by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
One of the things that shocked me during my long-ago-summer-back-packing-through-Europe was the vast difference in scale between Europe and the United States.
- Greece, the “Birthplace of Western Civilization,” is about the size of Louisiana.
- Italy, wellspring of the Roman Empire, is only a smidge larger than Arizona.
- Oregon is bigger than the United Kingdom, which sprawled the British Empire around the world.
The African continent is HUGE – so enormous, if you could cover it with the United States, Canada, ALL the countries of Central America (Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama) AND The People’s Republic of China, you’d still have a bit of Africa showing – say, Benin, with a few square miles of Togo, at the western edge.
When Americans glibly speak of “African Art,” we really have no idea how wide and how deep a subject that is.
Over 40 years ago, I set foot on the African continent for only a few days in a single country – Sierra Leone. There are 16 ethnic tribes in Sierra Leone. Just standing for a few minutes on a corner in Freetown, its capitol city, I began to see how different these tribes are. Facial structure, height, body type, skin color – a whole range of humanity in one smallish city – and that’s just visual – the languages, and the cultural and historical differences, those would take a lifetime of study.
So I wonder about using the term “African poet” – is it like labeling Emily Dickenson a “Western Hemisphere author” – technically accurate, yet fundamentally misleading?
Labels give me an itch between the shoulder-blades, like there’s a scope lining up behind me. And yet – the years of our childhood, the first language we hear, our gender, the very skin we live in, and the whole of our memories – become the bone and tissue of our psyches. And for a writer, they are the ink in our blood.
So there’s a little irony behind choosing “AFRICA” as the title of this week’s Word Cloud. Trying to convey the essence of an article in one word which might also intrigue a reader is sometimes the biggest challenge in writing this series.
Aside from the continent of Africa, our two poets have in common that they left their homelands and now live in English-speaking countries. And shoes as a recurring theme.
Mahtem Shiferraw grew up in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and received an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. This poet writes in flying word-banners, streaming vivid colors across the page:
look underneath: your feet are roots, your legs a forest, your body
..the earth and your mind thirsty milk for the sorrow-drenched.
Everybody has a story
about how they didn’t fit
……………………………..until they do –
and they want to tell it.
Here is how it begins;
how you make monsters out of children
by telling them stories
about this other world, a world where
they sink in clouds and color the earth
where forests of blue lakes
give birth to strange animals
are only a bleak version of themselves
…………are never only stories.
This is how children are made;
………..without intention or precision
where orange doors and glass portals
lead to another dimension,
Look at them command in this other world;
they don’t hesitate, or quarrel, and they are not afraid –
they climb trees, and pick up leaves, and speak a language
made of wild berries and honey nut combs –
they grow tall, and feed off the earth and
drink its glazed colors, and swim through all shades of green –
sodden green, lime green, bruised green, emerald eyes, muddy-greens
of bedwaters, the blue-green of newborns laughing.
This is how
monsters are made –
…………………..until they don’t.
White is a color,
black is art. Nod to those before you.
Brown is a sense of being, and dark only
hovers beneath the shadows of necks – those
who fear it most. Here is to fear.
Red are the tip of shoes of the woman
who waited in the bathroom patiently when I was
only three – to steal my mother’s ruby earrings. White is
the unsafe silence of bathroom walls, and their
morbidly cubic nature. White is water running under
my feet, the innocent screams of school children at
Brown is the anomalous texture of curtains from my
childhood home. Brown is also the parched wood
of a small coffee-grinder my mother used. Brown as in
the intimate angles of sharply cut ambasha my grandmother
made, flour and water, lemon skin and cinnamon shreds, the
dark heads of raisins, while on a cargo plane back to Ethiopia,
the tired eyes of war-victims and their slow recovery. Brown
is also the color of my skin, but I didn’t know it then.
Blue are the waters embedded in my grandmother’s eyes. Blue is
the whisper of the Nile, Abbay. Blue is the color of the brave. Blue
are the walls of empty neighbors houses and the insides of their
living room. Blue is skimmed milk tearing the sky.
White sometimes comes back at odd hours. White are strangers eyes
drenched in sadness. White is the uniform of doctors, the smell of
alcohol and something mad. White is absence. Purple comes back
as shoes, American shoes. Sky and blood under a quiet shadow. The
shadow of a young tree planted in memory of a murdered teacher in
high school. And the milky paste of over-ripe figs spurting prematurely,
spiking insides. Purple is warmth in mid-July, when rain hails on corrugated
tin roofs and the leaning green arms of lonely corn plants.
Yellow is crying; it’s a bell, a cathedral in Asmara? A school? Or the
shriek of a mass funeral. Yellow is dead. But listen to black. Listen to
black notes, black heart, listen. Black is art. Not of the artist, the art of
being. The painful art of memory. Here’s to remembering.
Kayombo “Kayo” Chingonyi was born in Mufulira, Zambia and moved to Newcastle in the UK at the age of six. After going to school in London and reading English Literature at the University of Sheffield, Chingonyi is now based in Essex. His poems are full of sound – music is only one of them.