Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín

PROMETEO
Latinoamerican Poetry Magazine
84-85. July 2008.

Rashidah Ismaili AbuBakr

(Benin, 1947)

POETRY IN PRESENT DAY


Poetry in the present day world is as vital as in the past. It is essential not only to the aesthetics but the very poetics of humanity. It is at the same time dangerous. For as late Ted Joans said, “You have nothing to fear from the poet, but the truth.” The classic, “I’ve Known Rivers” by a then seventeen years old Langston Hughes rings a clarion call today especially in the current discussion of water control, pollution and conflicts around the world. The significance of his haunting refrain; “My soul has grown deep, like the rivers.”

     Poetry in the African world is a primary form of verbal communications. It is the compression of single ideas, wishes and deeds into one or few words. Thus the praise song, one of human kind’s (African) oldest form of naming/identifying persona and deity (ies) “becomes.” In many religious texts, the inter-relationship between the “naming” or “calling” and the actuality of being is listed. “The word was God and God was the Word” to paraphrase makes the act of (poetry) calling/naming a living thing. So the life force of poetry, its form (genre) is a life-affirming act.

            While I enjoy free verse and narrative forms I try to experiment with old Africans forms, the oriki or praise-song and ajala, praise of the hunter and the hunted and Antarist, old epic telling that has dramatic form and philosophical content. I like short lines because it gives a structural aspect to the tightness of poetry. However, there are times because of content where more expansive lines are needed.

             I believe in the integrity of poetry as a major art form and the importance of The Word and the artists responsibility to content and context, to truth and the value of representation that words contain and express. What one names and calls into being must, in my view be acknowledge by the poet and those who hear and read the works. Poetry is the poetics of life.


ELEMENTS

Mountains in mist
             rise
cupped in hands
             hide
within a maze.
             Hills,
open landscape
             sings
with wind and space.
             Love
molds and light
             revolves
day’s end.

Mosquito song, lonely
            unwelcome
a trill in bell canto
            strings
and la Diva cries.
            Maestro
puts down his baton
             a silenced
symphony, disbanded.

        -2-

In secret tunnels
tumble softly
receptive, malleable
a spider/messenger
comes on golden hair,
gift of sun and horse fly.

Quiver under potter hand,
Fecund yield, a blanket
wov’d by a mysterious being.
Spider slips away, threading
his spindly way back to heaven.
His secret is safe, hidden
In the humus of a distant hill.

Rising from beneath stars,
beneath shadows of trees,
under the soft side of heaven,
piercing mountain, comes a weaver.
It is he on earth with feet molded
baked in sun, watered in seasonal rains
who must sit and smile amongst stars.

On a piano
tuned to high frequency
earth is moved on her axis.
At a given spot
it waits.
Eternal snake
hold tight its tail,
to keep within a circle
music for a planet of silence.

 

THE PAINTER

             HIM

Yellow below a blue sky
mouthed out of a muted horn
ending in a hymnal of green
wind song of even-hue
he is a melody in flight.

             HER

Reddened  with streaks of white
running down her head and cheek
slides out of a flute shaft
of tromboned fingers in gold.
Her habitat is impartial light
shading a nuance of blues.

             THEY

Stairwell latticed to filigreed
wrought iron, sequestered
in pink marble echo chambers.
They are dance dots amongst
eaves of alabaster in staccato,
a fugue spaced upon empty
parchment.

             HE

His fingers have come to capture
russet tones of day’s end
and hushed earth turning
gently a somersault of sound.

             SHE

Lianas around an old house
emptied and oxidized her arms
dance in green gardens where
damsel hair drips in bird baths.
She is optative and surprise endings.

             THEM

With their ensemble they blend
tone and timbre. Cutting cordal structure,
pluck upon ragged strings of an old piano
standing weather beaten in an unused
dance hall where echoes die in winter’s wind.

