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.
SOME BRIGHT ELEGANCE
‘and all his words ran out of it: that there
was some bright elegance the sad meat
of the body made’
— from ‘The Dance’ by Amiri Baraka
For the screwfaced in good shoes that paper
the walls of dance halls, I have little patience.
I say dance not to be seen but free, your feet
are made for better things, feel the bitterness
in you lift as it did for a six-year-old Bojangles
tapping a living out of beer garden patios to
the delight of a crowd that wasn’t lynching
today but laughing at the quickness of the kid.
Throw yourself into the thick, emerging pure
reduced to flesh and bone, nerve and sinew.
Your folded arms understand music. Channel
a packed Savoy Ballroom and slide across
the dusty floor as your zoot-suited, twenties
self, the feather in your hat from an ostrich,
the swagger in your step from the ochre dust
of a West African village. Dance for the times
you’ve been stalked by store detectives
for a lady on a bus, for the look of disgust
on the face of a boy too young to understand
why he hates but only that he must. Dance
for Sammy, dead and penniless, and for the
thousands still scraping a buck as street corner
hoofers who, though they dance for their food,
move as if it is only them, and the drums, talking.
‘It is possible for you to reach it
but you will grieve a great deal’
— The Gospel of Judas
Imagine the husk of a man who knows
his son will die before the week is out.
You ask him why he sings, no doubt, baffled
by the faith it takes to open the most
stubborn of hearts, make a bloom of gently
insistent beauty. This is when your own
newly sprung bloom would shut itself again,
afraid that get well cards are only empty
measures of sentiment, the weight of a word.
You’re sorry with no answer to this obscene
riddle: a stubble headed boy whose scream
fissures the night ward watched by a just lord
who won’t intervene, for all this man stops
to find the tune that, even now, isn’t lost.
When they laid our father out, mwaice wandi,
I want to say, I’m meant to say, soft light
played the skin of his spent face and the sobs
were, of course, a jangling kind of song.
If I could take you where the sandy earth
meets his final stone, tiled and off-white,
we might have learned to worship better gods.
He was known, in the shebeens, as long John.
At the wake relatives tried variations
on the words of the day: I am sorry
for your grieving/your trouble/your loss.
I’ve been weighing these apologies for years
that pass and retreat like disused stations.
I think of his walk becoming your quarry,
his knack for beguiling women, your cross.
It’s enough to bring me here, past tears
to where his face simplifies to a picture:
the shrine in Nagoya, him stood, Sequoia
among lesser trees, looking good in denim;
every inch the charismatic spectre.
In his memory my voice bears his tincture –
saxophone played low slash boy raised on soya
porridge, chloroquine, a promise of heaven.
There are days I think I’m only a vector
carrying him slowly to my own graveyard
and, standing at the lectern, rather than my son,
will be another copy: the same sharp
edge to the chin, that basso profundo hum.
Kid brother, we breathers have made an art
of negation, see how a buckled drum
is made from a man’s beating heart
and a fixed gaze is a loaded weapon.
(mwaice wandi means younger brother)
Over a billion people live on the African continent, from 3000 distinct indigenous ethnic groups, speaking 2000 languages — the most genetically diverse people on Earth. Two extraordinary voices can only hint at all the treasures we have yet to explore.
Thank you for reading this week’s Word Cloud.
More About Mahtem Shiferraw and Kayombo Chingonyi:
Mahtem Shiferraw is a poet, visual artist and cultural activist. Her chapbook, Behind Walls & Glass, was just released by Finishing Line Press. She is the 2015 winner of the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poetry. Her poetry collection, Fuchsia, is coming out in Spring 2016, from University of Nebraska Press.
Kayo Chingonyi is a writer, events producer, and teacher. He won the Poetry Society’s Geoffrey Dearmer Prize in 2012. He has devised and delivered workshops for The National Theatre, London School of Economics, Royal Shakespeare Company, and the YMCA. Salt Publishing released Some Bright Elegance, his debut pamphlet (2012). See “Sources and Further Reading” for information on his forthcoming The Color of James Brown’s Scream.
Sources and Further Reading:
The African Poetry Book Fund “promotes and advances the development and publication of the poetic arts of Africa through its book series, contests, workshops, and seminars and through its collaborations with publishers, festivals, booking agents, colleges, universities, conferences and all other entities that share an interest in the poetic arts of Africa.”
The Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poetry is awarded annually to an African poet who has not yet published a collection of poetry. The winner receives USD $1000 and book publication through the University of Nebraska Press and Amalion Press in Senegal. An “African writer” is taken to mean someone who was born in Africa, who is a national or resident of an African country, or whose parents are African. Only poetry submissions in English are considered. Work translated from another language to English is accepted, but a percentage of the prize will be awarded to the translator.
The APBF also sponsors annually a chapbook box set series, New-Generation African Poets. For 2016, the collection is entitled Tatu, and will be released this coming spring. The set of eight individual chapbooks are new works from emerging African poets, each with a preface from another working poet. The Color of James Brown’s Scream by Kayombo Chingonyi is one of the Tatu chapbooks.
- “Small Tragedies” and “Synesthesia” by Mahtem Shiferraw, appeared in Blackberry Magazine, in June 2014
- “Some Bright Elegance” © 2011, Kayo Chingonyi, from Some Bright Elegance, Salt Publishing (2012)
- “Gnosis” © 2011, Kayo Chingonyi, from Some Bright Elegance, Salt Publishing (2012)
- “Alternate Take” © 2011, Kayo Chingonyi, from Some Bright Elegance, Salt Publishing (2012)
- African continent from space
- Child of one of the Ethiopian Omo tribes among the trees http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2294456/Painted-faces-scarred-bodies-wooden-guns-extravagant-headdresses-Amazing-photographs-reveal-lost-world-Omo-tribes-Ethiopia.html
- Ambasha, an Ethiopian bread
- 1950s mens dance shoes
- Zambian drum, photo by bdavidcathell