Have you ever experienced something so overwhelming that it takes a while to sink into a place where it can be digested? (I’m hoping the American people are going through a “writer’s block,” so to speak, and will very soon rise up with their voices, pens, and withdrawn tax dollars to stop the worship of war in our country! But I digress…)
I spent last July in Monrovia, Liberia with my parents (they were there on a two-yr. humanitarian term with MMN, years that tested their marriage and their faith–but that’s a whole other entry!). A collapsed infrastructure is astounding and brutal to see face to face; so is the result of centuries of violence, corruption, and struggle…It’s taken me 8 months to put my experiences in Liberia onto paper…and even so, they are so hard to capture or revisit. Anyway, here are some new poems. I’d love to read others’ travel writing!
TO THE GIRL ON SOMALIA DRIVE
I am not prepared to see her on Somalia Drive.
We have the car windows closed, partly
so that no arm can reach in, see what white skin
has to offer, partly to block out the loudest fumes.
Diesel trucks and busloads in front of us mimic
slowly rolling waves (children have been lost
in the mahogany puddles of rainy season potholes.)
Roads pulse with people, dogs with teats dragging, lines
of goats. We crawl past a slaughterhouse, a Coca Cola factory,
a trailer packed with workers singing
of the Promised Land.
We are some sort of horrible royalty.
After all, we are from America,
that real Promised Land that sent freed slaves here
to start Liberia, also the home of “freedom.” We are tied
to these people outside our car windows
by blood and sweat and quiet
greed. Men suck their teeth
at my mother and me, their way of getting
our unnerved attention. Looks of longing,
money signs, and awe. Babies often cry—
to them, we are ghosts.
I have learned to be overly interested in my shoes.
When I do glance up this day, I see a flash of white,
and there she is: a blue-black body
all treble clef curves, a bucket of bananas
cocked on her head. We look
at one another, five seconds
at the most.
I am becoming numb to seeing more and more
young men with missing limbs or hands,
the sickening artwork of civil war.
But meeting eyes with a faceless girl—where cheeks
and nose should be, only white, only white—
who can ever get used to that?
A HUNDRED WAYS TO KILL A ROOSTER
Just wait, they will
get hungry, my mothers says at breakfast,
after I complain. Your luxury is to be annoyed
by little things. In early morning,
when our neighbors rise at four
to make sweet, soft foolah bread to sell
on Tubman Boulevard, only rainy season
at its worst can keep him from prying
open the world.
I’ve watched him closely
outside the screened window of the room
where I take my bucket bath: he runs stiffly
through puddles, green-gold feathers
ducking through legs of children to escape
the sudden, mean downpours, to crow happily
Across the street, the Nancy Doe
market slowly spurts to life, its war-damaged
buildings still housing dried fish and fufu, children
selling mayonnaise jars of gasoline, pushing
wheelbarrows of flip-flops who
shake their shy heads “no” when we
ask them for a picture. No one needs
another soul stolen
here. Even from the market,
I make out the rooster’s cackle.
I get to know him
well; by the end of a month,
I am sure that he sounds different
when announcing a storm
blowing in off ELWA beach (like a trumpet
that’s been trampled). As he becomes that grandfather clock
villain-laughing-out each quarter hour,
I wish for him instead a slow death
by fire ants. Even
the over-sized avocado pits at lunch
begin to seem like the perfect artillery.
I think of other weapons I could hurl
over the compound wall, past the highest layer
of broken glass and cur-le-cued
barbed wire. Always the generous American,
I try to think of things his struggling owners
could use: two shoes? a dictionary? a pot
or a pan?
Liberia’s Independence Day–a morning that brings
loud singing and strangers to our door smiling
and asking for the gifts they know
we can give, and my last sweaty
morning in Africa–I wait
for his usual green-and-gold boasting.
How fitting that silence is all that comes
over the compound wall; it means a fuller thing.
OUR WOMEN CAN BE MINISTERS (OF MUSIC)
Sometimes I think that African music
was planted like an acorn in the heart
of my white mother. Saasaahs and drums
always sat in the corners of our two-story
house in the farmlands of Ohio.
The need was always there
for a loud and pulsing rhythm that would drag her
from straight Protestant benches and into
church aisles 7,000 miles from head coverings,
pursed lips and elders. Dancing joy-filled to the pulpit,
she would sing out in languages
she’d never known. Before
Africa wooed her, her
white church choir belted out spirituals
but always sounded bored or desperate, singing
with as much movement as they could muster,
accustomed to a cappella harmonies, the tender
blending of human voices.
In Africa, God is deaf—the singers must
shout louder! One voice over another! And my mother
wails. My mother juts her arms into
the rafters. From that acorn in her heart,
she grows winding tiara branches, white and sharp
and sun-bleached, longing for sky.
The Kisii choir swells. She teaches them
Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”
by rote, one part at a time. They teach her
how to sing loud and long from the very beginning
of the self, from the part that God heard
long before we ever felt