Tuesday, April 8, 2014
The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Writing Across Borders
The Door of Return
By Yusef Komunyakaa
I began to reread Pablo Neruda’s Memoirs. A poet who’d left footprints on numerous cities, countries, and continents, whose work had guided me, Neruda had spoken to my heart through his imagination and feeling for the larger human world.
Distant places. I had seen a photograph of a Portuguese cannon aimed out of Elmina Castle toward the Atlantic. I could already see Ghana—a wooded savanna in my mind’s eye—a zone of forests swollen with daily rainfall. I knew something about African lore, the kings of Songhai, Mali, and Ghana who drained swamps and cut canals for farms, who bartered gold for the lifeblood of salt. I knew sleeping sickness was spread by the
tsetse fly. Hundreds of images populated my head.
I had gone to Africa many times in daydreams and poems long before I set foot in the land. So in early 2004, when Arthur Whitman, my former poetry student at Princeton University and one of the founding members of the Ghana Education Project, invited me, I said yes without hesitation. As a member of the board, I was already familiar with the organization’s mission: to establish small libraries, to promote literacy, and to combat HIV/AIDS through education. I understood I wasn’t embarking on a tourist safari but rather leading a group of writers to confront a very real pandemic. And in this moment, I realized that poetry was a tool, or an instrument, for preparing my psyche for the journey.
I always say poetry is confrontation and celebration. I suppose I had to attempt to confront some unspoken part within me that did not exactly want to encounter the severity of that world. My acute imagination had already jump-started, and I knew I had to align my mind with my heart. A deep dreaming had begun to claim my body.
One reason for the trip was to attempt to establish a dialogue confronting the devastating reality of AIDS. I knew we would meet with schoolchildren and with the fishermen of the village of Komenda. It was in anticipation of meeting the fishermen that I began writing the poem “Dead Reckoning,” and in the lines “Now, lost in the old clothes of unreason, / & wanderlust, their nets sag with the last / of its kind, with bountiful fish stories…” I was perhaps attempting to bring the abstract into focus, to live in that world for a moment, where a story becomes a bridge between people, countries, and cultures. In this way, poetry can be a first step toward initiation. It is a place where one can transform borders and reconstruct time.
Traveling can also force one to become extremely practical. Aside from preparing mentally, I, of course, had to plan quite literally for the trip, asking, “Is this the right shirt and trousers? Do I need to take a jacket? Wouldn’t sandals be more comfortable? Where’s my shot record?” The University Health Center provided a consultation, inoculations for tetanus and yellow fever, and malaria pills, which I started a few days before leaving; I was lucky not to experience any side effects. I carried dysentery pills with me, as well as mosquito repellent. The trip required a visa, which was expedited because of the organization’s positive reputation.
As I was preparing myself for the trip, we were still trying to raise additional
funds for the program. Arthur and Ram Devineni, a filmmaker and the publisher of Rattapallax Press, managed the financial plans for the trip as well as the itinerary. We all agreed to give two readings: one on a Sunday afternoon at the White Dog Café in Philly, the other at The New School with Sonia Sanchez and Danny Glover.
It was mid-March, and I arrived at JFK International Airport, where I met Ram, Thomas Glave, and Willie Perdomo, among others. I was glad to be traveling with writers I knew, friends. The flight had a long layover in Amsterdam, so our group ventured out to the city in the early morning before our flight to Ghana later in the afternoon. I hardly remember the flight. I can’t recall what I was reading, whom I was seated next to, or how I passed the time. Growing up in Bogalusa, Louisiana, I never thought I’d fly anywhere. On that flight, I felt I was living a life for more than just myself.
That evening, when we landed at Kotoka Airport, diplomatic workers processed us swiftly, so we didn’t have to go through customs. In less than thirty minutes, we were zooming along the highway. The images, fragments of memory, continue to bleed together for me. I wanted merely to experience the place, to let the landscape wash over me. I must admit, I was surprised by how the lights swarmed over the skyline. I don’t know why I expected darkness. Great anticipation grounded me, and I wanted to see everything in full daylight. We dined that evening in Accra, but in no time jet lag overtook us.
Traffic. Ghanaians in a floating throng of colors. Stone colonial houses. Forts. Apartments. Palm, bougainvillea, cassia, and mango. The lighthouse. And then the desolation of Jamestown beside the sea. Now we were speeding out of the city in a brownish sedan, the young driver with pleasant determination on his black face. The Atlantic waves seemed dark and sluggish.
The people seemed to change with the country landscape. Women and children along the roadside sold vegetables and handicrafts. Someone pointed and asked, “What’s that?” From the car window, we saw a boy holding a big, flattened, roasted rat in a wirelike grill, as if it had been cooked in a trap. I believe it was Arthur who said, “No, that’s a nutria.”
