Published on Academy of American Poets (

On the Gallows Once

I crossed quite a few
of your rivers, my gods,
into this plain where thirst reigns
I heard the cry of mourners
the long cooing of the African wren at dusk
the laughter of the children at dawn
had long ceased

night comes fast in our land

where indeed are the promised vistas
the open fields, blue skies, the singing birds
and abiding love?

History records acts
of heroism, barbarism
of some who had power
and abused it massively
of some whose progenitors
planned for them
the secure state of madness
from which no storm can shake them;
of some who took the last ships
disembarked on some far-off shores and forgot
of some who simply laid down the load
and went home to the ancestors


Reproduced from The Promise of Hope: New and Selected Poems, 1964-2013 by Kofi Awoonor by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska Press. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on February 20, 2014. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

About this Poem

"In Awoonor's last poems, death is a constant source of meditation and reflection—the prospect of it allowing him to not just assess his own life, but the life of the world around him. Here, there is a marked sense of despair that is tempered only by the fact that in death, after crossing yet another river, he is able to talk to the ancestors and ask them hard questions about the legacy of human folly despite the occasional acts of genuine humanity. Awoonor has no answers to these questions, but as a poet, he must ask these questions. The gallows is the perfect symbol of a death that is precise, known, and inexorable, and the poet writes with the certainty of death as an urgent path to seek clarity, illumination, and wisdom."
—Kwame Dawes


Kofi Awoonor

Kofi Awoonor, born on March 13, 1935, was a Ghanian poet, novelist, and political activist. He is the author of Until the Morning After: Collected Poems 1963–1985 (Greenfield Review Press, 1987), The House by the Sea (Greenfield Review Press, 1978), and Ride Me, Memory (Greenfield Review Press, 1973), among others. He died on September 21, 2013.

Date Published: 2014-04-07

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