God Punish You, Lord Lugard
The traffic warden’s white-and-yellow sleeve
stopped our transport, a Lagos mini-bus
bought from one of the rust heaps of Europe ?
part of the great scheme to gain reprieve
for the city’s long-suffering commuters.
A horde of beggars swarmed the bus; he beat
all to the vantage position in front
of the open door. He had good manners,
and what he lacked, such as the Queen’s English,
he faced with uncommon calm and courage;
blind and battered, with a withered left arm,
not for him the plain and unlearned
“Help me for chop, I beg. God go bless you.”
Some flourish, or polish, he thought
would persuade far more than suffering’s worst gown.
And so he: “Good day, brodas and sistas.
Half massy on me, please half sampaty.
Allah’s piss for you.” In the bus now, silence
and private wars between purse and charity.
“Half ya broda, half sampaty on me.”
The conductor, scorning all etiquette
laughed loud, pitying country, not beggar
and swore: “God punish you, Lord Lugard,
na you bring this english come Nigeria!”
The white-and-yellow arm beckoned the bus,
a wild fury of horns startled it past
ferrying us beyond claims of charity
and of Lugard’s shadow in the black smoke.
(c) Ogaga Ifowodo – 3 May 1997
The Day Too Bright
(A Ruler Sings To Himself)
The day too bright for my bloodshot eyes,
I crave the eternity of night.
All is well then, truest sound my lies.
The sun steals the shine from my shoulders,
dims my swords and stars to a dead light.
All is gloom then, when the sun smoulders.
Holding loaded guns and shooting blind,
dead to death, I see the victims’ fright.
All is right then, taking all I find.
Oh such power as I felt that July,
took flaming Lagos, tanks won the fight.
All dressed the throne, blood hurled up the sky.
If any knows it’s me: night is best
for treason’s conclaves on duels of might.
All coups were blessed, darkest deeds the test.
They seize the light of day to gather
and rail against darkness and their plight.
All must rue the day, bow to power.
I can’t tell the country on a map,
must be where it bleeds to match my sight?
All chained to the rock, trails to the trap.
The rock! Ibrahim feared an angry day,
built bunkers, a fortress in granite.
All cold as stone, frozen for the stay.
But the sun is stubborn, so am I.
To deny blood, I won’t wash it white –
sunglasses on, I can brave the sky.
(c) Ogaga Ifowodo – 1 September 1996
Fela: In Memoriam
He faded gently upon his curved horn
when death came for its borrowed pouch.
A song heavy with the burden of life’s
loss, the hard grief of days and nights to come
bowed heads, made jelly of dancing feet.
To steel his heart against fear, he wore death
below his midriff and lived like one
to whom immortality had been granted.
His nimble fingers slowed on the keyboard,
his cheeks no longer ballooned into his horns
as death approached, grave like a debt-collector.
So he took refuge in boastful denial
in answer to the strain of his wheezing lungs.
He saw the dark shadow at his doorpost
and blowing his introit, faded upon his horn.
He was born twice, the first time
he spied his earth, shunned his name
whose sound echoed a strange clime,
and returned for the rite to tame
the spirits he would vanquish.
When he was born again, fire
blazed in his eyes to furnish
Ogun’s forge; none would retire
until pure steel had been cast
for his backbone. So he stood straight
in hurricanes, in thunderblast –
till death, nothing they could throw
at him would break his back. Nothing.
He walked forbidden streets, walked the row
of set traps and sprung them all. Lifting
up his eyes, he claimed for his art everything.
He dipped into the boiling pot of suffering
and found the common factor of our sorrow.
He drank to bottom the ancestral well
of healing water. His speech emboldened
the expelled air of discontent to salute
hope fluttering on a tattered flag. A song,
his long drums had told him, can make a world,
can plant a dream and grow the tree of life.
The loud wail, the cry muted in a heart
dangling from frail threads threatened by fire,
the wound sharp as a knife – he turned them all
into the sound and fury of his songs.
He blew his horn, and regimes heard the rumble
of thundering feet. He chanted a note
and skeletons leapt out of locked closets.
He etched his name in the air
and breath doubled its vigour. He dissolved
into water, and tides gladdened fishermen.
He crucified himself on our outspread arms
and none could mock his agony.
He buried his splintered bones in our throats
and our speech evoked common griefs.
None could roll a stone over his body
to stop his dreaded spirit rising
to claim rebellious children and repressed wishes.
He lived according to his own gospels
and judged the righteousness of priests.
For his daring, he was given hell’s worst tortures.
And after surviving the keenest flames
he could live by his own rules –
the only paradise worthy of a death.
A horn full of ash arced the mournful air.
A simple casket of cane bore the priest
who knew the essence of riches, all fair
claims to glory; who knew what great feast
a simple supper can be where the soul,
not greed, is fed. Steeped in wealth, he joyed
in his plain clothes, happy in the shoal
of gold hemmed into the seam. Pretenders
and clowns may yet clutch with leprous fingers
at the sealed gourd of revealed self:
how shall they grasp it with awkward stumps?
Let the horn in the heir’s mouth hymn the shelf
of shattered dreams with the song of parting.
And as earth, impatient, widens its jaws
to receive a royal guest, let weeping
eyes behold sun and moon mating, and the awe.
At heavensgate, they hauled his book of sins
before him, sought to bar him from his seat.
One blast of his horn brought down the walls.
The choir of praise, tongue-tied, lost its voice.
With a tongue of fire, he shall change the hymn.
