Accidental Elegy


Oh, you’re keen on trees, are you? Oh,
we have many fine trees here in the Sahel.
Many. You’ve doubtless noticed
our flamboyants? Hard to miss
the flame tree, yes. We’ve as fine
specimens of the flame tree
as anywhere on the continent!
And the karité—the Wonder Tree. Now
that’s a special one. Heard of shea butter?
Comes from the karité. Big cottage industry!
Dead useful! The karité beats bush fires
year after year. Then there’s lucinia. A foreign
introduction. A recent one, I should say. I mean,
almost everything’s an introduction if you want
to talk colonial days. The French, ha! Thought
no one would notice if they took all the acajou
that’s mahogany—back to Paris. Hahaha.
Hills are completely denuded now. But
that’s neither here nor there. Yeah, we have
new acajou plantations. Of course. Best wood
for furniture, hands down. But the Atakora hills, no,
are a lost cause. Nothing to be done now.

Your question. You try to interject—

The mango! How could I forget the mango!
There are wild species and grafted. You want
the fruit from the grafted. Much sweeter.

The man goes on naming trees on his fingers
tulip tree, frangipane, baobab, papaya…

But silence surrounds the trees backlit
by swiftly setting sun. You’ve seen them
everywhere. They outnumber palavers
of mangoes. Outshine signal fires
of flamboyants. Outbear outlandish-
ments of cashew. Their leaves
ripple flashes of obsidian
in the fussy quarrels of breeze
that stand in for rain.

Locust bean, camel’s foot, teak, neem.
Kola—the nut’s are an old man’s narcotic!—
Canthium, acacia—

Oh. The black plastic
bag tree? Oh, now I’m glad you asked. Plastic
bags grafted with thorn trees—I mean
what genius! Combines the hardiest.
There will be thorn trees still standing
on their walking sticks when this belt
of the Sahel desertifies to dust. And the plastic,
well, it will be here, too, haha.

It’s our crowning achievement. Completely
native, you know.


(Photo credit:


Domestic Joys


I am the first fire
of the morning, my Love.

I’m telling you,
the thing’s just done—
It’s only been minutes!
The wood just took. Look
at it! The poem I made
is burning strong. I am
the first fire of the morning.

Warm your hands. Here.

Ah, look. Here they come. Every
small housemaid in the village
is coming to my hearth for coals

Have some! Have some!
Please. I’ll surely borrow
a poem of my own soon, soon.
It’s not every day the sticks
of this brain are dry.

a poem for a cold morning!
Tell your mistress I send
my respects. What a poem!
What a morning!

Here’s your porridge, my Love.
Extra tasty today.


Photo credit:

The Kite


When I found you afloat in the North Sea
the heart in me saw straight away what you are: a kite.
I did not know water bones could be so white,
so fisted, although the mind in me did.

Your carapace is a squat pebble with nothing of stone
inside—what an egg wishes it were before it cracks.
You have eight arms, but one is bent back on itself
and the heart in me squeezes why.

A thin tether of frail translucent seaweed trails
from one crooked crozier. You are ardent
for air and someone to wind out the reach
of your kite heart in me. Your sister heart in me.

Wondering to stillness, my heels sink. Undertow
of memory I wish I could comb back from selfishness.
Were you alive—near—when I stood on this beach
before? What colour are you really? Is a crab’s blood red?

Memories pinwheel down and the mind in me knows you
were there every moment, but you I don’t remember. My fingers
stream sand. In photographs, your smile is secret and lonely.
The heart in me dives for you but the water swirls brown.

You have no organs anymore. You dispensed with the heart
in you, the turbulent intestine torment mind. When
did you scoop them over the side? Did they weigh so much? When
did you know the sea dreams were for somebody else?

Little sister. Nobody fastened a string to what the heart
in me now knows are your wings. It was you who tied it.
You whose seven arms curled in with self preservation
but broke your own bones bending the eighth toward the sky.

Soon you will be light, dry, ready. Ardent you, ardent me.
Kite you are, anchor I can be. Turn on turn, kite, girl.
Ardour to our ardour, will the Wind curl into your pebble
with no stone inside?
Pry her legs into rest, let her fly.



How will we say no this time?
How will we forget how small he was
and how the whorl of his lately-licked fur
between new eyes
followed the rain troughs through the clay
to the long-empty stream?
How will we forget how steady
was God’s hand as she drew in kohl
beneath his eyes
and how ardently she smudged the oils
down the swollen slope of his nose?
How will we forget?
His hooves are seed pods still furred!

You have killed his mother
while she still had young.
as though a rebuke will change how small he is.
(And is this a rebuke here?)
You thought to yourselves
We will sell him, and aimed your guns.

