Day 87
Reconciliation is minding my business
Reconciliation is minding my life
Reconciliation is aimed at my head
Reconciliation leaves me no choice

Don’t get me wrong

Reconciliation is a grand thing
Reconciliation photographs very well
Reconciliation makes people smile
Reconciliation feels good, dresses well
Writes well, conjures good dreams

Reconciliation wants me to wipe my tears dry
To wipe the slate clean — well at least wipe it
It wants me to forget my first born daughter
The one I could not bury
The one whose body I walked away from

Day 88
After all this, today
Another vigorous attempt to divvy up moments equally
Stillness, nothingness
A vacuous attempt to move, to sound, to connect to anyone, anyhow
Time flashes
Time drags
In another couple of months we will begin to grasp
The unending nature of these one hundred days
As nothing except what it was –
A nothingness that compounded nothing into being
Day 89
What do crickets know about innocence?
Were they not there?
Did they not see more than we did
Staying closer to the ground than we ever were?

Innocence in that ghastly cry –Why?  Why do we do this to ourselves?
Innocence in that other proclamation – Never, never, never again

Innocence is power without experience
Innocence is a knowing untempered
Crickets know that there is no innocence on hallowed ground
Day 90
How these hundred days
Should be days to think
About reconciliation and forgiveness
To consider the irrationality of ethnic cleansing
To see the phoenix rise again
& grief overcome
To witness humanity & good
& the power of God
To make miracles

That ultimately
Commemoration is a crafted affair
A beautiful thing
A symbol of power and resonance
The everlasting flame

We don’t have to remember
The empty space in our arms
That our lost children will never fill

This is not our liberty
We’re not free to forget


Wangechi Mutu_Day 91_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 91_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 91
We couldn’t have known, nine days in,
That it would ever be over
It was a time warp that had us
In flashes and then in woozy moments
That took forever

A machete hangs in a museum in Ottawa
A machete hangs perpetually in a museum in Ottawa
A machete hangs like a mockery of time
Like a semblance of that reality
In which another machete
Other machetes hang for what seemed a long time
But eventually they came down
Again and again and again and again and again
Even time marked by machete strokes
Can never be accurate
Day 92
We wish for absolution, for a clearing,
for a forgetting, a filling of the heart
& a joyousness once more

We wish for children of innocence
we wish for an instantiation of things
a rationality that resonates with our emotions

We wish for the silence of the moon
the quieting of ghosts
& a peace to rest in
Day 93
Suffice to say that there was nothing sufficient for some
Elections, and the winners won
A car chase
War ended
Another war continued
Jackal emerged
Earth rattled
Now headlines
Now pictures
Now memories
Now colour
Now movement
Now silence
Now drama
Nothing reflects the efficiency with which those days went by
We were betrayed by a month and a half that now we call commemoration
Day 94
We walked when our legs could carry us
hinky pinky ponky
hinky pinky ponky
Childhood rhythms carried us along
hinky pinky ponky
hinky pinky ponky
Songs from days of innocence
Like holding hands, like soft embraces
hinky pinky ponky
hinky pinky ponky
Father had a donkey
We needed a rhythm to walk
To move, to drag ourselves along

Who could count past four?
Acel ariyo adek angwen
Who could count past four?
hinky pinky ponky
hinky pinky ponky
Father had a donkey
Donkey die
Father cry
hinky pinky ponky
It seemed as though there was a time before tears
It seemed a dream to think that there was a time when fathers could cry

Wangechi Mutu_Day 95_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 95_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 95
Time, they taught us
Was linear and exact
Time was a series of beats, a line extending from the beginning of things
Forget the idea that illumination is an indication of knowing
Forget that
We were trapped in a hundred days, a hundred days
Of light, each following the other, each following the other
Time bore witness to our erratic heartbeats but we
remain trapped in a hundred days that have morphed into years and years
How can we exist outside of betrayal by time and land?
Day 96
What is the essence of beauty?
Why do mists swirl and rise but never completely disappear?
Why should iron gleam through soil?
Why should our dances be graceful, our cloths bright
Our memories long, our language rich and layered?
Why should beauty render us speechless?
What is it to come from a land that swallows its own people?

Wangechi Mutu_Day 97_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 97_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 97
The poet told us of her brother
The poet told us of her drunken brother, speaking of his dreams
He was an alcoholic, he was always drunk
The poet told us about her drunken brother who spoke of his mad, mad dream
She told us how he spoke like a mad man, about this dream
Like a prophet, insisting on an unknown truth
Like the drunken man that he was, imposing faith that no one wanted to hear
Like Jesus
Like all the holy prophets, even the ones we forgot
The poet told us about her brother who spoke of a dream
In which everybody would die
They would kill everybody
Except me, she said
Except me
Day 98
If this should be a list of betrayals where should we begin?
At last, we’re here
At last, we’re gone
What is this life beyond one hundred days?
What is this life beyond one hundred days, twenty times over?
What days are left?
We were already in medias res
We were always inside one hundred days
Day 99
It was sunrise every morning
It was the same land
The same sky
The same rivers, hills, valleys
It was the same road that led away and back home
Same sweet air that amplified the voices through whispers, gossip, airwaves
Words leapt into our eyes and burned this new knowledge that was never new
But it was the earth that betrayed us first
In those one hundred days that would never end
Day 100
It was the earth that betrayed us first.
It was the earth that held on to its beauty, compelling us to return.
It was the breezes that were there, and then they were not there.
It was the sun that rose and fell, rose and fell, as if there was nothing different: as if nothing changed.

.     .     .

Wangechi Mutu was born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1972.  A collage artist and sculptor, she lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Juliane Okot Bitek is a poet and a scholar who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Her ancestral homeland is Acholiland in northern Uganda.

To read a previous Guest Editor feature by Juliane click the following link:

.     .     .     .     .

Poems for Earth Day + A Meditation on Extinction by Duane Taylor

Passenger Pigeons by James John Audubon (1785-1851)

Passenger Pigeons by James John Audubon (1785-1851)


Duane Taylor, a Health Sciences student in Toronto, is our Zócalo Poets Guest Editor for Earth Day 2014.  He sent us the following “contemplation” (with poems):

.     .     .
In the poem, ‘In Memoriam, AHH’, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) memorializes his dear friend, Arthur Hallam. Tennyson questions what the loss of a single life or a whole species means to God and Nature. Like many of his contemporaries, Tennyson spoke of a conflict between his faith and the then-novel idea of Evolution – though it had not yet been named as that.
Tennyson’s conflict was somewhat different than the one we’d likely find today—there was no question of God’s place in the universe. The being whose place was being called into question was Man’s.


Alfred Tennyson
In Memoriam A. H. H. (1849)
[ excerpt ]
The wish, that of the living whole
No life may fail beyond the grave,
Derives it not from what we have
The likest God within the soul?

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.’ And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law?
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed?

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match’d with him.
O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.

.     .     .

In Christian theology, mankind is the pinnacle of Creation, the one who has been given dominion over all living things and the Earth, the one to whom, after God, all must bow.
But the theory of Evolution tells us, as it told Tennyson, that mankind is just one of countless species, or ‘types’, that has existed and will die and be replaced. Man’s time at the pinnacle is fleeting; after he is gone the earth will endure and more types will follow.
We see this truth set literally in stone; fossils speak of animals that no longer live. Moreover, they tell us of species so entirely absent that all of the species related to them, all of the species they saw, lived with and ate, are gone too. Entire worlds replaced at the rate of a few types at a time.
So little does Nature care for the type that it is estimated that 99.9% of all of the species that have ever existed are extinct.
One of these species was the Passenger Pigeon.

Prior to the 20th century, the Passenger Pigeon was a familiar sight, much like the Rock Dove (the ‘pigeons’ which are found in cities worldwide) is today. On their own, they were somewhat unremarkable birds. However, with a single exception, Passenger Pigeons were never on their own.
They existed in numbers that are impossible to conceive for us now. Billions of birds blackened the skies as they migrated across the North American continent.
They were so numerous that giant trees, overloaded with roosting birds, splintered and broke under the weight. A flock once took three days to pass overhead. In one grouping, the naturalist Alexander Wilson estimated there were 2,230,272,000 individuals – approximately eight times the total population of Rock Pigeons in the world.
And yet, as with all living things, they went.

Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan_Where is that Vanished Bird? (The Passenger Pigeon)_photomontage, 2007

Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan_Where is that Vanished Bird? (The Passenger Pigeon)_photomontage, 2007

.     .     .

Jenny McBride (Chicago, USA)
Nature is Dying

“Nature is dying,” said the doctor.
I already knew
About the huge flocks of birds
There used to be,
He said prothonotaries filling a tree
In the city where he grew up.
One of his friends
Told of Dakota blackbird flocks
Miles long, took hours to pass
“A long time ago.” said the doctor
But he’s less than 80.
But I hadn’t even heard about monarchs
Thick, even coming smack through the city
Sheets of orange butterflies.
“Nature is dying,” said the doctor.
“We’re trying to save her but…
“I’m not sure how good a job we’re doing.”
Even I’ve seen eternal lights go out
And I’m not half his age.
Those who are half my age, teens now
May mark the last phase of the change.
“Nature is dying,” said the doctor.
Nothing I didn’t know
Except that monarchs used to migrate
Right through Chicago
As if it weren’t even there.
We’re trying to save her
But it’s a struggle of attrition.

