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       Chinua Achebe: Collected Poems, p.1

           Chinua Achebe
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Chinua Achebe: Collected Poems


  Chinua Achebe

  Collected Poems

  Chinua Achebe was born in Nigeria in 1930. He was raised in the large village of Ogidi, one of the first centers of Anglican missionary work in eastern Nigeria, and is a graduate of University College, Ibadan.

  His early career in radio ended abruptly in 1966, when he left his post as director of external broadcasting in Nigeria during the national upheaval that led to the Biafran War. He was appointed senior research fellow at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and began lecturing widely abroad.

  From 1972 to 1975, and again from 1987 to 1988, Mr. Achebe was professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and also for one year at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.

  Cited in the London Sunday Times as one of the “1,000 Makers of the Twentieth Century” for defining “a modern African literature that was truly African” and thereby making “a major contribution to world literature,” Chinua Achebe has published novels, short stories, essays, and children's books. His volume of poetry Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems, written during the Biafran War, was the joint winner of the first Commonwealth Poetry Prize. Of his novels, Arrow of God won the New Statesman–Jock Campbell Award, and Anthills of the Savannah was a finalist for the 1987 Booker Prize.

  Mr. Achebe has received numerous honors from around the world, including the Honorary Fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Foreign Honorary Membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as more than thirty honorary doctorates from universities in England, Scotland, the United States, Canada, Nigeria, and South Africa. He is also the recipient of Nigeria's highest honor for intellectual achievement, the Nigerian National Order of Merit, and of Germany's Friedenpreis des Deutschen Buchhandels for 2002. In 2007, he won the Man Booker International Prize for Fiction.

  Mr. Achebe lives with his wife in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where they teach at Bard College. They have four children and three grandchildren.

  Also by Chinua Achebe

  Anthills of the Savannah

  The Sacrificial Egg and Other Stories

  Things Fall Apart

  No Longer at Ease

  Chike and the River

  A Man of the People

  Arrow of God

  Girls at War and Other Stories

  Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems

  Beware Soul Brother

  Morning Yet on Creation Day

  The Trouble with Nigeria

  The Flute

  The Drum

  Hopes and Impediments

  How the Leopard Got His Claws (with John Iroaganachi)

  Winds of Change: Modern Short Stories

  from Black Africa (with others)

  African Short Stories (editor, with C. L. Innes)

  Another Africa (with Robert Lyons)

  Home and Exile

  To the Memory of My Mother

  Contents

  In Lieu of a Preface: A Parable

  Prologue

  1966

  Benin Road

  Mango Seedling

  Pine Tree in Spring

  The Explorer

  Agostinho Neto

  Poems About War

  The First Shot

  A Mother in a Refugee Camp

  Christmas in Biafra (1969)

  Air Raid

  Biafra, 1969

  An “If ” of History

  Remembrance Day

  A Wake for Okigbo

  After a War

  Poems Not About War

  Love Song (for Anna)

  Love Cycle

  Question

  Answer

  Beware, Soul Brother

  NON-commitment

  Generation Gap

  Misunderstanding

  Knowing Robs Us

  Bull and Egret

  Lazarus

  Vultures

  Public Execution in Pictures

  Gods, Men, and Others

  Penalty of Godhead

  Those Gods Are Children

  Lament of the Sacred Python

  Their Idiot Song

  The Nigerian Census

  Flying

  Epilogue

  He Loves Me; He Loves Me Not

  Dereliction

  We Laughed at Him

  Notes

  In Lieu of a Preface: A Parable

  The Author had begun to worry about his own conduct. Perhaps he had not been fair to his poems. Yes, the same poetry that had surged from the depths to bring pain-soaked solace in the breach and darkness of civil war. Now he had stepped out alone into the light.

  Everyone knows, of course, that an author cannot possibly bring things to such a pass unaided. He had plenty of help from his then Publisher, who filled the role of primary culprit, leaving the Author with the guilt only of acquiescence and quietude. For, in truth, the Author had raised the matter of his poems now and again with the Publisher, aloof in his towers and battlements in distant London, unready for strange images and cadences; and his reply had always been a telegraphic non sequitur: We do very well with your novels, you know.

  In time the poems, like all children reared in hardship, grew tougher and wiser than their peers. They figured out that as offspring of a heedless parent they were fated to find their own way in the world. Their unguided wandering before long brought them face-to-face with a magician, Negative Capability, the holy man of the forest, shaggy-haired powered for eternal replenishment, alias Man Pass Man; and he blessed their struggle.

