Dance In Third Person

(For I.A.W., whose sickness could have been mine)

 

Moonlight courts their bare skin

Stomping their feet

To the jubilant beat, shingle of the night

Bronze sculptures, only fluid ore

Malleable in the coming wind

Strong willed against the cry

Lent eyes of self denial-

We are not going to disembody you

No, just peel you, outside consciousness,

Like onions

We will deny ourselves the satisfaction

Yes, they dance in third person

The friction of their thighs

Muscle that knows no liposuction

It maddens them

In a circle

Dancing around a flame

The torch of a skinned man

Bamboo into his pallate, out his rectum

What he did, they do in return

They are stomping their bare feet

They are clapping their bare hands

Shaking their plump breast

To a barren beat,

Ripe with an era’s pain

And longing, an induced contraction of will

Chains hanging from their lips

Piercings in rebel places, hiatus

Machines slide through here, and man

Embodiments of a culture

Natural hair fertilized with natural dung

Nipples hanging erect with dangling artifacts

Things to remind them of the past

They salute their Queen, pay homage

She looks on

‘If you don’t dance, you, too, will be skinned

They dance into the night, they are free

Possessed by something;

Their own freedom?

There is no Chlamydia along this shores,

No candida, no inhibition

Only a curious madness

Sustained by opposite flesh

This is the Island of Nomate

Where pistils need no pollen.

 

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Her Body at the Colorist’s

She carries a manual everywhere she goes

You never know when you’ll meet a child with crayons.

Imbued with the intuition of mothers

She takes my hands between hers, between her.

Redwood bludgeoning from her many many sights

As each leaf of the wet manual turns, each becomes an arm of the clock

A clock of infinite arms,

The harmony of which is between her,

The source of which is an intact spine

An ox-bow lake at the small of her back

Sperm floating like whales,

The colorist seeks her outlines.

 

This act, lacking iambics

Is termed as a victory over youth.

Interior Life

Sometimes I get the feeling that the world outside my bedroom window is disappearing. A dog barks in the near distance and I can imagine it being carried away by the dark arms of time. First only its barking is erased, there is nothing to return the echoes, and then gradually every hair on it is erased. In the midst of this loneliness everything becomes subject to de-emphasis.

Let us go down to a place called Mandrakos.

I know I have walked down this street a million times but fifteen years later it feels like I am here for the first time. The classic nostalgia does not get to me and apart from someone who once knew me by my surname everything else conspires to exclude me from this place. A lot of memories stayed behind, some will come to me when I’m writing but it is usually the same event from a different perceptive. It’s like trying to remember a movie you watched while you were young, you try to remember the details and the narrative but they never congeal; always a few details of faces retracting back to the background. Those movies were a defence: I was a storeaway in a time capsule where the destination did not matter.

The arrangement of houses is the same. The highest house is a one story building, a combination of wood and MRM mabati.  It doesn’t become immediately apparent, since all attention is directed on what is directly ahead of you, but this low lying tenements give you a wide view of the open sky and you can hear your synapses working hard to connect this image from another one in the archives.

These could be the same dogs and cats chasing each other in the alleyways, there is no way of telling. I think dogs and cats never really leave this world. I always see the same dogs and cats wherever I go.

Nothing stirs in my mind. The smells are not new because they have always been there wherever I go. I walk to the other sections until I make a 360° and I am back at the church. Holy Trinity Catholic Church. I was baptized here, the assistant to the archbishop also anointed me at these very steps. There is an old photograph of the event at home and in it I am looking to the side instead of the podium. Even then I look like I was lost in some delirium of my own. I don’t know how possible it is to discern delirium from the handsome face of a young boy but there is something in my eyes that suggests chaos.

And then it dawns on me, what if the chaos prevented me from storing away any memories?  How could it be possible to lie down memories like flowers in a garden to grow and bloomwhen my mind was in such a state? I was not in any plateau, not in any state where the seeds of memory could find a steady, fertile ground to germinate.

Of course, that is just one hypothesis. There is much that can be said as counterevidence. Mind you, I have been reading Haruki Murakami’s ‘Kafka On The Shore’. I cannot imagine reading two Murakami novels back to back. It takes too much energy and courage to explore one’s loneliness like that. But chances are I will pick up ‘Sputnick Sweetheart’ tonight.

The other idea, the antithesis if I may use the term loosely, is that there was nothing to tuck away in the archives of remember. There was nothing worth the trouble of remembering, I think to myself. How many waves break against the shore and how many have been recorded?

mem·o·ry noun.

a)       the power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained especially through associative mechanisms

b)      the store of things learned and retained from an organism’s activity or experience as evidenced by modification of structure or behavior or by recall and recognition.

