Othuke Umukoro

Othuke Umukoro—Nigerian poet, playwright & educator—is the winner of the 2018 I Found It Short Story contest organized by Swift Publishers. Born in Olomoro, a small town bounded by untamed rivers, in 1990, Othuke spent most of his childhood fishing & learning how to read from his mother. A University of Ibadan graduate, he has taught in an underserved public primary school in a low-income community as a fellow of Teach for Nigeria—a nonprofit organization devoted to ending educational inequity. His poetry explores the language of quietness, the geography of memory, home, depression, hope, loss & occasionally the ‘other’ that hovers around traditional father-son relationships. He is a Pushcart & 2 x Best of the Net Nominee. His writing has been published in Agbowó, Crooked Arrow Press, Random Sample Review Mineral Lit Mag, The Sunlight Press, Kissing Dynamite Poetry Journal, Sleet Magazine & elsewhere. He tweets @Othuke__Umukoro


Every night I take a shower
& sit on the balcony with my cat
& watch December’s velvet darkness,
glassy as marbles, play with the city’s nakedness.
I am HIV positive. My father isn’t talking to me.
On the public radio the host is asking
his callers to say at least one thing
they’ve learned in quarantine. I’ve learned
the economy of how to be alone, learned that
it comes with a harvest of small breathless things.
In the distance a swollen church bell is
spattering & how many times have I tried to
abandon my own body, told myself that
I don’t have to die in this poem? 

What did I stand to lose in the kitchen,
standing there this quiet morning for
several minutes trying to remember
how my mother used to make spaghetti?
Isn’t the body designed to forget like a river
losing its life to the sea? Forget that
he chased you from his house,
forget the silence in your throat,
forget the first thing the company did
after they knew your status
was to fire you. 

Outside the window it’s begging to rain.
I have been faithful to these pills of wild
colours & Lord, have I been courageous this
year. But I can’t tell you if my father will ever
come around to love me again, if I’ll cease
being seen as a disgrace, if we’ll ever
sit in the backyard together & eat
bright yellow slices of mangoes
like we used to before the
fractured days crawled in.

at the poetry workshop one of my students kept on insisting & insisting that the poem

for Gulnaz Kahtoon, 20, burned to death for refusing a man

is a whole season of falling leaves this country’s hungry history of men always swallowing & swallowing blooming pink lotuses softening air opening windows wounds at the edge of spring waxwings & pollens splayed from the memory exhausted disaster manual body of promises broken in flames girl unknown unheard undone milk & honey & dusk & sunlight something always eats us drenched eyes walls shell bodies dust-coloured grief rewriting an old playbook with our blood fed to gods & monsters between beginning & end lies all that hurt sharp half-broken shadows still shadows shattering a mother’s mouth covered in ash an empty chair at the dinner table & you sister of my country burning & i am sorry & i am sorry & i am so sorry & something breaking inside of me something keeps breaking sister of my country burning in this accordion playing a dying song

i hold the earth at night in a field 

(for my father)

in another version of the poem, we are out fishing, afloat
on open dark water & surrounded by the breaths of old trees
& he is narrating for the zillionth time the story of how he met
my mother. somewhere along the way i am a boy handing him a
screwdriver as he bends to fix his broken car & a boy in memory
crying into that dreaded old building called school with his calm
voice trailing & saying be better than me & listen to your teachers

in another version of the poem i would show my friends
the brightness of his laughter when he shaves in the
morning & how he would always leave chunks of meat
for us, no matter the size of his hunger, after every meal.

a body is a calendar gathering dates for bones & echoes.

in another version of the poem, a red-winged
blackbird smelling of deforestation is sitting on
the windowsill of the hospital room & the elderly
doctor is saying they did everything they could but
the impact of the crash left them with little to hang on.
here, i am pulling parts of him from the roots of a river, a
shared orange, a song, a silence, the discipline in his
voice & calling the space in my throat a working object
that breaks down that remembers that gets lost.
in my prayer last night i said a body in grief is
bilingual & parted a sea of grey fragments. 

in this version of the poem, in the open coffin, he looks like
a boy sleeping soundlessly in the middle of a hurricane & how
i just want to reach out to him and nudge him a little and tell
him mama says dinner is ready. i kissed him instead in this poem.

still, in another version of the poem, i
tell folks that i’ve been very lucky.

