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.

Shook Foil


The whole earth is filled with the love of God.
     In the backwoods, the green light
is startled by blossoming white petals,
     soft pathways for the praying bird
dipping into the nectar, darting in starts
     among the tangle of bush and trees.
My giddy walk through this speckled grotto
     is drunk with the slow mugginess
of a reggae bassline, finding its melody
     in the mellow of the soft earth’s breath.
I find the narrow stream like a dog sniffing,
     and dip my sweaty feet in the cool.
While sitting in this womb of space
     the salad romantic in me constructs a poem. This is all I
           can muster
     before the clatter of schoolchildren
searching for the crooks of guava branches
     startles all with their expletives and howls;
the trailing snot-faced child wailing perpetual—
     with ritual pauses for breath and pity.
In their wake I find the silver innards of discarded
      cigarette boxes, the anemic pale of tossed
condoms, the smashed brown sparkle of Red Stripe
     bottles, a mélange of bones and rotting fruit,
there in the sudden white light of noon.


      How quickly the grandeur fades into a poem,
how easily everything of reverie starts to crumble.
     I walk from the stream. Within seconds
sweat soaks my neck and back; stones clog my shoes,
     flies prick my flaming face and ears,
bramble draws thin lines of blood on my arms.
     There is a surfeit of love hidden here;
at least this is the way faith asserts itself.
     I emerge from the valley of contradictions,
my heart beating with the effort, and stand looking
     over the banking, far into Kingston Harbor
and the blue into gray of the Caribbean Sea.
     I dream up a conceit for this journey
and with remarkable snugness it fits;
     this reggae sound: the bluesy mellow
of a stroll on soft, fecund earth, battling the crack
     of the cross-stick; the scratch of guitar,
the electronic manipulation of digital sound,
     and the plaintive wail of the grating voice.
With my eyes closed, I am drunk with the mellow,
     swimming, swimming among the green of better days;
and I rise from the pool of sound, slippery with
     the warm cling of music on my skin,
and enter the drier staleness of the road
     that leads to the waiting city of fluorescent lights.