2016-2017 FINALIST, COG POETRY AWARDS
—for Mintzi Martinez-Rivera
Maria Hamilton Abegunde
The truth: We can’t tell people that what we fear most is what we’ve already lived.
A mother and child snatched off the street by men in black clothes, black masks, hiding behind black windows, in a black car. With machine guns. In daylight while we are buying milk.
A man refusing to open his door for anyone who does not have a key to get in and saving himself and his daughter that night from being shot to death. Like the man next door who wanted to be a good neighbor.
The man who looks at us too long when we walk down the street when we forget to not speak English.
The young boy who points his AK in our faces because it is the thing he is trained to do.
The dreams that we will be raped or hanged or put in a box.
The whisper that marks us as different, foreign, and vulnerable to being cheated in the market place. Or slapped while walking down the street alone.
No one would believe the instructions we leave with those who love us: If I don’t contact you tonight, call the embassy. If I am crying when I call you, change my return ticket even if it doubles the price of the trip.
If they say they can’t find my body, dream me so I can tell you who buried me. When you hear their names as you wake in the morning, promise you will hunt them in their sleep. Lock them in dimensionless REM where their screams strangle them.
No one would believe us.
That we love what we do so much that despite threats of being disappeared we return because changing the world requires more than research and theory.
What we don’t even say to each other: one day we may be asked to be the sacrifice. But every moment we are away from home, we pray that someone else is braver.
After the Rain in Juba
Maria Hamilton Abegunde
The white slipcovers are resplendent against the dusty night.
Full-length to the dirt with a large bow tied elegantly at the back,
they re-member living rooms with English garden views at teatime.
They remember being washed and pressed more than once a week.
Two men each at three tables, lean back, talk quietly, almost holding hands.
They wait for a meal, and silently defy the quickly approaching curfew.
They re-member their kitchens and dining rooms, stuffed with kissra and friends.
They remember having no chairs because dancing was expected.
After the rain, there is no clean space or dry ground, only a cool breeze.
The mud refuses to disappear and the red dirt has turned the color of blood.
The men remember, too, when their evenings were ruled by ease,
not governed by police, hooligans, or ghosts. Or anger. Or fear.
They know miracles like a child’s laughter happen after “dusting off the moon”,
those moments when flash storms occur in anticipation of the rainy season.
Tonight, they are dreaming of a miracle, the one where their wives remember
how they wanted to be loved before soldiers touched everything with guns.
*kissra: a flat bread similar to Ethiopian injera.
Response to Student Letter
Maria Hamilton Abegunde
I am very gr[ea]tful to meeting you.
Though with a lot of challenges in my life currently,
I feel your presence next to me
through the messages you sent us, are really so healing me.
God give you more knowledge in everyday life.
I have I t[r]ied to work on these assign[e]ment because I know
this is a sacrif[ic]e I have to make.
I am sorry for sending it late.”
I do not open the email immediately.
I stare at the two-line summary.
“Dear Mother. I am very greatful to meeting you.”
I am afraid to read the rest.
It is not because you will ask me for something.
That is what people think, isn’t it, when they receive letters
from strangers abroad: I knew it was coming: so soon asking
for money, a visa, or clothes for the children.
But, you are no stranger although I know only the soft sound
of your voice claiming victory for young girls and women.
I know only that you arrived every day before class, sat quietly
at the same table, some days wearing the same dress smelling of sweat.
Was it something I said that made me “Mother”?
Only a few weeks ago I was “Professor”, the teacher
who made you laugh with her unconventional ways
and insistence that you tell your stories to each other.
Was it something I did that made you need me?
Did I encourage you to speak if you were silent?
Was it my wild laughter? Did I treat you how you dreamed
a mother would treat a child or remind you of love?
My ancestors sent me a message once. Said that my children
would bury me in Africa. I did not know what they meant.
I have no children of my own. I thought perhaps: one day
I will visit Africa when old, fall sick, and die.
It is like anything the dead give you: another language.
You can translate the future only after you’ve lived it.
You must master metaphors and riddles to interpret
your own life and make it have meaning in hindsight.
Daugh. Ter. The word does not come easily.
If I write, Dear Daughter, what will happen?