The garden

We rode home in silence.
You were calm watching
the shadows of disappearing trees
& I was wearing an impotent rage. 
You were going to die
the nice doctor had said.
Six months at most before
the incurable blood disease
lifts the axe on you.

& you never complained, never once cried
yourself to sleep in the face of the inevitable.
You carried on in that charismatic manner I have
grown to love & gave your soul to the garden,
your miracles of dazzling impatiens
& gazania rigens & bright yellow
toadflax & the ground squirrels
& double-collared sunbirds
that found solace in it.

On the phone you spoke so excitedly
about the healthy faces of your pansies.
You died the week after, in a year exhausted
by a pandemic & I have become a ruined city.
I turn here I am inside a war. I turn there I fall
into your laughter. Isn’t grief a tax collector?

My body, waterlogged, is back today, to your
memory sharp as a hunter’s knife, to this old
house where I go every year to die, to this
garden where your hands were kind to the
earth in full bloom.

Cooking my country 

My poet grandfather said 
cooks & poets share a chemistry— 
both have a propensity to burn things. 
I peel my country nicely as you would 
peel new yams, slice the leviathan 
corruption I gathered from the news 
last night & parboil for a few minutes. 
In the past, & even now, hunger is a spice.  
I’m not cooking for every goddamn person. 
While cooking my country, I am also 
listening to the radio. A new song is playing 
& I am thinking how every (really) good 
song is a stubborn poem that got away. 
I have been to the slaughterhouse: plucked 
the burning bodies off the streets of Borno; 
garnished them with red pepper; with the 
nightmares that never sleep in Zamfara 
& Benue & Baga; with the human rights 
rotting in our dank and eyeless cells; with all 
the pillars of burnt dreams. 
I chop my onions & cabbage 
& carrots & our fragmented voices 
digested by the Mediterranean. 
The song is still playing. This song reminds 
me of the first time I kissed a boy. 
I never told my father about him, about his 
soft hands wrapped around my tiny waist under the 
cover of twilight: in my father’s house you do 
not speak of bodies that are marked graves. 
I pour 114ml of groundnut oil on the 
heated pan & fry our memories. 
My secret ingredient is silence. It filled the kitchen 
like opulence & I am back at the foot of the song. 
Now that the song has died, I am thinking how 
every poet I know is a terrible 
cook (including my grandfather) 
who watched a country burn & wrote poetry, 
who watched a country burn & wrote poetry. 

A mountain cracks before translation

My brother is a flower, I mean the plumber
who found his body dangling from the ceiling
said he was shaped like a flower.
My body is a garden & I’ve planted my brother
in my mouth so that when I speak it is his laughter
that shapes my words. I mulch him with a
ceremony of longing, water him with wild
prayers plucked from the eyes of a burning sky
& every morning weed out the grasses growing
around him. Memory, too, I think, is a manure.
They said you didn’t need a therapist. Lord, you
couldn’t even afford one you black boy with
praline eyes. Boys like you, you were told, whose
world is a storm that walks on two legs, must
learn how to fold into metamorphic rocks: which
means swallowing sizzling mineral-rich fluid
& praying it doesn’t burn you inside out.
Imagine my internal combustion when father
cut the rope with his carving knife & you fell
like a little boy into his arms, his little boy.
I should know that a desert is an area that
receives less than 25 centimetres of rain
per year. Say my brother is the rain & I am the desert.
Say I hear the kaleidoscopic bees dressing you up
for harvest, pollinating your name with their holy
incandescent buzzes & my body, as it were,
a field of flowers without petals, swallows
the distance. This cold hearth.