  They went out early one morning in search of validation and returned at nightfall singing and dancing and bearing aloft the trophy of Commonwealth Poetry. A few ripples, but no waves. They contrived something breathtakingly audacious: they got Her Britannic Majesty to invoke six of their lines to end a royal admonition to her Commonwealth in crisis. Remember also your children for they in their time …

  More ripples, but hardly any waves. If the Publisher heard any of it he kept the news to himself, and kept also his blurb on the book of poems in which he absentmindedly praised the novels.

  What happened next is not very clear, though there is no lack of speculation. The one certain fact, however, is that the poems went silent. Did they go underground, as one rather romantic commentator would have it, to cultivate a secret guild of readers? Nobody can really say. The Author does recall, however, that at about this time he had begun to observe increasing numbers of intense-looking men and women in his audiences who would go up to the dais at the end of a reading and ask—or even demand—to know where to find the book he read from.

  An American photographer with a fine portfolio of African material came on the scene at this time with a request to the Author for collaboration. So impressed was the Author by the photographs that he readily agreed to contribute to a catalog of their exhibition, and became joint author of a magnificent coffee-table book with the beguiling title of Another Africa. In his enthusiasm he found himself traveling across the United States to Seattle and Portland, Oregon, to read and speak at the exhibition.

  And then things took a sudden, unexpected turn. The Author received an urgent call from a lady who identified herself as Curator of Another Africa exhibition, now showing in a major museum in the Midwest, in a city that had better remain nameless. She wanted to know from the Author how she might get hold of his book of poems in a hurry.

  -Why in a hurry?

  -Because visitors to the exhibition are taking away your poems from the catalog.

  -Taking away my poems, how?

  -Ripping them out. And carrying them away.

  -My gentle readers? Oh, dear!

  -What's that?

  -Never mind.

  T
he Author has at last found a new Publisher who, unaware of these events, has set about publishing his collected poems. The Author, suitably chastened, is dreaming of a new day when peace will return to the affair of books, to wit: writing, publishing, and reading.

  Prologue

  1966

  absentminded

  our thoughtless days

  sat at dire controls

  and played indolently

  slowly downward in remote

  subterranean shaft

  a diamond-tipped

  drill point crept closer

  to residual chaos to

  rare artesian hatred

  that once squirted warm

  blood in God's face

  confirming His first

  disappointment in Eden

  Nsukka, November 19, 1971

  Benin Road

  Speed is violence

  Power is violence

  Weight violence

  The butterfly seeks safety in lightness

  In weightless, undulating light

  But at a crossroads where mottled light

  From old trees falls on a brash new highway

  Our separate errands collide

  I come power-packed for two

  And the gentle butterfly offers

  Itself in bright yellow sacrifice

  Upon my hard silicon shield.

  Mango Seedling

  Through glass windowpane

  Up a modern office block

  I saw, two floors below, on wide-jutting

  concrete canopy a mango seedling newly sprouted

  Purple, two-leafed, standing on its burst

  Black yolk. It waved brightly to sun and wind

  Between rains—daily regaling itself

  On seed yams, prodigally.

  For how long?

  How long the happy waving

  From precipice of rainswept sarcophagus?

  How long the feast on remnant flour

  At pot bottom?

  Perhaps like the widow

  Of infinite faith it stood in wait

  For the holy man of the forest, shaggy-haired

  Powered for eternal replenishment.

  Or else it hoped for Old Tortoise's miraculous feast

  On one ever recurring dot of cocoyam Set in a large bowl of green vegetables—

  This day beyond fable, beyond faith?

  Then I saw it

  Poised in courageous impartiality

  Between the primordial quarrel of Earth

  And Sky striving bravely to sink roots

  Into objectivity midair in stone.

  I thought the rain, prime mover

  To this enterprise, someday would rise in power

  And deliver its ward in delirious waterfall

  Toward earth below. But every rainy day

  Little playful floods assembled on the slab,

  Danced, parted round its feet,

  United again, and passed.

  It went from purple to sickly green

  Before it died.

  Today I see it still—

  Dry, wire-thin in sun and dust of the dry months—

  Headstone on tiny debris of passionate courage.

  Aba, 1968

  Pine Tree in Spring

  (for Leon Damas)

  Pine tree

  flag bearer

  of green memory

  across the breach of a desolate hour

  Loyal tree

  that stood guard

  alone in austere emeraldry

  over Nature's recumbent standard

  Pine tree

  lost now in the shade

  of traitors decked out flamboyantly

  marching back unabashed to the colors they betrayed

  Fine tree

  erect and trustworthy

  what school can teach me

  your silent, stubborn fidelity?

