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09-04-2019

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.

 

Keys

(For Nyambura)

 

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

I

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.

 

II

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.

 

III

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!

 

IV

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.

 

V

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. 

 

VI

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.

 

VI

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.

 

VII

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. 

 

VII

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.

 

VIII

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.