.     .     .

In much the same way it would be inconceivable to us that the ubiquitous rock doves could ever disappear, it was inconceivable to the people of the time that their Passenger Pigeons could ever disappear.

But through hunting and habitat destruction, over the course of fifty years, the flocks of billions were winnowed down to a single life.

This single life, like Tennyson’s friend toward whom Nature was so careless, had a name: Martha. She was a 29-year old female, who spent her final years in the Cincinnati Zoo. She was an ‘endling’, the term given to the last known member of a species.  Martha died on September 1st, 1914. It’s sometimes said that the Passenger Pigeon is the only species whose exact time and place of extinction is known.
While the idea is poetic, it isn’t necessarily true.
For many species, prior to the final extinction, there is what’s known as a functional extinction. This is when a species has declined past any hope of recovery. This can happen when there are too few members of a species left, as it did with the Passenger Pigeon.  Martha may have been the last single life of her type in September of 1914 , but her type had met its true end some unknown years hence, when the last fifty, forty or ten birds were shot in some unknown forest, field or plain. No one but God or Nature will ever know.
Still, the simplicity of a species ending at a precise time and date, like the period at the end of a sentence rather than an ellipsis, is a beautiful idea.
We can’t know when our own functional extinction will come, but, as with “In Memoriam, A.H.H”, we find answers in verse.

Woolly Mammoth and Cro-Magnon Boy, a 21st-century "cave drawing"

Woolly Mammoth and Cro-Magnon Boy, a 21st-century “cave drawing”

.     .     .
Archibald Lampman (1861-1899) was one of the late 19th-century Canadian poets who would come to be known as The Confederation Poets.
He wrote “The City at the End of Things” as an elegy for a natural world that had been destroyed by urbanization. Mankind’s ‘endling’ makes an appearance, and the poem suggests that in destroying Nature we destroy ourselves.


Archibald Lampman
The City at the End of Things (1899)
Beside the pounding cataracts
Of midnight streams unknown to us
‘Tis builded in the leafless tracts
And valleys huge of Tartarus.
Lurid and lofty and vast it seems;
It hath no rounded name that rings,
But I have heard it called in dreams
The City of the End of Things.
Its roofs and iron towers have grown
None knoweth how high within the night,
But in its murky streets far down
A flaming terrible and bright
Shakes all the stalking shadows there,
Across the walls, across the floors,
And shifts upon the upper air
From out a thousand furnace doors;
And all the while an awful sound
Keeps roaring on continually,
And crashes in the ceaseless round
Of a gigantic harmony.
Through its grim depths re-echoing
And all its weary height of walls,
With measured roar and iron ring,
The inhuman music lifts and falls.
Where no thing rests and no man is,
And only fire and night hold sway;
The beat, the thunder and the hiss
Cease not, and change not, night nor day.
And moving at unheard commands,
The abysses and vast fires between,
Flit figures that with clanking hands
Obey a hideous routine;
They are not flesh, they are not bone,
They see not with the human eye,
And from their iron lips is blown
A dreadful and monotonous cry;
And whoso of our mortal race
Should find that city unaware,
Lean Death would smite him face to face,
And blanch him with its venomed air:
Or caught by the terrific spell,
Each thread of memory snapt and cut,
His soul would shrivel and its shell
Go rattling like an empty nut.

It was not always so, but once,
In days that no man thinks upon,
Fair voices echoed from its stones,
The light above it leaped and shone:
Once there were multitudes of men,
That built that city in their pride,
Until its might was made, and then
They withered age by age and died.
But now of that prodigious race,
Three only in an iron tower,
Set like carved idols face to face,
Remain the masters of its power;
And at the city gate a fourth,
Gigantic and with dreadful eyes,
Sits looking toward the lightless north,
Beyond the reach of memories;
Fast rooted to the lurid floor,
A bulk that never moves a jot,
In his pale body dwells no more,
Or mind or soul – an idiot!
But sometime in the end those three
Shall perish and their hands be still,
And with the master’s touch shall flee
Their incommunicable skill.
A stillness absolute as death
Along the slacking wheels shall lie,
And, flagging at a single breath,
The fires shall moulder out and die.
The roar shall vanish at its height,
And over that tremendous town
The silence of eternal night
Shall gather close and settle down.
All its grim grandeur, tower and hall,
Shall be abandoned utterly,
And into rust and dust shall fall
From century to century;
Nor ever living thing shall grow,
Nor trunk of tree, nor blade of grass;
No drop shall fall, no wind shall blow,
Nor sound of any foot shall pass:
Alone of its accursèd state,
One thing the hand of Time shall spare,
For the grim Idiot at the gate
Is deathless and eternal there.

August Rodin_Le Penseur or The Thinker (seen here in the rain)_a 1904 bronze-cast sculpture at the Musée Rodin,  Paris_photograph by Innoxiuss

August Rodin_Le Penseur or The Thinker (seen here in the rain)_a 1904 bronze-cast sculpture at the Musée Rodin, Paris_photograph by Innoxiuss

And once that last grinning ‘endling’ is gone and mankind, like the Passenger Pigeon, is a memory of Nature, what remains?

T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”, and its final stanza, present us with one of our possible futures.

T.S. Eliot
The Hollow Men (1925)

Mistah Kurtz—he dead.

A penny for the Old Guy

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer—

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom

This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

.     .     .     .     .

“En Los Bosques, Cielos Salvajes”: poema de Andre Bagoo – traducido por Luis Vasquez La Roche

Douen Islands:  a poetry e-book featuring Andre Bagoo with Kriston Chen, Brianna McCarthy, Sharda Patasar and Rodell Warner

Andre Bagoo (poeta y periodista, Trinidad y Tobago)

En Los Bosques, Cielos Salvajes”


Douen, mírame a la cara. Dentro de ti

Eres una cara. Tan silencioso. Caen sobre mi

La sombra de la tumba en los pliegues de la madera que se encrespa,

Una tumba con suave aroma, astillados por el sol.

Florecemos atonalmente: años después de conocernos

Atraídos aquí a la ternura del algodón.

El castillo de Moloch llena con nosotros.

Ahora, dedos no tratan de huir

Pero acaricia las vainas que contienen nuestras almas

Y crecen como las ramas sexuadas por el sol.

Que ya no se molestan en advertir al mundo

Que la hendidura de un corazón es tan grande como la de un árbol

Que el corazón de un corazón es tan grande como el tiempo.

Douen, una cara dentro de mi.

.     .     .

Traducción del inglés al español:  Luis Vasquez La Roche

Nacido en Caracas, Venezuela, en 1983, ahora Sr. Vasquez La Roche – un artista multimedia – es trinitense, y vive en la ciudad de Couva, Trinidad y Tobago. 

Aquí: un video del poema

.     .     .     .     .

Mildred K. Barya: Helene Johnson’s “Bottled”

ZP_Harlem, 1970sZP_Harlem, 1970s


Mildred K. Barya



The first Nigerian movie I ever watched, in early 2000—whose title I’ve long forgotten—featured a woman casting a spell on a man, bottling him, so to speak, so that he was at the woman’s mercy, doing whatever she wanted. I remember thinking, ok, she’s got her man under control, but is she happy to see another life helplessly and hopelessly at her beck and call? Wouldn’t she be better off with someone who can use his mind, body and spirit without the influence of mojos? There was this undersized image of the man speaking from a bottle, a constant reminder of perspective to the audience. Towards the end of the movie the man was released—after a series of other rituals and prayers to break the spell. Ki Nigeria movies infused with witchcraft, superstition, religious fundamentalism, jealousy and the desire to be loved have been part of popular culture across Africa, and have made Nollywood a booming industry. It’s a common thing to say in Uganda, for example, that ‘someone is bottled’ or ‘she put him in a bottle’ if the “he or she” is constantly responding to another’s demands in the name of what’s ridiculously painted as “love”. Harriet Kisakye, a Ugandan musician, dramatizes this bottling practice with a popular Luganda song about ‘putting the man in a bottle,’ Omusajja omutekka mucupa Ki Nigeria style, if one is to have a peaceful, happy home and minimize infidelity. I’ve listened to the song a number of times and I cannot tell whether Kisakye is being ironic or suggesting a potential “creative solution” to marital cheating. 


Either way, it goes without saying that bottling a man, a person, no matter how you look at it, is about power and control. Ki Nigeria movies are predictable, full of melodrama, and most important: they speak of the times—Africa in the grip of fundamentalism, fusing the world of old magic with the new Christian miracles, the ancient and modern coming together once more.


Reading “Bottled” by Helene Johnson reminds me of the times in which the poem came into being—1927 and The Harlem Renaissance:  African-American experience echoing the African continent, improvising and fusing jazz-like rhythms to provide an accurate picture and position of the taken, captured, dominated, subdued and shelvedand also the release, transcendence, freedom, dance and beauty in triumph.

