Writings / Poetry

Letter Home

Afam Akeh

in the fourteenth year

Where the largeness of the dream
is touched by the smallness of one’s England
there are travel guilts a wayfarer sheds
like loose feathers or discarded skin.
The flight so far is full of fret.
This island is a perch to many birds,
home of sorts to the travel worn,
lost in transit, storied swallows
and things out of touch with their beginnings,
harried between exclusions and inclusions,
tortured by absence,
as spoiled for options but without choice.

One day grown is soon a decade.
What was closest becomes farthest,
what was precious, rooted, loving,
what assumes presence because always absent.
The longing glows for
the woman who was my beginning,
and her man my familiar flesh.
I list losses, claim my gains,
in places where memory is always loud,
between the furies caged in silence,
between the present and past elsewhere.

England is not unloved.
To kiss the nipple of an English dawn
is betrothal not betrayal, is memorial,
is the heart content, disarmed by birdsong.
One thinks mostly of smells and touch,
of Spring on treetops,
broadcast voices with memorial roots
in a childhood of wonder and dream –
the certainty then through the uncivil war
that life was English, peace English,
the future Cotswolds, English
as the rhymes one clung to for life,
dreaming beyond the uncivil war,
practising English for an English day.

England is not unlived.
Cakes, ales, but also carnival,
England is not only the English.
Think of Summer blown across the seas
bringing the sounds of other climes,
not just birds but tales of loss.
Much sacrifice in the histories
from which some come,
bearing their grief and many gifts,
a vision of London distant from Trafalgar
as the Trafalgar Square.

Pub life, punt life, “inn-keeping with tradition.”
Alone with dumplings, I announce my face.
I am a separate table, I know I am.
Humour is the unseen enemy,
pointing, probing, defining traditions,
ruling the tongues of engagement.
Suddenly shrunk by laughter,
the others to whom I am not present,
a mirror one sees into without seeing,
lab rat, cuddly toy, a Christie mystery,
something exotic as elsewhere.
They are laughing in English,
sharing a refuge in language.
Me too - I think in English.
My laughter is the alien dumpling.

“En-ger-laand! En-ger-laand! …”
This sense of being owned and not owning,
not being English in England,
some kind of circus watched every turn,
the transitory sun in its setting,
waking as from a dream with sounds of absence,
that vacant road travelled on promise
and Earl Grey tea,
discounting day trips to the regatta,
and castles, races, football at the terraces
- En-ger-laand! En-ger-laand! -
dressed English by a dream of England
the counties never dream of their greens.

Interpretations, interpretations…
Of knowing and not knowing
what is preferred or denied,
a word out of rank a call to arms,
that common refuge in weather talk,
the secret codes of natives in conversation.
And so, to the weather those who care,
to lightning flashes and storms over Dover,
skies with burst bladders
on mornings of graft and cappuccino,
to the safety of rains and heavy coats,
to muffins, gardens and estrangement.
This sense of having and not having,
knowing and not knowing England.

So one dreams of home and sunshine,
familiar odours, common folk
and their common talk, the lingering lust
for days of colour and vocal chords,
children playing, mothers calling,
streets loud-speaking their wares.
Then travellers and revellers,
a carnival one grows an ear for,
this dream unspoiled
until waking to familiar reports.
Then broken people, lost causes,
death, despair, the stories one mulls over
tea and croissants and tears.

Let it be told of this moment in our story
how the gecko, finding no life
among its kind, sensing
the warmth behind other doors,
forsook the wild and fled its own,
seeking refuge in a distant compassion,
living at the border of a new life.
Let no one detest its choice.
Pain is the chief guide,
the road out of death primal choice.

That road also the first lie.
Life without death, without dirt.
Infants suck at it.
Manic monkeys swing for it.
In Summer light, Bonn Square,
Oxford drunks disputing like dons
thread their vision of a world without law.
But the living is the dying,
one day emptied into another,
that rolling of shifts also in England
as in that distant familiar
one imagines now
as a dream, another dream.

And sometimes you think you know,
sometimes you know you don’t.
The familiar is not long familiar.
What is not soon becomes, then is not again,
Home is not only hearth but also heart,
where the breath is and where the wreathe is laid,
spaces with remembered voices, tales untold,
times without record… home is finally only place
and place has the stories of all in it.

Oxford bells its people to lunch.
They queue for sushi and sundry fries,
sandwiched lives bridging the distance
between the pie and the burger.
They come from everywhere
with laundered lives, and laughters
echoing the differences of silence.
Many are lunchtime lovers, friends,
substitute families for the hugs frozen
in postcards and remembered pasts.
In rain or snow, out for sandwiches and more,
adopted by a city that cannot feel them,
they are home in generous Oxford
and also travellers, in harmony but also not.
Always the distant country,
home is a hunger beyond lunch.

About The Author


Afam Akeh, like Gerald Manley-Hopkins, is a poet-priest, and the author of Stolen Moments (Malthouse Press, 1988) and Letter Home (2007).

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