A bird caught in a cathedral—the way it tries to escape
For the first half of her life, Old Mathilda sat in the front porch,
mostly inventing reasons why two trippers by the main street were
too petrified by a scene illumined by red lightening bugs…
in her defence, mother would argue that my aunt was mostly that way
because her memory was decaying faster than it should.
for the other half, Mathilda suffered from Huntington’s—
an inherited need to dance irrepressibly
in a room full of silence.
a thing my mother described as the baby steps of what would be
each body part practicing its own obscure version of fouetté.
I admit this analogy was silly but funny enough
to make us snigger on the train to Old Mat’s town.
though we were laughing, I could tell that mother was actually sad,
sad that we couldn’t come up with the proper grief,
couldn’t comprehend the searing horror of watching
a body realise anarchy.
by the time my father was fifty, the drugs weren’t working.
the small cell tumours began to whisper their ways like roots,
like fire flies in green, in search of something, somewhere
outside of his catalogue of flesh.
and I grew old, just in time to know of why we try
to contain this quiet rebellion—the skin furtively concealing
the subterranean war; how all our elements jam furiously
at the body’s edges, endlessly trying to escape,
not unlike birds stumbling on the walls of a snare set aflame.
and this is the way a body is wrecked several times,
even before death.
my mother, at forty-five, would sit in a doctor’s office, inventing
evidence to prove pieces of her were getting hauled away by vandals,
holding her disfigured skin as she invents new names to heighten
the sting of every symptom of her erasure: spaghetti veins, muddled skin.
I imagine the tired doctor reducing her symptoms, time after time, to
you’re just old or any other elegant interpretation of how she atrophies.
and my mother still comes home with new prescription pills.
even though now she knows that there are no more exotic pills to save us;
to delay the epiphany that old things would pass away
—that we are old things.
The Last Smoke
It’s a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing
—John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
And once, after we learn that he is never going to recover,
my soon-to-be-dead father asks for a cigarette; like those childhood
tantrums. Like kids wailing for candy in places where they do not exist;
the body’s thirst for things it knows cannot be.
This is in the car at night, past the old overpass,
past the old factory where he once turned hot metal
into steel bars, blocks, rods….
Past all the liquor stores, into the congregation of soft wood,
the nigh infinite darkness that pulls us closer towards home:
knowing fully well that this must be what it means to die,
to fall through blackness with hopes for an end.
And this was after some thirty weeks of ending his dependency,
with the hoping days over.
I can tell that mother is angry, but mostly surprised.
“There are no stores around”, she says,
and he says “I know”.
But we drive back to get it for him anyway.
The worst days are already here anyway.
He doesn’t even smoke for long, tosses the cigarette through the window.
It must be the false utopia of our minor triumphs. Like a life jacket
given to the drowning in at the heart of a sea. Like the proverbial rich man
getting a drop of water in Hell.
There was no more risk anyways. To smoke on bad lungs,
is to throw a tinderbox into bush fires.
It’s a metaphor, I guess!
You put the killing thing right between your teeth,
now that it can no longer kill you,
not any faster, not any worse, not any more
If One Must Hope
After Haniff Adurraquib
Through the transparent walls
of hospital rooms, it is easy to discern
which incarnation of death waits eagerly,
like it, too, is family;
to witness the fold of men bound around the refectory
table of a rented bed, dining on an unholy
communion of suffering;
to get electrified by the way florescent lights
flood the scene of yet another mother who can no longer bleed
as she numbers the beads that suspend the Cross on her Rosary.
And strokes the thinning hair of her only child
as his life grows more monstrous with time.
Her mind, so used to joy so that when it is lost,
she is willing to be brutalised by the hope of its return.
For this same reason, despite being sure that Pa would die,
my mother still kissed soft prayers into saint Peter’s toes,
begging for grand exceptions to be granted.
But hope is a plot device
for the story ahead of us,
which we can hardly touch
but try to anyway.
But death snubs our bribesof
tubers of yam and prayers mailed to God,
repeating things He has always known.
one night, in the ward, I clinched to my father’s
whittled arms. I sat beside him, listening to a refrain
of sounds that poured like silent prayers from his lungs.
at this point, his chest became
too reluctant to fold any more air;
a side effect of the cancer, of bearing a set
of genomes carefully decapitated by burning tobacco.
And ma sat beside me all night, intoning
Psalms, litanies about jars of ink, miles of pages
invested in God’s inventory of hairs—
when my father had no hair.
