Ota Benga at Edenkraal

- 1947-

Maybe it was hog-killing time
     when he arrived in Lynchburg,
       Virginia, several lifetimes behind him,

the old smell of the monkey house
     at the New York Zoological Gardens
       receding, a broken memory left.

Not sure of the paths & turns
     taken, woozy in a swarm of hues,
       he stood in Anne Spencer’s garden
      
surrounding the clapboard house,
   but when she spoke he came back
     to himself. The poet had juba

in her voice, & never called him
     Artiba, Bengal, Autobank, or
       Otto Bingo. Her beds of tiger

lilies, sweet peas, & snapdragons
     disarmed him. Her fine drawl
        summoned rivers, trees, & boats,

in a distant land, & he could hear
     a drum underneath these voices
       near the forest. He never spoke

of the St. Louis World’s Fair
     or the Bronx Zoo. The boys
       crowded around him for stories

about the Congo, & he told them
     about hunting “big, big” elephants,
       & then showed them the secret

of stealing honey from the bees
     with bare hands, how to spear fish
        & snare the brown mourning dove.

One night he sat in the hayloft,
      singing, “I believe I’ll go home.
        Lordy, won’t you help me?”

A hoot owl called to the moon
     hemmed in a blackberry thicket,
       & he bowed to the shine of the gun. 

More by Yusef Komunyakaa

Cape Coast Castle

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.

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Homing

The water's wonderful there
And the women aren't bad
Neither when you look at them
Twice, but the blame

Lies in that glass from the tap
For making me want to go back.
I went looking for where they get
It from but I got a ticket

For speeding; and when I said
I'm Mister Shine, a black ghost,
Cop said that's too bad.
Glow I was lost.

But my sermon is about the water,
How it's precious like family
When you wanting something familiar.
It made me happy-- 

It taste like baby's breath,
Like dew. I never knew sweeter water.
But I'm a spook's spook; I stole
This story from a dead man's mouth.

He was a preacher from Virginia
Who before he expired said:
Somewhere there's a well of sweet water.
Somewhere in Ohio or maybe Carolina.