It seems highly possible that I suffer from recall without recognition. I must have become a different person at some point because if I have any memories at all they don’t date back to that time. I can reconstruct some events and link them together but deep down I know it’s all just a farce, those events belong to that young man, not to me. When I walk down that alley I must’ve been recollecting the history of another organism that must have died, whose story involved watching dogs and cats disappear into the alleyways, whose late afternoons were spent looking out the window at passersby run to shelter from the rain, whose heaven was an open, cold expanse of clouds, whose nights involved dreaming about the arms of another time and another place.

There was this illusionist who carried around a defective device and charged ten cents for anyone who wished to look down into another time. He promised a sort of imaginarium. His dressing was peculiar, his breath awful. We all wanted to look into the device so bad because it afforded us the leisure of being lied to, we were desperate to be lied to. How busy we were trying to forget. A man such as I am cannot claim the leisure of forgetting. How certain I’m I that there was anything to begin with?

Once in a while I meet a stranger whose language reminds me of that time but I have made it a habit of ignoring such people.  He offers to sit with me on a park bench. He looks at my magazine and strikes up a conversation. When his lips move his words are transparent, I can see through them. Then I realize that although I can see through the words I cannot hear them. Time conspires to torture me, to laugh at me.

Those clouds lingered above Mandrakos. I never saw them come but I always watched them leave. They were the burden of our collective memory. They were there to relive us of our inability to retain the rubbles of time. And what are we except the rubbles of time?

As I listen to Duke Ellington’s ‘Melancholia’ as idea comes to mind. Memory as .mp3. It works with music. The power of music to induce nostalgia, to remind us of our existence, is contained in its ability to be stored exactly like it was at the beginning. The same arrangement of keys on the piano, never changing. That is what I need. A device to store the keys of my unending love for the obscure in perfect condition, a testament of my existence.

mem·o·ry noun.

a)       the fear and inability to deconstruct what has been.

The world outside my bedroom materializes in the morning. Dawn has been an ever present phenomenon that I have forgotten how to be wowed by its ability to give birth to the world outside my bedroom. Time can only offer to carry me in its travelling arms.

In an attempt to fall in love with myself I pick up ‘Eloisa to Abelard’.

Gombolela

 He shakes his vinyl-like plumage in preparation for a massacre, an encounter between him and Gombolela. Anticipation written in his gait, he waits to raise dust like dancers in a madhouse festival, a carnival of feathers. He makes a perfect circle around her, marking his territory with scents and droppings laced with uric acid. D the Bird stands still in the middle of the circle, her hair trembling like the wind got trapped within it. Her closed eyes make a million darts behind their lids. She has already made the decision to fall in love with this man who dances so gracefully his shadow has to depart him to pay allegiance, but has to stay composed and feign her anxiety less the watching crowd judge her for acts unbecoming a widowed bird.

Oglive, in a black and white, looks like the phantom of the opera. His beak is curved to break the toughest seeds and his eyes pop out as if peering into the future. He stretches his plumage into a Chinese fan. Like an erotic flamenco dancer he moves sideways, his scaly toes tapping on the branch and awakening the spirits of dead ants and decaying earthworms. Here is a bird capable of waltzing, with feathers intricately arranged like the notes of a sonata and claws that could grasp food twice his size.

Oglive, chin set high as a butler’s, makes more frantic but calculated moves , all the while like a sorcerer deep in meditation. This is the dance of grace and trigonometry, of fate and courtship. All his energies have gone to his feathers, leaving his head light in the wind, a fact that makes it sway like cones on a tree. Deep in his compound eyes there sways to and fro a snake charmer’s concubine. Deep within their blackness is a 5 × 6 matrimonial bed where he believes she will loose her avian virginity for the second time

Meanwhile, D the bird is perched on the intersecting branches of two symbiotic trees, and the flowers make it look as if she is surrounded by a bevy of bridesmaids. Oglive’s movements are signs that he could fly over all of hell’s cantos, past the yells of other burning birds and bring back earthworms in his vomit by nightfall, his every maneuver a quiet revelation to her, a promise for a future cushioned in the warm bodies of earthworms. Inside her pea-sized head are whirlpools of her secret longing.

The ancestors, forgetting that they are dead, rise to watch the unfolding of the most majestic dance in bird history. Some of them look down on Gombolela with disgust and contempt for daring to challenge Oglive the master.  ‘Who is he, falling feathers, big feet, sickly eyes, pests at the back of his ears? Stupid fool! Doesn’t he know that we are the gods of the plumage kingdom! Curse his arthritic bones and the seeds of his gangrenous poems!’