             ALTOGETHER

Each instrument in an orchestrated air.
Archipelago of hissing and sliding
their tongued symphony rebels and axial
preening of male plumes and crepe dress
billowing she gathers tulle around herself.

They are dancers without stage or sound.
Giving back to back they stretch shoulders
Strike feet in percussive movement.
Goats on a knoll dervish they who suit
Harmonic messages in red.

This is the time of wind sounds
For harps to twang cat guts.
For timpani and lyre to sing
contrapuntal cacophony
each disassembles and packs
musical chairs.
 

 

ANYONE’S CHILD

Two feet in open
shoes without laces
dirty, cushions
weary lost child.

Drab and frayed pants
legs flapping above
ankles bare,
unbathed, hurting.

Wandering alone
a rotting apple
stale bread inside
pockets without holes

his money is safe.
Around his neck
a string hangs.
Silver medal marks

names dead parents.
An evicted address
silent relatives
who used to call

when batteries were new
and telephones rang.
Anybody’s child walks
anonymous roads.

Sleeping anywhere.
Under trees,
beneath tunnels
of a darkened park

on church stoops
in halls, he walks.
He walks in the rain
letting water wash

his clothes, wetting
his hair and back.
There are no hot baths
waiting for him,
nor chicken soup
no hot lemon tea.
The cold congeals
in his head,

blocks his nose
his ragged sleeve wipes
This once was

somebody’s child
ceases to call
in sleep filled nights
“Mama”! “Mama”!

 

 

NO ONE’S BOY

His name is long forgotten.
Only the sounds his feet make
Hip-hop, hip hop over

Empty winter streets.
Boots, his feet never grew
into another size.
Flip-flop, flip-flop.

No one remembers
his mother, his father.
They died long ago.
Buried with their secrets

of where and when
he was born and lived.
He belongs to no one now.

 

 

SOMEONE’S DAUGHTER

She sits sipping
gourmet coffee.
Delicate fingers
pursed red lips
leave their mark
on Lenox white.

She has been schooled
in the fine art of leisure.
There is no hurry
no need to rush
hot liquid down
her lovely throat.

She sits at right angle
to show discreet limbs
covering in adoring silk,
Ah, someone has
taught her well.
She is neither shocked
nor surprised by looks
or unanswered questions.

She waits with patience
for someone to come
to call her name.
She wrote all the letters
on fine parchment
sealed it with Wexford glass.

She sits with an air
of mystery haloed
above her head
encased in charity
requirements.
Someone is bound
to notice and come
to her—soon.

 

 

ANYBODY’S CHILD

 

Smiles sitting on a face
roundly encircled by curls
drools sugar water
on anybody who stops

to greet, to speak.
Arms wave inviting.
Expectation collapses
into a shrill.

Someone comes running.
A face brightens.
Recognition of love
bottled and ready.
This child could be
anybody’s.

 

NOBODY’S CHILDREN

Feet group together
run along tracks,
along paved streets
rushing to get somewhere.

Night approaches
chicken hawks swoop
down to pluck eggs
and chickens.

They are too swift.
Ha-ha-ha, you
can’t  catch me.

Racing past their eyes
big houses, fine houses
fade into no houses.

In their somewhere
they group around a car
upended, dirty, dirty.

Sneezing a hello,
coughing a good evening
these sixteen hands
unwrap boxed suppers.

No one they know cooked.
No one they could name
Knew them. They sat
Looking at the car’s ceiling.

The food went down.
They huddled together
closed their eyes to wait
tomorrow will surely come.

 

HERE AND NOW

              1

This time
of breath
lightness,
entombs
a touch
confined
faded smiles
shadows
silhouetted
against
remembered
moments
strung
together
tethered
a string
holding
life
death.

            2

Creaked knees
stiffened knuckles
once quick
danced
on thighs
supported
by feet
first, fifth
positioned
bodies
now rely
on cell memory
to guide
legs,
reluctant –
leave
a dance floor.
Aching thighs
that twitch
trembling
parting,
can still
execute
a grande jete
can enclose
a mobile form
can open
to life
to love.