Over 7,000 miles separate us. I cannot protect you
from guns and soldiers or your own fear. I cannot call you.
Daughter. I am afraid of this word even when I think it.
I dare not whisper it to myself lest I am reminded
I cannot hold you in my arms if you are hurt. If you die,
part of me will die with you and my wailing will crack the sky.
Juba, South Sudan: What I Choose to Remember
Maria Hamilton Abegunde
I am writing a poem that is not ready to disclose its form or beauty. It is asking me to sift through memories made from a moving car, to wait until I have no more stories to tell – only then will it reveal to me its meaning. It reminds me that I cannot un-see what I have seen; cannot un-hear what I have heard. And that forgetting is not an option if I remind myself to do so.
The poem wants to know how I am really feeling. It whispers to me that one day, after I have written too much about the pain that is buried here in the earth’s core, that one day I will write about what I feel because I cannot un-feel what I am feeling, even if I don’t know what that is yet. Only then will I be able to cry.
The poem is always right. I cannot un-see old women cleaning the ground with their hands, picking up paper and glass and bottle tops so that only dirt and sand remain. Or the old man whose bleeding legs were wrapped in dirty cloth bandages, him hobbling across the street between cars. Or the squatters' camp inside the cemetery. That one, I want to return to, to know how the dead encourage the living not to join them.
I cannot un-hear the women’s voices barely over the sound of their breaths. Cannot un-hear their stories of being sold or overlooked as girls because they are not boys. Or how they have been offered as peace between families when the men behave badly and kill each other. I cannot un-hear their frustration and pride in achieving more than their brothers because they had to work hard, sell firewood – sometimes themselves – to buy their own school uniforms.
I cannot un-feel my despair over the daily lack of water to flush the toilets. Or un-see the same man pushing a bicycle laden down with 5-gallon plastic water jugs throughout the street to sell. Or the people who line up to get a drink from whomever is offering at the side of the road.
This poem won’t let me start with what I want to remember. That would be easy. It would be a cop out, a romantic memory that never tells the truth. The one that lets you believe that everything will be okay even though you are drowning. The one that lets you ignore hunger and malnutrition because everyone seems to be eating.
What I want to remember, and what I will not un-see is what I want you to see and know: Black people all over the world know how to live. They know how to fly into the rainbow, borrow its colors, and spin them into clothes and stories so deep that they can – occasionally – forget the tanks and camps, and the fact that they are starving.
From my back seat in a secure moving car, I look for signs of the Black people I know all over the world even among these strangers:
A woman stacking green mangoes on the sidewalk to sell to anyone. She is a Muslim and the blue cloth that surrounds her body is sea in this dryness.
A man strutting down the street in a yellow shirt and red pants as if 6 feet 5 inch tar-colored men every where could pull that off.
A sign in an upstairs shop: Black Girl Boutique after a scrawl on the wall that says: 2Pac.
An old woman jumping up to dance when she greets us in the morning.
A toddler in a purple dress running down the hallway as if all her life she will be in a playground.
The women who finally look me in the eyes when they realize I am not like the others. They smile and say nothing, but the woman who cleans my room leaves me extra things every day: a mat, a towel, a sponge, sanitizers, and she organizes my toiletries by bottle height.
This poem won’t let me start with life because it is afraid that we will forget history, un-write and un-remember the suffering and the dead out of our minds even though they are everywhere.
The poem is always right. Because what I want to remember is this: a young couple in the middle of the street, holding hands, talking and smiling as the sun goes down. They are dressed in jeans and t-shirts, no different from young people anywhere.
The men who speak to me in their languages, thinking I am a trueborn African. Perhaps already counting the number of cattle I would be worth.
The children dressed in green and white or blue and white uniforms going to and from school in groups. They are rarely laughing with each other, but they talk to one another as if this day is like any other day in the world.
A young mother waiting to cross the street. She is dressed so fine this morning, brown wrapper and top, covered with a gold flower. Her baby is wrapped around her back with the same type of cloth. The soles of the baby’s shoes are pink. As we wait for the cars to move and she waits for a moment to dash through the traffic, she turns to say something to the child. Her head returns to the front.
Look: she is smiling.