Cape Coast Castle

- 1947-
I made love to you, & it loomed there.
We sat on the small veranda of the cottage,
& listened hours to the sea talk.
I didn't have to look up to see if it was still there.
For days, it followed us along polluted beaches
where the boys herded cows 
& the girls danced for the boys,
to the moneychanger,
& then to the marketplace.
It went away when the ghost of my mother
found me sitting beneath a palm, 
but it was in the van with us on a road trip to the country
as we zoomed past thatch houses.
It was definitely there when a few dollars
exchanged hands & we were hurried
through customs, past the guards.
I was standing in the airport in Amsterdam,
sipping a glass of red wine, half lost in Van Gogh's
swarm of colors, & it was there, brooding in a corner.
I walked into the public toilet, thinking of W.E.B.
buried in a mausoleum, & all his books & papers
going to dust, & there it was, in that private moment,
the same image: obscene because it was built
to endure time, stronger than their houses & altars.
The seeds of melon. The seeds of okra in trade winds
headed to a new world. I walked back into the throng
of strangers, but it followed me. I could see the path
slaves traveled, & I knew when they first saw it
all their high gods knelt on the ground.
Why did I taste salt water in my mouth?
We stood in line for another plane, 
& when the plane rose over the city
I knew it was there, crossing the Atlantic.
Not a feeling, but a longing. I was in Accra
again, gazing up at the vaulted cathedral ceiling
of the compound. I could see the ships at dusk
rising out of the lull of "Amazing Grace," cresting 
the waves. The governor stood on his balcony,
holding a sword, pointing to a woman
in the courtyard, saying, That one.
Bring me that tall, ample wench.
Enslaved hands dragged her to the center,
then they threw buckets of water on her, 
but she tried to fight. They penned her to the ground.
She was crying. They prodded her up the stairs. One step,
& then another. Oh, yeah, she still had some fight in her,
but the governor's power was absolute. He said,
There's a tyranny of language in my fluted bones.
There's a poetry on every page of the good book.
There's God's work to be done in a forsaken land. 
There's a whole tribe in this one, but I'll break them
before they're in the womb, before they're conceived,
before they're even thought of. Come, up here, 
don't be afraid, up here to the governor's quarters,
up here where laws are made. I haven't delivered
the head of Pompey or John the Baptist
on a big silver tray, but I own your past, 
present, & future. You're special.
You're not like the others. Yes, 
I'll break you with fists & cat-o'-nine.
I'll thoroughly break you, head to feet, 
but sister I'll break you most dearly
with sweet words.

More by Yusef Komunyakaa

The Whistle

1

The seven o'clock whistle
Made the morning air fulvous
With a metallic syncopation,
A key to a door in the sky---opening
& closing flesh.  The melody
Men & women built lives around,
Sonorous as the queen bee's fat
Hum drawing workers from flowers,
Back to the colonized heart.
A titanous puff of steam rose
From the dragon trapped below
Iron, bricks, & wood.
The whole black machine 
Shuddered: blue jays & redbirds
Wove light through leaves
& something dead under the foundation
Brought worms to life.
Men capped their thermoses,
Switched off Loretta Lynn,
& slid from trucks & cars.
The rip saws throttled
& swung out over logs
On conveyer belts.
Daddy lifted the tongs
To his right shoulder . . . a winch
Uncoiled the steel cable
From its oily scrotum;
He waved to the winchman
& iron teeth bit into the pine.
Yellow forklifts darted 
With lumber to boxcars
Marked for distant cities.
At noon, Daddy would walk
Across the field of goldenrod
& mustard weeds, the pollen
Bright & sullen on his overalls.
He'd eat on our screened-in
Back porch---red beans & rice
With hamhocks & cornbread.
Lemonade & peach Jello.

The one o'clock bleat
Burned sweat & salt into afternoon
& the wheels within wheels
Unlocked again, pulling rough boards
Into the plane's pneumatic grip.
Wild geese moved like a wedge
Between sky & sagebrush,
As Daddy pulled the cable
To the edge of the millpond
& sleepwalked cypress logs.
The day turned on its axle
& pyramids of russet sawdust
Formed under corrugated 
Blowpipes fifty feet high.
The five o'clock whistle 
Bellowed like a bull, controlling
Clocks on kitchen walls;
Women dabbed loud perfume
Behind their ears & set tables
Covered with flowered oilcloth.

2

When my father was kicked by the foreman,
He booted him back,
& his dreams slouched into an aftershock
Of dark women whispering
To each other.  Like petals of a black rose
In one of Busby Berkeley's
Oscillating dances in a broken room.  Shadows,
Runagates & Marys.
The steel-gray evening was a canvas
Zigzagged with questions
Curling up from smokestacks, as dusky birds
Brushed blues into a montage
Traced back to L'Amistad & the psychosis
Behind Birth of a Nation.
With eyes against glass & ears to diaphanous doors,
I heard a cornered prayer.

Car lights rubbed against our windows,
Ravenous as snow wolves.
A brick fell into the livingroom like a black body,
& a riot of drunk curses
Left the gladioli & zinnias
Maimed.  Double dares
Took root in night soil.
The whistle boiled
Gutbucket underneath silence
& burned with wrath.
But by then Daddy was with Uncle James
Outside The Crossroad,
Their calloused fingers caressing the .38
On the seat of the pickup;
Maybe it was the pine-scented moonglow
That made him look so young
& faceless, wearing his mother's powder blue
Sunday dress & veiled hat.

Jasmine

I sit beside two women, kitty-corner 
to the stage, as Elvin's sticks blur 
the club into a blue fantasia.
I thought my body had forgotten the Deep 
South, how I'd cross the street
if a woman like these two walked 
towards me, as if a cat traversed 
my path beneath the evening star. 
Which one is wearing jasmine? 
If my grandmothers saw me now 
they'd say, Boy, the devil never sleeps. 
My mind is lost among November 
cotton flowers, a soft rain on my face 
as Richard Davis plucks the fat notes 
of chance on his upright
leaning into the future. 
The blonde, the brunette—
which one is scented with jasmine? 
I can hear Duke in the right hand 
& Basie in the left
as the young piano player 
nudges us into the past. 
The trumpet's almost kissed
by enough pain. Give him a few more years, 
a few more ghosts to embrace—Clifford's 
shadow on the edge of the stage.
The sign says, No Talking. 
Elvin's guardian angel lingers 
at the top of the stairs, 
counting each drop of sweat 
paid in tribute. The blonde 
has her eyes closed, & the brunette 
is looking at me. Our bodies 
sway to each riff, the jasmine 
rising from a valley somewhere 
in Egypt, a white moon 
opening countless false mouths 
of laughter. The midnight 
gatherers are boys & girls 
with the headlights of trucks 
aimed at their backs, because 
their small hands refuse to wound 
the knowing scent hidden in each bloom.

Related Poems

Old Photographs

On my desk is a photograph of you
taken by the woman who loved you then.

In some photos her shadow falls
in the foreground. In this one, 
her body is not that far from yours.

Did you hold your head that way
because she loved it?

She is not invisible, not
my enemy, 
nor even the past. 
I think
I love the things she loved.

Of all your old photographs, I wanted
this one for its becoming. I think
you were starting
to turn your head a little, 
your eyes looking slightly to the side.

Was this the beginning of leaving?