            3

Here
indefinite
geography
struggling
to locate
a place
to put
one tin
two decades
of ashes,
remains
of one
who sought
love
and died
finding
a new
found
land.

           4

The peace of Allah
mercy of forgiveness
soothe our agnostic souls,
give comfort to disquietude
and ease burdens we bear
with stoic illogic
that tests fate and faith
once shattered, leaves
the bitter taste of life
without laughter

              5

These thighs
that pose
midway
middle
between
top, bottom
bear weight
watch legs
see feet
hold
onto both.

It is in the middle
where
life forces
push outward
there
between two thighs
where
warmth heats
below
and above.

Thick thighs,
slabs
upon sticks
thin thighs
fleshed bones
slender thighs
caressed gems
enclosed,
enwrapped
a jewel on a pinhead
puckered, pierced

Onto these thighs
barricades of seas
sailor and boat rests.

Heaving thighs
levitate.
Bulging thigh
hesitate
at a bend
a sea trails
over a rapid
swimmer
and fisher
halt
at rivers end
watching
fish find their way
upstream.

Those thighs,
these thighs,
my thighs,
wait, weight.

 

 

-3-

Today is a day when poems
refuse their rhythms and rhymes.
Yesterday’s ideas and brilliance
buried in a night-before-sky
has burned into an unclear memory.

Yet still images persist.
Fire falling from the sky.
A ball of fire running
down a war-torn road.

Oh, how to wash away bloodstains?
Vinegar and lemon juice are
ineffectual compounds of chemicals
that may mutate cloth and spot
disfiguring a paisley print
that once was favoured at parties.

Yesterday when blanketed bodies
shivered in western winds,
where fevered brows froze
and iced faces glazed in huddles
of surrendered souls signals of their defeat.

The poem cannot comfort the dying.
The dying die uncomforted
by poetic dirges and funeral drums.
Yesteryear when history began
amphibious  beginnings, tests
sea and air. Success is measured
by two feet and a straight back.
A poem lost its way.

The secret of life is hidden
in the laps of early year maternity.
With each suckle, each morsel,
the information of all the how’s
and why’s unfold into historical
insignificant trivia.

Each tooth and endured pain
that breaks forth to test the teats
of a yielding mother breasted
by years of training at the hems
of mothers and aunts before
all with vital messages

of the where with alls of womanhood.
And within the folds of caftans, chadors,
boubahs, babies’ mouths blindly seek
the rubes of sustenance.
Years before pubescent hairs
deep-voiced static comes to radio
the surats and hadiths of old.

 

-4-

Mothers wait year after year
for letters that come infrequent
for precious pictures of a student
who reads other texts in words
foreign on their untutored ears.
They gather in kitchens, under acacias,
beneath the shelter of olive trees
to speak of things they have never seen.

These are the mothers who marry
sons to daughters they left behind
years and years ago. They are the ones
who cradle disappointed heads
bent in sadness beneath hejabs
for one who will return but not to them.

And they, the mothers struggle
to kneel and stretch a reluctant arm
under daily turned mattresses
for a box a letters wrapped in white
cloths washed every fortnight.

They read, mouthing words
how well this one is doing.
How fine school is.
How much their supervisor
relies totally on them.
How soon they will come home.
How much they will come to love
the choice of love they will bring
a daughter to the yard.

They have cried in silent years.
Tears make no sounds sliding down
cheeks and jowls train to be unheard.
For years they have waited
for a kind word
for a long-gone son
for a clear sky
for the silence of peace.

 

-10-

Yesteryear’s bride waits.
Yesterday a widow waited.
Today a widow waits
warm, wet and mournful.
Hopeless eyes of waiting widows
watch for signs of returnees;
brothers, sons, husbands, fathers.