There’s all the weight one can imagine in the line: This sand was taken from the Sahara desert. The bottle of sand is placed on the third floor of the 135th street Library in Harlem. At first, one might say, nice decoration, what an important place to be; in a library, who wouldn’t want that?, especially for people who like libraries. But no, oh, no, to think that Some bozo’s been all the way to Africa to get some sand is rather disturbing. So the sand isn’t just sand. The symbolism is significant and cannot be treated lightly. We can’t help but analyze/appreciate the signifier and signified. In addition, place (Library, the Sahara) and history (past and contemporary) are equally crucial.

Further along in the poem, the darky dressed flamboyantly on Seventh Avenue forgets everything and starts to dance the moment he hears the music of the organ. Not only is he given movement, but also his face shines. He is ‘happy, dignified and proud.’ The music is the vehicle that transports him elsewhere: Home. The crowd kept yellin’ but he didn’t hear, just kept on dancin’ and twirlin’… He’s not really on Seventh Avenue anymore. This kind of reimagining was necessary for the people of Harlem, African-Americans who had to think of ways to transcend slavery and where it had placed them in society. Can one comfortably say they invented Jazz as one of those ways? Yes. The influence was Africa, its rhythms and echoes, the beats blending with an incessant need to recreate and experience something in the past that was both beautiful and authentically African. Uncorrupted. Untainted. Helene Johnson weaves this need and transportation in her narrative poem so well: And somehow, I could see him dancin’ in a jungle/A real honest-to cripe jungle, and he wouldn’t leave on them/Trick clothes-those yaller shoes and yaller gloves/And swallowtail coat. He wouldn’t have on nothing/And he wouldn’t be carrying no cane/He’d be carrying a spear with a sharp fine point…

Towards the end of the poem, the ‘bottled man and his shine’ find release via imagination. The ability to be creative and resourceful was at the core of the Harlem Renaissance, why it was a renaissance, and why African-American writers were able to liberate their minds, bodies and souls that were once captured and shelved.

.     .     .

Helene Johnson (1906-1995)

Bottled” (1927)


Upstairs on the third floor
Of the 135th Street Library
In Harlem, I saw a little
Bottle of sand, brown sand,
Just like the kids make pies
Out of down on the beach.
But the label said: “This
Sand was taken from the Sahara desert.”
Imagine that! The Sahara desert!
Some bozo’s been all the way to Africa to get some sand.
And yesterday on Seventh Avenue
I saw a darky dressed to kill
In yellow gloves and swallowtail coat
And swirling at him. Me too,
At first, till I saw his face
When he stopped to hear a
Organ grinder grind out some jazz.
Boy! You should a seen that darky’s face!
It just shone. Gee, he was happy!
And he began to dance. No
Charleston or Black Bottom for him.
No sir. He danced just as dignified
And slow. No, not slow either.
Dignified and proud! You couldn’t
Call it slow, not with all the
Cuttin’ up he did. You would a died to see him.
The crowd kept yellin’ but he didn’t hear,
Just kept on dancin’ and twirlin’ that cane
And yellin’ out loud every once in a while.
I know the crowd thought he was coo-coo.
But say, I was where I could see his face,
And somehow, I could see him dancin’ in a jungle,
A real honest-to cripe jungle, and he wouldn’t leave on them
Trick clothes-those yaller shoes and yaller gloves
And swallowtail coat. He wouldn’t have on nothing.
And he wouldn’t be carrying no cane.
He’d be carrying a spear with a sharp fine point
Like the bayonets we had “over there.”
And the end of it would be dipped in some kind of
Hoo-doo poison. And he’d be dancin’ black and naked and

And He’d have rings in his ears and on his nose
And bracelets and necklaces of elephant’s teeth.
Gee, I bet he’d be beautiful then all right.
No one would laugh at him then, I bet.
Say! That man that took that sand from the Sahara desert
And put it in a little bottle on a shelf in the library,
That’s what they done to this shine, ain’t it? Bottled him.
Trick shoes, trick coat, trick cane, trick everything-all glass-
But inside-
Gee, that poor shine!

.     .     .

Aaron Douglas_Congo_1928_gouache and pencil on paperboardZP_Aaron Douglas_”Congo”_1928_gouache and pencil on paperboard


Helene Johnson (1906-1995) was born in Boston (Brookline) to parents whose roots were in South Carolina and Tennessee. Her maternal grandparents had been born into slavery. At the age of 20 Johnson moved to New York City with her cousin – later to become the novelist Dorothy West. For a time, the two sublet the apartment of Zora Neale Hurston. Johnson’s poems were published in the journal Opportunity, and one was included in the famous 1926 one-issue avant-garde journal Fire!! A Quarterly Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists, edited by Wallace Thurman. A mere three dozen of Johnson’s poems were ever printed, most in journals and magazines of the 1920s and 30s. Her fresh point of view did not go unnoticed. A reviewer at the time said of Johnson that she “has taken the ‘racial’ bull by the horns. She has taken the very qualities and circumstances that have long called for apology or defence and extolled them in an unaffected manner.”

Helene married William Warner Hubbell in 1933 and they had one daughter, Abigail. The last published poem by Johnson – “Let me sing my song”– appeared in 1935 in the journal Challenge whose editors were West and Richard Wright. Famously reclusive, the Johnson of later years yet still wrote poems, only she kept them to herself. Verner D. Mitchell’s biography of the poet, This Waiting for Love, published in 2000, brought to light thirteen “new” poems by Johnson, and one from 1970 entitled “He’s about 22, I’m 63”, shows that her sense of humour had remained intact despite a jealously guarded privacy.

A black woman writer was an uncommon person back in the 1920s; Helene Johnson “defied the odds and put pen to paper when the century was young.”*


*Verner D. Mitchell

.     .     .     .     .

Remembrance Day Reflections: Juliane Okot Bitek

November 11th 2013_Falllen Autumn Leaves in Toronto

ZP Guest Editor Juliane Okot Bitek

Forgetting and Remembrance Day


I used to think that Remembrance Day was restricted to soldiers lost in the wars that Canada was involved in. I used to wish that I could remember my brother on Remembrance Day, in a public way, as one of a family who had lost one of its brightest and as one of a community which had lost hundreds and thousands of men and women in the various wars that were fought in my homeland of Uganda. I wanted desperately to claim Remembrance Day for us, because we too had lost a great love and a great life. But I thought it was an imposition, so I wore red poppies like everyone else and reflected on the Canadian dead and listened to speeches about how the veterans had fought for our freedom and how we owe them the comforts of our lives.

I heard my brother call out to me on a sunny morning, just after a high school assembly as me and my friends made our way to class. I looked about. I didn’t see. My brother called out again. It was an urgent call, loud. I turned around, asked one of my friends if she’d heard my name being called. No, she said. She didn’t hear anything. A couple of days later, I was picked up from school and taken home. My brother had been shot.

My brother, Keny, was an officer in the Uganda National Liberation Army, the post-Idi Amin government army. Story was that he was in Fort Portal, a town in western Uganda, and that officers did not usually fight on the frontline. Story was that my brother and other officers were on the frontline, fighting the guerrillas that would eventually make up the current government of Yoweri Museveni. Story was that my brother was shot in that battle, and that he wasn’t the only one. The weekend of Keny’s funeral, there were eight other funerals for eight others killed from the same region – the Acholi region of northern Uganda.  It was a sunny day, no evidence of rain for days to come;  it was hot.  The kind of day that evoked memories of my brother walking with his wife and toddler to his hut during the funeral rites of my father, scant months before. There was a gun salute, I think, with the solemnity befitting an officer. And it wasn’t a grey day, it wasn’t November. The ache from losing my brother would remain just under my skin for years.

I wanted to be a soldier once. When the Canadian military would set up a booth seeking to attract students from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I’d pick up a brochure, take the fridge magnet or the pen they offered, the type that came with sticky notes at the other side. I wanted the chance to join the army and make it as high up as my brother might have done.

Remembrance Day in Canada is usually celebrated with wreaths and the marching of proud veterans who are often shuffling along with age and carried along with pride. Black and white film clips from the First and Second World Wars, Korea; video clips from Afghanistan. News channels often focus on the celebration of our soldiers’ efforts at the local cenotaph where a solemn declaration, carved in stone, is ignored for most of the year. Often it’s raining – a grey day, a grey month, a grey time for families who think of November 11th as a national marker for those they loved and lost, and for those who never returned whole.

Sometime after my brother Keny‘s funeral, I returned to school and tried to melt back into normal. The deaths of my brother and father in such quick succession would’ve been hard to ignore but Ugandans have weathered loss for so long and we know how to pick up, keep moving, keep smiling, keep going. Our English teacher gave us a composition exercise in which we were to write a story that ended with lines from the title of Kenyan poet, Jared Angira’s poem, “No Coffin, No Grave”. We had to write a story that was true, from our own experience, no less. What came pouring out of me was the story of losing my brother. I wrote about my sister-in-law who had gone to identify his body, and I could hear her wracked in pain as she narrated her experience. I wrote about how she identified my brother by a bracelet that she had given him. How it was that he had to be buried quickly, how it had to be a closed coffin affair. And how it was that we never had the chance to say goodbye – not really.

Keny had come to visit me in school the term before. He had come in full military regalia. He stood up when he saw me – and saluted. I saluted back – and giggled. He wanted to know how I was, if there was anyone bothering me. And if there was, I was to promise that he’d take care of it. You know how big brothers are – bragging, seemingly full of themselves. He told me not to worry about anything, that I’d be alright. Perhaps Keny had come to say goodbye, and I didn’t know – I did not know that.

