In Their Own Words
New-Generation African Poets (TISA)
Every year, Chris Abani and I find ourselves returning to a core question that forces us to consider the state of African poetry. The year is typically spent considering where things were when we started to think about an enterprise like the African Poetry Book Fund, and where we are now. In many ways, every new box set offers us a moment to think about what Africans are doing in poetry and where things are with the publishing of African poets. In this sense, the ritual of reviewing the manuscripts of emerging African poets is refreshing, for it affirms that Africans have never stopped finding ways to exist through the making of poems, the speaking of poems, and the business of contending with our lived world through language and the sharing of poetry. When this current box set appears, we will have published over 100 poets from Africa and of African descent in the space of eight years. Each year, the list of poets we approach for recommendations of emerging poets doing interesting work grows and spreads farther and farther around the continent and outside of it.
—Kwame Dawes, an excerpt from the introduction to New-Generation African Poets (Tisa) published by Akashic Books, 2023.
by Hazem Fahmy
from At The Gates
I walk through deserts, searching
for God and country, or at least
a promise. No “son” loves
this moment, the aching back
turned on everything ever
known. I plead for the sand
to deliver me. And it sighs.
For all the sins it counts.
Day in and day out, I watch
the sun sink, read my blessings
on calloused palms. Every crack
whispers gratitude. I’ve come this far
already. There are
no mirages where I am heading.
I speak every name
God ever gave me, hold them
close like my children at night
by fire. I see blood everywhere,
but this is still a land
without wolves, littered with burnt
flags. I do not let myself
by Rabha Ashry
from Grief and Ecstasy
I simmer in water
my mouth full of sand
I offer myself up
I stutter prayers
may Allah forgive me
may Allah let me into
the kingdom of heaven
I sow my nails in grass
dance to my sun
loosen my moon tongue
by Alain Jules Hirwa
Let’s say I never mention buying hairpins at the store.
Let’s say you never told me long hair was for girls.
Consider my names.
Jules is a nongendered name.
Saint is a nongendered name too.
Consider we meet on Facebook.
Consider you are the boy who texted me to ask if I am a girl.
Consider I reply that I have long hair which I tie at the back using a hairpin.
Will you conclude I am a girl with unsettled breasts and a slender body
and everything that is uninterested in revealing my gender?
Or will you say hairpins have no gender and keep asking?
On Pa's Grave
by Nneoma Veronica Nwogu
from Here, There, and What is Broken in Between
The hostile rain of the monsoon season
causes the thunder gods to squabble
and send their warning flashes zipping
across the dark September sky.
She lies on the paved mound
and listens to the painful pelts
on the poor aluminum top
held by four pillar posts.
Her head lies on her palms,
her caked feet bare, her ankles crossed
as she stares at the weeping clouds.
The compound has been silenced
as huts puff out smoke
declaring the clan’s evening mealtime
and soon she will have to join.
For now, she lies by Pa
and tells the tale of the day
savoring the precious time
that is Pa’s and hers alone.
Home is Not Here in this Body
by Nikitta Dede Adjirakor
from Learning to Say My Name
I too want to remember how to wear my body again. In this house,
everything remains unfinished and we mistake resignation for patience.
I was named after a father’s hope, a future appointment that leaves me
untethered in the present. Perhaps this is why I fold into myself, close my
fists and wait for the world’s permission to be(come). When your name
is a stranger, faith is what wears your feet through each door that arrives
at nothingness. I ask myself, what is faith if not the emptiness I choke
on while washing it down with possibility? Yet, mother tells me faith is
all we have and when I filter the world through her gaze, I see her again.
Longing for a lover’s promise. Waiting for a daughter’s survival. In my
body everything remains unfinished and I mistake emptiness for peace. I
am at war with myself. Home is not here in this body. On another trip to
the emergency room, I ask the doctor to find my selves and pass them on
to me. These hands are free to grasp them like a desperate prayer. When
your name is a stranger, you learn that just because a thing is alive does
not mean it is whole. By that I mean I have forgotten how to wear a body
that is whole. I mean home is not here in this body. I mean even as I
meet myself with violence, speak tenderness into me.
