Isabelle Baafi

Isabelle Baafi is a British-born poet of South African descent. Her debut pamphlet, Ripe (2020, ignitionpress), was the Poetry Book Society’s Pamphlet Choice for Spring 2021. She was awarded the 2019 Vincent Cooper Literary Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2020 Bridport Prize and the 2019 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition. She was also Commended in the 2020 Verve Poetry Festival Competition. Her poems have been published in The Poetry Review, Magma, Anthropocene, Tentacular, and elsewhere, and have been anthologised by Broken Sleep Books, 20.35 Africa, Verve Poetry Press, and The Caribbean Writer. She was a member of the 2019-20 London Library’s Emerging Writers Programme, and the 2020 Griot’s Well Programme with Writerz and Scribez. She is also an Obsidian Foundation Fellow and a Board Member at Magma. She is currently working on her debut poetry collection.


Thank the midwife who pulled need
into your life: the pleading cries
in a womb-dark room; moaning

through the night like an unlatched gate.
Love sounds like a scream. Like roots
underground. Thunder in the cells.

At night, you tuck me in, tell me
the sea just wants to feel like itself again.
Withdrawing, frack-drained, sore—

folding yourself back into your bra.
You are what women become
when they are tired of being eaten.

My thorn. My door into this world—which I run to
in every dream, and knock, and lean against,
and hear no answer. A mother is a hard thing

that protects the feet. A mother is a sea we drain
when we’re empty. A mother is a wind, snubbing
the mountain with its arms raised;

making myself light for your hernia’s sake.
On days that won’t congeal, I follow you
through wards of decaying limbs. Envy

each syringed ambrosia, or buccal placation.
Hydrocortisone. Nitroglycerin. Metronidazole.
Watching you nurse everyone, everyone else.

No tree can grow so tall that it
no longer needs the soil.
But you give me just enough of you

so I can feed myself. Like a moon that
doesn’t beg the sun to shine. Like a tree
hushing its branches in the wind.

The Palm Wine Tapper

before he climbed my trunk / a dozen others /
he always knew which next to tap / could smell
their sap / under their pleated fronds / he
fingered ridges I thought rough / restored leaves
bit by winds / with all his / sixteen rings his /
bark brown skin / bare backed / palm oiled /
parched / his long legs wrapped / his ankles
locked / his branches reaching / up / trunk
sliding / up / his blade / as other trees had
whispered / piercing / I / could not uproot in
time / my roots were deep / I’d never planned
/ to run from thirst / what a / carving into /
bleeding out / has virtue gone / from me / give
a tree a stream / and it will lean / to see / if it
can still bear fruit / or raw sweet / dribbling /
pooling between roots / fermenting / quick like
shame / some things / become toxic / as soon
as the air / touches them / that means / they
were never meant / to be touched / the local
boys hear / what he carved / and come /
tongues out / head back / like catching
raindrops / darker than wet soil / if a tree / falls
in the woods / and no one hears it / it is because
/ no one was listening / when it said no

To the prick who tries to hack into my website every day

On our first date, we sealed burritos. And I knew
you were impressed that although mine rolled,

they never opened. The file cannot be opened
because there are problems with the contents. The file

was copied and pasted from a traumatised mother-
board. I know how to mask the smell of scars.

How to cache an incriminating tab left open.
How to build you a door that will never unlock.

Your question marks like hooks, asking to touch
the dry patch I leave on a bench after sitting in the rain.

Wanting me to confide that once, I followed a snail to its nest
and drowned its eggs because they looked happy. Once,

I climbed a bell tower and burned the rope
with a mirror and the sun. You tell me that your first job

was installing peepholes that worked both ways.
But the company went bust because the town

became full of suspicious couples,
staring at each other’s eyeballs for days.

Sometimes, I think it’s for password clues that you ask
who taught me to ride a bike. What sound

I make when I’m hurt. Why I buy so much
bubble wrap. How old I was the first time I came.

But I know you love me when you let me hotspot you.
And I say that I don’t open up because you laugh

when I count berries before eating them. I act like
I don’t pour my water in your palms because you’ll drop it.

But really, it’s because when it pools,
it will mould to the shape of your hands.