Writings / Poetry

Harry Garuba


A spokesman for the Red Cross said yesterday that the bodies of the dead in a series of explosions from an abandoned munitions dump in Lagos will be buried today in mass graves. The official said the dead numbered in the hundreds, perhaps thousands. They were unnumbered.
(From a newspaper report)

Nothing else would have been good enough for you

To die, unnumbered, lost among the numbers,
would have been a dream deferred… fulfilled

as a child you hated numbers
the soulless counting without stories
additions, subtractions, multiplications

numbers without narratives, figures without figuration

even now, thinking of you, I smile, secure
in the memory of your rhyming phrases,

beloved, ardent artist of alliterations

Nothing else would have been good enough for you

once, trying to count a bevy of hovering egrets
you stumbled over one, missed another, and gave up

it haunted you, the image of the lost birds,
convinced that something always gets lost in the counting
lost numbers becoming birds lost in transition

none, no one, could persuade you to count the cows
not even the slowed motion of the cattle herd
journeying from the savannah to the pastures by the sea

they called it a phobia, a fear of counting, of numbering

unlike the neuter of numbers, you loved names,
every name, you said, had a story, a gender

now, at this moment of death, memory soothes
like a massage on an aching body,
a balm spread over pain the body harbours like
subterranean vessels sobbing in deep waters

to think how you died unnumbered,
lost among the numbers, uncounted
to imagine how you tumbled, all bloodied and burnt,
into the sphere of the unnumbered

you turned the jungle of figures into a tale to be told
too harrowing to be counted, to be numbed

Nothing else would have been good enough for you

what if your body, parted arms and limbs,
were all fragments of flesh and shrapnel
over the Lagos lagoon,
too gory to be counted

I chose to remember this only: that you hated numbers

that when the moment came
it was a choreographed rise of the body,
arms opening like petals, swinging gently, in motion,
feet clasped together, toes extending, levitating,
riding the clouds, hugging the rain

celestial flutes playing, the iridescence of shooting stars
and then rolling drums in a ceremonial welcome

it couldn’t have been otherwise, no, not for you
who hated numbers.

Ruins of Richmond

Somewhere out there, there is a bullet with my name on it
–Sifso Nkabinde

a flash of lightning sets the sky ablaze
twisted vines of fire uncoil in the night

incandescent furies roam the streets
and fraternal feuds flare like ancient fires

like glow worms in the night the revellers gather
and the rites of death begin with the ceremony of rights

the clamour of human rights and blood rites rises to a pitch
in the darkness of the night of all souls disposable as diapers

i see the spectre of ageing clothes weeping faded tears on the line
sole witnesses of the dark motions of men briefed to maim and kill

from every hut and heath the cry of anguish wracks the rafters
from the poor so rich in sorrow, the widows so blessed with men

who enter with a rumble of thunder in the night
and depart with flashes of lightning before the dawn

in the morning when the dirges sound from abandoned homesteads
only the clothes which bear witness and the footprints of fear remain

About The Author


Harry Garuba is a poet, anthologist and scholar. He is the author of the now classic collection, Shadow and Dreams (Ibadan, Nigeria: New Horn, 1980) and edited Voices From the Fringe (Lagos, Malthouse, 1980). An associate professor of English and African Studies at the University of Cape Town, he has a particular interest in the subjectivities that have emerged in Africa in the aftermath of colonialism and modernity. He is widely published in African literature and has held fellowships at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre, University of Texas at Austin and the Web Du Bois Institute, Harvard University.

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“To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the realms of childhood visions and dreams.”

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