They could chant their spells all day but Gombolela had to prove his worth. All is fair in the plumage kingdom. “Yes,” he admits to himself, “that Oglive bastard can dance better than Solomon’s concubines, but that is not as good as the higher vacation of writing verse.”

In a way, Oglive’s footsteps were like rhyme schemes embossed on the womb of the earth, but it took real craft to be able to write like Gombolela did. His dancing made Gombolela uncomfortable. There had to be something terribly wrong for a man to dance like that, something metrosexual. “Maybe he is a hermaphrodite! I am going to expose him for who he really is. Haven’t the gods heard about his frequent French manicures? Who hasn’t seen him frequent the spa on weekends! They cast stones at a simple melancholic like me and are blinded by the charm of a man who wears a dress to the market.” He silently laments to himself.

“And D the Bird, Oh D the bird, haven’t I written poems for you! lyrical ballads and versa libres for you and she whose canonical tubes hatched forth your egg, and calibrated chirpings on the bark of our tree of life. You told me to be in touch with my feminine side and I went the extra mile and touched my feminine sides. Do I really have to stretch my plumage to its arthritic end and prove my ability for long distance flight for you to openly love me? Remember when you were wild blackberries and I was the child who put you in my gizzard save room? Let me write psalms and awaken the spirit of David to play for you my Bathsheba. O D the Bird.”

For a moment these words take her to the season when they first met.

They met just after the July migration season, when her eggs hatched but the feeble chicks succumbed to the unpredictable cold that spread along the kingdom like a plague.  For two months she resigned to fate in a nest whose grass was soaked in her own urine. She lived with  the depression and came out only in the early evenings when all the birds had gone to sleep. His voice, like smells of damp earth and wet leaves -the first signs of life since the death of her babies- sneaked through louvers into her nest. He stood on canopies and recited his coded verses to the night. On closer examination she realized that he stood there cursing at the moon because it refused to come out during the day and demand that the sun not shine so bright. Was he crazy? It didn’t matter, his music consoled her, healed  her. Gradually she began to pity his loneliness, secretly leaving food baskets for him to find. He ate the food as she watched, glad that he enjoyed her cooking. Gombolela left ribbons for her hoping that one day she would be enticed by their glitter and come out of her hiding. Every time he came back the ribbons were gone and the air bereft of any traces of a bird that he could use to track her. He became convinced that it was a spirit god playing tricks on him.

He never caught the spirit until one day when he had gone to sell roses at the spa he saw D the Bird in the ribbons. Later that night, without the rigorous and cumbersome mating dance ritual, their affair began.  Then Oglive who had been eyeing her for some time made a formal engagement. It was then that the two male birds had to enact this dance to win D the Bird.

The quiet settles in like death on a Sunday afternoon. All the attending birds are silent. Earthworms can be heard as they coil their bristles deeper into the soil. Impressed by his own maneuvers, Oglive finds a high point on the canopy and sits to watch, a disapproving grin on his face. The wind, itself curious of what Gombolela has up his sleeves, abandons its course, allowing the leaves to lie still in the moribund air. This is where fate has brought them.

Gombolela steps on the Marlborro buts he has been smoking and stretches his wings, the ends pointing to the sky as if praying to the gods. The black on them shines so shyly in the equatorial sun betraying the films of dust that have settled on them. It dawns on him that he should have taken a bath before coming here. He is too weak to maintain the position. He lets out a long fart. The wings recoil, enclosing his body into an ugly bud. Damn it! He curses, maybe reading Thoreou was not such a good idea for a bird. The forest laughs at his rusty manners, wondering why he even considered challenging Oglive. He has just lost a chance to settle down with a most suitable mate.

Oglive moves closer to D the Bird, holds her between his wings as he leads her to his old pickup track, license plate KEJ 127N. Gombolela knows she will be back at their love nest. What’s a bird without poetry?

The Mantis Courtesan

She imagines that the same electromagnetic waves that guide turtles to hatch back in the ancient coastal sands of their birthplace were the same forces that always took her back to Benedict. Maybe Freud had some other theory but whatever it was she hated herself for being so weak. Why this affection towards a man who was against everything she believed in, a man who had no sense of duty? She had met him on the University alleys murmuring indiscreetly to himself. They had been part of the students fleeing from the batons of the city council askaris for spraying on the administration block the words; ‘THE VICE CHANCELLOR MUST GO’. From the chaos they had gone into her place to cool off while listening to the breaking news about the student riot. He had never left the confines of her space even after graduation. He gave up photocopying his resume and sending it to pharmaceutical and biomedical firms saying that he had given up science. The bachelor’s degree had been tucked away between loose leaf pads and old exercise books. Nothing had changed about him in more than the five years since they met; he still wore the same creased shirts with the folded sleeves and a half-coat and blue jeans. His only contribution to the bed-sitter they now shared was the vita foam mattress he had stolen from a hostel. Of course there was the snoring, his restless leg syndrome and the whorls of hydrogen sulfide at night but this she put up with like a loyal girlfriend. Somehow, she always came home to his arms, sometimes loathing herself for longing to be under the anesthetic halo of his embrace. Benedict, always the passionate lover, wrote incomprehensible poems for her.