it appears there is a narrowness to efflorescence  
after reading Logan February’s Pitanga 

outside the street is quiet which means the virus like a cannibalistic mutant is still on patrol which means i am a lamppost which means i worry a lot about the rabbits causing havoc in my garden which means i am a stuffed penguin which means i am stuck with a tornado in the house which means even the weatherman is predicting mega corpses which means lately the winds have been blowing at an all-time high which means there is no language for what shells fist & tender flesh which means the sex was rough which means something slipped loose within or was taken or both which means at the family meeting an uncle said he paid your bride price which means permission which means he wasn’t even drunk which means a body is a country which means cities of bruises towns of hollowed gasps which means the miscarriage is my fault which means the diameter of my fear is measured from one side of a bang on the refrigerator or milk oozing around a knoll of broken glass which means he apologized which means the desire to wind a fist is still tiptoeing which means you cannot edit a tornado which means in my recurring dream i am an orchid growing between the fretted fingerboards of a guitar which means ctrl + c & ctrl + v as the last blackbird that greeted you from your windowsill or the place your dog was hiding when the last tornado struck which means you don’t wait and ask why a tornado is dangerous which means this poem & everything in it is a sign language which means i have been told to never tell you this which means i am an inherited prayer which means i am reaching out to myself & digging like andy dufresne in isolation which means what is salvation if not how the body refusing approximations nourishes a desire which means you can tell me something about exfoliation & i will listen which means a lighthouse that means the ceremony of be(com)ing which means i left a bag of carrots for the rabbits in the garden which means while i was watering the pansies they came & had a feast which means to want is to stand on the bridge between naked & poems that call us by our real names 

my father’s hands

warm & large like the belly of a summer river
pollinated mama’s small dahlia garden
halved walnuts for his little girls
carried his dying friend during the war
that claimed four of his fingers
through a forest raining with bombs & bullets
performed miracles with mama’s dark lush hair
solved the Sunday crossword over the news
fixed leaking roofs in a city
that carries the face of a ragged memory
showed us how to hold a wounded bird
held a rifle seven straight nights guarding
the house when the city fumed with riots
taught his girls how to change a flat tyre
loaded the dishwasher
knew exactly how to hold mama when
they dance on Mother’s Day
sliced the watermelons
continued painting my room hours after I fell asleep on the job
smacked us when we were rude to mama or our elders
shepherded us when we go hunting
held me close when my first date didn’t show up
fed strangers & straying dogs
were holding mama’s when the young doctor
baptized her with the terminal news
kept vigil upon vigil at the foot of her hospital bed
prayed for rain
buried her in the heat of June
now wrinkled with arthritis
are all my reasons for writing poetry.

The morning after

the divorce papers were
sealed, I held a funeral
for my grief. Boogied around
in my iconic Calvin Klein cotton underwear
to the blare of Destiny Child, made a fat
breakfast & invited peace, goodness, sunlight,
the iridescent beetles, & the rabbits that have
just moved next door, close to my carrot garden.
I did not choke & die on myself as they thought I would.
Once I loved someone called lightning, which means
I have been burning for so long it is a miracle I am
still here to touch this side of the memory.
Call me salvation, call this body a stairway
into a place where I quit being a doormat
& became a sky with no trembling edges.
What I am saying is that after
burying my griefs, I found me a
place, a warm place. Somewhere
my body is saviour & miracle.

The federal constitution

of ghosts, 9102 as amended stipulates
that a ghost is a map drawn from silence.
Section 7 (e) says familiar ghosts are hard to
name; some are adjectives trying to modify what
could have been; most are conjunctions of things that
gnaw at deserts: in a way that is an equilibrium to
something pauciflorous.

Section 7 (f) explains that in a consensus of some sort,
in that psychological department of chaos, man is a
machine in the day & a grave when night
blankets him: all ghosts are advised to eat night.

Section 9 says if a ghost is lost (in transition), the night
becomes a pathway into something fractional (call it a home
outside a home), an old body sterilizing happiness
with loss unveils a mechanism that is—space.

Subject to the provisions of section 7 (e) of this
constitution, ghosts move like history, no time
zones splintering them—reinventing
& planting in little circles.

Section 1 (a), which is the most
important, says no ghost should ever answer
the question: how do you measure the
circumference of departed laughter?

Since the war (—)
ended, mother & I have been
eating the same ghost for dinner
—his laughter sits quietly between
us like unread messages.