Selections from ‘Equiano’s Earth’
Just earth in the streets where travellers’ tales connect,
memories fading, stories of lost genes and divided cells,
that Creole earth of tossed things and nearly types
in summer hot or sometimes not, unsettled in thought,
uncertain in ownership, slippery every foothold.
The people unfinished in their ways, claiming
as nations, generations, inheritance of dubious origin,
dreaming paradise, love everlasting,
corruption whoring in their heads.
That earth of water, air, unlikely pairings,
familiar yet Shakespearean, coupling and decoupling:
Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Desdemona, Anthony,
Cleopatra, Rasputin of the Romanov queen.
Unlikely pairings, likely cracks, worlds in conflict,
the suburb and slum, life in death, life after death.
His earth, my earth, the life he walked
and now I claim with the college crowd,
their voices from all nations – the girl in blue
and boy in hat, hugging their love or hugging to part,
that blonde on bike ringing her bell as if unsure
I am aware of her, how close or distant she is to me.
That earth of pollen and scattered seeds,
its travelled blood, the story of its silence.
We are not secret anymore.
Our love is out of the powder room.
I married him. I married his wild seas
and wilder shores. I married adventure,
the tales he told to liven our time.
I married history and now must camp with it.
I married his eyes, their majesty
and antiquity, my man of vision.
At St Andrews, Soham, said ‘I do’
I do take him as my lawful wedded prince
I am neither virgin nor African
I do long for his breath on my breast
Later we wined with the willing of Soham,
saying goodbye for soon we were off
on the trail of his Interesting Narrative,
speaking in Bristol, selling to Scotland,
frequent in carriage with our marriage.
I remember well the longing,
as if gaining the wealth
I regained his warmth –
my father, late of London,
buried two years after my birth.
And before him, my mother.
And after her, my sister.
‘Your father was a good man’, I heard
as I signed to claim, lone survivor
come of age to inherit a story.
Your father was a good man
Your father was a great man
I am sheltered by kind words
But live outside their warmth.
A life of loss grows wary of gain.
Sorrow is many tribes but the same curse,
all denied or in denial, the much bereaved
well damned by it. I should be thankful.
I survived, inherited: It was a handsome gift.
Molly said come
What are you called?
What is your age, Anna?
Where hails your father?
Afi - ca
And you, Anna, from...?
Molly played with me.
Molly stayed with me.
So I said to Molly:
Why do people die, Molly?
Hush, Anna, hush, she said.
I cried. I cried.
*Anna Maria Vassa, first daughter of Gustavus and Susannah Vassa, died in July 1797, nearly four, just months after her father’s death in March 1797, aged 52. Her mother had died earlier, one year before her father, in February 1796, aged 34. Joanna, the younger Vassa daughter, was born in 1795 and lived to be 62 years old in 1857, when she died without child.
Again you stamp your feet on the ground
You want the dog mess off your shoes
Come summer you will lay claim
to this land and her story
Your will pay for loving Oxford.
Six hundred pounds and rising,
their tax on free air.
For that they may offer Boadicea,
a slice of Cotswold air,
the silences of Stonehenge.
You will inherit as gentile not as Jew,
making the best of tenuous roots –
the wife and brood long settled,
your weathered skin blanched.
Prime your heart for Ye Olde England,
careful to sing the correct anthem.
They will weigh your words,
marking accent and also truth,
what you say and how you sound.
You may still fall on a matter of sports,
whose fan you are and whose they are.
It is your trial by ordeal: You alone,
rehearsed, backpacking memory,
their choice of voices merged as one
Now, sir, who is the present ruler of England?
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, sir.
Why is ‘Waterloo’ important to the English?
It affirms England’s might and English survival.
Quite so! What would you eat as citizen and Englishman?
Bangers ‘n’ Mash, sir, Fish ‘n’ Chips!
A bit of mash with gravy, yes. Is that all?
Roast Beef, sir, and tons of tea,
Pies, pudding, pints at the pub...
That’ll do! That’ll do! You’ll be English, alright...
Or Equiano in Hogarth’s world, happy
in breeches, submissive yet subversive.
Afam Akeh currently at Oxford Brookes University, in Oxford, UK, is a poet-journalist and former pastor. He is the Founding Editor of African Writing and author of Stolen Moments (Lagos: Malthouse, 1988). A second collection of poems, Letter Home and Other Poems is forthcoming.
September 15th, 2009
Jon Paul Fiorentino awarded 2009 Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry
August 1st, 2009
Amatoritsero Ede publishes much anticipated book