Half Life

A bird caught in a cathedral—the way it tries to escape

—Danusha Lameris



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 young, 

too happy, 

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

—Jim Powell


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.



Paper Prisons

(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.

—Franz Wright

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.