“Augusta’s Poodle” – Ogaga Ifowodo

Five excerpts from the forthcoming Augusta’s Poodle (Poems of Childhood) by Ogaga Ifowodo



But how much do I remember

of those sun-seared days and starlit nights,

of wind-washed laterite walls, thinning thatch,

tin roofs that dazzled the eyes in hot afternoons,

of communions with ancestors at the shrine?

I saw goats’ blood drained into a hole

in the ground (earth must have the first taste)

white cocks’ necks severed by hands swifter

than a knife and the headless dance

but could I tell it was no more than quaint

elaborations for a meal? And the blood

of absolute vows, mixed with fear?

Some things glow still in the darkrooms

of memory, clear and dear only to my soul!

The world was new to me and the wonder

of discovery was enough. And I wondered

that four sooty sticks, shorter than a forearm,

tied together at both ends with a red

cowrie-strung thread, caused such veneration,

had the head of the clan as old as the sky

hold them with worshipful awe as he commanded:

Wa r’ọghọ ke Ọvọ Ekrẹzẹ!

“Do honour to the symbols of our covenant!”

He washed the totem-sticks with a splash

of kaikai, gin seventy percent proof.

The benevolence of the ancestors

was assured, their spirits bound together as we were.

The feasting the singing the dancing could begin.



If you stood still and opened your heart as

the rising sun shined its light on this humble

patch of the Tropics, a pretty pattern

would greet you: the precise map of roads to farms,

to the edge of the water, the swamps and settlements,

surprising you with as much marvel as

watching a field of flowers opening and dying

at dusk. It’s true you’d find no stone columns,

limestone facades darkened for added awe

by millennial mists, no marbled walls,

gables or gargoyles but Eden had none

of that and you long still for that beginning

to be your end. You will see an old woman

bent over a stick tell her grandchildren,

just joining a silent gaggle of mates,

not to play more than they listened at school.

Just behind you, a cock in free range may

crow the hour next to a hen scratching

breakfast for its brood. A council clerk,

sporting his permanently knotted tie

with the tell-tale stain says “Good morning, brother,”

and, not waiting for your reply, mounts his Raleigh.

There is a world here as world elsewhere,

and if you stood still and looked with your heart

round this landscape of plantains and mudpaths,

tin-roof tenements and unsteepled churches,

you might find yourself face to face

with the highest common factor of all lives.



If I’m partial to the women, if I love

their morning scent and evening chatter

after sun-sweated labours or hard bargains

for salt or fish more than the fragrances

of France or rose gardens, know that I saw

the world for the first time with only Augusta

by my side—she whose fingers softly

opened my eyes to sunlight, whose every

look made more immense love’s province,

made more intense pupils dilated by surprise!

It was among her mates, all but one widowed —

Asiafihọ, Etameda, Omavo’egrẹ, Umutọ —

I first found approval for words to soothe

a wounded woman that evening a drunk uncle

vexed a six-year-old into poetry. Hailed

too eagerly, as mothers might, but how could I

have felt less than blessed among those women, my

first audience?“Nne, we viẹ hẹ. Ọmaha

gbe ti t’ọkpako?” Mother, don’t cry.

Will the child not become a man?”

As if I, a scrappy thing all knees and elbows —

“Walking little bag of dried bones” as

my sister announced to the world with every fight,

seven-years head-start on insults serving her well —

could ever rise to Uncle Koro’s six-footer height

and avenge the blow. Poetry was my refuge

before I knew of something called poetic justice.



Wẹ ọmọza Aiziki-i? “You must be Isaac’s son!”

I remember the words that welcomed

me, at five or six, to where my umbilical

cord was buried. Two tales in one

utterance: question and confirmation,

recognition hot on the heels of doubt,

eyes glowing as the puzzled face dazzled

me with its strange familiarity: he

was sage or spiritual father, fated

to be first to meet me as I stepped foot

in my dead father’s compound. No question

in the sounding of blood, its electric

transmission of molecular bonds. I

was the spitting image of Isaac “claimed

too soon—too soon!—by earth’s depthless hunger,”

I, last of his four sons, a seed planted

before he waved away tears and departed.

My great-grandfather’s homestead: doors

opened into the courtyard—I was mobbed

by a love that straddled crib and grave. They called

to Isaac in his resting place beneath the sealed

floor of his parlour to never let my feet

stray far from home, never walk out

of the widening circle closing round me.

And to God Almighty: “Give him long life, dear Lord.

Count for him the unspent years of his father!”



We stepped out of the ring of extended arms

that wrapped me in such instinctual love as attends

a birth that breaks the spell of barrenness,

revives the dying branch of a great family tree

and names the heir to save a troubled throne,

love attuned as yet only to give of itself

and takes offence if returned by any measure.

My mother unlocked the fence of linked arms

with our next port of call: Ibiegbe Quarters,

from where Etu Ifowodo took Isaac’s mother,

kernel-oil black beauty as wife.

Holding me by the hand, we took the main street,

Emore Road, named after the oldest

of Oleh’s three founding brothers—I, descendant

of the youngest, Emiye, treading

for the first time on my native soil,

eyes wide awake to the windless air

of a morning warming to the sun’s

magic wands of light. Beside the stained white-

washed wall of St Anthony’s Catholic Church,

opposite Edho Street—where the town’s

deities were propitiated before going to war,

before the quadrennial Oliho festival—

he-goats uncrouching from sleep, their scent

as strong as any Sunday’s from a burning thurible.

As we turn to face Ibiegbe, a bicycle

repairer, suddenly grave, stops spinning

the wheels of a rusty Raleigh, like one

gripped anew by the insoluble mystery

of his hunger, its glittering blade sharpness,

this merciless minute of a dubious daybreak.

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