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African Poetry: Safia Elhillo

Image| Jerry Riley |
Image| Jerry Riley |

I am writing this—I am starting this writing—while sitting in the International Lounge of the hospital. It’s business comfortable, and it reminds me of the international students’ office in which I spent much of my undergrad—an assortment of flags, accents, body vernaculars, anxieties, hopes. Official translators help patients navigate hospital bureaucracy, trying to translate the most difficult of sentences—it’s terminal, you have months left, prepare yourself, it will take a long time, you will need to be on medication for the rest of your life, your loved one will need care forever—into feeling and understanding. Translation is this impossible necessity.
Translation is at the heart of Safia Elhillo’s Asmarani, a work that moves between how words are written and how words sound, as in the first poem, “Vocabulary”:
Safia Vocabulary
* *
Translation is also the relationship between script and knowledge—I do not know how to write Arabic, so I must use a screenshot. I cannot reproduce Elhillo’s intricate spacing on the page—not without difficult, so I must use a screenshot. An argument emerges about the screenshot and translation, the screenshot as the impossibility of translation, and the poetry page as the site of untranslatable motion.

One watches Elhillo move wind/love into empty/full, vehicle/fuel, stuck/home, and wonders about how winds get stuck and how love turns into home. These impossibly necessary transformations.
Almost 4 months into my stay in India, I track the words that stamp my thinking:

blood, bloodwork, transfusion, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, waiting, delay, tests, tests, tests, doctor, patient, bed, bloodwork, infusion, appointment, waiting, delay, tests, bathroom, bowel movement, injection, fefol, cisplatin, domstal, looz, generic, branded, injection, bed, bowel movement, bowel movement, bowel movement, diarrhoea, constipation, blood, bloodwork, blood, bloodwork, blood, bloodwork, blood, bloodwork, blood, bloodwork, blood, bloodwork
bloodwork :: kinship
bloodwork :: wake work
bloodwork :: disposability
bloodwork :: carework
I read Elhillo’s untitled poem, reproduced in full

did our mothers invent loneliness           or did it make them our mothers         were we fathered by silence         or just looking to explain away this quiet           is it wasteful to pray for our brothers         in a language they never learned         whose daughters are we         if we grow old before our mothers          or for their sakes they called our grandfathers the january children         lined up by the colonizer & assigned birth years by height         there is no answer         we come from men who do not know when they were born & women shown to them in photographs whose children left the country         & tried for romance       & had daughters full of all the wrong language

Elhillo’s poems speak to themselves, and about themselves, recognising their own limits: “daughters full of all the wrong language” might write of “men who do not know when they were born.” A question is posed of how time is reckoned, of how time is valued: from the ethnohistories I know best, birth is reckoned by time of day or time of year (this name means born at night, that name means born in the rainy season, that name means born after a drought, this name means born in the year of plenty), and age is reckoned by association (belonging to the age group of locusts, belonging to the age group of beauty, belonging to the age group of helicopters).

When one is born and how one is named narrates a story. Not always. Never always.

When one is “full of all the wrong language,” one does not know how to hear, how to ask, how to measure.
I belong to those who are re-learning how to measure, struggling to collect knowledge from failing memories, trying to listen to those we once tried to unhear, and failing.
bloodwork because I am writing this in the wake of multiple deaths—three men tortured and murdered in Kenya, two women killed in the U.S., two men killed in the U.S., and a 4-year-old girl trying to comfort her mother

bloodwork: how to translate across spaces, how to ask if we can meet on grounds other than shared sorrow

i do not always survive
across boundaries
—“First Interview for the Position of Abdelhalim Hafez’s Girl”

I am reading Dagmawi Woubshet’s Calendar of Loss, a meditation on mourning and AIDS that devotes significant attention to black gay cultural production. It is flavoring how I read and misread and unread Elhillo.

I am in the register of the elegy. And this, I confess, is probably unfair to her work.
We shall not always mourn feels like an impossible promise—bloodwork.
Safia Glossary
There are moments—too many to name—when bloodwork makes a kind of reading impossible. I feel I cannot do justice to Elhillo’s book, to the intricate work it enacts. And for that I am sorry.