Oh music man, with a foot on the rock
of your rusty place of birth, trumpet
irreverence in heaven, and rouse a bored band
to rebellion. Cast him down, dear God,
into our waiting arms. We long for one
not born of a virgin, not spawned from divine
sperm, but one who, cast in mere clay, rejoiced
in the ordained vanities of his being.
From the mouth of him with nothing to gain
may we take the oath of things unknowable.
(c) Ogaga Ifowodo – 29 August, 1997
(after Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong)
And your father has said
in plain and pointed terms:
what do you say for a fellow
that leaves his wig and bib to brown
in a locked closet, and droopy-
eyed, claims joy in a fool’s stutter?
And I have not answered,
homebound in poetry’s spell
outbound to coffee-rooms
where we meet and measure
the poets in spoons and cups,
I have not, dear, answered
when your eyes light on me!
He threatens now, you say,
the wrath and the fire
of a raving father fearing
entrapment by shapeless fancy,
Oh, he swears disinheritance
if you will play the silly girl.
And I have not answered,
not caring, as you know,
what weathermen and what
goldsmiths say bright days and
happiness must live by,
I have not, dear, answered
when thus your eyes turn pearls!
And in my half-lit room
where light from two stones
for things immeasurable
in gold weights or dollars,
I comb beauty’s known shrines
And not finding the origin
of the sun and your eyes, I shout:
Oh eyes giving me the jeepers
Oh heart that hews out life’s creepers
rejoicing in a bird’s twitters,
where, just where, did she get those eyes?
(c) Ogaga Ifowodo – May 9, 1997
My Prison Bed
The first night gave signs of what was to come.
A reed mat on bare concrete, sand shovelled
in by foot from a beachy frontage, showed
what little room for comfort between flesh
and floor. Elbow for pillow, I smuggled
a dream of liberty into the small
fraction of night for which a trained army
of mosquitoes was ready to spill blood.
At dawn, five fingers pressed on the right cheek
branded me with ill-presumed tribal marks,
leaving me wondering why, seeing that Akin
with the right to the marks had a clean cheek.
You could say the first night was glorious, gave
a false picture, if spent in an office
whose chairs were made to vacate their tables; yes,
you could say we merely slept on duty!
No pampering place awaited us where we
were driven the second night. Stripped
now of all belongings but sleeping clothes,
the jailer’s “Not exactly like your bed
at home”, aimed at soothing two forlorn nights
in a row, mocked with uncommon cruelty,
the unhappy end of a journey home.
The worked steel barrier clanged, clicked shut its huge
and black padlock of Chinese make, shaking
the fog of tiredness out of our heads.
The room was, admittedly, large, nothing
close to the pride-of-place cell of prison
notes. And there were windows, telling clearly
that breathing was no offence. A sofa
nearing complete collapse, the bare steel props
of a giant close-circuit monitor,
testified to a once-furnished room, just
as the broken down air-conditioner,
the boarded space for another, and peeled
stays of carpet, described the conversion
from room to cell. We found our beddings – six
square pieces of foam, which could have been
cushions in happier days, and another
one, longer but thinner, and too narrow
for two. I made bed with it, a cushion
gained as I put it where no pressed bottom
could fart on it. Exhaustion dropped me down
to sleep, only to be sprung to my feet
in an instant by the foul smell of the
pillow. I moved beneath the flourescent
to examine the beddings with wakeful
calm, having perished the thought of sniffing
the entire bed. Under the light, they seemed
a salvage of the dung-heap, drenched and dried
under rain and sun, spat and pissed upon
to suit them to prisoners and their needs.
One such prisoner, I presume, startled
out of a wet dream, sprayed his vital fluids
to draw lines and ringed blotches on the foam.
Any sleep this night or the nights to come
lay in this bed or bare concrete without
a mat. I turned the foam, beat and brushed it
with a broom, turned also the foul pillow
and made peace with the smells of sleep in prison.
(c) Ogaga Ifowodo – 4 December 1997
Unmarked Hours Beat their Hands Against the Wall
Unmarked hours beat their hands against the wall
grieve for wings plunged in a waterfall.
Outside the window, a woman’s shoulders
quake in tribute to a scene of soldiers:
teeth, fragments of flesh in warm blood painted
the picture she sees of those that fainted.
A single call to prayer, amplified
to all of Sin Town, brings mortified
legions to banal rites of righteousness.
As the minister swears his piousness
birds blessed with greater freedom flee our skies
abandoning us to death and muted cries.
Philosophies of suffering dress the walls
of this cell, make the fate of dead seagulls
happier than of failed hearts that bled and wept:
“If men were God!” that mocked the cliff and leapt,
crying out their grief: “Let Nigeria end now!”
No one will inquire who, why or how,
an old or new decree has sanctified
all wrongs in duty personified.
Unmarked days quench their suns, black into nights
and dreams enact weighted hearts in free flights.
(c) Ogaga Ifowodo – November 1997
As In Athens
Under the old tree – ancient, having drunk
the earth’s dew before I groped for her breast –
they sit over tobacco and rude gin.
At the waist of the tree, where gods have their mouth
present offerings slobber down over the old,
freshen the browned blood of yester-tributes.
A breeze combs the green hair of coconut,
orange and mango trees hedging the yard
with the scent of the sea, combs, too, grey hairs.
With a warm heart and a cold eye on all
that passed and passes between earth and sky,
that could dwell in the air, land or water,
white beards read the mist of ages past
and present. And begins poetry and proverbs.
Under the big old tree. As in Athens.
(c) Ogaga Ifowodo – 10 February, 1998
(From Madiba, my second collection).