Today the roads are clear.
Passage is possible today.
The line that snaked
around a mountain pass
yesterday and the day before,
is today empty, echoing.
Today sounds of trucks,
the tired shuffle of sore feet,
the muted groans,
the muffled blast of guns
echo today on empty roads.

But in the once-was-houses,
laughter-gone-out-the-door-rooms
emptiness echoes the sound
of singular feet and screams.
A widow waits in silence.
Silence is the language of women
widowed by war, yesteryear
yesterday and today.

 

-17-

When doves leave Azrat Ali Mosque
And the poor seek shelter in former caves-
When the minaret becomes a vantage point
from which to launch a final assault,
Then it is time to reconsider a waiting lorry.

When the sounds of early morning cooing
and the Azan is silenced-
When the flutter of a thousand white wings
from playing children scattering birds are quieted,
Then it is time to pack the last portmanteau.

When the fires of silversmiths die
and have no one to pump the billows-
When the bread sellers and milk peddlers are gone
And the old women no longer call out for them,
Then it is time to stock the empty baskets.

When snow begins to fall,
when the pump freezes,
when the last piece of firewood burns
when the hills and houses shudder
when skies over the hills are darkened
when foreign lights color the view,
when the throng of tattered bodies thins
when the poet puts away his writing pad,
Then it is time to say farewell.

Farewell to the one lamb remaining,
to the path walked for over fifty years,
to made daily prayers in a now-empty-mosque.
To the broken wagon and rusted truck
to a yard in which laughter once pealed,
to all things familiar, Farewell.

But it is farewell to the old, the known.
What does one say to the now, the unknown?
The language of village and town are old.
Guarded space sandwiched between tanks,
trucks, new faces, new roads comes a need for new words.

But these are old tongues, stubborn and aged-
shaped to former needs.
How do they form the word, Refugee!

Fredy Amariles

Rashidah Ismaili AbuBakr is a writer of short stories, plays and poetry. She is widely anthologized and has four collections of poems. Her plays have been performed internationally as well as national. Ms. Ismaili has read her poetry solo and with musical instrumentation. She has been a writer in residence at many colleges and art centers in the country. Originally from West Africa, Dr. AbuBakr has taught French and English Speaking African Writers, Literature of the African Diaspora and has taught the Harlem Renaissance and Negritude literary movements. She was a part of the Black Arts Movement of the 60’s in New York where she resides. She is an art and culture critic and has published essays on Langston Hughes and Mariama Ba. Her home, Salon d’Afrique is a meeting place of art and culture. While focusing on African heritage her range is inclusive of other peoples and their art. While in college in New York City, she discovered the dance studio of Syvila Fort, a Katherine Dunham dancer and leading teacher of the technique of Dr. Dunham. She also runs a small gallery in her apartment, Galleria Africa. Here she has focused on younger artists of Africa primarily and the African Diaspora in general. Her knowledge of art and markets has been instrumental in bringing to the attention new voices and visions to the art scene in New York. In December 2001 Dr. Ismaili-AbuBakr was asked to read her narrative poem, SHAMING OF AN OLIVE TREE, published in Black Renaissance, a publication of New York University, by the Comparative Literature Department under the organization of Dr. K. Brathwate and the Africana Studies Department. In August 2002, she was invited and participated in the African Arts Festival in Den Hague, Nederland. Dr. Ismaili AbuBakr was selected to participate in a Ford Foundation sponsored series; “Poets and Writers of Africa and the Diaspora.” She was a Writer-in-Residence for the Fall Semester, 2003 at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Dr. Ismaili AbuBakr was awarded a travel/lecture series in the Nederland Antilles, Curacao, January 2004. Published books: Missing in Action and Presumed Dead: Poems (African Women Writers), 1999; Cantata for Jimmy, 2003; Ricekeeprs: A Play; Womanrise (Anthology); Rashidah Ismaili, Cheryl Byron, Sandra M. Esteves, Rota Silvestrini, Victoria Hunter, 1978;

Site Map
Gulliver: