Poems by Kwame Dawes

• February 2011

Marked

The poet stands beside the soldiers;
he is dressed in cloths of yellow linen;
in his hand a bucket of sepia ink sloshes
like the blood of protection; in his other,
the brush, its bristles gathered to a point.
Outside a world will wonder at the wrath
of sweet peace, making God who has
his history of filling the streets
with the mutilated body of sinners,
who understands the language
of stinking corpses, who knows
mercy and the absence of memory,
whose sorrow was heaviest
when one slender body stretched
and split on a slab of wood.
The poet must step into the city
to write haiku on the foreheads
of those who lament, bewildered
by the wickedness of the people;
lines of revelation in the senna
hieroglyphs; a mark, a brand,
a stroke of hope on the lintels
of their faces. The poet must weep
when he returns, his linen
garments brown with the blood
of promise, his feet sticky
with the spilled blood of despair.
A soh it go.

 

Ezekiel, Chapter Twenty-five

The adulterer prayed: take away the hunger
from my eyes. And in three days the fruit
stall in the soft entrails of the city
became a cluster of dry wood and bone,
the bulbous plums, erect bananas,
fat sweating paw-paw became sin,
and the parade of open skirts, big
thighs, and mindless breasts became
the stern reproach of a grandmother’s
starched cotton, the architecture of girdles
and sensible stockings multiplying
themselves on the city’s street.
And the lake was like glass, the mountains
covered in blood; and all choice meat
dropped into the open pot simmered
in its own blood, the scum,
a rippling of fat and blood gathered
on the surface. No wonder the priest
let it all burn to the brittle wood
and bone fuel of the fire, leaving
that sticky black residue of flesh
caramelized—oh, how sweet the fat is!—
no wonder the pot melted until nothing
remained but the blackened bones
and the testament of how the earth
will face its sun. The adulterer
is learning the sterile futility of purity,
how the absence of sacrifice is no answer
to desire; how the proffered eyes
must be prepared by the shedding
of its blood into the dirt so the sand
can cover it before the sweet stench
of sacrifice can rise slowly up
into the pink vulva of the sky.

 

Faith

Jah live, children, yeah
—Bob Marley

1

We, too, will not accept the fictions
arriving from abroad. The emperor
our precious little man, the incarnate,
the hand of wrath, miracles
and hope; the surrogate father
for the fatherless and the fathers;
the armour over us; righteous Quixotic
slayer of giants; the stone the builders
refused; the conquering lion;
the tiny island that is tallawah;
the pebble rushing into Goliath’s head;
the grace of Africa; the bearded man
with eyes of eternity; he with many names,
is dead? All messiahs
will walk through their Gethsemane,
face the treachery of Judas,
stir rumours of unlikely death;
but the mystery of conquest over death
is the right of all messiahs. 

2

Not even rumours of death
must pass the lips of the dread.
Now we know the lies
of Babylon will know no bounds;
now we know that the descendants
of King James and his diabolic
scribes will continue to debase
all truth; now we know
that the dead must bury
the dead, but Jah liveth
itinually, Jah must live.

3

If Jah didn’t love I . . .
Would I be around today?
Would I be around to say . . .

—Bob Marley

Faith multiplies itself
and swells like yeast
in the heat of Kingston.
Our man, our little warrior,
why must they defame you,
why do they try
to confound the prophets?

4

But I and I know
dread it shall be dreader dread
.
—Bob Marley           

Here in Kingston the disciples
gather in the upper studio
and wait for the k’ibat
of the holy Ghost which comes
in a simple liturgy of proverbs:

Fools say in their heart,
Rasta, your God is dead . . .

Turn to the alchemy of dub,
make from the detritus
of the poor the golden hope
of reggae; the poor will
believe beyond the rumour.
Rasta liveth; our little man
cyaan dead, our little god.

 

Elegy for Herouy

On September 1940, Herouy, a close confident of Emperor Haile Selassie I, died in Fairfield Villa, Bath, England.

Herouy, I walked two miles to Bath in rain,
the Hombourg will keep me from fevers
and a trembling death this winter. I have not
heard the soft tread of your feet at my back
for months; now all I hear is the shadow
of your voice in the soft wind through trees.
I prayed for you in Malvern yesterday—
an owl hooted, like the owls in Wando Genet.
It is still the rainy season in Harar
and the mountainsides will be bright
with the meskal daisies of the new year.
There is nothing more desolate than death
in a foreign land. I brought you here
to see you die. We tried to chant the prayers
of our people, so take comfort, friend,
Jesus will speak your language, too.
I could hear him whisper Amharic
in the trees over the Lockwood Cemetery.
I feel naked, now—they have stolen
all we had, and Halifax, as you said,
wears a bwana hat and his mouth is full
of the deceits of colonizers—they want
our holy land, Herouy. Though these obsequious
Bathonians smile, they do so with pity.
An emperor needs justice, not pity;
he needs arms, the flint of resistance
not the milk of pity from peasants.
But these are the gifts we have been given,
and it is no longer your worry, my friend.
I have no friends I can trust anymore,
no one who loves me with your simple
obedience and wisdom. I looked back
on the climb up Kelston Road half-
expecting to see you shuffling, bowed
behind. The road home seems a long way;
we should have died with Italian
sabres in our throats on the streets
of Addis, not here in this mute city.
Forgive me, my friend, for not granting
you the hot, noble, death of a patriot;
all I have given is this eating disease
reducing you to a shadow,
huddled in the yellow Bath stone
like Toussaint, Napoleon, and all
ensnared warriors, weaponless
and impotent as infants. Forgive me,
my brother, my father, my friend.

 

Born in Ghana and raised in Jamaica, Kwame Dawes is the author of fifteen books of poetry and many books of fiction, nonfiction, criticism, and drama, and is editor of several anthologies of poetry. He is Distinguished Poet in Residence at the University of South Carolina, where he directs the SC Poetry Initiative.