There are families for whom Remembrance Day is Every Day or most days. National gratitude doesn’t and cannot match personal grief and it’s hard to argue with a public show of support and the recognition of soldiers. Often we hear phrases about how our soldiers fought for our freedom. That gives me pause: from whom do Canadian soldiers wrest our freedom? How do they do that? What do we do, for example, with the images we’ve seen from Elsipogtog just last month?

When Canada joined the war effort in Afghanistan in 2002, a professor in the English department at the University of British Columbia started to keep count of the losses. Canadians would never let fifty soldiers die over there. But fifty came and went. The faces and names on the professor’s door grew. If it got to a hundred, surely Canadians would be up in arms. A hundred soldiers died, and more; Remembrance Day was commemorated like all the other ones. A hundred and fifty eight Canadian soldiers died in Afghanistan and there was no uproar here, just another solemn Remembrance Day on November 11th.

Soldiers die, their families hurt. Soldiers live with terribly injured bodies, their families hurt. Soldiers get so badly scarred psychically that it should give us pause to think about what it means to maintain an army, to have young people sign up for duty. And then we think about them once a year – with so much solemnity and pomp. But some soldiers go it alone…

Months, years later, I would think about my brother Keny and how useless his advice had been. I worried – and he wasn’t there. I hurt, and people hurt me – and he wasn’t there. He wasn’t there to take care of the nastiness that we had to go through. He wasn’t there when my grade-school teacher returned with our marked composition papers on the “No Coffin, No Grave” theme and insisted that there was one paper that she wanted to read out – and it was mine. She held it up as an example of what not to write. After she’d read it to the class, she turned to me and asked me how it was I could lie like that, to make up such a story. And that I should be ashamed of myself, she admonished me. She told me to leave the classroom and, as I walked out in shame, the tears that threatened to choke me, I willed them to stay back; I was not going to cry.

Keny wasn’t there when I turned thirty three, his age when he died.

I think about the loss of lives of young men and women who sign up for military duty to defend their country, to fight for the rights of others, to invade other nations or to assist in reclaiming Life after disasters like Typhoon Haiyan in The Philippines – which struck land on November 7th and 8th. This is hard and dangerous work, and sometimes it’s awfulwork that returns with evidence of our armed men and women engaging in shameful acts such as the 1993 hazing of Shidane Arone in Somalia. And look at the evidence provided by the recent deconstruction of the Black Blouse Girl photo which shows that there was rape before the Massacre at My Lai. How can we continue to maintain an institution that drives our men and women to such depths, then we commemorate the wars that led them to their deaths? How then can we forget so fast, so completely?

Last summer, I had the privilege of visiting with my nephew, Keny’s son. I was going to be seeing him for the very first time since I left home in 1988. I took the train from Vancouver to Eugene, Oregon, and had dinner with him and his fiancée. My nephew grew up without his father and has no idea whose spectre walks beside him. He feels like Keny, sounds like him. He even called me waya – auntbutthere was no urgency in his voice, not like the one I’d heard almost three decades ago one morning after assembly. We talked about all kinds of things, but nothing about the gaping absence between us. Time had collapsed to have us meet and know each other, but not enough to have my brother back.

Remembrance Day is packed full of history and valour – Canada has lost many brave women and men to the nastiness that is war. This country, and other countries which have lost brave men and women, can step up to count themselves as courageous and freedom- loving, but when are we going to be inspired by the enormity of loss to seek a future in which there are no more wars and no more losses to war? The list of dead Canadian soldiers no longer hangs on that professor’s door – but we remember what hurts, some of us do.

November 2013_Fallen Leaves_Toronto, CanadaAddendum:   In fact, that list of soldiers names on the door of the professor in the English Department is still there. I have visited his office several times since I graduated in 2009, but I stopped seeing. By his own admittance, the list needs to be updated but still, it says something to me that forgetting is an active process and possibly it begins by stopping seeing what’s in front of us. I’m grateful to Professor Zeitlin for reminding me that peace is a worthwhile pursuit and it begins with the intention to see, to remember and to question what it is we must never forget.

.     .     .     .     .

Andre Bagoo / Tomorrow Please God: poems from the premiere issue of Douen Islands

Douen Islands_Issue 001_Tomorrow Please God_Poems by Andre Bagoo

Ship of Theseus


I have to see your face 

if am not going to stare.


How do we know for sure

a dead body is really there?


Call all you wed by my surname 

so that when I die, we breathe


in your body, in your new lover 

and then, later, his new lover


his and his. In this way 

our marriage lasts forever.

Douen Islands_Issue 001_Father of the Nation

Father of the Nation


My life should grow longer 

With each moment you live 

We, strange twins, each 

Approaching middle-age 

Through reversed ends


Assuming I will live tomorrow 

I can time my midlife crisis 

My life chained to yours 

Our wrong-footed estimates 

Leave one set of footprints

.     .     .

Dragon Boat


I will put my bucket down 

Over my head 

And turn it into straw, spin 

Bark into gold.

Our ways always hold. 

We cup love with tightness. 

We know enough of currency 

To know. 

When you see me 

You always say, 

Excuse me, you from China?” 

You’ve nearly understood. 

Our ways are old 

Our bodies, our own. 

We don’t take back 

What we never gave.

.     .     .

These poems are taken from Douen Islands, a poetry e-book produced in collaboration by poet Andre Bagoo, graphic designer Kriston Chen, artists Brianna McCarthy and Rodell Warner, and sitarist Sharda Patasar.

Read more here:

And get involved here:

.     .     .     .     .

Norval Morrisseau – Shaman-Artist: Armand Garnet Ruffo’s “Man Changing into Thunderbird (Transmigration), 1977”

Norval Morrisseau_Man Changing into Thunderbird_1977_panel 1 of 6

ZP_Norval Morrisseau_Man Changing into Thunderbird_1977_panel 1 of 6


I am a Shaman-Artist. My paintings are icons. That is to say: they are images which help focus on spiritual powers generated by traditional beliefs and wisdom.”   (Norval Morrisseau)


In the course of writing Man Changing Into Thunderbird, a book about the life of the acclaimed Ojibway artist Norval Morrisseau, I found that his art moved me in such a manner that a natural and spontaneous response to it was to write poetry. Initially, I thought that I would write a few ekphrastic poems based on some of the paintings that I admired most and I thought gave insight into the artist. And because the poems are based on specific paintings, which for the most part are dated, I also figured that the inclusion of the poems would provide a time frame that would help ground potential readers. However, as I learned more about Morrisseau’s life and immersed myself in the paintings, more poems appeared. What did these paintings mean to him, and what do they mean to us, the viewers? My plan was to include all the poems in the one book, but as the poems increased I realized that due to length there were far too many to include them all. I also realized that I had a complete book of poetry. The Thunderbird Poems includes all the poems that I wrote during this period of study and contemplation on the art of Norval Morrisseau. The piece below, “Man Changing Into Thunderbird (Transmigration), 1977”, is excerpted from The Thunderbird Poems.


Armand Garnet Ruffo

.     .     .

Norval Morrisseau said that for the longest time he dreamed of doing something great. In 1976 he joins the Eckankar “new age” movement in an attempt to stop drinking, and moves to Winnipeg. While there he plunges into a six panel painting with complete confidence that speaks to his genius.

Man Changing Into Thunderbird (Transmigration), 1977

Though he has had no idea how to squeeze the essence of the story onto canvas from the first time he hears it he wants to paint it. But how to go about it? The question haunts him, dangles in front of him, gets caught in the dream-catcher web of a spider, escapes through a hole in the night sky and slides down a path of owl feathers into the world of myth and creation.


The story says there were seven brothers. One day

the youngest Wahbi Ahmik

went hunting and met a beautiful woman

named Nimkey Banasik.

They fell in love at first sight

and the young warrior took her home to his wigwam

where they lived as man and wife

and were happy.

All the brothers cherished her except one

Ahsin, the oldest,

Who felt only hatred for her.


The idea grows inside him the way a butterfly grows inside a chrysalis. Except it is not about a butterfly, it is about a thunderbird and, more, about a whole way of being, about perception and belief. When it finally cracks open, or rather he cracks it open, the idea is so large he knows instinctively it will be one of his most important paintings. Not junk commercialism done for a quick buck. Not twenty paintings pinned to a clothesline, jumping between them like a jackrabbit. Not another set of nesting loons or another multi-coloured trout. Not something he can paint in a half-closed eyelid stupor. This time his eyes are wide open and burning with possibility as though giant talons were digging into his memory and stirring imagination. As though they were clamped onto his shoulder muscles with the steady beat of locomotive wings and were lifting him high above the ground.


One day Wahbi Ahmik returned from hunting

and discovered the campfire near his wigwam

stained in blood.

Panic stricken he rushed to his wife

but discovered her gone.

Knowing what his brother Ahsin felt for her

he stormed into his tent

And demanded to know what had happened.

I see a trail of blood leading into the forest.

What have you done?