  The Explorer

  Like a dawn unheralded at midnight

  it opened abruptly before me—a rough

  circular clearing, high cliffs of deep

  forest guarding it in amber-tinted spell

  A long journey's end it was though how

  long and from where seemed unclear,

  unimportant; one fact alone mattered

  now—that body so well preserved

  which on seeing I knew had brought me there

  The circumstance of death

  was vague but a floating hint

  pointed to a disaster in the air

  elusively

  But where, if so, the litter

  of violent wreckage? That rough-edged

  gypsum trough bearing it like a dead

  chrysalis reposing till now in full

  encapsulation was broken by a cool

  hand for this lying in state. All else

  was in order except the leg missing

  neatly at knee joint

  even the white schoolboy dress

  immaculate in the thin

  yellow light; the face in particular

  was perfect having caught nor fear

  nor agony at the fatal moment.

  Clear-sighted with a clarity

  rarely encountered in dreams

  my Explorer-Self stood a little

  distant but somewhat fulfilled; behind

  him a long misty quest: unanswered

  questions put to sleep needing

  no longer to be raised. Enough

  in that trapped silence of a freak

  dawn to come face-to-face suddenly

  with a body I didn't even know

  I lost.

  Agostinho Neto

  Neto, were you no more

  Than the middle one favored by fortune

  In children's riddle; Kwame

  Striding ahead to accost

  Demons; behind you a laggard third

  As yet unnamed, of twisted fingers?

  No! Your secure strides

  Were hard earned. Your feet

  Learned their fierce balance

  In violent slopes of humiliation;

  Your delicate hands, patiently

  Groomed for finest incisions,

  Were commandeered brusquely to kill,

  Your melodious voice to battle cry.

  Perhaps your family and friends

  Knew a merry flash cracking the gloom

  We see in pictures but I prefer

  And will keep the darker legend.

  For I have seen how

  Half a millennium of alien rape

  And murder can stamp a smile

  On the vacant face of the fool,

  The sinister grin of Africa's idiot-kings

  Who oversee in obscene palaces of gold

  The butchery of their own people.

  Neto, I sing your passing, I,

  Timid requisitioner of your vast

  Armory's most congenial supply.

  What shall I sing? A dirge answering

  The gloom? No, I will sing tearful songs

  Of joy; I will celebrate

  The Man who rode a trinity

  Of awesome fates to the cause

  Of our trampled race!

  Thou Healer, Soldier, and Poet!

  Poems About War

  The First Shot

  That lone rifle-shot anonymous

  in the dark striding chest-high

  through a nervous suburb at the break

  of our season of thunders will yet

  steep its flight and lodge

  more firmly than the greater noises

  ahead in the forehead of memory.

  A Mother in a Refugee Camp

  No Madonna and Child could touch

  Her tenderness for a son

  She soon would have to forget….

  The air was heavy with odors of diarrhea,

  Of unwashed children with washed-out ribs

  And dried-up bottoms waddling in labored steps

  Behind blown-empty belli
es. Other mothers there

  Had long ceased to care, but not this one:

  She held a ghost-smile between her teeth,

  And in her eyes the memory

  Of a mother's pride…. She had bathed him

  And rubbed him down with bare palms.

  She took from their bundle of possessions

  A broken comb and combed

  The rust-colored hair left on his skull

  And then—humming in her eyes—began carefully to part it.

  In their former life this was perhaps

  A little daily act of no consequence

  Before his breakfast and school; now she did it

  Like putting flowers on a tiny grave.

  Christmas in Biafra (1969)

  This sunken-eyed moment wobbling

  down the rocky steepness on broken

  bones slowly fearfully to hideous

  concourse of gathering sorrows in the valley

  will yet become in another year a lost

  Christmas irretrievable in the heights

  its exploding inferno transmuted

  by cosmic distances to the peacefulness

  of a cool twinkling star…. To death-cells

  of that moment came faraway sounds of other

  men's carols floating on crackling waves

  mocking us. With regret? Hope? Longing? None of

  these, strangely not even despair rather

  distilling pure transcendental hate …

  Beyond the hospital gate

  the good nuns had set up a manger

  of palms to house a fine plastercast

  scene at Bethlehem. The Holy

  Family was central, serene, the Child

  Jesus plump wise-looking and rose-cheeked; one

  of the magi in keeping with legend

  a black Othello in sumptuous robes. Other

  figures of men and angels stood

  at well-appointed distances from

  the heart of the divine miracle

  and the usual cattle gazed on

  in holy wonder….

 
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