Poetry speaks when we cannot.

“I do not always survive
across boundaries”


African Poetry: Kayombo Chingonyi

Image| Jerry Riley |
Image| Jerry Riley |

Since I’m remembering this, or making it up,
there is only darkness; our bodies speaking.
Eat, your pelvis tells me. I eat—savoring
your aftertaste: tart but sweet, the inside
of a cheek, cured meat, a local delicacy.
–“In Defense of Darkness”

I come to this erotic image in at least three ways. First, thinking about the tradition of the blazon in poetry (as dismembered flesh and heraldic marking, as Lili Loofbourow reminds me), and the broader trope of men consuming women. Second, as a stubborn, fighting-for-survival, working-through-disidentification queer undergrad (a residual self) who insisted that the absence of obvious gendered designations created a queer opening. Today, having learned from trans activists and thinkers, I would say that even the appearance of standard gendered pronouns creates queer openings. Finally, I’d juxtapose this image alongside Nyachiro Lydia Kasese’s poems to ask how the speaker’s pleasure is experienced by his (I’m gendering the speaker based on the poet’s male signature) partner.

Readers of poetry can—and should—question whether such “interested” readings (feminist and queer) are fair to a poem that situates itself in the in-between space of memory (“Since I’m remembering this”) and imagination (“or making it up”). Here, the tricky question of whether the creative process should have any ethical tethers. I think this is a question all creative people must grapple with, and I have no patience for the lazy contingent who insist, “we’re creative, it’s inspiration,” and then proceed to (inevitably) reproduce toxic, unthought versions of the world.

Writing that simply reproduces dominant hierarchies is lazy and uncreative: it is an aesthetic failure.
I keep returning to the poems from From Calling a Spade a Spade, a previous collection that is excerpted in The Color of James Brown’s Scream. These poems treat the quotidian instances of anti-blackness. For instance, these excerpts from “The N Word”:

You sly devil. Lounging in a Pinter script
or pitched from a transit van’s rolled-down window;
. . .
These days I can’t watch a music video
online without you trolling in the comments
dressed to kill in your new age binary clothes.

The (n)epithet (as Christina Sharpe terms it) sits comfortably in acclaimed literature and is hurled out of passing cars. And it flourishes in digital spaces. None of these spaces are safe or free. Fanon describes the tensed muscles that accompany unhumaning, and I’m thinking about the psychic and physical postures (literal and figurative) adopted to anticipate such moments, and about what happens when (as happens often) one attempts to relax, only to experience the violence of unhumaning. In one fantasy, one builds a carapace that can always ward off hurt, but this is an unsustainable fantasy that permits no space for ethical imagining and freedom.

How, then, does one live with the ubiquity of unhumaning? To be clear: the (n)epithet always aims to unmake the possibility of human being and human relation. If one understands that it functions in this way, then one is baffled when well-meaning (“well-meaning”?) people attempt to explain it away, as in this encounter:

Just when I think I’ve shaken you off, you’re there,
innocuous, in Lowell’s poem—a flag
out of fashion, still flown by a patriot.
The seminar tutor tiptoes round you now.
Ours is to note the working mind behind the word,
not what remains unsaid: there is us and them.
–“On Reading ‘Colloquy in Black Rock’”

Because Chingonyi writes from England, it would be possible to dismiss his engagements with the (n)epithet as “over there” experiences, and to ask what they have to do with African poetry. After all, the most famous African poem detailing a racist encounter, Wole Soyinka’s “Telephone Conversation,” is located “over there.” Likewise, the most famous denunciation of racism by an African, Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africa,” locates itself “over there”:

It was a fine autumn morning at the beginning of this academic year such as encouraged friendliness to passing strangers. Brisk youngsters were hurrying in all directions, many of them freshmen in their first flush of enthusiasm. An older man, going the same way as I, turned and remarked to me how very young they came these days. I agreed. Then he asked me if I was a student too. I said no, I was a teacher. What did I teach? African literature. Now that was funny, he said, because he never had thought of Africa as having that kind of stuff, you know. By this time I was walking much faster. “Oh well,” I heard him say finally, behind me, “I guess I have to take your course to find out.”

