By Ernest O. Ogunyemi
The poet wakes in the middle of the night to find that his room,
Barely enough for his lean body, is a megacity for the little
Inhabitants. Roaches are going and coming, each one with
A different sense of urgency, some slow as clumps of dew,
Others civil servants in love with the import of their jobs; they
Cover the ugly walls, ride the silhouettes above the books he leaves
Not-so-well-arranged by the sink in the kitchen; rubbing their stringy,
Hairy feet in his cup and pot of soup, the aged and the young.
The irritating sound of those feet on nylon, as if the feet
And the surface of the black nylon are having a conversation
In a language that no one understands but the conversation
Itself, grasping itself. They are joined by the small grey rats,
Borers of holes in walls, and cereal cartons, litterers
Of the floor. Such skilled acrobats, watch them hike the long silvery
Curtain to the window, scrolling around in the frame, hiding
And slipping out his wild pile of books. Making their twitchy
Psalms in the rib of the walls. He has seen them try and fail, and
Flail, watched them in their fear, pinned under a transparent
Bucket to the wall: their little black eyes, glistening in the light—
He has watched them freeze in the glare of a flashlight, like photographs
Of high-paid models—their raised floppy ears, like
Leaves with space cut into them, the fine layer of the skin
Inside the ears, the triangle-like face, their mouth a
Jutting angle, the flying whiskers. Once, he watched the face of
One change from the face of a little child, its eyes teary, to that
Of a moderately angry lady, and then to the face of a monk who
Has come to accept his fate, though not entirely happily, with
A tinge of hope that God may let him off the hook in his last year.
How the skin colour of a cockroach, the closer the light, affects
Perception, changing from tar-dark to a radiant brown, the sud-of-coffee
Colour of the collar. He has watched them move about on his cracked tiles floor for a year,
Usually like cursors made alive, and drunk, rolling around in search
Of nothing, perhaps anxious to their bones. He still wonders,
Will they be still for a quarter of a minute, and thus be free,
If he read them Hemingway—what we fear is nada, y pues nada?
Perhaps not. The other night, the poet murdered one of the rats with a hardcover
Essay collection that had work by Arnold and Stevenson, with the edge
Of the book he creased the head of the rat to an ice cream
Container. When he lifted the book, the animal had touched
It with its blood, real red, as if from a biro or a thin-mouth
White board marker. The inhabitant’s head, pressed like a small piece of
Doughnut left between the pages of a book, the eyes running
Back into the socket, dead, crumpled up like a gearless trailer, engine
Cold, body acrobatic, silence in the lungs, swaying in the boat
That ferries people like it to their Country, where they can make their music
Without fear of crumpling. Even now, he hears them singing as the boats
Float over the water of the tears they were never allowed to shed,
Twenty of them to a boat, singing, o singing a chorus, their shouts like the
Shouts of bare radios, glee like a lute burning in their throats—faintly,
Very faintly, he hears, These riverfloors. City colourful. O the home we go!
Prelude to Joy
One morning, you will open your body’s window
And the aching world will dazzle. But first,
You must wash your hands clean of hope. Then trace your steps
To the place of rotten teeth. You will find
The path that brought you is cowry-eating divination.
A bald metaphor will hold you hostage. The gorged
Dreams will come with cleavers for your chest.
What will the vivid smell of nameless trees remind you of?
Of the burden of frames, the impossible frame
Of burdens. Distraught desire will teach you,
When hunger leaves you with your skin hanging scarce
Over your sandpapered bones, that your name
Does not mean today what it has always meant—
We are lean songs in the mouth of starved gods.
Then. You will be returned, as the night is returned,
You will be returned to your first name. The
Wearying ghosts will come but their eyes
Will not rattle. They will pick with their hands the clean bones
Of your grief, lift the bones to their bleak mouth,
And whistle. At last, sorrow will dredge in you
Staunch labyrinths of joy; and for the first time,
You will pray—you will notice the neat toenails
Of your dead, the elegant scar beneath their nose, the way
Their shadow twirls. Grace will wear your duty.
You will be surprised by that free music
Obscured by the desperation of moths.
after A.R. Ammons
In my life there are many silences—
I make bread of them. Then bear them in baskets
Of soft sticks, down the valley
Of lucid bones, up meek hills
To the market where the longing ones sew tongues
To time. Arriving, I lay the baskets down.
They come and they buy,
Without money, those who belong
To longing. I am satisfied
By memory. A little boy with
Half his face a wing of dew.
Mother plucking bleak weeds that set the heart
Of her child afire, plucking them out
Of the chest. The memory of watching them burn
In her hands, like spirits. A man,
Back bent by the weight of a tree risen
Out of him. Each one comes and buys,
They buy without money. And
I return, hoist the burden of my silence over my shoulder,
Clutch the warmth of the nourishing dark,
I return. I return to myself, the red eye
In my chest, knocking itself against
The box. Again and again. All day long,
All night long, I listen; and like you,
I cannot bear the message. E
*The first line of this poem is borrowed from Juan Rulfo.
Ernest O. Ògúnyẹmí is a student of History and International Studies at the Lagos State University. His work has recently appeared/is forthcoming in AGNI, Kenyon Review, and The Sun. His debut chapbook, A Pocket of Genesis (Variant Literature), appears in 2023.