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Mukoma Wa Ngugi’
Hunting words with my father
(For my father’s 70th)
One morning I burst into my father’s study and said
when I grow up, I too want to hunt, I want to hunt
words, and giraffes, pictures, buffalos and books
and he, holding a pen and a cup of tea said, little father,
to hunt words can be dangerous – but still, it is best to start
early. He waved his blue bic-pen and his office turned
into Nyandarua forest. It was morning, the mist rising
from the earth like breath as rays from the sun fell hard
on the ground like sharp nails. Little father, do you see
him? – my father asked. No I said. Look again – the mist
is a mirror – do you see him? And I looked again and
there was a Maasai warrior tall as the trees spear in hand.
Shadow him, feign his movements, shadow him until
his movements are your movements. Running my feet
along the leaves I walked to where he was, crouched
like him so close to the earth, feet sinking deeper
into the earth as if in mud, turning and reading the wind
and fading into the mist till I became one with the forest.
For half a day we stayed like this – tired and hungry
I was ready for home. But my father said, I did not say
this was easy – you cannot hunt words on a full stomach.
And just as soon as he spoke there was a roar so loud
and stomping so harsh that hot underground streams broke
open like a dozen or so water pipes sending hissing,
steaming water high into the air. I turned to run
but the Maasai warrior stood his ground. As the roar
and thunder came closer, his hair braided and full of red
ochre turned into dread-locks so long that they seemed like
roots running from the earth. When the transfiguration
was complete, before me stood a Mau Mau fighter, spear
in one hand, home-made-gun in the other, eyes so red
that through the mist they looked like hot molten
cinders, the long dreadlocks a thousand thin
snakes in the wind, the leaves and grass and thorns
rushing past him. You must help him, don’t just stand
there, help him – my father implored but just as soon
as I had closed my little hands into fists, the lion
appeared high up in the air, body stretched the whole
length as the Mau Mau fighter pulled the spear like
it was a long root from the earth. The lion, mid-air, tried
to stop, recoiled its talons to offer peace but it was too
late and it let out another roar as its chest crushed
into the spear, breast-plate giving way until the spear
had edged its way to the heart. Dying then dead
it continued its terrible arc and landed. I waved
and the picture stood still. My father came up to me
and asked, why have you stopped the hunt? I said
“but we killed it – I have what we came for.” I pointed
to where the Mau Mau warrior was pulling his spear
from the carcass but my father shook his head and said
–you have done well but look closely – how can you
carry all that in a word? How can we carry that home?
It is too heavy. I laughed and said – “father, you help me.”
But he pointed to the ground, to a steady flow of a bright
thin red river furiously winding down from the grooves
of the spear to the earth. I too pointed unable to speak
– the beauty larger than my imagination. I was confused.
I had no words. Come, let us go home little father.
When you are of-age you shall find the words, he said.
But always be careful – to hunt a word is to hunt a life.
By the time she was two, my three-year-old daughter
had her own set of play keys, keys that her mother,
and her Aunt Robin played with as children. I imagine
that for her, these little jingling things that we cannot
leave home or drive the car without or without which we
cannot every now and then open our fire safety box
to add one more diploma or contract are powerful
if not magical totems. But somewhere around the age
of 9 or 10 or whenever children earn the right to close
and open the doors to their lives, keys will be yet another
thing not to leave the house without, like her lunch box
homework or a cellphone by its other name then.
And some day, when her mother and I are long gone,
or more cheerfully, old and with secrets pouring out
of our demented minds faster than the life oozing out
of us, and our grandchildren are playing with keys that once
opened the doors to our lives and secrets, will she realize
as I do now that all that remains of all those things locked
in our safes is a random set of play keys, unattached?
Ancestries of Land Mines
As a child, names and things bear your name,
we walk without hungering for old age – perfect
little gods made out of clay. But if life is not
willed, death will find you. Make clay that
hardens to hold a memory - a thing that cannot
trace steps walked is dead even as it draws breathe.
Gifts. Rain. To see the world anew. Breathe wet
air, cigarette in hand, sneakers in sewer ground,
jeans dragging the days germs home. In the dark
you keep stepping into your shadow blackened
to your skin by night. As a child, in the dark
you could not mirror yourself.
Walking home remnants of yourself drip from
remembrances, black ink erodes your skin
into the wet road, black islands for tour guides,
blind canes pointing to where you fade and die
each time you are born. Each time you die they say
they loved their neighbor. How they loved your shadows!
As a child, freedom is named after the stomach
of needs, even those that we imagine. One day,
when the vote first burns in your imagination,
before Soweto Passes ignite like paper tigers
you will feel solidarity because you dreamt it first
and find license to steal the happiness that once rode trains.
A train - multiplicity of symbols, departure, arrival,
whirling between worlds and destinations. Be ware
of all movement. To resemble the earth is to be without
a constant face. Even revolutions revolve the earth
to wear a different face. Stand and you will revolve
to be one amongst others like you.
Love is not be sanitized in its furiousness, beauty
is in the gutters. It travel's the spectrum between
hell and the rainbow - where the God sleeps after
we birthed it. Tiptoe to wake it where it sleeps,
slay it once, then again. Then find love sufficient
to hold the earth's wound close to your open chest.
As a child now half adult, moons and suns wore different
faces. When you learned to say Africa, it first wore
the face of your home's wooden planks that cried in the rain,
dried still in the sun to freeze in expressions that doves
could not still into song. Refugee child walking along
intricate boundaries to find home in starved margins.
Landscapes of many faces, truths of many landscapes,
the blues, the sukus, the salsa, the jazz, the rumba-
rhythms to the same step of the swish of chains against
winds of multiple fractured oceans. A word alone skates
of a blues guitar to beat a talking drum to sing we remain
at sea waiting to sink an oar into the next blue wave.
Like time, the world revolves, evolves, in small infinite steps.
Where we don't grow mugumo trees in our backyards,
the mirror of another grows feeds our children opaque fruits
with eyes that see only shadows. Refugee child learns to hold
a gun, walking along boundaries without spilling into land mines
of ancestry - Nkurumah's natural born child of no borders.
A child like a fruit falls out of the womb to the parent's feet,
if they don't walk then it must learn from its grand parents
who if they stood still, if their world was always still like
a photograph, then it must trust its infant foot steps to draw
a map of Africa as one molds clay. And unlike our god,
it must learn to die for its creation, for the source.
-From Logo Therapy, African Poetry Book Series, 2016.
Prompt: Ngugi's "Hunting words with my father" is an ars poetica, a poem that "explains the 'art of poetry,' or a meditation on poetry using the form and techniques of a poem," or, in the case of Ngugi, the story of his origins as a poet--literally, culturally, and figuratively. Compose your own ars poetics that explores your origins as a poet. As always, enjoy!
Bio: MUKOMA WA NGUGI is an Associate Professor of English at Cornell University and the author of The Rise of the African Novel: Politics of Language, Identity and Ownership, the novels Mrs. Shaw, Black Star Nairobi, Nairobi Heat, and two books of poetry, Logotherapy and Hurling Words at Consciousness. He is the co-founder of the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature and co-director of the Global South Project - Cornell.