It was sunny when we arrived at the sewing club in Komenda. The girls—mainly teenagers—were dressed in green-and-black-checkered skirts and tan blouses, and some hid laughter behind their hands when they saw our faces. We had come across the Atlantic to talk about AIDS. We were straightforward, but we weren’t there to cast stones. A few of the girls were also direct, raising the question about how AIDS had come to their small fishing village. Perhaps they were momentarily freer because we were strangers, and this allowed them to discuss things they would never have discussed openly in their homes, schools, and churches. We were listeners, and at that moment, this was what they needed: strangers as confidants.
We needed to talk with the fishermen, but we had heard that they wouldn’t meet with us. This was heartbreaking; they were the main reason we were there in Komenda. Maybe they’d feel like walking targets when our eyes met theirs.
Finally, the day before we were to depart Komenda, the fishermen agreed to meet us at sunset. An array of colorful boats had been pulled onto the sandy shore, and men sat in the shifting light, waiting for us. Young and old, they all seemed seasoned by the salty winds of the sea.
We stood there, facing them, but no one said anything. What was the protocol? We were visitors. We had requested the meeting. I felt as though everyone was looking at me. Who spoke first? Was it Arthur, Ram, Willie, Bob, Thomas? Or maybe I said, “Hello. This is my first time here, but it seems that I’ve come home.” (If I said that, it was because nearly everyone I had met over the past few days had said to me, “You’re Ghanaian.”
Before my trip there, I’d always thought I was Ibo.) Or maybe I said to the fishermen, “Look, we’re here to talk about the dangers of venturing over to the Ivory Coast and then returning to Komenda.” I was the eldest of our group, and I must have been the one to speak first. At least, that’s the way it is in my dreams. But the fishermen were silent. They were stone still until one young man said, “I know what you are talking about.” It was as if someone had struck a brass bell.
For a moment, everyone seemed to talk at once. Then an older fisherman spoke in a harking voice about how the fishermen from Komenda had to venture farther and farther out because the waters close to shore were depleted of fish, and they had to go a greater distance—all the way to the Ivory Coast—and some of the fishermen slept with the women there, and they returned to Komenda,but didn’t know they had contracted HIV.
Something terrifying shifted underneath the image. It was still a beautiful picture. The men were talking and gesturing with their hands, caught in some ancient dance. The sun was sinking into the sea. Our caravan of two or three sedans headed back to Accra. The drivers were young men who didn’t waste any time; the rented sedans slid into blind curves, and sometimes the foot traffic scattered. I wanted to warn them.
We spent hours at Elmina Castle, a slave compound that housed a small library the Ghana Education Project had built. The monolithic structure was erected in the late fifteenth century by the Portuguese, who were following the rumors of gold. The building’s architecture defined domination; I could see the brute force of the slave trade, which in the seventeenth century infiltrated the structure, in its thick walls, in its height, in its presence, in the scale of the project, and I knew indeed why it bore the infamous name the Door of No Return.
It wasn’t the skull and bones crafted into the concrete or the chains mounted on the walls but the small chapel at the heart of the fortress that evoked unspoken fear. Perhaps more than anyone else, the poet recognizes the power of symbols because symbols continue to speak across the abyss of time. The dead keep on speaking. One can imagine—especially a poet—that in this space, these men who exacted brutality also bowed to a god.
I stood beside the Cave Canem sign that read Beware of Dogs. A high fence surrounded the house of W.E.B. Du Bois, the man who had once edited Crisis magazine, who wrote "The Negro," "The Souls of Black Folk," "Dark Princess," "Dusk of Dawn," among others, and who in 1963 became a citizen of Ghana, having moved there in 1961.
Standing there, trying to remember a poem of his, “The Song of Smoke,” I could recall only the refrain: “I am the Smoke King, / I am black!” At that moment, so were most of the faces around me. The heavy iron gate opened, and we stepped into the big yard. There were no dogs. No one to greet us Americans. Soon a caretaker, or someone posing as caretaker, appeared and unlocked the door of the house to show us the final pages of this great man’s life. We wandered through, asking hardly any questions, among the dust-covered books and papers that hadn’t been catalogued or protected. I wondered how many items had disappeared through the years and were now on eBay.
There, entombed in a mausoleum of stone and garniture, I was reminded that true elegance usually resides in simplicity. While standing in the house among the last shadows the man cast, I stood awestruck by this citizen of the world. Isn’t that what a poet is, a citizen of the world? Du Bois was an internationalist before he was a Marxist. I stood there thinking of what Vijay Prashad writes in "The Karma of Brown Folk," how he picked up a copy of "The Souls of Black Folk" in Kolkata and his whole life changed.