By this time he is again showing at Pollock Gallery in Toronto but hardly under Jack Pollock’s tutelage, their relationship strained by their personalities. His home in Red Lake is now far behind him, and he is lapping up the good life like a saucer of cream. Though it isn’t cream he is drinking. By this time his art little more than a means to an end, more commerce than calling. He will sell it to buy the basics like cigarettes and groceries (though he eats little for a man his size), shoes or a shirt when he needs it. Though more often than not he simply trades for whatever he wants: a week’s rent in a flop house, a bottle, a meal, an English Derby plate, a Spode teapot, a blowjob, a fuck, everything and anything. The moment: the only thing that matters.


Ahsin was not afraid of his younger brother’s anger.

You brought this woman Nimkey Banasik to our village.

We were all happy together before she came.

Now she is gone for good.

When you left this morning I sent our other brothers away

to be alone with her.

Then I saw her cooking for you

and I got out my sharpest arrow

which found its mark in her hip.

I would have chased her down and killed her

if not for the roar of thunder

that filled the sky

and frightened me.


As for Pollock he is still smarting from the Kenora court case a couple of years earlier when he was sued for stealing several of Morrisseau’s paintings. (Though he knows it wasn’t instigated by the artist himself, and after it was over Morrisseau gave him a big bear hug like he was cheering for Pollock all along.) Furthermore, by this time Pollock’s gallery and personal life are in shambles, his blatant honesty and vanity making him persona non-gratis in what he calls Toronto’s bitchy art scene. His own life of flirting with excess, his hot and horny appetite for cocaine and sex scarring his body and mind. (So honest and vain Pollock admits it all in a book printed in England where nobody knows him personally, admits that if he were to drop dead tomorrow the single most important thing he would be remembered for is the discovery of Norval Morrisseau. “Damn it,” he says, as though reading a crystal ball, knowing it as the truth.)


Oh Ahsin! my foolish brother, cried Wahbi Ahmik.

Even though I am mad enough kill you

I pity you.

Did it not ever cross your mind who Nimkey Banasik was?

You must know her name means Thunderbird Woman.

I would have told you

if not for your blind hatred.

I would have also told you

she had six sisters.

Can you not imagine the power our children would have had?

What it would have meant for all of us.

For this woman was a Thunderbird

in human form.

And now it is too late.


To say that Morrisseau is Pollock’s cash cow and he is only in it for the money would not be fair unless one put it in perspective and said that Morrisseau is everybody’s cash cow. (For this reason he is never alone.) No, safe to say there is something more between them. For Morrisseau their initial meeting is no accident. There is no room for accidents, or luck for that matter, in his belief system.


I am leaving to never return until I find this woman

Wahbi Ahmik said, as he turned his back on his brother

and followed the blood trail

that led far into the great forest.

For many moons he traveled until he came to a huge mountain

that reached over the clouds and beyond.

And he began to climb higher and higher

Until the earth disappeared and he reached the summit.

And there before him on a blanket of cloud

stood a towering teepee

shooting forth


and thunder

across the sky.


To be sure, whatever their frailties, together they are magnificent. It is as if together they walk on clouds. Pollock reads Morrisseau’s mind like a cup of tea leaves and reminds him of his purpose and stature, prodding and coaxing to get the best out of him.


From the majestic edifice came the laughter of women

which suddenly stopped.

For they felt his presence.

Then the teepee flap opened and there stood Nimkey Banasik

looking more beautiful than ever.

With concern she asked why he had follow her.

Because you are my life, he answered.

She smiled upon hearing his words

And beckoned him forward.

Come inside, she said,

And we will give you the power

to walk on clouds.


Pollock knows the painter can handle scale, which he proved in My Four Wives and Some of My Friends, both of them an impressive 109.8 cm x 332.7 cm. What he doesn’t know is that Morrisseau has also done sets of paintings, diptyches, like Merman and Merwoman, and has played with perspective in The Gift where he divided the canvas into two panes. The problem is that Morrisseau is living in Winnipeg, and this makes it nearly impossible for Pollock to keep track of him. He knows the artist is up to his old tricks of selling his work to the first person that approaches him with a few dollars rather than go through the trouble of bundling up the work and sending it off. The temptation of a quick money fix has always been one of his greatest failings. “Something the bastards are quick to seize upon,” Pollock says. The challenge is therefore not to keep him painting, which he does naturally, but to make sure he sends what he does to the gallery.


Inside the wigwam were seated two old thunderbirds

in human form.

Light radiated from their eyes

Suggesting a presence full of power and wisdom.

Immediately they saw Wahbi Ahmik’s hunger

and offered him food.

In an instant a roar of deafening thunder erupted

As they stretched out their arms and changed into thunderbirds

and flew away

To return with a big horned snake with two heads and three tails.

They offered it to Wahbi Ahmik to eat

but he quickly turned away from writhing mass of flesh.

The next morning they again asked him if he needed food.
and the thunderbirds returned with a black snake sturgeon

and later with a cat-like demigod.

And Wahbi Ahmik grew weaker

and weaker.


Pollock flies back and forth between Toronto and Winnipeg, making sure that Morrisseau is not going astray, and takes whatever paintings the artist has finished. Bob Checkwitch of Great Grassland Graphics is also working with the painter during this time doing a series of prints and helps to keep him in check. Through meetings, telephone calls and letters Morrisseau and Pollock discuss the concept for Man Changing Into Thunderbird and after much discussion Morrisseau decides to translate the story into a series of panels. Like Pollock, Morrisseau knows this will be his greatest work to date.


Finally the old woman who feared that Wahbi Ahmik was starving

told her daughter to take him

to her great medicine uncle

Southern Thunderbird

whom she knew would have strong medicine for the human.

They laid Wahbi Ahmik on a blanket of cloud

softer than rabbit fur and wrapped him gently

so that he would not see.

And with the thunder suddenly erupting

Wahbi Ahmik felt his nest of cloud move.

After what seemed like a mere moment

They stopped

and his wife Nimkey Banasik

removed the cloud from around him .

And there in front of Wahbi Ahmik

perched on a cloud

stood a great medicine lodge.


Three weeks before the opening, which is scheduled for August 10that 2:00 pm, Pollock receives four panels, but he can see that the series is incomplete. Another two weeks pass and he starts to become anxious. He telephones Winnipeg and Morrisseau assures him that he will bring them to Toronto with him. Pollock warns him that he needs time to prepare the paintings. They have to be stretched and framed. Again Morrisseau tells him not to worry.


Nimkey Banasik looked around him and saw many lodges

the homes of many different kinds of thunderbirds

All in human form.

Entering the great medicine lodge

Nimkey Banasik brought her uncle greeting from her mother

And beseeched him for help.

My mother said that you would have medicine for my husband

so that he may eat as we do

And perhaps even become one of us.
The old thunderbird stood in silence pondering the love between them

and the consequences

of such an action.

Let it be known that if this human takes my medicine

He will never return to earth

but will become a thunderbird forever.

Then the medicine thunderbird took two small blue medicine eggs

mixed them together

And advised Wahbi Ahmik to drink it.


On Friday, August 9th Morrisseau saunters into the gallery about lunchtime. Under his arm is the roll that Pollock is expecting. Everyone breaks off installing the show and gathers around to see the last few panels. Morrisseau grins as he unrolls two blank canvasses. As Pollock tells it, he is stunned. It’s the last straw, and he barks and growls at the artist who calmly assures him that the pictures will be finished in time for the show. Pollock exclaims that the other panels are still at the framer’s and he won’t be able to use them for reference. No problem, Morrisseau says, unmoved by the calamity that Pollock foresees.


The moment the potion entered Wahbi Ahmik

he felt a strange power surge throughout his body.

Looking at his hands and feet he saw

they were no longer human

but of the claws and wings of a thunderbird.

With the next drink the change was complete.

He was now a thunderbird.

His human form, the wigwams, the great medicine lodge

All disappeared.

Everyone was now a thunderbird

inhabiting the realm of thunderbirds.

And so Wahbi Ahmik and Nimkey Banasik

thanked Southern Thunderbird

and flew home together

where Wahbi Ahmik feasted

on thunderbird food

and lived out his life with this beloved wife Nimkey Banasik.


Morrisseau purchases ten brushes and twenty tubes of paint from Daniel’s Art Supplies up the street from his hotel. For the life of him Pollock cannot fathom how he is going to execute the paintings, how he can possibly carry in his head the complete chromatic palette of the first four panels. As he is leaving the room Morrisseau tells him to come back at one o’clock in the morning and he’ll have the paintings ready for him. Not knowing what to expect, Pollock returns at the exact hour. Morrisseau swings open the door to his room, and there they are laid out on the floor. He has finished the series with two more panels. The moment Pollock sees them it becomes clear to him that the artist has not only successfully recreated the colours of the first four panels, but he has somehow managed to keep in his head both their composition and scale. They are exactly like the originals. He is stunned. With the canvasses still wet, Pollock carries them back to the gallery in his outstretched arms and takes them for framing the moment they are dry. The show opens on time with Morrisseau touching up the new panels with daps of paint on the tip of his right index finger. Within one hour the complete set of six panels is sold. Everyone who is witness to the work is awestruck.


And the people who remained below

in the world of humans

generation upon generation

remember Wahbi Ahmik

as the Man Who Changed


A Thunderbird.

.     .     .     .     .


