Winning Poems

Romeo Oriogun lives and writes Nigeria. His poems, which mostly deal with what it means to live as a queer man in Nigeria, have been featured in Brittle Paper, African Writer, Expound, Praxis, and others. He is the author of Burnt Men, an electronic chapbook published by Praxis Magazine Online.

 Invisible Man

And the voice was a lost bird embedded in a boy
like a word stranded between pages.

He said flee from the heat wrecking your body
and you ran to a place where water
running over pebbles is a whisper of wildness,
where lost boys are birds hiding their heads
under wings as they touch their wetness
in the dark and whisper hallelujah.

The radio said, a father shot his son for loving another man.
Marvin Gaye lives in the heart of a black drag queen
and to be a song of pebbles and water is to run into a city of light
and surrender your throat to the song of a bird.

On the streets of Lagos, a boy searches for himself in mirrors,
he opens his heart and hears the voice of his father
breaking his bones into a prince
collecting burnt teeth lying as warning on holy grounds.

This is how we kill love;
hunting it in the dark when it is soft
like a newborn chick,
breaking its bones till it becomes
a boy filled with dead men.

Rainfall teaches the ground how to breed:
a boy learns about the wetness of his thighs on a cold night.
Poster of boys diving into water holds him in a trance.
A horse hears the coming of speed rising in his blood;
a horse responds to the call of wild hills as water tickles the sky.

Wet dreams:
a boy hears the whisper of another boy deep in his bones
and wonders about the origin of stars,
his body is a lamp learning how to give light
in a place where a boy opens his mouth
from the door of a tomb;
where a boy takes his first breath
and resurrects into life;
where a boy learns how to make honey
out of a skin.

This is how to live:
a resurrected boy hides in dark bars and stare at muscles of hard men.
He is called Joe, he is called John, he is called The Wind
and that is how to be unseen.

And this is real:
a man hides his voice in a throat
before bursting out into songs.

Verbs are boys learning how to kiss,
like you turning your body into a blue sea;
turning your lips into pictures of love.
Like you opening your body into a little island;
opening your skin into a beautiful world.

Verbs are boys learning how to love
in a place where death lives in water.

One step at a time. A boy learns how to dance,
his voice is a stream learning the music of the ocean.
He opens his mouth and paints blue skies with the magic of flying.
He opens his hands and flowers plait the air with music.

One step at a time. A man kisses another man
and hears bullets hitting his windows.
A man kisses another man and hears a mob running on his skin.
A man lies on the edge of bliss and hears the rape of boots on doors,
still we rise with the sun and plant seeds of love in dark places;
still we love and hide and wait for rapture inside a boy’s body
as a voice flirts with the birds in his throat,
while a man burns on a street in Lagos for singing too loud.

Elegy for a Burnt Friend

Because the night is silent,
the trees will search for a voice,
the wind will fill a body with sorrowful songs.
Forgive me, I drank an old wine
as a mob marked your body.
There is nowhere to say enough,
nowhere to breathe in the open sea
without salt stinging your throat;
nowhere to wash our body in water and become free.
There was mockery on the spot
where your hand touched the blood on your shirt,
the voice said, you are fallen ashes, a mirror
of something unnatural, the dark side of God.
This was the point my mouth should have poured water
over your burning skin.
Forgive me, there was a pipe lying so close to another man;
there was a fire burning nearby and I ran into a dark street,
where I called your name in silence and said live,
knowing people like us will always be hunted.
I remember the night you licked the salt
on my palm and said do not be afraid to live in your skin.
Maybe you knew, you knew one day your screams
will stretch my throat and my silence will break
out of a darkness hard as a wall.
I’m trying hard not to cry,
I’m saying the earth ate the moon last night
but someone will mock your last prayers
and my skin will burst into a river.

