New Year's Eve in Addis

Addis is dark at night, as if the low grade
electricity cannot burn through the heavy gloom.

On New Year’s Eve, the shops are emptying,
the pavements are covered with the aromatic

green of cut grass, and women sell bundles
of the welcome carpets and dry firewood.

The smoke begins to thicken in the air –
from bonfires with a red glow at each house

and small dwelling. It is hard to breathe
so far up in the highlands; the air is being

purified – all sins, all errors, all wayward acts
burnt away by flame; the smoke clogs the nostrils

with the acrid reminder of failure. The penitents
will bathe in soft rainwater, cover their skin

with palms full of medicated powder, and the bodies
will be robed in gleaming white – the cloth of hope.

In the dim light of pre-dawn, the women follow
the antiphonal groans of the priests at St. Stephens –

the scent of incense can carry for miles in the cool
morning air. They arrive at the courtyard and begin

to press clean lips to the floor of the sanctuary,
to open clean palms and cup the blessings falling

from the crosses’ maze of lines. Like women
bathing in a river, they scoop the healing on their

heads, their voices muttering the Ge-ez of penitence
until they too can enter the holy place and bow.

The past must enter the blood as ritual – that which
remains is the gold and the precious silver of tradition –

and in this season we learn the theology of forgiveness,
the promise of forgetting all things – the amnesia

of the gospel. It is how a people could forget
the monument of the emperor; how, come Maskal,

the sins of a brutish summer can turn into smoke –
a burning in the eyes, some tears for a while

before the balm of weeping, the cleansing of prayer
and the ordinary rituals of facing new days.

The penitent does not make God; it is God who made
the penitent; it is not for us to know the answers;

questions are for those who have not yet learnt
the insignificance of the short time we are given here.


            For August Wilson

No one quarrels here, no one has learned
the yell of discontent—instead, here in Sumter
we learn to grow silent, build a stone
of resolve, learn to nod, learn to close
in the flame of shame and anger
in our hearts, learn to petrify it so,
and the more we quiet our ire,
the heavier the stone; this alchemy
of concrete in the vein, the sludge
of affront, until even that will calcify
and the heart, at last, will stop,
unassailable, unmovable, adamant.

Find me a man who will stand
on a blasted hill and shout,
find me a woman who will break   
into shouts, who will let loose
a river of lament, find the howl
of the spirit, teach us the tongues
of the angry so that our blood,
my pulse—our hearts flow
with the warm healing of anger.

You, August, have carried in your belly
every song of affront your characters
have spoken, and maybe you waited
too long to howl against the night,
but each evening on some wooden
stage, these men and women,
learn to sing songs lost for centuries,
learn the healing of talk, the calming
of quarrel, the music of contention,
and in this cacophonic chorus,
we find the ritual of living.


I sing requiem
for the dead, caught in that
mercantilistic madness.

We have not built lasting
monuments of severe stone
facing the sea, the watery tomb,

so I call these songs
shrines of remembrance
where faithful descendants

may stand and watch the smoke
curl into the sky
in memory of those

devoured by the cold Atlantic.
In every blues I hear
riding the dank swamp

I see the bones
picked clean in the belly
of the implacable sea.

Do not tell me
it is not right to lament,
do not tell me it is tired.

If we don’t, who will
recall in requiem
the scattering of my tribe?

In every reggae chant
stepping proud against Babylon
I hear a blue note

of lament, sweet requiem
for the countless dead,
skanking feet among shell,

coral, rainbow adze,
webbed feet, making as if

to lift, soar, fly into new days.

Land Ho

I cannot speak the languages
spoken in that vessel,
cannot read the beads
promising salvation.

I know this only,
that when the green of land
appeared like light
after the horror of this crossing,

we straightened our backs
and faced the simplicity
of new days with flame.
I know I have the blood of survivors

coursing through my veins;
I know the lament of our loss
must warm us again and again
down in the belly of the whale,

here in the belly of the whale
where we are still searching for homes.
We sing laments so old, so true,
then straighten our backs again.