Norval Morrisseau_Man Changing into Thunderbird_1977_panel 6 of 6ZP_Norval Morrisseau_Man Changing into Thunderbird_1977_panel 6 of 6


Norval Morrisseau is considered by art historians, critics and curators alike as one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century. Among his awards and honours were the Order of Canada and the Aboriginal Achievement Award. Referred to as the “Picasso of the North” by the French press, he was the only Canadian painter invited to France to celebrate the bi-centennial of the French Revolution in 1989. A self-taught painter, Norval Morrisseau came to the attention of the Canadian art scene in 1962 with his first solo and break-through exhibition at Pollock Gallery in Toronto.  This sold-out show announced the arrival of an artist like no other in the history of Canadian art. In the first ever review of his work, Globe and Mail art critic Pearl McCarthy declared him a “genius.” Born in 1932 in the isolated Ojibway community of Sand Point in northwestern Ontario, and having lived a tumultuous life of extreme highs and lows, Norval Morrisseau died in Toronto in 2007.

Drawing initially on the iconography of traditional First Nations sources, in particular the sacred birch-bark scrolls and the pictographs (prehistoric ‘rock art’) of the Algonquin-speaking peoples, Morrisseau went on to incorporate a wide array of contemporary influences in his art, ranging from the techniques of modernist painters and the imagery of comic books and magazines, to ‘new age’ philosophy.  Continually evolving as a painter, he quickly eschewed the label “primitive artist”, becoming renowned for his daring experiments with imagery, scale, and colour. Following on the heels of Morrisseau’s success, a younger generation of painters, both Native and non-Native, followed in his style, becoming known as the “Woodland School of Painters,” the only indigenous school of painting to emerge in Canada.


ZP_Norval Morrisseau's name written in Ojibwe syllabicsZP_Norval Morrisseau’s name written in Ojibwe syllabics

ZP_Norval Morrisseau in 1977_photograph by Dick Loek_Toronto Star newspaperZP_Norval Morrisseau in 1977_photograph by Dick Loek_Toronto Star newspaper


Armand Garnet Ruffo draws on his Ojibway heritage for much of his writing.  Born in Chapleau, northern Ontario, with roots to the Sagamok Ojibway First Nation and the Chapleau Fox Lake Cree First Nation, he currently lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and teaches in the Department of English at Carleton University.  His works include Grey Owl: the Mystery of Archie Belaney (Coteau Books) and At Geronimo’s Grave(Coteau Books). His poetry, fiction and non-fiction continue to be published widely. In 2009, he co-authored “Indigenous Writing: Poetry and Prose” for The Cambridge History of Canadian Literature, and, in 2013, he co-edited An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English for Oxford University Press. In 2010, his feature film “A Windigo Tale” won Best Picture at the 35th American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco.

The Thunderbird Poems will be published by Insomniac Press in 2014.

.     .     .     .     .

“Problematic”: Jay Bernard on poems, performance, problem-solving

“Problematic”:   Zócalo Poets Guest Editor Jay Bernard on poems, performance, problem-solving:


Poetry is a form of problem solving. There are poems and performances I return to often because they speak to – but do not necessarily solve – problems I enjoy. These problems are usually on the merry-go-round that is the relationship between society and art, and some of the pieces I mention below exemplify the kinds of problems I think about. How to speak. How to sound authentic. How to speak so you are understood. The art of incantation.


So let’s start with a light take on a heavy subject. Every few months I watch Tamarin Norwood ( read at an event called Minimum Security Prison Poetry, then spend a few hours admiring her website. It’s a great fusion of academia and playfulness. But listen to her voice. The facetious use of arch-formalism, the repetition, the nature of the repetition, the element of the absurd. It’s the conventional voice for this style of poetry. If she was a spoken word poet, she’d gravitate towards the American slam formula in which you start with slow declarative sentences, then speed up. But sometimes the convention works. Norwood’s piece is an example, as is another favourite: Kai Davis’s Fuck I Look Like ( There’s a bit of a contradiction when she says “You say gargantuan, I say big as shit”, then goes on to criticise another student for not using big words, but her performance is a seamless combination between the voice she’d actually use in an argument and that uniquely American oratory style. She affirms my suspicions that some social problems don’t need answers, they need to be cussed out.


But what about the voice in other cultures? In 2012 I visited Angelica Mesiti’s Citizens Band, showing at ACCA in Melbourne. It featured four musicians with unique talents, but the one that impressed was the Mongolian throat singer. Later research yielded dozens of varieties, including the Tuvan version here at Ubuweb’s ethnopoetics page ( When I taught myself to do it (you can too) the idea of the technique as a “conduit” of poetry really moved me. How else is it possible to speak? What else can our voices do? And what kind of wordless poem is created?


Speaking of wordlessness: Ng Yi Sheng’s performance of Singapore’s national pledge is a performance I don’t have a video for, but I wanted to include it because it’s a remarkable piece of mockery and exaggeration. Imagine: a slight, smiling man dressed as an air hostess gets up and places a pencil in his mouth. He then spends the next five minutes waving his hands around like a dictator, as he shouts lines from the national pledge to a marching rhythm. JUSTICE! JUSTICE! SOCIETY! The pencil makes him dribble. His movements exhaust him. This poem, when performed in front of Singaporean ministers, got him blacklisted. But as someone who has always been contemptuous of nationalism, I recall this performance as a great union of politics and performance. Conclusion: the more humourless the target of the joke, the better the joke.


Sometimes the joke is hard to get. Tongues Untied (, a 1989 film by Marlon Riggs, is the nuanced pursuit of a unified sexual/racial aesthetic. His voice, his desire to be seen as he is – dark-skinned, black, American – is complicated by his sexuality; it leads him into the white world, makes him vulnerable – neither this nor that. Yet like Norwood, there’s a lightness to his touch, and I admire the unity of his vision. Why does two identities imply a split? Why isn’t the person doubled or squared? It’s a problem that Riggs sets to song, and I return to this long, cinematic poem every year.


What Riggs also touches on is the yearning to say as an adult what you needed to hear as a young person; and sometimes that thing can be said not in words, but in the simple combination of *that* person, *that* voice, *that* context. Which is why Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha ( in conversation with Ellery Russian about queer crip sexuality is one of my favourite videos. The humanity in what they are saying is simple and elegant, and the same could be said generally of Samarasinha’s poetry. She writes a lot about her father’s past and how it was a mystery she had to become queer to solve. Sometimes I want the voice that wrote the poems to talk simply, humanely and intelligently about the world at large, and that is what she does here.

.     .     .     .     .

ZP Editor’s Note:   To read poems by Jay Bernard, click on April 2012 and hers are right at the top.

Atwood, Kiguli, Carver: Mildred K. Barya compares three poems about photographs

ZP_Mamie Estelle Fearing Scurlock with bouquet_1910_photographer Addison ScurlockZP_Mamie Estelle Fearing Scurlock with bouquet_1910_photographer Addison Scurlock


ZP Guest Editor Mildred K. Barya:

Three poets / Three photographs


In this piece I’m comparing and contrasting three poems by three poets that have a lot in common: “This is a Photograph of Me” by Margaret Atwood (Canada), “My Mother in Three Photographs” by Susan Kiguli (Uganda), and “Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-Second Year” by Raymond Carver (USA).

What I appreciate most is how these three poets/poems deal with perception, memory, reality and imagination against a backdrop of history, society, and culture. The passage of time and sense of place provide interesting points of view.

In Atwood’s poem, in the first stanza, we are not given the exact time the photograph was taken. We only know it’s in the past: It was taken some time ago. At a glance, the appearance is distorted, and seems to merge with the paper:

At first it seems to be

a smeared

print: blurred lines and grey flecks

blended with the paper;

Kiguli’s first stanza is a clear description of what the mother’s face in the photograph looks like, her poise, enigmatic aura, sexual energy and charm.

Her face looks out


her sexuality electric.

We are also told what she’s wearing, it’s the 1960s, and she’s full of dreams and longing of the individual and collective nation. An ethereal creature that’s here and beyond, not as “ghostly” as Atwood’s woman, but equally mystifying.

In a mini dress and sheer satin stockings

the girls of the 1960s

beautiful beyond belief.

She is looking through the camera

like her space is here and beyond

enchanting and enchanted

by the times when dreams of freedom were young

the fortunes of Uganda

hot and sizzling.

So here we have what we can see through our tactile and perceptible quality. There’s also something corporeal and ethereal at the same time. This is also true of Atwood’s message in her first stanza.

Carver’s first stanza provides clear setting and time. October. Here in this dank, unfamiliar kitchen. Right away we feel a strangeness—something chilly that comes with October and a dank, unfamiliar kitchen. In ideal or normal circumstances, one’s kitchen ought to be a cozy, familiar place, but not Carver’s kitchen. Then the father’s face is described, what is, and the appearance of what’s expected:

I study my father’s embarrassed young man’s face.
Sheepish grin, he holds in one hand a string
of spiny yellow perch, in the other
a bottle of Carlsbad Beer.

In short, the three poets in their first stanzas are portraying what is [appearance] along with specific expectations and representations. The first image is hazy, affected by the imbalance of light and dark so one can say it appears oppressed even. The second captures the Sixties imagination: freedom, excitement, revolution, dreams, women’s power and so on. The last, what it means to be a [macho] man: able to fish and drink beer.