How to Survive the Fire

The first rule of survival is to Run,
I tell you this to understand how memories
are floods drowning a lonely man,
how the sight of a man burning
in a park stays with you;
his voice becoming yours at night.
There’s no boy hiding in my throat,
I tell you the truth, my mouth is clean
but on my tongue are cities
where boys are beaten to death.
Say Lagos; say Onitsha; say Lafia;
say cities where the only freedom
for a man who loves another man is to leave.
I tell you this to understand my silence,
to understand why I crawled into my voice,
I do not want to die.
There is no where safe in this city of mine
and songs of freedom are just what they are.
You have to see nails drawing blood
from a swollen head
before you understand why God turned
his face from Christ and whispered, run.


Coming Out

The woman on the bar stool knows your body
is a journey into songs,
the door into a moth flirting with fire,
which means there’s a pretty boy
living under your skin.
I do not wish to come to you
but I can’t help it and you look drunk like a man
seeking a way out of himself
or a way into the beginning of his voice.
The city knows how to kill a man like you
and on the face of some men
I can see you burning.
Tonight you take your first step into music,
saying your body knows how to beat a path
through hell and back,
saying angels do not die in song
you are daring like a throat accepting the fire of tequila.
Across you in a dark booth, I want to scream
silently, do not dance,
do not give in to the wild beat flowing through your heart.
But you are dancing like a boy drowning inside
his blood and all my body
can do is pray your soul into a bird’s wings
and hope the wind call you home.
Do you know the first thing about fire?
Have you seen a mouth calling God
only to find a body rising in smoke?
The city does not want
to hear your song flowing through a bird,
they don’t want you dancing inside a rainbow.
Come into the dark before a man
greets your body with violence,
come into dark, let me sing
the night through your body
like a man learning how to worship God
in a strange land.

The Theory of Hatred

You can never tell the exact moment
it crept in softly like a cat,
the hate that turns a name
to a rotten body.
Maybe it began the day
you ran over a deer,
maybe it began the day
you called a man a cockroach
and watched as his body fell into the rotten
carcass lying on the roadside.
When we were little,
men could die for other men,
I do not know when it became
okay to die alone,
I mean to turn into a silent street
as a man is changed into a burning name;
I mean the song booming
in your ears as the gun goes off;
I mean your arms folded as men
are sent to the sky as smoke
and yes, I’m young and sad
in a town where love means fire.
My body is filled with the ashes
of dead men and I seek for water,
for my heart to be calm as a blue sky.
Maybe water is a way into love;
maybe it’s a way into forgiveness;
maybe that’s how we learn to sleep
with the wound in our hearts
but my body collecting rain
will never forget the taste of smoke
rising from a burning skin
or the taste of fear lying under my tongue
as a man is killed with the name
of his lover half-spoken within his lips.


In the dark, my lover with a halo
offered his skin to me and said eat.
At night everything becomes a dream;
becomes real; becomes a dish.
The skin of a lover is a fish baked with olives,
in my mouth he multiplies
into flavors that make love to the tongue.
When I was little my playmates
washed their fears into my soul and giggled.
There was no shame lying under my shirt
as I carried them into the eye of the sun.
I know tomorrow you will hide from me
as I walk across your shadow.
Do not try to explain, I know there’s always a beach
waiting for the souls of slain lovers
but no one walks into death willingly.
It is a fact that everyone has eaten a part of God
before tasting the fall of man.
When the sun is high there’s a thousand men waiting
to mock my loneliness with pictures of death.
Tell me, what passes your lips as a mob
lynches my body into a wounded song.
I want to remember you
as my body falls out of your mouth
but my song reminds me of how you betrayed me
thrice in a room filled with angry men.
There’s a part of me willing to forgive
but unlike Christ I can’t find my voice.