As you try not to look
into the duiker antelope’s eyes
your hands hang by your side, big
as the machetes strapped to the hunters’ backs, big
like you only just realised your presence
in this country did the deed.
You assume too much!
The duiker blinks like equatorial suns
both slowly and before you are ready.

We remember the darling of mum’s heart.
We remember how she doted on her antelope baby
as she did not know to dote on her daughters
or her son when we were this small.
We remember how her darling sapling-stepping antelope
disappeared one day, grown so strong
on the bottles of powdered milk she fed her.
We saw her near the road, the neighbours said.
You are not telling me everything you know,
you replied, trying not to gesticulate.
You must not unman yourself
with a raised voice or a gesture too wide.
What is that I smell
on the ghosts of yesterday’s fire?
Darling darling antelope that Mum pitied!

How much will you pay?
Not one abashed. They are ready to play.
If you do not buy him he will die,
in tones they learned sucking
at Fate’s dry breasts.
He has no mother.
You close your eyes.
Who else will care for him?
You flare your nostrils
but not too unmanly wide.
You are a Stoic adaptation.
They consider this your play.
And why does he have no mother, eh?
They grin. They know our ways. Our antelope darlings.
But if I take pity, you will only slaughter more.
Don’t you know these hills were once full of deer?
Full of warthog, monkey, baboon?
And now! Now see this baby antelope
we will forget.

Many, many years later in a windowless kitchen,
eating rice and beans again
while the windows of bills
shake out like tin foil beaten too thin,
I won’t be able to bring myself to save
even twenty-five dollars of my tax return
against calamity. And I will realise
the true question.

It is not
How we would forget
(we did)
but how could you not shoot?

Spending every last dollar
of the furtive movement in the tall
savanna grass
I will know.
The temptation to sell the fawn
was never the justification
to kill the mother.

Will the brash embroidery
and bells on the backs of a Wasingari past
fill daughters and sons?
Only Nikki parade grounds.
If you beat the splendour
of wild horses into obedience
will you hold back the hunger
felling the forest from inside, bribe by bribe?
No, I realise.
If you didn’t eat her, the neighbours would.

You would not be a laughingstock that day.
That was our job, wasn’t it?
Foreigners are good for something.
Laughing is the only way to cry
in Wasingari country.

Will we decide this time
that the former glory of these hills
is yours to lose?
We have never lived off this land.
Our own country is merciless enough
to keep our guns trained on the underbrush
in the season of the young.

(Picture credit: Tracey Beer. This print is available for sale:



A forage for courage
is like gathering sɔmbu from the Wonder Tree:
in the teeth of bees.

Doucement, doucement I tend
the trance conditions and
the sɔmba stirs
severs from the twig
punctures its
squashy green sleeping bag as it
thuds down
and the bees come. Oh they come!
Can’t my instinct move
any faster? I mutter.
How come bees get to the nuts before me?

Stealing sɔmbu out from under them
is my gathering of strength:
a turn of phrase here, a cadence snatched there.

The pleasure-bent bee
desires like all the tongues
of the five thousand anteaters
left in the wild.
And here am I, outside
the Wonder Tree’s cool canopy
hesitating, spying my chance,
my corrugated tin skin pings in the heat.
How come I taste the hills outside my home
so relentlessly
yet I can’t tongue language?

Discipline (old friend!)
is a practiced pinch in where the pulp sags:
muscle memory spits the word out of its casing.

The slimiest, smoothest, glossiest
brownest brown brown
nut of the sub-saharan plateau
is just the eye of a bushbaby
in the front garden at night.
Nothing is less secret
than what is right before me if I still
and shine a light.
How do I make myself understand
that writing is the only way I will see?

This forage! this forage! this forage!
morning by morning by morning
is the worthy work.
Sɔmben gum will keep the skin of my soul.

I will be supple all harmattan long.
I will oil off the white flake on my arms
wash chalk off my blackboard legs
fill the dry season river beds
of the bark of this sɔm tree skin.
I will make it through harmattan.
(God is willing.)
When the trade winds blow these bees off-course
I will rub the butter of the sɔmbu into
a mind that will soon be brown with
bravery, resolve, habit.

I will not have to say to my neighbour, again,
Please borrow me some shea butter.
Not unless I want conversation.

I have this my own Wonder Tree.

(Photo credit:

Week Five: Poetry Resource Lists


I am reading poems, right enough

but not the ones.

I’m to read poems upon poems upon poems
to learn, learn, learn
in journals
and chapbooks
and manuals
and anthologies
and those horrifying spoken word ordeals
to pick up voices I have never heard before.

Right, I say. I can make this work for me.
Haven’t I been meaning to
learn, learn, learn about West African poets?
I will read
Nigerian poets
Ghanaian poets
African immigrant poets.
They’re not from French West Africa, but
close enough? Closer than
Anne Stevenson
Hugh Macdiarmid
Seamus Heaney.