Moving on to Atwood’s second stanza, other things appear in the picture upon close inspection. To the left is something like a branch of a tree, to the right, something like a house. What can we make of these symbols appearing when we are looking at a face, a woman?

then, as you scan
it, you can see something in the left-hand corner
a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree
(balsam or spruce) emerging
and, to the right, halfway up
what ought to be a gentle
slope, a small frame house.

I would say a tree is productive and branches on to produce other trees, being on the left side where rationalism dwells, brain-wise. What the mind says you are. To the right, realm of intuition and heart field, we have a house, a vessel, which can be the embodiment of this face. Therefore we can say it’s the face that’s both tree and house, what’s inside manifesting outside. One can go deeper into feminist and patriarchal interpretations while trying to figure out what these symbols might mean culturally, how they get to replace a person, or we can stay with the intellectual and spiritual interpretations that can be applied universally. Your mind will tell you you’re one thing, your heart, another. People too; history, society, governments, ideologies, and so on will try to define you. To find the true you, you have to view all the perspectives and hope that by going through the labels, definitions, and constructions tagged on you, you might disappear inside yourself and come up with the real you on the other side.

It’s the 1970s in Kiguli’s second stanza. The face or body that was electric is now somber. Times are harsh although gentle on this woman. Instead of the mini dress the body is covered all the way to the ankles, the confident look replaced by sorrow. We learn that she’s also widowed, not of natural causes but government action, and the dress is imposed on her by the government of Idi Amin, which forbade women from wearing mini skirts. In very few words, so much history is packed in this personal stanza.

My mother in the 1970s
More sombre but her skin
Still flawless
The abrasive years gentle on her youth.
Her body wrapped in a long nylon dress
stopping her ankles and
full sleeves touching her wrists
hooded sorrow in her posture
the flowing dress
is not because
she is a widow (which is by government action)
but it is a government decree.
Her magnificence and elegance
Seem to support the given name of the dress
Amin nvaako.

In Carver’s second stanza, we discover what the person would like to be [but isn’t], what he wanted to be all his life. We have 1934, time of the Great Depression, WWII close on its heels. Like Kiguli’s and Atwood’s second stanzas, something grave has happened, the brave individual is disappearing in the struggles of history, and dreams are being squashed by the nation. Melancholy has replaced radiance, a new identity has emerged.

In jeans and denim shirt, he leans
against the front fender of a 1934 Ford.
He would like to pose bluff and hearty for his posterity,
Wear his old hat cocked over his ear.
All his life my father wanted to be bold.

What would be Atwood’s last stanza before the parentheses reveals other things in the background, a lake and low hills.

In the background there is a lake,
and beyond that, some low hills.

Here we can assume the person is completely gone. Perhaps not to end on a sad note, Atwood introduces in parentheses a chunk letting us know where the person is, where the photograph was taken, and how we might find her if we look closely.

(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.

I am in the lake, in the centre
of the picture, just under the surface

Drowning is a key metaphor that can be used strategically so it’s neither good nor bad. More like dying in order to live. She’s submerged and in the centre [of all things?]

It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or how small I am:
the effect of water
on light is a distortion.

but if you look long enough
you will see me.

In these last three lines, it seems after all that her disappearance is not an act of conformity but survival. It is necessary, and to know the difference is wisdom. Besides, isn’t it right to say that things of beauty and truth require one to dig deeper and longer in order to see the value or the self? We have something complex going on as the photograph obscures and reveals at the same time.

Kiguli’s last stanza is the 1990s. The mother wears a traditional dress, busuuti, which is also recognized as a formal, cultural and national dress. She has found peace, however uncertain, and is ready to pass on the future.

My mother in the 1990s
neat short hair
luring in its intricate curls.
She wears a busuuti
a sign of the times
a return home, a finding of
uncertain peace
a maturing of a woman and nation
an endorsement of a recognition of the troubles
she has weathered
a sitting down to count her losses and blessings
and a handover of the future.

In spite of the sadness, losses, changes, diffusion and pain, there’s no regret, tone-wise. What has happened has happened, what is, is, and what will be will be. This is the claim of reality, what endures. How the individual, cultural and national icon come together and are embodied in as simple a metaphor as a dress.

Like Atwood’s last stanza, the conformity is an act of survival. Beneath it all the person still lives. The personal is so blended with the public/national you cannot see one without the other, you cannot appreciate or celebrate one without the other getting in the way. Also, what starts as personal—Kiguli’s “mother” and Atwood’s “I”—takes on the representation of every woman of those times. Just like Carver’s “father” might symbolize every father then.

In Carver’s last stanza, we have what the father is in real life as opposed to the “bluff and hearty” appearance in the picture.

But the eyes give him away, and the hands
that limply offer the string of dead perch
and the bottle of beer. Father, I love you,
yet how can I say thank you, I who can’t hold my liquor either,
and don’t even know the places to fish?

There’s the importance placed by society on males who must teach their sons how to fish and also hold their liquor. What happens when they don’t conform? The contrast here is that unlike the women/mothers (in Atwood and Kiguli’s poems) who might be killed if they don’t conform, the males/fathers get away with it, and are still loved. This is where society’s double standards come in.

From the gender perspective, the saddest thing perhaps is that in the poems, the women were all those confident things that had to be submerged, while Carver’s “father” was never all those bold poses to begin with. In the end, the emotional punch line in all the poems is in the lack of fulfillment of dreams, no matter how false or genuine their premise.

All three poems recognize that a person is a product of both the individual’s and society’s failures, struggles and successes. In spite of disappointments and frustrations, love remains—for Carver—it is what conquers however dismal the person is. For Atwood, it is the discovery of the true self within the drowning, understanding why sometimes one has to appear as a smear on the surface, the real tiger or lion beneath. For Kiguli, it is the resilience and maturity that comes to surface, the hard times lived through, and how one may count both blessings and losses.

Mildred K. Barya

.     .     .

Margaret Atwood (born 1939)

“This is a Photograph of Me”


It was taken some time ago
At first it seems to be
a smeared
print: blurred lines and grey flecks
blended with the paper;
then, as you scan
it, you can see something in the left-hand corner
a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree
(balsam or spruce) emerging
and, to the right, halfway up
what ought to be a gentle
slope, a small frame house.
In the background there is a lake,
and beyond that, some low hills.
(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.
I am in the lake, in the centre
of the picture, just under the surface.
It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or how small I am:
the effect of water
on light is a distortion.
but if you look long enough
you will see me.)

ZP_Ugandan women wearing busuutisZP_Ugandan women wearing busuutis

Susan Kiguli (born 1969)

My Mother in Three Photographs”


Her face looks out
her sexuality electric
in a mini dress and sheer satin stockings
the girls of the 1960s
beautiful beyond belief.
She is looking through the camera
like her space is here and beyond
enchanting and enchanted
by the times when dreams of freedom were young
the fortunes of Uganda
hot and sizzling.


My mother in the 1970s
More sombre but her skin
Still flawless
The abrasive years gentle on her youth.
Her body wrapped in a long nylon dress
stopping her ankles and
full sleeves touching her wrists
hooded sorrow in her posture
the flowing dress
is not because
she is a widow (which is by government action)
but it is a government decree.
Her magnificence and elegance
Seem to support the given name of the dress
Amin nvaako *.


My mother in the 1990s
neat short hair
luring in its intricate curls.
She wears a busuuti
a sign of the times
a return home, a finding of
uncertain peace
a maturing of a woman and nation
an endorsement of a recognition of the troubles
she has weathered
a sitting down to count her losses and blessings
and a handover of the future.


* Amin Nvaako means Amin let me be or Amin leave me alone


ZP_Portrait of a man in North Carolina_1910s_photographer Hugh MangumZP_Portrait of a man in North Carolina_1910s_photographer Hugh Mangum


Raymond Carver (1938-1988)

“Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-Second Year”


October. Here in this dank, unfamiliar kitchen
I study my father’s embarrassed young man’s face.
Sheepish grin, he holds in one hand a string
of spiny yellow perch, in the other
a bottle of Carlsbad Beer.
In jeans and denim shirt, he leans
against the front fender of a 1934 Ford.
He would like to pose bluff and hearty for his posterity,
Wear his old hat cocked over his ear.
All his life my father wanted to be bold.
But the eyes give him away, and the hands
that limply offer the string of dead perch
and the bottle of beer. Father, I love you,
yet how can I say thank you, I who can’t hold my liquor either,
and don’t even know the places to fish?

.     .     .     .     .

Andre Bagoo beats Pan: Five Caribbean Poets inspired by T&T’s unique Drum

ZP_Afropan Steel Orchestra at the Pan Alive competition in Toronto, CanadaAfropan, Toronto’s longest-running steel orchestra, was founded in 1973.  They have won the “Panorama”/Pan Alive competition more than two dozen times over the years.  Currently under the leadership of Earl La Pierre, Jr., Afropan has mentored many young pannists and its player-membership includes a large number of female musicians.


Today – Simcoe Day Holiday Monday – is the “last lap lime” for Toronto Caribbean Carnival 2013 – more commonly known as Caribana – after two weeks of special events that included a Junior Carnival, King and Queen Competition, Calypso Monarch Finals, The Grand Parade or “Jump Up” – plus Pan Alive.

