By TOM SLEIGH
for Tayeb Salih and Binyavanga Wainana
Heat lightning flicking between head and heart
and throat makes me hesitate: I could see
in the rear view one part of the story
while up ahead the crowd breaking into riot
were throwing rocks at one another as the soldiers
retreated into a doorway. The whole thing
comes back like a moment out of Eisenstein,
the baby carriage bumping fast and faster
down the city stairs, screaming mouths ajar—
and that’s when I smelled an overripe lily smell,
an eye-corroding battery acid smell:
tear gas in a green cloud came wafting
from the mosque, all of us imploding
into the eyes staring from next day’s newspaper.
“Oh yahhh we got plenty of carjackers here, Mr. Tom.
Two fellows, I see them in the rearview mirror, one
with a panga, the other with a gun,
and so I put the car in reverse and drove right over them.
But you journalists are crazy, you like all this—
after the elections when we Kikuyus
were being hunted down at all the checkpoints
the fellows I was driving for, good guys sure, they want
to find the worst thing and shoot it for TV.
And so they stop the car near a stack of burning tires
and inside the tires is a Kikuyu like me
and they tell me I’m safe, we don’t have to worry
because we’re the press: but that damned fine fellow in the fire,
if he was me, would I just be part of the story?”
Later, in a matutu blaring “Sexual Healing,” I sat
staring at a poster of a rocker without
her shirt on, two machine pistols
held at just the right angles to hide her nipples.
It made me weirdly happy to look at her—
her, and the light coming through the windows,
and the jerk of the matutu through giant potholes,
and the lifting off of whatever fear
into the logic of a dream where I was some new life form
sent down for no larger purpose
than to listen to the talkshow host ask questions
about “the alpha female,” “foreign influences”
that make riots happen
and if “the President is going to plant some trees.”
When she wrote about Africa, note that ‘People’
means Africans who aren’t black while ‘The People’
means Africans who are. She never mentions AK-47s
(which don’t yet exist), but prominent ribs, naked breasts. Lions
she always treats as well-rounded characters
with public school accents while Hyenas
come off vaguely Middle Eastern. Bad characters
include children of Tory cabinet ministers, Afrikaners,
and future employees of the World Bank.
She always takes the side of elephants, no matter who they trample.
This is before “blood diamonds” or nightclubs called Tropicana
where mercenaries, prostitutes, expats, and nouveau riche Africans
hang out. But there were genitals, mutilated genitals.
And of course her sotto voice, her sad I-expected-so-much tone.
A nail in the wall is what the world hangs on:
a poster of the latest “big man” whose name
in fifty years nobody will know; or Jesus looking
put upon, head drooping on the cross, hands bleeding
a hundred times over in the wooden gallery
of tiny Jesuses for sale. Or else a mosquito net
drapes down in a dazzlingly white canopy
over the narrow, self-denying cot
where you sleep for a few hours, sweating out
malaria between parsing words
writing the fatal formula that cuts
into the mind terms you can’t live with or without:
“We are foreign men in a white world,
or foreign-educated men in a black world.”
The plate glass shattering rewound into the windows,
canisters of tear gas leapt back into the hands that threw them,
even the horns hooting and the awful traffic jam
reversed into dawn and malarial mosquitoes
drifting in my room. The power hadn’t come back on,
the air was completely still, and overhead the sun
passed behind the moon—everything in motion
like clouds uneasily defined. I imagined on
the road the sound of different footsteps,
slap of sandals, leather soles’ soft creak,
the sun dissolving in its own corona in its arc
across the continent to blaze out above ships
plowing through the Indian Ocean while on the tarmac
millions of shoes walk and walk to work.
Tom Sleigh is the author of eighty highly acclaimed books of poetry, including Army Cats, published by Graywolf Press, and Space Walk, which won the $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Award. He has also published a translation of Euripides’ Herakles and a book of essays, Interview with a Ghost. He has received the Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of America, a fellowship from the American Academy in Berlin, the John Updike Award and an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an Individual Writer’s Award from the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Fund, a Guggenheim grant, and two National Endowment for the Arts grants, among many others. He teaches in the MFA Program at Hunger College and lives in Brooklyn.