I won’t tell the world to slow down.
Instead, I will say come into my house,
sit. Drink milk.
While I plait its hair with the scars in my fingers.
There’s blood under my nails
and in cities faraway a mother
checks the sky for fire falling from heaven
before singing a lullaby.
I run and return, it’s still the same picture,
still the same story spinning in the waters
of Asaba.
The year always running back to 1967,
when men clad in white were killed
like sacrificial doves while their mouths
chanted one Nigeria.
Nothing prepares one for death
in your own home;
nothing prepares one for the sound
dying in your throat
as a mother covers her young daughter’s
eyes while a soldier rapes her sister.
Years later I will watch a man
look into my eyes without regret
as he recounts the moment the land
covered her ears as bullets reduced
sons to silence.
Mother said some men don’t feel the pain
of a dog passing away,
I try to tell her that’s what they were called
as they marched them to death,
she said don’t remember those things,
everyone has moved on,
they’ve forgotten the sound of men
crying into the heart of God.
I built a wall around my ears
but their screams kept tearing it down,
so I’ve ran to take their names, the names of
all who died in the hands of a man
that resembled a friend.
I list them and it’s so long,
I call them, no one answers.
I walk into a house and it is empty;
the door unhinged, cobwebs writing
poems on bare walls, a mother bending
her wrinkled face over an old paper
as she searches for the name of her child.
I turn from her and God falls.

The Origin of Butterflies

Give a man a piano
and his fingers will find music
but when grief lives in walls
what music will a mouth produce?
My hands are beginning to find space
deep in my room – say a butterfly
once lived in your throat,
that’s to say you once held the winds
under your skin,
that’s to say you once rode bicycles
on dusty roads,
that’s to say you once saw pregnant women
and thought of flowers
hiding behind laughter.
On the blank page of your life
what will be the next sentence?
Write death, sadness, a little boy
singing about silence in a room
made dark by his mother’s shadow.
Last night I saw a butterfly
break darkness with the colours of her wings,
she rose gently to the moon with songs
within her body.
Give a man words and he will build a castle
full of darkness and light.
There is a place where butterflies live – mother
said happiness can come from sadness.
On the next page of my life
I wrote only one word: Happiness.
I watched it grew from my book
and broke the night into fragments of stars.
Someone once said, when the sun is dead
we take light in small sips.
I do not know what it means,
I only saw stars falling as butterflies.

One Love
after Bob Marley and John L. Stannizi

It was the day the world sang
” So Many Things to Say,”
the day the hills gave me a way
into a religion of love.
My father had come into my dream,
into that place where love and hate
are illusions playing in water,
where a man wonders about the song
threatening to break his throat,
both of us walked down the beach
like two homeless men chasing the sun,
talking about what the dead try to tell the living
when they are tired of remembering the sadness
they left when they became one with the earth,
when they’ve learned everything about the living,
even the tears that lives in a city
under my bones, even the sea,
the one that tempts a man into leaving,
the one that kept crashing on rotten boats,
where I thought forgiveness was more than a word,
more than an escape of air,
more than my father letting his toes sink through sand
but the song came from afar,
cutting my thoughts into a rasta rising before the sun,
rising into the green stone lying on my neck.
When I raised my head to say the words of blood,
air, and freedom, he was no longer there,
there was only the song rising from the beach
as if water remembered Tuff Gong
and knew one man could lead millions into love,
as if the world knew forgiveness is freedom
for both bodies rising from the Funde.

After A Visit To The Museum

In primary school my teacher wrote
on a board as black as him:
A white man discovered River Niger.

Forget the fact that Mungo Park was sick
and his bones were brittle like old papers
when he saw the origin of water.

Forget the fact that our fathers
showed him the way into leaves
before they were written out of history.

Forget the fact that our mothers
pulled our breakfast from the heart
of that river.

Forget the fact that the river was a goddess
and from time immemorial
our throat has been filled with her songs.

Here is what the book didn’t say:

After drinking tea and rising up from a room
made cold by 10 black women fanning her naked skin,
Flora rose up and named us Nigeria,
the name she screamed as her body fell over the cliff.

It is true, sex has always led to the altering of history,
ask Adam, ask Cleopatra, ask my father.
I came through a soil brown
like the wrinkled skin of my grandmother.

The truth is we were here before
the beginning of time.
The truth is everything a white man
touches he names.

I was told my ancestors rode the wind
till it bore their name.
Someday I will accept this truth and write an elegy
to places that are lost names walking in blindness.