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.