Now she must find a way to get rid of the devil she had welcomed in her room, but first she had to overcome her own self. He had suckled at her breasts for too long.

Her vagina –

a cathedral

an exit-entrance canal

for canoes and dhows of sandalwood

for gnats and weevils

for the hard wood.

Like the calf that suckles from the adder

I suck, from under.

Damn you Benedict! Damn you! Yes, she had to get rid of the poet. He was not providing like every man ought to, bills collected dirt and coffee stains on the table until she found a way to settle them. He was overly jealous when she talked and entertained other men but that did not stop him from enjoying the perks that came with it. Benedict would call her a whore for using her body to lure married men. She would say that all she did was give them lap dances and laugh to their stupid joke. Then they would fight about it all night, drinking the extra dry martini she had brought home and having drunk sex on the floor. The next morning he would stay at home indulging in indolence and daydreams, scratching his scrotum, eating peanut-butter bread and pouring jars of coffee into his stomach all day, reading volumes of 19th century poems from Bartleby.com through the LCD of a 3G phone borrowed from Eva. He would scribble lines on the loose leaf pads and read them to her later in the day.

My winged mechanics

I bruise through fields of sparks

down into your oblong hanger petals

of metal

into an ovary of convergence.

All this had to stop.

Benedict’s voice kept resurfacing into her head reminding her of the ingrate she had left at home. What made it worse was that she could remember each word, when every syllable hammered her malleable esteem. Each line could cross her blood-brain barrier causing irreversible damage in her. In Benedict’s hands, she had transformed from Athena the goddess to a whore. Benedict first poems were a celebration of the female body using Eva’s body as his prototype. He wrote about the susurrations and seismic waves when Eva crossed a street, how her tapestry caused traffic in the lands of our ancestors. Then as the relationship went through the stages of emotional plateau, descent and finally the phase where they could not be plotted on the same quadrant and simply existed under the same roof in Eastlands Nairobi, he would come up with lines like:

Oh magnolia,

hibiscus and carnations,

the changing moods of morning glory

her purple and pink vagina is nothing like magnolia,

nothing like the old gory metaphor,

oh magnolia.

The wretched poet and his lines for the blog, work that would never reach the masses and would always remain a sack of inconsequential kilobytes somewhere in the intricate mesh of fiber optic cables. He had started a blog and found enough loyal followers to kip him writing. His only ambition was to turn the blog-spot into a website. She swore to rise above him in her life and art and transcend above his changeling words.

Every night in her studio Evangeline would remember her crayon days and feed her imagination with the hues of her childhood and the images of her later days’ sexual crisis under the arms of a blogger poet. The result of which was her paintings. Eva, as Benedict called her, carried around her portfolio to galleries and walked out moments later. The curators thought that her paintings were irrelevant to the audience of Nairobi; the city was not ready for her. Ever since her graduation no gallery would dare to take her. No one would display the gruesome depictions of women in her paintings. She had imagined that one day they would have epiphanies and auction her work posthumously and donate the money to charity. Who was she kidding! No one would ever take her seriously. The only person who had ever taken her seriously was the Benedict who stayed back home blogging in his mutumba boxers and chatting with strangers on yahoo messenger while jerking the gherking. So she went back home, and, as if the portfolio were a diary, tore off some pages and replaced them with others, then she boarded the bus back to the same galleries where she endured every rejection and every blow to her vanity.

Eva had vowed never to let Benedict into her work but sometimes she worried that he was everything that her work needed. She had the childish fears that she was Benedict’s parallel reincarnation. That she was the nightmares he had in the morning. That she was an extension of him, slowly budding from his pseudophiles. It was evident from the violence and naked braveness of her images that the poet already lay in her mind, posing like the Marquis de Sade or the romantics he so aptly read. Benedict was the incubus that crept past the diaphragm and planted his seeds into her womb every morning. These seeds, the paint, egg yolks, the nightmares, the ash, and wax, all amalgamated onto her canvases. So one night she finally gave him the right to name all of her paintings as he so desired. It had been like giving a twelve year old a machine gun. That night they bought cheap wine from Nakumatt, made spinach and fried liver and later Benedict inscribed poems with invisible ink on her sweating back.

