Shortlisted Poems 2013

Entrants to the prize had to submit ten poems.
Here is a sample poem
from each of the six shortlisted poets,
in alphabetical order.  

Ouidah   by Peter Akinlabi

I have come here face first, and furtive as air.
I have come in a seeker’s mask, a poet-paleontologist,
searching for text in the signs that must lift the veil
off a Dahomeyan darkness, or translate shards of a mucky
modernity into a reflexive function

I go by Ouando, treading through a government of sand
insistent on adopting the shape of my stealth. I assemble
memory in the heathen signifiers of her defunct name – a civilization
now remembered only in its dismembered parts

The levees cling to their memory of feet; I, the ideation
of the trudging – my lexicony, seeded in the interruption of unrevealing
base of shapes,  can only re-imagine such conditions of movement
in ethereal mnemonics

But there will be time enough for us to dialogue on things like that -
the loosening weights of dissolution, or the grafting of verisimilitudes-
when we stand by the arch-of-no-return, each facing memory
in opposite dimensions…

Now I listen to the red-stained sounds of Alounloun, and watch the boy
sitting in the sand, back towards the Port, as if forgetting the seasons of the sea.
His grief obscured by the night, dilating only in the sibilant consonants
of the sea wind

The sea itself rumbles on in a tricky dialect, like the statues of Kpasse, reciting
only self-absorbing character of loss. I pray to learn my Vodun vowels
before the dark returns, or before the wind blows the mask in half mast,
in memory of Black Bart…

Hunger Flew With Me from Cameroon     by Viola Allo

I wept at the littoral airport in Douala,
said goodbye to my friends, felt them fade away
at takeoff, as the lumpish green of rain forest
was consumed by ivory clouds. I sifted through

tiny packages of yogurt, pudding, and cheese,
curious for something, a familiar taste; wondered if this
would be the food of my new life: too sweet, too soft, too weak
in flavor. Stowed in the belly of the plane, my edible luggage

sent comfort to me like clean air through the vents—my spices,
my culinary companions culled for my student days
in White-Man Country. I inhaled the cold air at O’Hare, tried hard
to exhale the floral scent of Americans, as the customs officer

stamped my passport and said, Welcome to the United States!
I rode in a box, a narrow lift, up four floors
to sleep off my jet lag in an apartment I could not leave
because my brother said, You might get shot if you do.

I opened my searched luggage right away to find
that my Cameroonian food was gone, bent over and into my bags,
my face a dusky African mask with gaping mouth, stuck my nose
into the tailored clothes I’d brought, trying to breathe in

the dizzying dust of crayfish and country-onions, balmy odor
of smoked fish and bitter-leaf, singular incense folded
into the African prints my friends had packed for me,
combed through the gifts and keepsakes—cowhide purses,

woven goods, woodcarvings—all acrid, angry-scented
like fermented cassava, sniffed for nutty traces of the njangsa
my aunt had ground for pepper soup, licked the flakes
of embargoed spices from the creases in my bags,
carried them on my tongue.

Train      by Lena Bezawork Grönlund

Spread out
and illuminated—
pages of old
and new letters,

blue longhand
staring fiercely
at me. –How long
has it been since

you’ve been
back home?
The hands
who wrote

these lines are
my mother’s
and father’s.
These words

should speak
to me,
but there is
only silence

here. I never
the Amharic

dissolving now
into oceanic ink,
on my floor.

Mouth first
I fall gently
a surface,

tasting warm
the rest of me
rushing into

a fluid form,
for the first time
as an Ethiopian,
–Too long

playing marbles
in alleys
of city streets
in Addis Ababa,

with my siblings
in between
metal shacks

and big hotels,
chasing cool
shadow, sand
clouds rise

in between
and after us.
I stop
to see dust

falling down
like a curtain,
catching breath
and perceiving

among people
a mother
and a father

Kenta     by Kayo Chingonyi

After Breton

Kid brother, with the chicken bone knuckles/uranium skin/eyes of white glass/face
of cold steel/feet of small bear/teeth of smashed crockery/kiss of Ndola mist/voice
of wisps/head of clumps and patches/belly of warm dough/odour of burning/fingers
of crackled peat/chest of cypress wood/thoughts of mango of guava of cassava/smile
of snapped elastic/face of chalk/face of cracked wafer/name of blown eardrum/steps
of falling ash/breath of jet/mwaice wandi, second born, with a heart of bad arithmetic.


How to Make Love to Women Without Losing Your Heart by Chielozona Eze 
For Amina Lawal*

My woman likes Chopin in the background
when she makes love to me.
After some dancing around with words,
some sweet shy glances, smiles and other
casual rituals, I kiss the nape of her neck.
That, for sure, sets her on fire.
And when I put my fingers on the first button
of her shirt, she says “Wait a minute,”
and reaches for the CD set:
Impromptus: Nocturnes, or Prelude.

Yesterday, I gave her no time to put on Chopin,
and later we listened to the radio:
Somewhere in Nigeria, a woman would have to die,
stoned to death for making love to a man.
I looked my woman in the eye; she placed her index finger,
nervous, on my lips. Silence. Like the shape of guilt.

Oh, you, hands that hold stones, what was it like to hold breasts?
If betrayed love could ever curse, in what language would it be?
Sad, like the tree in which the innocent man hangs.

In the beginning was the word, I’ve heard.
I do not know which word it was.
I’m sure of one thing, though:
In the end there will be words
Or perhaps just one word
A question: Why?

*Amina Lawal, a Nigerian Muslim woman, was sentenced to death by stoning in 2002 by a Sharia court for adultery. The death sentence was later overturned after lots of international protests.

Your Mother’s First Kiss     by Warsan Shire

The first boy to kiss your mother later raped women
when the war broke out. She remembers hearing this
from your uncle, then going to your bedroom and lying
down on the floor. You were at school.

Your mother was sixteen when he first kissed her.
She held her breath for so long that she blacked out.
On waking she found her dress was wet and sticking
to her stomach, half moons bitten into her thighs.

That same evening she visited a friend, a girl
who fermented wine illegally in her bedroom.
When your mother confessed I’ve never been touched
like that before, the friend laughed, mouth bloody with grapes,
then plunged a hand between your mother’s legs.

Last week, she saw him driving the number 18 bus,
his cheek a swollen drumlin, a vine scar dragging itself
across his mouth. You were with her, holding a bag
of dates to your chest, heard her let out a deep moan
when she saw how much you looked like him.