I wondered if anyone at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American
Research at Harvard University was aware of the man’s notes and books covered with dust in this distant land, how hard nature works to bring everything down to the ground equally.
I attempted to prepare myself mentally for our visit to the hospital to see the smallest patients—babies who were one, two, and three years old. I tried to call up a moment of my religious tutelage back in Bogalusa, to glimpse my forays into Buddhist meditations through the decades, to go back to those few years I had worked as a peer counselor at the University of Colorado, but soon I realized that little or nothing could have prepared me for what we witnessed.
The children were frail and tiny; their vulnerability was so transparent that there was no way for anyone not to perceive the depth of their pain and suffering. It’s hard to say how many children were there in the hospital. Maybe fifty. Maybe one hundred. It was more terrifying than the dislocated images on television. The few nurses there seemed completely overwhelmed. But the courage and heroic presence of the grandmothers who rocked their grandchildren in their arms was astonishing; some were silent and others whispered almost breathless words that seemed to have come from a great distance. The strength in their faces contrasted so starkly with the children, and perhaps this is what magnified the pain and desperation in that place.
At first, feeling that we were intruding on some sacred rite of passage, that our eyes would wound them more deeply, I wanted to retreat. Of course, wasn’t this also the fundamental question for the poet: isn’t it the duty of artists to witness, to hold ourselves accountable? Indeed, this bore the familiar distress of a battle zone, where the most vulnerable are singled out and attacked with brutal certainty. But I stood there completely overwhelmed, uncertain about what we could do, almost defeated by what I saw that day in Ghana. I also knew that we were seeing only a fraction of the suffering on the African continent.
We were going to meet a king. Would he embrace our effort to establish a dialogue about AIDS, or would he simply shrug his shoulders and begin a litany about esoteric rituals locked in the recent past? Weren’t our clothes too typical, too ordinary? A king, huh? I visualized him in his kingly garb, sitting on a golden throne and holding a golden staff. Should we bow? The protocol was beyond me.
There were three “kings.” The two older kings seemed so alike, especially in their austerity. They seemed so upright in posture and demeanor. The third king was younger; he seemed not fully initiated. Yet there was something about him that also seemed more cosmopolitan, more modern. They all seemed to possess at least symbolic power—absolutely ceremonial. Their fat gold rings caught the eye. Their colorful robes and cowrie adornments spoke silently of authority, and the carved canes the two older kings clutched were pragmatic. It seemed more like poets meeting poets, and in this sense one understands Shelley’s statement:
Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration;
the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity
casts upon the present; the words which express what they
understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel
not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not,
but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of
We weren’t there to pose questions through metaphors. The kings were probably experts with metaphors, but we hoped that they also understood the gut-level reality of AIDS in Ghana. Our ritual was discussion. Maybe kings never show alarm or their deep, heartfelt thoughts, especially when facing strangers. Their emotions seemed stately. Contained. Goaded by the younger king, the two elders slowly agreed to assist in the efforts of the Ghana Education Project. Sitting there, facing these three men of traditional and symbolic power, it was difficult for me not to think of Kwame Nkrumah, the first president and first prime minister of Ghana, a Pan-Africanist who had studied at the University of Pennsylvania and was, in many ways, an everyday man. The ghost of him possessed more power than the folkloric platitudes of these three kings. I sat there trying not to think of Dudley Randall’s poem “Ancestors”:
Was the Old Country a democracy
where every man was a king?
Or did the slave-catchers
steal only the aristocrats
and leave the fieldhands
My own ancestor
was a swineherd
who tended the pigs
in the Royal Pigstye
and slept in the mud
among the hogs.
We strolled into the room of the hospice to see Kiki Djan. He was a sack of bones, but there was still something in him that said, Look, I’m a damn genius. And we were dumbfounded by what drugs and AIDS can do to a man. He sat on the bed hugging a portable recorder, rocking back and forth while he played his last recording over and over, a pop song full of energy and crafted passion. He was still good, still burning with genius and belief in himself, and one felt that perhaps this could keep him alive.
Or maybe he believed this so deeply, we also believed it through a mental osmosis. He would beat the monkey on his back; he would even outsmart the specter of AIDS. Kiki had played keyboard with the legendary band Osibisa, which he had joined in 1971, and I remember how that band’s sound was different from anything I’d ever heard. The music had a positive authority that left its listeners thunderstruck. It’s said that after splitting from the group, he did a twenty-four-hour gig in London.
He was friends with Mick Jagger and Elton John and hung out with jet-setters cruising off to the Caribbean. He bragged about making £8,000 in a single weekend, saying that he was the most gifted keyboardist on the London scene. But here he was back home—Kiki Djan from Takoradi in western Ghana—hugging a battered recorder, pleading with the ghosts of ancestors. He seemed surprised that a group of writers and poets from America was standing at the foot of his bed. He’d stare out the window, and I sensed this was his last torture on Earth—glimpses of passing figures in bright clothes caught by the March sun.
