Loaves and Fishes
At home, the cabinet was almost bare
I didn’t think we had enough to share:
one loaf of unsliced bread made with palm oil—
orange-yellow, the shade of marigolds—
and one small tin of Geisha mackerel.
My parents gave all their money away
to others who needed it more than they;
they didn’t keep enough to pay the price
at market for a chicken, yams, and rice—
at ten, I disapproved, thought them unwise.
We gathered bitter leaves of sweet roselle
to heat up with the bony mackerel—
we used a spatula to scrape the tin.
My father said grace before we began:
“For these and all our many blessings, thanks.”
The simple stew surprised me with its taste—
it was delicious—and although I ate
all I could hold, used bread to sop the plate,
when we were done, the cook-pot still held more;
there was enough to store as leftovers.
NB: This poem was first published in the chapbook Returning to Awe (Balkan Press, 2014).
Failed Conversation with the Owner of the Rig
There is not enough water—
people are desperate with thirst.
They dig holes in the dried
surface of the river-bed, place
small plates and shallow
bowls into the mud beneath,
gather every bit of moisture
they are able, every drop
that seeps over the lip and leaks
into the vessel.
It does not help, it does not
quench their thirst to know
that down the road, less than
seven miles from where they
wait for water, there is a compound
with a gate, a deep well drilled
with equipment larger than
the handmade picks and shovels
they have at their disposal.
There is water plenty
behind that six-foot fence,
not just access to enough, but
so much that children raised
within that compound
have a pool, are given lessons
how to swim.
But isn’t that reasonable? He
tries to justify the lessons to me.
If they can afford to fill a pool
and teach their kids to swim,
then let them. They are parents.
Isn’t it their responsibility to give
their children any education
that makes them more self-
sufficient, might protect them
in the future, might prevent
their accidental death by
But what of other parents
beyond the fence? I ask—
What of their children, the ones
who are dying right now
of dehydration? Wouldn’t it be
better to share the water, help
them, use that huge equipment,
dig more wells?
And then the answer comes: It’s
not my responsibility, it’s not
my problem. It’s expensive to run
that equipment, you’re not going
to see me spend that much of my
money digging wells for people
who aren’t family.
My words have failed, my
knowledge—useless. I cannot
bring water. I cannot get us what
we need, even though I see enough
justice just beneath the surface
that everyone could drink.
I remember Father Sexton and his stopwatch
when I was ten, porch-light shadows reaching
through open lattice-work of concrete blocks.
It was within this sheltered breezeway that I ran
barefoot races all alone, and at each lap, Father
would punch the clock and chant the time,
and I would stop and breathe and walk it out
and bend and stretch, present myself again
with one knee down, call my “Ready! Set!”
out to the priest, and he called “Go!” and I was
off again, no competition but myself, no goal
but better yet than my so-far personal best.
My own father stood with him, conversations held
in segments while I sprinted the back stretch, silence
except for the calling of the time when I came by.
I’m sure this house of God had an inside, sure I must
have spent quiet hours sitting on the floor while adults
above me had their social, prayerful, necessary says.
I may have eaten at the table, stood respectfully after
for the singing of the grace. I must have been offered
Tree Top Orange Squash, I must have gratefully
accepted, holding God’s glassware carefully, between
both hands, to drink. I know these things, know how
they must have happened, but my memory only races
around and around, feet feet feet on cool concrete,
pauses to hear the chanted count, breathes deeply
of papaya-sweetened breezes. When I was ten,
God lived in Africa, and had a friend who had
a stopwatch, and a dusty, running child
was always welcome at God’s house.
Small, I squat beneath the mango tree, a respite
from the sub-Saharan heat, I watch the learned man
prepare the slate, dust it with a brush of horse’s
mane. His gnarled hand takes up a stick of chalk
sweeps it across the empty slate in looping Arabic,
inscribes a prayer. He motions me to bring the water,
scoops and pours, rinses the slate. I catch the cloudy
liquid prayer-chalk, watch it swirl in the bowl below.
He sets the bowl in sunlight—now we wait for it
to dehydrate, leaving nothing but the powder, just
the residue of prayer. This he scrapes onto thin paper,
rough fingertips touch gently as a brush, missing none
of this precious, precious dust. He rolls the corners,
forms a funnel, pours delicately into an amulet, seals it
with a smudge of wax and ties it tight onto thin cord.
This he strings around my neck; it lies beneath
my shirt directly on my skin, hidden for my
lifetime, the irremovable, unforgettable invocation.
And me? This body’s made of mud and water,
the cloudy solution of a single swirling prayer,
and as the years evaporate the life from me, it becomes
more concentrate, precipitates, and when there’s nothing
left of me but dust, the hand of God will scrape me up,
touching gently as a brush, missing nothing of this fragile
invocation, gather and string me on a long strand of infinity
next to all the other prayer-beads He keeps upon His heart.
NB: This poem first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2014 print edition of The First Day.
loved, further, crackles
Ten degrees above
the equator, last class
over, we carefully placed
our piles of books
on the splintering
pebbles, found a patch
of shade, dug a dozen
small holes in the dirt
and played mancala.
Girls who’d been away,
who’d traveled elsewhere
and returned would tell
cold fresh milk, not sour
tinned or powdered
available at every table.
Electricity that stayed
on always, not just after
dark. And telephones.
I most loved the wild one
they told about the trees,
how it would get so
cold the leaves would
lose green veils, show
their faces, red orange
yellow purple like hot
peppers ripening on
all the branches, then
dry and fall and crackle.
When my turn came
to travel further, first
found me in the dark,
5 A.M. in Stony Point,
New York, counting
unfamiliar bills into
a taxi-driver’s hand,
my thick new coat.
Early, in time to learn
to breathe the chilly
air without a wince
or splutter. Focused
on this practice,
until I raised my
eyes to find the source
of the first bird-song.
How can I give you
words for this? these
colors, this magic?
how my heart was
broken open like
a question: If it is
possible, these leaves
are real, then what
of all the other
stories? What of God?
NB: This poem first appeared online at Uut Poetry as an entry in the 2014 Uut Poetry / What3Words contest, where it placed third.