A few weeks later I received two very touching letters from high school children in Yonkers, New York, who, bless their teacher, had just read Things Fall Apart. One of them was particularly happy to learn about the customs and superstitions of an African tribe.

A handy note tells us,

This paper was given as a Chancellor’s Lecture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, February 18, 1975.

“Most famous” describes networks of publishing and distribution, and the activist and intellectual work in England and the U.S. that has made quotidian acts of racist unhumaning visible and available for critique and action.

It has been in the interests of white-dominated (owned, administered, and providing donor support) publishing in Africa to locate quotidian racism “over there,” so that while Soyinka’s poem is easily found in poetry and literature anthologies across Africa, poems that detail anti-black racism in Africa seldom (if ever) appear in the same anthologies. (I’m happy to be corrected about this.)

I invoke Achebe not simply because of the “over there” of his work, but because “An Image of Africa” explicitly addresses the kind of aesthetic criticism that refuses to assess unhumaning as a problem of aesthetics. An author whose work I have learned much from writes, for instance,

I am aware that the recent exposure of Heidegger’s complicity with Nazism has discouraged engagement with his work. For a student of racism to apply such a standard would be counterproductive, however, since so many of the world’s great thinkers (Aristotle, Locke, Hegel, for instance) held unsavory racial views.

First, “unsavory racial views” does not contend with the profound damage these thinkers have enabled, if not caused. Second, I would go beyond Achebe and ask whether those who believe in the black’s sub- and un-human status deserve to be considered “great thinkers.” I would demote them to influential and, perhaps, useful, but not great. Never great. They do not pass the ethical tests set by Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, and Sylvia Wynter.
Have I diminished Chingonyi’s collection by offering yet another “interested” reading?
Finally, it would be a crime to discuss The Color of James Brown’s Scream without mentioning the musical experiences it details. Unlike Alex Weheliye, Robin James, and Lili Loofbourow, I do not know how to write about music. Thus, approximations, with the same fluency as an untalented student having a first violin lesson.

“Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee” narrates a familiar story of a displaced young person (a teenager, I suspect, though no age is mentioned), displaced in a move from “South West London” to “117 Retford Road, Harold Hill, Essex.” In that move, to a “grieving house,” sold after the owner died (“the old girl, God rest her soul, wasn’t found for days”), the speaker struggles to settle in (“I can’t sleep because there are no sirens / no neighbor’s screams to lull me into / lurid dreams of Natasha Laurent”). Soundscapes take central stage as he finds a position in his new social world through music:

I started saving the odd pound coin here and there,
buying cassettes in bulk so I could record emcees,
study their lyrics, and pass off their bars as mine
. . .
In the time it took the teacher on duty to run the corner
and he regulars to form a ragtag circle [,] I had a following;
girls two years older asking my name and could you do
the one about the cartoon characters again

Social effects follow:

Since I could spit lyrics, every last stone
thrown by those two boys, whose cries of Nig Nog still follow me,
bounced off my scrawny back and fell to reverence at my feet.

Stones (and sticks?) fall “to reverence,” but words “still follow me.” While Chingonyi focuses on acts of world-imagining and world-making, he locates them within the afterlife of slavery, recognizing the persistence of race-making and anti-blackness. It is this persistence that accounts for the tragicomedic ending to the poem, where the black amateur emcee is found lacking:

Eminem ruined everything. I had to learn the words to “Stan,”
borrow the nasal whine, slide into a drawl midway between
London and New York and nowhere near Detroit. Though,
in time, I could rattle off the Slim Shady LP line for line,
no amount of practice could conjure pale skin and blue eyes.
The eyes that made Marshall a poet and me just another
brother who could rhyme, wasting time on Garage when
anyone with sense know it was all about hip hop now.

The volume of commentary on the role of white artists in hip hop (Macklemore and Iggy Azalea, though one could point to Elvis and those who followed his lead) makes anything I might have to add superfluous. I would only point to how white supremacy continues to work through displacement and dispossession.

Finally, a note on how music practices assemble.

We loved the casual bravado of emcees with forty-a-day
voices and too many ladies to big up from last week’s rave,
years out of reach but our to keep on a TDK cassette
bought, four in a pack, for a pound.

When the speaker doesn’t have money,

I’d plunder my mum’s cache of cassettes for something
she wouldn’t miss or couldn’t bring herself to admit
she once loved.

It is nostalgia, I confess.

New, precious music traveled to Nairobi on dubbed cassettes: TDK, Maxwell (I forget the other brands), music taped from radio shows in the U.K. and the U.S. Occasionally, someone with means would buy an original cassette, and it would do the rounds. I spent hours dubbing tapes—copying from originals and from copies, copying the degraded sound of tapes that had been copied too many times, and still finding that sound precious. It’s difficult to explain the clarity of the CD after the degraded noise of tapes that had been played too many times and records that were more scratch and jump than sound. A few times, I got large numbers of empty tapes—I forget how. And I hoarded them, saving them for the music that really counted.

As far as I can remember, most of what circulated in the 80s was dubbed from radio. And I think (memory is unreliable) that most of what was dubbed in the 90s was from tapes and CDs: something about sound had started to change, though I lack the language for it now. One noticeable effect—caused, in part, by my shifting continents—is that music became less social in its materiality. One stopped lending tapes and CDs, one stopped complaining about friends who never returned tapes and CDs (some people still have my music!), and one stopped thinking of dubbing tapes and CDs. The sharing economy changed: now, friends will send me digital files, but the traces of sharing are different. We speak of damaged files and not of chewed tape. And with each new digital remastering, we lose some of the noise that accompanies music.

ps: with the exception of one poem set in Zambia, Chingonyi’s collection locates itself in England, with brief forays into U.S. elsewheres enabled by the global circulation of music. A claim is made about the geographies of African-ness, about the experiences that speak through and across geohistories. We find each other not in shared sound, but in the strategies to preserve and transmit sound, even as we anticipate straining to hear our attachments as they degrade beyond repair.

African Poetry: Nyachiro Lydia Kasese

Image| Jerry Riley |
Image| Jerry Riley |

Nyachiro Lydia Kasese’s Paper Dolls is filled with scenes of smoking, which are also scenes of gendering, degendering, and engendering. These scenes are often breezy,

I met a boy once in Dodoma who asked me,
“Why do you smoke? Are you addicted?”
I met another boy at a bus stand who told me,
“I like girls who smoke, do you want to go out with me?” (“Ancient”)

If you’re familiar with histories of modern women, you’ll recognise this image of the young smoking woman: across multiple geohistories, she incarnates modernity. In the opening lines to the poem, she is policed in the name of manners (“good women don’t smoke”), health (“women who care about their health don’t smoke”), and appetite (“women who know how to control themselves don’t get addictions”). These very same absences mark the modern woman as available for sexual fantasy and sexual invitation: “do you want to go out with me?”

As tempting as it is to say these scripts were fashionable in the twentieth century and have now faded, they are persistent, and Kasese uses their persistence to describe the shape of the world that is possible for young women. “Shape of the world” sounds hyperbolic, but I think it describes the geotemporalities Kasese’s speaker maps: Dodoma, the proper place name, albeit fixed to an unspecified past (“once”) and “a bus stand,” rendered imprecise by the indefinite article “a” and the unspecified time (it’s in the past, “met,” but that past could be any past). These two spatio-temporalities are joined by the focus on policing women, the focus on shaping how women inhabit these space, the focus on women’s availability (for comment, insult, proposition, invitation, harassment).

In “The Journey of Bodies,” smoking creates shared ground between colorism and misogyny:

Dear Mouth,
When the men of this city tell you that you are too pretty to smoke, that your lips are too vaginal pink to turn black from smoking, remind them that their mothers spent years attempting to love black into their children’s spines. Remind them that it is because of them that your daughters will look for god in skin-lightening creams just so they can appear light enough to be paraded in public.