A side effect of all the chemo and trading body parts
for a few more days to refuse God custody.
and on the next morning, after spasming, my father would
not wake, my mother wails so loud, loud enough to
be mistaken for madness,
then, she speaks nothing for days.
the loss of words,
the loss of silence
side effects of hope—
how, when it’s gone, it bruises;
how grief becomes, like faith, the substance
of things longed for but not seen.
but hope is necessary, I’ve decided,
in the way that [for a while]
it keeps the rest of the world sane.
The Evidence of Things not Seen (An Ode to Leaving)
The one who left never left, or leaving, leaves a painted shadow
My mother spreads an immortal grief, the same way we
scattered your ashes over a tumid Badagry creek—no ceremony!
She buries the loud shrieks of departure in laughter;
speaks silence in the same dialect with which she wails.
Some dialect not quite of language or of anything meant to be heard.
But somehow, I hear it, I really do. How everything that echoes is your name.
My mother endures daylight; expects darkness to reinvent your absence
into something more companionable.
As you wanted, Malik inherited your skewed chromosomes,
even the way they carry wounds.
At the clinic, when he coughed up a pint of blood,
mother and I were already too familiar
with this bohemian scene of dying things. So that we
were unable to cry. Even for days.
I know there is a way leaving takes our voices, to a distance,
without our consents. But this was not the case.
There are no elegant words for this grief, no metaphors
to stuff it undamaged into minds other than ours.
And there is a strange potency to absence. How it takes a shape outside of us.
How it turns our homes into those haunted obituary corners
where people stay perpetually in love with the ones who could not stay.
My mother now stands still on one side of our portraits
as if waiting for someone hidden or not there.
She sleeps on half of the bed as if the autonomy of loss
has taught her subservience
— that the ones who stay can never grow large enough
to occupy the space that leaving leaves behind;
as if it has taught her silence.
so that she now speaks alone to stones.
(An earlier version appeared in African Writers November issue, 2018)
My mother would speak of God as though she were
fourth in the Trinity; as though she sat beside Him in oblivion,
rested her head on His chest, as He invented atoms
from the words let there be light [alone].
I picture the explosion of his words being large enough to spin
galaxies, his syllables slicing, perfecting the geometry of our sun.
While I was a child, my mornings began with a thousand voices
arching into one—like those of angels, an imam would call
out to father to call out to God on his mat.
For five times a day, my father would train his head on velvet hoping
it’d strengthen his head enough to someday smash open Heaven’s gates.
And I have searched for god in the convolutions of failed memories
until I found he was kept prisoner on flattened reeds;
until I found that we petty men trail streets of brown paper, peep
between bogus sheets only to find for our souls dishonourable graves.
Now, I know where god was made, in the belly of some bland faced sod
in the Qumran caves, the author and finisher of St. Peter’s gates
which he smelted from extinct languages and transparent gold.
His descendant in the west, forerunner of the second coming,
bears the monopoly of God in a whited quilted coat, twice the size
of his pendulous stomach.
He dispenses a gospel of bequeathed stories; the kind that teach my mother
that hours spent kneeling by stained glass somehow purifies;
that teach her that the black tint that now rests on my father’s brow is proof
of the soot he lets out from smashing holes into the blistery walls of Hell.
But I alone took the third bite in Eden—knowledge that good
and evil are just a matter of who tells the story.
(An earlier version appeared in Kalahari review, 2019)
The long silences need to be loved, perhaps more than the words which arrive to describe them.
My mother taught me how long to grieve.
The threshold is often when friends begin to roll their eyes.
At which point we translate the anguish of our bodies into grief
sounds; that seem like groanings—things that cannot be uttered.
Not loud enough to be heard, not so quiet that they would not
keep us up all night trying to describe them;
to whisper to the mind what it doesn’t yet know
but aches to hear.
Out here, we talk only to stars, to their monopoly of speechless eyes
that look like they demand our attention,
we whisper our translations of grief into the wide ears of
absence; hoping that the absence would somehow listen to us,
we lose count of all the dawns we spent while we sat learning to mime
the posture of our mother’s minuscule lips as they tried to clap.
How we tried so hard to bear her unfinished songs
like they were the commandments of some new religion.
Isn’t this how we learnt to talk?
Listening to mother speak only to broken dishes
or the night, in dark lulls and sighs—those intimate conversations
between broken things, conversations about weathering.
Watching father latch his lips around bisque tobacco pipes
to kiss his secrets in a vague idiolect of whiffs,
in the odour of charring nicotine…
You better not tell anyone this,
that I was young when I learnt the right measure of air
in the fluid craft of weaving a dying father’s
name into tender explosions of bland sighs,
that I was too young when I learnt the language of loss—
how our dried voices now pitch sounds no one can else hear,
speaking silence that outlives the tenure of ears.