Pan Alive brings together, through the Ontario Steelpan Association, a dozen or more homegrown steel-pan orchestras from Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario. These perform original compositions or arrangements before pan aficionados and a table of judges. The 2013 winners were Pan Fantasy, under the leadership of Wendy Jones (with arranger Al “Allos” Foster), playing SuperBlue’s “Fantastic Friday”.

Other competing orchestras at Pan Alive 2013 were:  Afropan, Pan Masters, Golden Harps, Panatics, Salah Steelpan Academy, Silhouettes, Hamilton Youth Steel Orchestra, New Dimension, Canadian Caribbean Association of Halton, St.Jamestown Youth Centre, JK Vibrations and Metrotones.


Our Guest Editor – Trinidadian poet, Andre Bagoo – here takes a look at poetry inspired by the steel-pan in the following selection he has put together for Zócalo Poets.

.     .     .

STEEL-PAN is everywhere in the Caribbean, so much so that some people cannot help but define us by it. We’ve produced Nobel laureates in the arts, economics and sciences; great athletes; contributed so much all over the planet – yet ask the average foreigner about the Caribbean and chances are the first thing they will talk about is steel-pan. But the region has a complex relationship with pan. For us, pan music is not just fun. It is a ritual: an invocation of the pulse of history within our veins; a defiant assertion of individuality against larger global forces; an example of how one man’s trash can become treasure – a sublime subversion of power, economics and art. Trinidad and Tobago, inventor of the pan, prides itself in being the race that created what is said to be the only acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century. Yet, Trinidadian poets, and Caribbean poets generally, have a sophisticated relationship with the instrument. Its hard, silver and lyrical contours are not mere tourist ornament, but loaded symbol. Often, as in my poem ‘Carnival’ (, instead of being a symbol of pleasure, the pan becomes a hollow, opposite thing – creating an irony because of our pleasurable expectations.


Roger Robinson’s ‘Texaco Oil Storage Tanks’ is ostensibly a poem about the materials used to make pans: oil barrels. But he finds the forces of history, power and economics inside them. While the oil storage tanks are large structures, the poem arguably evokes the images of smaller steel pans. Derek Walcott strikingly uses the image of the pan as a kind of psychogeographic tool in the opening of ‘Laventille’, whose first lines invite us to imagine that hill-top region as the arch of a pan. It’s also a device pregnant with meaning since Laventille is regarded as the birthplace of the instrument. In Kamau Brathwaithe’s great poem ‘Calypso’, pan makes an overt appearance but is, in fact, really all over the poem: its rhythm, its materials, its colour. I’ve included David Blackman’s poem ‘Bassman’ because of how far it veers from our romantic associations with that figure. And Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming’s ‘Steelpan in Miami’ is the final, fitting irony: pan exported, becoming a kind of prison of nostalgia, only made possible by migration away from the Caribbean basin.

Andre Bagoo

.     .     .

Roger Robinson:  “Texaco Oil Storage Tanks”

(Trinidad, Pointe-à-Pierre, 1978)


You silver gods, with viscous black innards,

skin of iron plates and bones of steel rivets,


your Cyclopean eye is a bright red star.

At each entrance stands an armed, khakied guard;


they check our passes, though we’ve known them for years,

for though we work here, we don’t belong.


A new shift begins, our brown workboots trudge

and the unemployed beg and plead out front


in full view, with burning sun on their shame,

but it’s not worse than their child’s hunger pains.


Our fingernails are full of tar and dust:

you came for the oil, and left with our blood.

.     .     .

Derek Walcott:  From “Laventille”

[for V.S. Naipaul]


To find the Western Path

Through the Gates of Wrath



It huddled there

steel tinkling its blue painted metal air,

tempered in violence, like Rio’s Favelas,


with snaking, perilous streets whose edges fell as

its Episcopal turkey-buzzards fall

from its miraculous hilltop



down the impossible drop

to Belmont, Woodbrook, Maraval, St Clair


that shrine

like peddlers’ tin trinkets in the sun.

From a harsh


shower, its gutters growled and gargled wash

past the Youth Centre, past the water catchment,

a rigid children’s carousel of cement;


We climbed where lank electric

lines and tension cables linked its raw brick

hovels like a complex feud,


where the inheritors of the middle passage stewed,

five to a room, still camped below their hatch,

breeding like felonies,


whose lived revolve round prison, graveyard, church.

Below bent breadfruit trees

in the flat, coloured city, class


escalated into structures still,

merchant, middleman, magistrate, knight. To go downhill

from here was to ascend.

.     .     .

Kamau Brathwaite:  “Calypso”

from The Arrivants


The stone had skidded arc’d and bloomed into islands:

Cuba and San Domingo

Jamaica and Puerto Rico

Grenada Guadeloupe Bonaire


curved stone hissed into reef

wave teeth fanged into clay

white splash flashed into spray

Bathsheba Montego Bay


bloom of the arcing summers…


The islands roared into green plantations

ruled by silver sugar cane

sweat and profit

cutlass profit

islands ruled by sugar cane


And of course it was a wonderful time

a profitable hospitable well-worth-you-time

when captains carried receipts for rices

letters spices wigs

opera glasses swaggering asses

debtors vices pigs


O it was a wonderful time

an elegant benevolent redolent time–

and young Mrs. P.’s quick irrelevant crine

at four o’clock in the morning…


But what of black Sam

with the big splayed toes

and the shoe black shiny skin?


He carries bucketfulls of water

’cause his Ma’s just had another daughter.


And what of John with the European name

who went to school and dreamt of fame

his boss one day called him a fool

and the boss hadn’t even been to school…


Steel drum steel drum

hit the hot calypso dancing

hot rum hot rum

who goin’ stop this bacchanalling?


For we glance the banjoy

dance the limbo

grow our crops by maljo


have loose morals

gather corals

father out neighbour’s quarrels


perhaps when they come

with their cameras and straw

hats: sacred pink tourists from the frozen Nawth


we should get down to those

white beaches

where if we don’t wear breeches

it becomes an island dance

Some people doin’ well

while others are catchin’ hell


o the boss gave our Johnny the sack

though we beg him please

please to take ‘im back


so now the boy nigratin’ overseas…

.     .     .

David Jackman:  “Bassman”


Now yuh hearing a pain in yuh belly,

Who go provide now?

Who giving yuh room now?

After yuh throw way the costume and

Sleep in yuh vomit from pan fever

After yuh finish consume the liquor

Playing bass in mass

Playing ass in mass


You go shadow extravaganza

trying to stretch out the fever

making a las lap


trying to get back on the map.


But the year face yuh

all yuh have to go by

is Sparrow Miss Mary until

yuh hear

the bass man

in yuh head

Shadow bass man eh boss man nah.

Carnival sickness is the bossman.

Shadow eating good, Sparrow eating good,

CDC eating good.

But who go provide now

Who go provide for the bass pain

in the belly? Who man tell me who?

.     .     .

Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming:  “Steelpan in Miami”


Last night I drove

over plain Miami

far in the Southwest

to Miami Pan Symphony

Panyard not under open skies

not bounded by mountain peaks

Cierro del Aripo and El Tucuche

but swallowed in the stomach

of a boxy warehouse


Steelpan music cornered

muffled by dense

con crete pre fab walls

not ringing out over

Queen’s Park Savannah

not jingling like running water

in East Dry River


Saw the girlchild beating

six bass pans

made one afternoon

not by Spree Simon the Hammer Man

but by Mike Kernahan

Trini in Miami


Listened to the boychild

strum the cello pan

heard the manchild

the womanchild

on the chrome tenor pans

carrying the calypso tune


Not to Maracas Bay

with coconut fronds

and six foot waves

but to Miami Beach

manmade fringed

with sea oats and coco plums


And when the music died

a farewell so warm like Miami heat

a Trini voice bidding

“Drive safe eh”

an incantation from the streets of


a familiar song so strange

in this multilingual

Caribbean city in the frying pan

handle of North America.

.     .     .     .     .


Roger Robinson’s ‘Texaco Oil Storage Tanks’ appears in his forthcoming collection, The Butterfly Hotel (Peepal Tree Press);   the extract from Derek Walcott’s ‘Laventille’ is taken from his Collected Poems (Faber and Faber, 1986);  Kamau Brathwaite’s ‘Calypso’ is a poem from his The Arrivants;  David Jackman’s ‘Bassman’ is scooped out of 100 Poems from Trinidad and Tobago (Edited by Ian Dieffenthaller & Anson Gonzalez);  and Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming’s ‘Steelpan in Miami’ appears in her collection Curry Flavour (Peepal Tree Press, 2000).


Andre Bagoo is a poet and journalist, born in 1983, whose first book of poems, Trick Vessels, was published by Shearsman Books (UK) in 2012.   His poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming at:   Almost Island; Boston Review; Cincinnati Review; Caribbean Review of Books; Caribbean Writer; Draconian Switch; Exit Strata PRINT! Vol. 2; Landscapes Journal, St Petersburg Review, Word Riot and elsewhere.   An e-chapbook, From the Undiscovered Country, a collaboration with the artist Luis Vasquez La Roche, was published at The Drunken Boat in 2013.

.     .     .     .     .