Close to our departure, we moved from the small quarters where we had been sleeping to a beach hotel. The hotel was huge and sprawling and stood in complete contrast to the world we had just witnessed. There was a high fence built around the perimeter as if to keep out the common locals, the everyday Ghanaians. Beside the sea, shops sold paintings, handicrafts, gold and diamonds, clothing, and tchotchkes made for tourists. From their garb and overall demeanor, I gathered the African clientele was made up of upper-middle-class professionals. It was impossible for me to feel comfortable in my American jeans and sandals alongside their colorful robes.
That night, Arthur took us to a Portuguese-owned seaside pub. I recall the music playing and the voice of a fado singer whose longing suspended me between Africa and the West. I felt more comfortable in my American clothes, which seemed to blend in with the European feel of the pub. And for a moment, I was glad to recognize the Portuguese language spoken by the staff and a few of the patrons. Then I thought of Elmina Castle, and it occurred to me that even the hotel might have been European owned. And then I understood the complexity of the diasporic spirit; we may feel more at home in the culture we’ve inherited but at a loss for the rituals and customs of our ancestors.
After returning to the United States, I tried for years to write poems that capture the images of those babies, of the slave castle, of Jamestown, and of Kiki. In fact, I’ve traveled to many places, including Vietnam, Australia, Eastern Europe, New Guinea, Mexico, Chile, India, and Brazil, but I’ve written poems about only a few of those places. Neruda once wrote, “I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam,to go singing through the world.” Now I’m realizing that encountering the world leads one both farther from home and closer to it because that world is always in dialogue with the deepest self.
Perhaps for me, it takes a long time for these acquired images and experiences to distill into poetry. Though travel is an action, and poetry at times can be defined as an action, the two together need a space that resides in silence, meditation. The truth is, an act of poetry, the moment a poem comes forth, is often unpredictable because it springs from some place not fully conscious but informed by everything that has made us who we are.
Source: The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Writing Across Borders. Edited by Jared Hawkley, Susan Rich, and Brian Turner. 2013
By Yusef Komunyakaa
Fishermen follow a dream of the biggest
catch, out among the tall waves where
fresh water meets a salty calmness.
For hundreds of years they've crossed
this body of water, casting their nets
& singing old songs. They've slept
with the village women & rode waves
back to the other side to loved ones.
Now, lost in the old clothes of unreason
& wanderlust, their nets sag with the last
of its kind, with bountiful fish stories,
& soon the flirtatious mermaids are
beckoning from a swoon of reeds,
calling their names. The first dance
is desire. The second dance is love.
The tall grass quivers as if a siren
has been snagged in a net. Forbidden
laughter of the mermaids fills the night,
& if humans try to sing this laughter
their voices only cry out in the dark.
What did they do to make the gods
angry? Now, as if on a journey
of lost souls, love & desire
dance with death, twirling bright skirts
till flesh & cloth turn into flame & ash.
Yusef Komunyakaa is the author of twelve books of poems, including Talking Dirty to the Gods, Thieves of Paradise, Neon Vernacular: New & Selected Poems 1977-1989, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, Dien Cai Dau, and Pleasure Dome: New & Collected Poems, 1975-1999. A recipient of the of the 2001 Ruth Lilly Prize, Komunyakaa serves as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets. He is a professor in the Council of Humanities and Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.
The Song of the Smoke
By W.E.B. Du Bois
I am the smoke king,
I am black.
I am swinging in the sky.
I am ringing worlds on high:
I am the thought of the throbbing mills,
I am the soul of the soul toil kills,
I am the ripple of trading rills,
Up I’m curling from the sod,
I am whirling home to God.
I am the smoke kin,
I am black.
I am the smoke king,
I am black.
I am wreathing broken hearts,
I am sheathing devils’ darts;
Dark inspiration of iron times,
Wedding the toil of toiling climes
Shedding the blood of bloodless crimes,
Down I lower in the blue,
Up I tower toward the true,
I am the smoke kin,
I am black.
I am the smoke king,
I am black.
I am darkening with song,
I am hearkening to wrong;
I will be black as blackness can,
The blacker the mantle the mightier the man,
My purpl’ing midnights no day dawn may ban.
I am carving God in night,
I am painting hell in white.
I am the smoke king,
I am black.
I am the smoke king,
I am black.
I am cursing ruddy morn,
I am nursing hearts, unborn;
Souls unto me are as mists in the night,
I whiten my blackmen, I beckon my white,
What’s the hue of a hide to a man in his might!
Hail, then, grilly, grimy hands,
Sweet Christ, pity toiling lands!
Hail to the smoke king,
Hail to the black!