She harries past pedestrians on Kenyatta Avenue, spilling coffee into her graying pants. She is already thirty minutes late for the interview and like every Kenyan she will blame the traffic for her current predicament. This day is what she had been working on since her university days. She runs past the intersections and roads as if oblivious of the speeding cars, risking collisions with the Toyotas. Some drivers hurl spit out their windows and curse at her and her mother. She finally makes it to the gallery where she has to wait another thirty minutes for the art director. She perceives the nanometers of white light emanating from the fluorescent bulb lighting the waiting room and tries to touch and feel the waves. They bend and escape the grip of her cornea. An inch from her eye, the waves form a carnival of colorful images. Her father is in a yellow suit helping her choose colorful dresses for Christmas. Her mother is trying to explain why she, Evangeline Njeri, has not experienced menses like all her other friends in school. She is in a dress with the color of Indian peacocks when her parents turn into warm blood on her palms. She screams and soils her magnificent dress. Someone from across the room stares at her and when she looks at him he escapes her eyes and gets back to his red-covered Drum magazine. Her anxiety grows with every nanosecond. She counts the tiles and atoms of air around her to help her tame her anxiety but nothing works. The hot coffee burns her gut as she empties it down her mouth. It is only the pain of her ulcers which saves her from the oncoming anxiety attack.

“Eva! Come on right in.”

She is startled by the art director’s voice and has to take some time to gather herself up. The two women had met in the corridors of the gallery during an exhibition earlier in the week. The young painter had come looking for solace in the only place she was sure to get it. The director had been conducting a tour of the gallery, explaining to form six students from Brookhouse what pieces of art in the museum meant. Geoffry Odhiambo, Eva’s best modern painter at the time, was the artist being featured at the moment. The director had had a problem explaining a concept of the painter’s work to the students. That was when Eva had jumped in to save her.

‘It is…er…an expression of the stillness and concrete nature of what life in the city has come to be. The streets are quiet and desolate, the buildings majestic and rising above everything. It’s as if the city is devoid of life, as if the satellite dishes atop the buildings keep each other company, chatting through satellite waves. It looks as if the painter is afraid of what life in the commercial city is turning out to be. The trees from the ‘beautification programs’ are made from old mabatis, their delicate fronds from recycled metal. There are people who weld palm trees and herds of elephants! Interior design means depicting nature through the combination of computer graphics with synthetic materials. No one is buying the paintings done by hand. No one is planting flowers outside their offices. That’s what the painting is saying’.

“Very good!” Ms. Bett had applauded, extending her gratitude through a handshake as she led the group away to another piece. Some of the high school boys looked back winking and making weird mating-like sounds at her. She was aware of the outlines of her body against the white light of the gallery, even as it lay camouflaged in the see-through, milk-white malkia dress she was wearing. She ignored them. The director came back and passed a business card to Eva.

“Call me if you need a job.”

Eva had called the next day and explained that she was an artist. She had already sent her work to the gallery but she had been rejected. The art director blamed her junior staff and booked Eva the appointment that had lead to this scene in the office.

The art director, Ms. Bett Imani according to the business card she had slid into Eva’s back pocket, had already taken to calling her Eva just as Benedict had taken to christening her names of Syrian goddesses and the latest one; Athena. People were always making themselves at home with her even when she wished they wouldn’t. It was evident that Eva had not taken time to herself. Her sandals are dusty and have some mad from them. Coffee stains had formed dark rivulets down from the hem of her aquamarine gypsy top down to her jeans. She looked as if she had been summoned to the headmistress’s office.

Ms. Bett goes through twelve of her paintings, quietly, taking in their effect as all the colors and images  converge and flowed into her like wisps of menthol, arousing her, leaving her wanting, vulnerable and lonely. Here is a painter who appealed to a place deeper than the amygdala, like a chameleon oracle that juggles with colors as if she were delivering a message of death in warm colors. It was as if the rainbow emanated from Eva’s very womb. The director was weeping. Eva sat there awkwardly staring at the woman in front of her who had till then been like a pillar of strength. She had not carried her lavender-scented wipes so she was not sure if to be sympathetic or not.

 “Who names your paintings?”

“My boyfriend.”

The art director sits up, wipes her eyes and blows into a handkerchief as she apologizes for her eccentrics and extends an arm to the young artist.

 “He is either mad or a genius. Anyway, the message is clear.” After a long pause the director says, “Congratulations Evangeline Njeri! I would be honored to feature your work here in the museum.”

“Thank you Ms Iman.”

“Nonsense, call me Bett!”

“Thank you Ms Bett…er… Iman.”

So this is how it felt to finally make it? Eve thought to herself. So this is it?

Both women sat there discussing the portfolio and the details of their new partnership. All that time Eva was thinking of how her Dad would be proud of her who had finally found a platform; her who had sat in the library trying to understand concepts like ‘Abstract expressionism’ and ‘Impressionism’, staring at wax painting portraits of bearded men hiding between the pages of encyclopedia Britannica; her who had found a way to buy her own enamel paint and brushes.

Ms. Bett Iman had every signs of a radical. From all her ear piercings, 15 in total, to the mo-hawk dreadlocks with the rest of the head clean shaven. Her clothes gave off energy as if they were liberals shouting at their enemies. She studied the paintings as a blind man feels for his Braille, touching the canvas with fingers as long as the limbs of a stick insect. Among other pieces, Bett had set eyes on the hyper-real ‘Prohibition’ and had fallen in love with it at first sight. It was clearly a photorealistic image of the naked young Eva herself with pert lips. Between her legs was a sign that covered her womanhood. It read: trespassers are prohibited; any trespasser will be prosecuted’. Then there was also ‘The Baobab Labia’. The painting combined dull colors to represent a baobab tree that had a narrow and perpendicular slit opening along its girth the apex of which was meant to resemble the feminine slit as it runs down from the tip of the mons pubis. Breathing Roots climbed up the bark, surrounding the concave openings which lead deeper into the tree. It was like nature’s eye; ‘an orifice of vision’ had been Benedict’s first suggestion for a title. According to a review Bett had sent to the Daily Nation ‘the piece was the most expressive anyone could get with sad colors.’ Bett understood Eva’s visions and message and did not care whether the work would be called eccentric. She knew it was time for Nairobi, and Kenyain general, to stop hiding from the voices of its people.

What would the poet call Bett? Eva thought, perhaps ‘the woman dressed in satanic verse’.  She chuckled to the thought, and then as if realizing that she is supposed to hate Benedict, stops and hates herself instead.

Eva went home that day a happy person. She took to the brush with a new zeal that had been planted in her and watered by the art director. She went into the makeshift kitchen-studio and mixed her colors and started at a new painting. Benedict acted happy for her. He followed her to the kitchen, took his usual position on the couch, poured himself coffee and watched as Eva painted away.

Hours later when the general mood of the painting was discernible Benedict said, “I’ll call that one ‘the prophecy of euthanasia’.” He waits for a reply. Nothing. Eva continues with her painting. All these expressions are meaningless to her now, the mere wordplay of an idle mind. She knows Benedict is trying to appear pleased at her success. They are both aware of the mutual hate between them. Maybe that is why the sex is great whenever they fuck. Both annihilate each other in bed, trying to prove their own superiority.

“It’s when the artist predicts his own death, or that of a close relative. Take care you don’t predict you own death, darling.” She detects a pang of malice in his voice and decides to strike back.

“Did you come up with that all by yourself?”

“Mock me as you please.”

“Listen St. Benedict,” she says with a tone of irritation and sarcasm, “I have to finish this piece for next week’s collection. You mind giving me some space?”

The poet grunts like an old pig and picks up a copy of ‘Romance in Renaissance Poetry’. He hates it when she acts as if her art is higher than his. Conceited bitch.

“All the best Baby. I want the best for you.”

“Am so sorry Benedict.” After a long pause, “It’s just that…”

“Don’t mention it.” He interrupts.

Pacing to and fro the canvas from time to time as she adjusts the aperture of her lens, she dips her paint brush into the amalgam of colors and sand which takes up shades of her ever barren emotions. This new collection is for a themed exhibition organized by Bett and a group of NGO’s supporting the freedom of expression for the young women artists. It’s called ‘the mantis courtesan’, after a painting by Eva.

“It’s a message to the public, to let them know that the woman is aware of her body as an atomic and catastrophic vessel, and she will use it to revolt against all the chauvinists out there.” Eva remembered Bett’s tone when she had spoken to the young interns at the press conference.

The feminist lady in the sisal fields

her own industry

manufacturing sisal skirts

knives, beheading the patriarchs,

rapping herself.

The ‘the mantis courtesan’ is arguably Eva’s best painting according to Bett. It could be that it appeals to the savage nature of its handling of feminism. Bett had told Eva that she was not going to fight the war in blogs and websites and newspapers under the mercy of gate keepers. Ever since taking the job, she had seen to the increase of people visiting the gallery, more and more paintings were bought off the wall and during auctions, and walls had been brought down to expand the gallery. The owners were happy with her so they gave her full control of their gallery. She would let the voice of Eva, and hopefully all women, be heard from the corridors of the City’s biggest gallery. “Enough with the theories,” Bett had said, “Let us see women who will state the bold and naked truths. The men don’t polish their boots before they sink them into our jaws, do they?”

As its central image, ‘the mantis courtesan’ has a female praying mantis devouring its male partner. Both figures are half-human, half-arthropods. The limbs are insect and the trunks human. The female mantis has a suave body; her figures rising and falling in perfect precision, too perfect it haunts the eye just to look at it directly. The man’s body is a violent explosion of mechanical parts falling off into a bloody mess. The female mantis has between her serrated mandibles the head of its counterpart. From its neck dangles a necklace of pearls and the place where the heart is supposed to be is a cowry shell in a hallo of radiating light, as if the mantis drew its life from the pulse of the shell’s music. A phtalocyan motif embraces the whole piece leaving the audience with empathy and fear, and a strange attraction to the mantis courtesan. Eva had toyed with the freedom of altering the perception of the colors and the interpretation of their shades. The city council had been enraged with the brutal and explicit nature of the piece, and had been threatening to close down the whole gallery if the paintings were not burned down into ashes. Bett had sent them back to City Hall howling like puppies. Bett was a force and, like the electromagnetic waves, had also attracted Eva to her.

“Are you cheating on me?” Benedict asked. All that time he had only pretended to be engrossed in the reading.

“Don’t be Silly Benedict!” she exploded. Eva called him Benedict only when she knew conversations were leading to a fight otherwise he was always her St Benedict.

Benedict had long suspected that Eva had been cheating on him ever since her new found success. But he could not tell how and when. All her time was spent at the gallery and at home painting. The betrayal had been evident in bed. She had been more submissive and gentle, as if she was only waiting for the act to be over. They had played at the borderlines, violently strumming each other like broken harps, and Benedict knew that to both of them the act of sex was beyond satisfying the body’s tangible pleasures. Why then had she succumbed to smooth crescendo mourns? Why had she become so easy to manipulate?

She slithers and glides like a slow dancer

Eying me with her predatory eye

And I, across the aquamarine waters,

Heavy with plankton and algae

Dash for the medial eye of the aquamarine octopus.

There, I die.

He puts the book down and moves close to her. He knows when she is done for the day. He kisses the paint off her lips, his eyes sparkling as he secretly wishes that it has enough lead to kill them both.

Athena,

crash me in your mortar

take me with your evening ginger tea

crash me into your colors

spread me over thee.

She lets herself go, succumbing to the allure of his coffee laced breath. It’s not as passionate as she remembers. She is not as weak as she was to his kissing at the back of her neck and has to feign pleasure by mourning in between his attempts at arousing her. He, unconscious of her boredom, fumbles with her pert breasts as he fumbles with words in his head. Selfish Benedict is unaware that deep down she is staging a revolution against him and his wretched poems. His nymph is undergoing a metamorphosis. She watches as he sulks like a calf and drinks to his fill until, exhausted, they lay in bed each silently waiting for the other to wake up and make supper.

“The elec bill came today.” Benedict says as he watches her naked buttocks go into the bathroom.

By the end of the two weeks there is already some attention by the media over the exhibition. The director defends her painters and their work and swears that the event will go on. Everyone, especially Eva anticipates for the big day. The doors of the gallery open to the public on June 27th, sparking off a heated debate over the contents of the exhibition. The church demands for the sacking of the art director. Some even suggest hanging the young painters upside down. Finally the gallery is closed indefinitely and the paintings are returned to their creators. Bett buys all of Eva’s pieces; ‘the mantis courtesan’, ‘prohibition’, and ‘the becoming’. All these are displayed on the walls of a suburban apartment alongMombasa road where Eva becomes a frequent visitor.

It was Bett’s idea that Eva spend with her. They had received threats from religious extremists, and, seeing that her house was in a part of the city less accessible to peril, Bett offered solace to the young painter. Benedict poet was against it but his lines and complains had all faded into the background following Eva’s new found way of life. And anyway, Eva knew that the only reason Benedict wanted her to stay was so that she could take care of him. Bett took her into her arms and together they cuddled late into the night watching marathons of afro-cinema and TCM movies. Eva spent all day in the house watching more movies and Indonesian porn flicks from the director’s collection. There’s one where an actor calls his penis the so and so tower. It seems everyone had a little Benedict in him, Eva thought. Sometimes she would take the bus into the Central Business District to buy new tubes of paint. Had she been bought like a doll or set of cutlery on display in Tuskys shops?  Was she a wife now? She eventually learns to ignore her conscious just like she had with Benedict. She played Fela Kuti at maximum volume to conceal the timbre of her mourns as rubbed her clitoris until she climaxed.