There Is Nothing Holy about a Storm.
by Tawiah Naana Akua Mensah
from A Litany on Loss
There is nothing holy about a storm.
It awakens in the absence of a father.
Rages at the uncle whose hands went a little too far too deep.
Then it comes alive in a lover that takes and takes
but never finds roots deep enough to stay.
There is nothing holy about cutting yourself open
for a man to bury his sadness and leave it within you.
When there is no more joy to feed.
When there is nowhere else to fill.
Where do you go with a void that heavy?
There is nothing holy about pouring the language of fear
into the mouth of your daughter.
Telling her to swallow and never push it out.
A home is a home
because she can clench her teeth and bite her tongue.
Even when it’s swollen black and blue.
Even when it weighs with the taste of other women.
Even then. Especially then.
by Jay Kophy
the rains cannot wash away the ache
that is buried in the muscles of the body.
so you burn incense to cleanse whatever
grief has made a home of
to make holy a vessel molded from dirt.
love songs are made of this
hymns of heartbreak and dirges.
grief is an expense of living
and myths are created from the laughter
that waits in between.
this way time becomes a synonym for faith
like the earth revolving around what it loves.
as if to say
language is a repetition of movement
a ritual of tomorrows performed today
an act of naming something to reach its tenderness.
but sometimes you wake from a nightmare
to find your hands shaking from carrying
the wounded memories you’ve swallowed
so you say a short prayer
to the sky because the night is taking too long.
by Samuel A. Adeyemi
from Rose Ash
The women from my tribe used to shave their
heads to mourn their husbands. The razor through
tufts of blood. I do not know why I tell you this.
I am not the wife of any family’s dead.
What I’m trying to say is, listen. The elegies
keep following me to sleep. It happened again
last night. When Father died, he didn’t. I awoke
after the dream, ran to his room. I looked at him.
His chest widening with breath. Good morning,
I said. You’re alive was what I meant.
You could hear it, the gratitude flooding my
voice. Not to God, but to the wonder of God.
Mother asked me later what I saw in my sleep.
I sang her the elegies. She began to pray against
the spirit of death. In my tribe, the word ala
translates to dream. In Igbo, it loosely means
the goddess of death. What I’m trying to say is,
loss begins at the precipice of language.
At the threshold of another tongue, the people
I love are not alive to see me love them.
deus ex machina
by O-Jeremiah Agbaakin
from The Sign of the Ram
an angel lets down
a rope with a neat noose
at the edge. a hole could
also mean escape like
the kind incision when we
euthanized granny’s last goat.
not the hole we open every year
in the ground for her to swallow
the seeds that survived our
hunger and all the dead whole.
how do we not see the full picture,
but the two horns sticking
through the noose like the striking
aulos: a double reed. an angel lets
down the ram strapped to a parachute.
but this isn’t the end of the tale
a ram is a lamb that didn’t die
yet. the noose comes with its
mouth empty, the god missing.
you must look as the noose loosens
and the knife takes
My Father is Not
by Phodiso Modirwa
from Speaking in Code
i want a world in which my father is not
a vengeful god who might give food
but then kick the plate for grace not said
a world in which i don’t have to beg
my sanity at the altar of a father’s love
in the name of prayer or sacrifice
i couldn’t feign piety that way
or worship at the temple of a god fallen
all tantrums and anger for blessings
a world in which papa is not
a flickering flame and i
some moth desperate for the light
by Jakky Bankong-Obi
from What Still Yields
My fingertips, scented
and nectar sweetened, feted in
dry season blossoms, tender
and spike shorn; split raw with familiar ache;
bougainvillea-ed. The blooms, bold and vining
petals skyward pointing, as if praying or votive,
the way humans yearn for beauty, avid
and ravenous like a candle lit and flickering
races to burn itself out. Eager, I pluck at them
and leave bits of myself, human sacrifice
for the perennial altar. Because beauty rarely
leaves you unscathed. When she touches you,
she splits you open, tender soft like new birth.
A sacred thing.
Poems reprinted with the permission of Akashic Books; copyright retained by the individual poets. All rights reserved.