after everything I rely on confusion
– Dionne Brand
Before the house of God lies the path
the old men walked on, songs in their bones,
bottles in their hands, stories left to wander
in the footprints of their past.
I had walked slowly behind them, an apprentice
inheriting that which is left to loss.
The orange trees in the school yard holds the dove
monotonous song, competing with a boy
who is summoning rain with his whistle, holding
the sky to the ransom of his desire.
And before clouds become the soft drizzle
on grasses, a child sings this song of awe:
what are you eating? I am eating the eye of history.
I am seeing the dark places of my life.
What is hidden from us demands the ceremony
of our lives, asking us to sing it to light – and within
the red sands of this village flows the blood of those
disappeared into the industry of empires.
I walk down the unpaved road, the houses made
out of mud bricks speak of the old ones within them,
the sheep with their dirty wool bleats their abandonment,
and from the end of the road, the beginning of the old
forest reserve, young men with faces coated with charcoal
sing of disappearance, sing of those whose graves hold
plantain stems, whose bodies are still trapped within ships.
The benediction of my life confuses me.
Once before a full moon, the old ones told us
the stories of burial, saying, because of slave raiders
we swore to see the dead before committing them to the earth,
we swore to count those the sea took, burying plantain stems
in place of bodies.
I am given to wander history and its many branches,
I am given to silence and its many voices.
It is almost nightfall and I am ready to pray
to my ancestors, and though the night will be crowned
with stars, and though clouds of deer will move
from one life to another, I do not know who will hear
me in the darkness of death – do those who heard
the solemn voices of the sea belong to us?
Do they also accept the libation of our lives?
O old ones, the rain is alive, the sun is here too,
and somewhere an elephant is pushing out new life.
I am before the origin of wonder, watching the doors
of all the houses, waiting for someone to speak into me
the answers, lighting those who were disappeared
into the sky, making them known to us who’d inherited
the gaps of history, the last voices left on our shores,
the haunted reserve of our collective shame.
Romeo Oriogun is a Nigerian poet whose poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Nation, Poetry, and other journals. A winner of the Nigeria Prize for Literature and the Poetry Society of America Fay Di Castagnola Prize, he lives in Ames where he works as a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Iowa State University.