But the libraries here
don’t have poems upon poems upon poems
by African writers,
even the anglo ones.

And how can I stop reading
poem after poem after poem
about starfish and swans and owls
and too many mentions of flowers
learning and learning and learning
to be as astonished as Mary Oliver?

And how can I stop reading
my guide, John Leax,
few of whose poems I even begin to understand
when soon it could be too late to write
a proper letter he would accept?
To tell him thank you I did read your book


Thank you for writing beyond
my ability to understand.

I am amazed.
I am lost.
I am finally hearing the voices I already


The Poet of Action

Airthrey Loch from bridge

Airthrey Loch, University of Stirling

As I sat by the loch to eat my sandwich, my head was full of water. I longed to swim in the sea, in the loch—anywhere wild I could swim. I began to card this wool of longing around a chip of wood, winding words. I will write a poem about this, I said. I will write a poem about how desperately I long to swim in this loch, swim in the sea. I begin, I am Tineke. All I ever want is to swim in the sea. When I dream of canoeing, it is that I want to be the canoe.

A sudden, neat plunge! A man is swimming in this late September loch! A man is swimming in this late September day! Swimming across the loch, arm over arm, his head in a bathing cap, his hands propeller blades.

The poem can no longer be about longing. The poet is ashamed.

A4 Piece of Paper

Cahier grands carreaux

“Don’t write between the lines like that,”
says Miss Hill to me.
I look at the sheet of paper, dense
with curling, careful answers dotted
and crossed.
I crammed two lines
of writing into every one carreau,
yes, it’s true.
“It saves paper. Saves trees,” I say.
“Well, it makes my job more difficult,”
says Miss Hill to me.
“Don’t write between the lines like that.”

Deep down in my dry season well where
I take the shallow breaths where
the lowered bucket clatters on stone where
no one will drink me for disease
I know
I can’t stop
cramming two lines into one.
I am too much for the piece of paper
you’ve assigned.
Maybe if I make it fit
the number of lines you’re expecting
you won’t notice
how much I have to say.
“Please, Tineke, stop,”
says Miss Hill to me.
“We have plenty of paper.”

Deep down in my dry season well where
I know there are only so many trees
to pulp into paper where
I know the well is running dry
and it’s only the one well for the village,
I can’t stop
cramming two lines into one.
I am too bitter for the piece of paper
you’ve requested.
Too contaminated.
Maybe if I write neatly enough
cleverly enough
you won’t notice
how much I have to say.

“Don’t write between the lines like that,”
says Miss Hill to me.
But deep down in my dry season well
I belly a viper.

(It has been dead for a long time.)

And there really isn’t enough paper
for all this anger.
We have fewer trees here than ever before.

Weekend: Between the First Week of School and the Next


My mother brought me up to know a bad egg.

“I just want to check them,” says Mum,
“To make sure they are good.”
“All my eggs are good!” says the market lady,
grinning. But she calls for a bowl
and pours water.

Mum squats.
Slips them in one by one.
She sets aside an egg that floats.
“All of them?”
The market lady claps her hands
and laughs.

It is the weekend between.
I pay attention to the thoughts that float.
I know my Gbembɛrɛkɛ market.
Thoughts slide up from the bottom of the bowl
and bump, bump, bump
against my better judgement.

I am lazy,
says one egg.
I still talk too much in class,
says another pretty, speckled one.
I’m not brave enough
honest enough
to write what is inside me,
whimper the next three
eggs I slide into the bowl.

Then there’s one that
believes it’s invincible.
Too talented to fail.

Bad eggs, all of these.




My classmates on Thursday
gave me permission to
tell my story
share my opinion
say what I need to say.
But if I do… will my community disown me?

Will I disown myself?

I am afraid
permission isn’t all that I need.
I am afraid
I just won’t do the work.
I am afraid
that I am afraid
to know my own mind.

Where is a seller of sound thoughts?
I have combed the stands,
combed the dirt aisles.
I still clutch all of my coins
in my sweaty mind.
There is not a single sound egg to buy today.

But at least my mother taught me.

I will come back next market day.

N kua sinteru!
Until a future day!

(Photo credit:

Second Day


Yesterday: Second Day of School After Ten Years

I called on Risk today.
He was still in his slippers.
Instead of knocking when I knew
he would be out and
leaving a card,
I went first thing.
I thought,
How scary can school be?

I sat still for Risk today.
The bee propelled right into my hand
as I poised over my worksheet.
I did not move.
I did not move as
Risk shuffled near me
to smack my cheek
and then the other.
We Dutch, we are not shy.

That is when it happened.
The supreme confirmation.
I felt a bee’s flurry blurry soft wings
on my palm
for the first time.

(Photo credit: