African Poetry: D.M. Aderibigbe

Image| Jerry Riley |
Image| Jerry Riley |

Day One


Now that I have no other place to go,
I’ll go into my grandmother’s fingers,
wrap myself with her blanket,
pick a sheet of paper and a pen,

and I’ll rewrite my childhood,
amputating my father’s hands
and legs with ink, like rebels
crop innocuous civilizations, by God.

My childhood will lack nothing.
Nothing at all.


The English major in me jumps to Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” a poem that spoke to even those of us who had pleasant relations with our fathers. When I encountered “Daddy” my first year in university, it was a scandal. Sure, like all young people I had directed unfocused rage at my father--for being sick when I needed him and for dying before my rage could bloom into full rebellion--but such rage was not public. One might discuss it with siblings or with friends, but to put it in a poem or to perform it in a play went against everything I knew about writing. The law of writing, indebted to how writing in English came to us through the colonial bible, demanded that one honor one’s parents.

More than simply a law of writing, this command that one honor one’s parents trained our imaginations. There was—there is—only one approved genre for writing about one’s real and fictive father in African poetry: the praise song.

The patriarchal codes that continue to govern African poetry make it unthinkable, unimaginable, a scandal, for sons to criticize their fathers.

D.M. Aderibigbe’s poetry is scandalous.


Let’s not pretend the sky
is always plaited with beauty,
even the gods are not too perfect.
—“Elegy for My Mothers”


My mother rested
her head on my aunt’s arm.
She talked and talked,
remaking the morning
with her tongue like God.
—“My Mother Remakes that Morning”

Tsitsi Jaji writes, “D.M. Aderibigbe’s poetry is cause for ululation, those praises that soar out of African women’s mouths across the continent.”

Day Two

Numbers can serve a purpose. Of the 24 poems in In Praise of our Absent Father, the following mention a grandmother, a mother, an aunt, a sister, or a half-sister

By the river my grandmother once told
me she failed

My grandmother, just nine, cried
—Olumos’s Face”

After my grandmother’s first heartbreak
from my grandfather
—“Love Story”

On my grandmother’s skin,
the heaven doesn’t stop
crying for thirteen years
—“Elegy for My Mothers”

The twin mountains
on my aunt’s chest stopped moving.
My grandmother screamed
and screamed, it was easter.
—“Easter Night”

Mother’ stomach wrapped
around your body, sat on apoti
—“Ode To Your First Cry”

My sweat-soaked mother stretched

my stiffened sister on a mat,
pouring a bottle of aporo,
squeezing a shrub of Ata re
into the girls’ cold lips.

My mother restedd
her head on my aunt’s arm.
She talked and talked,
remaking the morning
with her tongue like God.
—“My Mother Remakes that Morning”

Aburo ni o wan, this was how the day
unfolded from your mouth;
mama mi, ebi npa mi.
—“Hungry Man”

My mother’s lips are broken.

My mother and her sister
joke of their slow death—
about their murderous men.
—“Separating From My Future”

Beside my mother’s left leg
my half-sister smiled to a phone
like a mad woman.
—“Ode to His Absence”

My mother wore
aso-oke—she danced, we ate—
raising cups in praise of her loneliness.
—“In Praise Of Our Absent Father”

A story stretched inside
my mother’s hair: she hid
loneliness insider her blanket.

The day starts in my little sister’s
little fingers

My mother packed her life
into a Ghana-must-go bag

Mother, I sell my body
—“Mother, Again”

News of my mother’s death
on everybody’s lips.

My mother sat in the lobby,
crying while the doctor
stitched my head.
—“That Day, In the Lobby”

My niece’s tears—
drooping and dropping—
splash on my head,
get me up from bed.
—“Art of Stretching”

My grandmother’s voice replaced
the day when the sun died.
--“Ode to My Grandmother’s Mouth”

My sister learned how to walk
following my mother to court.
—“My Father and I”

Now that I have no other place to go,
I’ll go into my grandmother’s fingers,
wrap myself with her blanket,
pick a sheet of paper and a pen,

and I’ll rewrite my childhood,
amputating my father’s hands
and legs with ink, like rebels
chop innocuous civilians, by God,

My childhood will lack nothing.
Nothing at all.
—“A Fulfilled Childhood”

If you have counted, that's every poem in the collection.