Kasese takes on the casual banter—bar talk, it’s called in Kenya—that circulates so easily, as though without thought, all the while shaping the kinds of worlds women can inhabit. Compliments (“you are too pretty to smoke”) have histories: they discipline and, very rarely, expand possibilities. They also sexualize—“your lips are too vaginal pink”—comparing the women in front of them to images culled from porn magazines. (An aside: the expectation that young women should be familiar with, if not conform to, porn aesthetics, and be comfortable as such aesthetics are tossed around in casual conversation is also another way of shaping the experience of young, modern womanhood.)

This casual banter is not innocent. Kasese reminds us what it must erase to exist: the years mothers spend “attempting to love black into their children’s spines.” (I cannot explain how much I absolutely adore that line and image, the labor it makes visible, the white supremacy it takes on, the worlds that mothers create.) Such comments erase not only labor by mothers (histories), but also create pathologizing futures in which the speaker’s daughters (daughters belong to their mothers?) will “look for god in skin-lightening cream.” Damaging comments have multigenerational effects.

To transpoke Kasese for a moment: if her poems are breezy, they soon reveal themselves to have the force of a harmattan.

These concerns about the worlds women can inhabit coalesce in “Accepted Standards,” in which the speaker wonders if she can live up to the image of her mother she idealised as a young girl:

The not-so-little girl inside of you wonders
if she will ever fit in the shoes your mother wore in 1990
. . .
Every now and then you want to dress her up in pretty,
throw on some religion around her face,
put some morality around her waist.
You try to get her to quit smoking,
to stop drinking and masturbating in cheap hotel rooms.

I read these final lines alongside the fourth (and final) stanza in “Flowering”:

To my unborn daughters:
sometimes your mother will play apothecary,
and still her medicine will not protect you from the monsters under your beds.
One day you may have to walk through your own Gethsemane.
One day you will be dead without dying.
Someday your mother’s tongue will be a lost tribe,
a testament to the new world a past generation
that nurtures fear in their back gardens.
Someday she will explore her past,
in the only place left for it. Her memory.

World-making is mapped along girlhood, womanhood, and motherhood in these poems. Its temporal scale leaves the (too common and much expected) space of the nation (you’re an African—write about your history, your culture, your anti colonial struggles, your postcolonial angst). It insists on focusing our gaze on how young women make and inhabit worlds alongside the worlds made for them to inhabit.

These are abrading poems: they strip and scratch, they predict debilitating futures for young women (“One day you will be dead without dying”), even as they see some hope in the conditional (“One day you may have to walk through your own Gethsemane”). Even as they dare to imagine it might be different—poetry is that place of daring to imagine the world might be shaped differently, that it might receive one differently.

The final poem of the collection, “Prodigal,” reveals not the hard carapace associated with the breezy modern young woman (itself a dangerous stereotype), but an impossible vulnerability demanded of the modern young woman:

Yesterday I was scared. Almost terrified. I tried to hide in myself,
but I had too many places to be,
too many things to be for other people,
to many laughs and inside jokes to share with people I had promised a good time.
It was Friday after all. But today I’m here I’m alone.
I’m unwrapping the wounds, checking if the lack of solitude yesterday
had miraculously healed them.
I’m waiting for God or some other creator of the universe
to make their way past all my sins and cigarette smoke,
to pick me up from all this nothingness.

The sentiments are familiar: the demands imagined and practiced as womanhood figured as endless extension and availability, womanhood as an endless resource (of pleasure, of fun, of patience, of love, of understanding), womanhood as an unending good breast (Melanie Klein). It’s possible to dismiss “all this nothingness” as the typical angst of the young(er) poet—clad in black, carrying around Nietzche, droning on about the futility of it all. Such an interpretation misses Kasese’s more trenchant critique of the endless resources imagined to comprise womanhood: there is no unending well of patience, no unending cornucopia of understanding. The stretch demanded of women—that to be woman is to be stretch—takes away from what isn’t there.

What space exists for young women to be?