Every poem maps a relationship to a woman—a grandmother, a mother, an aunt, a half-sister—and, often, it maps a relationship between women. While the tradition of African poetry in European languages by men features women—I’m thinking of poems by Léopold Sédar Senghor, Dennis Brutus, and Okot P’Bitek—these poems often feature a libidinal component that is absent from this collection: they are poems to wives and girlfriends and potential lovers. A libidinal male gaze subtends the tradition.

Part of what’s compelling about D.M. Aderibigbe’s collection is that this libidinal gaze, while not entirely absent, does not shape the collection. Despite the collection’s name—and, really, it should have been renamed—it is an extended elegy for the speaker’s mother. We experience the speaker’s experience of his mother’s life—one might quibble that she never exists except as a mother, but the web of relations mapped in relation to her is rich enough to create a more interesting portrait.

I might be struggling to say something quite simple: very few African men I’ve read see women as they relate to each other, as living in webs of relationships with each other.

Day Three

For me, the broken heart of In Praise of Our Absent Father is “Tiredness,” which I cite in full:

Vehicles hoot and honk; the deadlocked
traffic jam sputters smoke

into the afternoon. Curses and pleas,
splayed on the road like pollution.

Afternoon gathers around a danfo
bus. Two men struggle to pull

open the door. A man pours his folded
fists on a woman like stones.

I stand outside the bus, looking—
my father slaps and slaps my mother

with the backs of this hands.
My mother’s lips are broken. Two men

hold up my father’s hands, his knuckles
painted with blood. Mother lies on the ground,

tired of rising after every fall.

The extended metaphorical comparison to a boxing match manages the poem’s emotion. Form, as I keep insisting, provides strategies that make it possible to face the impossible. The couplet, my favorite form, intensifies the poem's effect. One can’t help seeing “couple” in “couplet,” and noting that the final, single line of the poem marks the impossibility, the brokenness of the couple.

One more formal observation: the only complete sentence in a single line is “My mother’s lips are broken.” If you’ve read Luce Irigaray’s “When Our Lips Speak Together,” I think this line acquires an additional dimension. A tiny sampling:

I love you: our two lips cannot part to let one word pass. One single word that would say”you"or"me. "Or,"equals": she who loves, she who is loved. Open or closed, for one never excludes the other, our lips say that both love each other. Together. To articulate one precise word,our lips would have to separate and be distant from each other. Between them, one word.

Why use “broken” instead of split or cut? Does “broken” suggest a different kind of healing process? Split or cut—though never minor—might minimize this violence. Lips are synecdochic and metonymic: representing the entire body and also suggesting voice. To break a lip is to break body and spirit—though other poems will push against this idea and insist on survival (I prefer survival to resilience). But in this moment of violence, one witnesses breaking, not survival.

In many ways, this poem is unbearable, but I resist placing a trigger warning because it recounts something utterly banal. I can’t imagine any Kenyan my age (or older) who did not grow up witnessing domestic violence—either in our own homes or in the homes that surrounded us. When I was in high school, one teacher used to beat his wife during evening prep. All the students—this was an all-boys school—heard her cries. We rarely heard anyone intervening. Someone might have intervened, but we did not hear it. Every neighbourhood had its resident abuser—you know that Mr. so and so “beats his wife like a drum.” Even now, the stories circulate of prominent men who beat their wives and of prominent women who are beaten. Domestic violence is banal as event and threat.

I have been using “domestic violence,” and that is an odd term to describe a public performance of violence: the beating takes place in a bus and men—strangers, I assume—separate the couple. Yet, under what terms do they separate the couple? Are the father’s arms held up to proclaim him a winner? Has patriarchy won?

Thankfully, the poem appears midway through the collection, and so it is not what Taban lo Liyong called “the final word” before, in proper Liyong fashion, he insisted on “another final word.”

To conclude these reflections on this poem feels wrong, as though I am placing the ugliness of patriarchy at the heart of a collection that is, more accurately, about how women live together, how they form communities, how they survive and thrive. And how men can find ways to write these poems.