Bett comes home, parks in the garage, summons the young painter into the bathroom. Then they make supper, set the table and have conversations on such topics as the relevance of emerging feminist art in Africa. Eva thinks that Bett sounds like a Masters thesis every time she speaks. Eva mostly listens while the director goes into details about feminist theory and the new trends in African societies. “We have to make them fear us,” she says, “I don’t care if I have to open my own gallery!” Eva silently wonders if the director will also buy all her artists’ work and invite them to her bedroom. “Eva my Silent Zosi, you’re going to be my premiere artist.” Eva smiles. She hates her new name. Her work is to listen to Bett, to the gods, to Benedict, to the city council, to the dead voice of her father in a yellow suit, to strands of multicolored fabrics twisting and coiling in her head like fibroid; to everything. The new routine of her life has no laughter but an understanding, a mockery of sadness. At least the poet always made her smile.

Symbiosis is

an old leafeless tree shedding off another,

so that in spring it will look down it pouch

and say, ‘oh my! What lovely flowers!’

Society is a mirror on the floor

When you shit on it

You see planes taking off an anal strip.

Bungee jumping is pure myth

Adrenaline is

Taking a shit out a window on the 13t h  floor

Of the Times Tower.

The director became a shade under which Eva could brood, it did not matter that it was the shade of fronds of metal plates. Bett often cups Eva’s breast in her palms and tells the young painter how long she has longed to hold her. Then she feels for the young painter’s ribs, scapula, her whole topography, as if she were a conglomerate of words to be rearranged into a sentence with different meanings. Bett becomes fluid paint rolling down the young painter’s lacquer. She studies Eva’s body to the last pixel. Eva has become a shade invisible in the visible spectrum and this was part of the mystery that attracted Bett and Benedict to her. If Bett offered any new meaning to life it was only as abstract as cubist’s drawings. For Eva it was not an interaction of words, obscure lilts and syncopation that she longed for, but something akin to the contact of brush strokes on canvas. She longs for a home within Bett’s world. Words are weightless, meaningless. She did not need another poet to tell her that ‘her skin was like acrylic fibers/clinging to the body of rainy nights’. To Bett this is a message to the old fashioned folks carrying their bibles to Sunday service. Eva did not wish to be anyone’s vessel. To Eva this is…this is nothing but an onset of energies -electromagnetic wave which will inevitably lead her back to her miscible beginnings.

 

 

Propylene Skin

Sun is iris

Yellow dresses

The rainbow marvels

At a naked child.

 

Dying chrysanthemums smile,

Free of our intimate touch.

Cremating petals

Epitaphs, odes

For whom they once were, gods.

Rain drops reenact

The second fall of man

On my temple

Propylene skin

Poppy fields

I smell you for my daily fix.

Cold November

Coffee on her lips,

Steam warms her nostrils.

My pockets,

Like a child’s

Full of dirt marbles

Beams

Through drops on a midriff

Satellite face,

Moon.

You are a moonflower figurine

Black and yellow skin, eyeballs

Nipple on the loquat

Umbrella dress, sandals

Big eyes

Purple acrylic-

Simple soul.

Eyelids on glass

Inward,

Blue music dream.

Footsteps bloom

Vignettes on the isle,

Echoes of you.

A Long History of Love Letters

          My first time at the movie theatre a girl jumped off the roof of a high-rise building. My second time there a boy killed his own mother, whom he had subconsciously substituted for a prostitute. That’s Cronenberg for you. The light from the projector was the same light that struck Saul on his way to Damascus; it converted the walls of the theatre into something essentially beautiful, so that they began to speak to me. I sat next to my mentors who had evidently witnessed many young men on their first night out at the movies. When they asked me to write a first draft I sent them a story about a girl who gets depressed because she hallucinates about having an aborting, later, to everyone’s surprise, she finds out that she is actually fantasizing about it. She then overdoses on antidepressants, knowing very well that this will only get her as so far as a long sleep, like Snow White, or Sylvia Plath when she faked her own suicide just to be able to get some sleep.

          I got to think about this kind of recluse as a sort of lying game where you get to trick your body that you have gone for a long trip somewhere, the idea being to stay behind in a halfway gone state.

          A few weeks later I found them talking about that first draft. If death was to be thrown around like in pinball then I wanted to be in on it. But it was not that simple, it is never that simple. The girl in the first draft began to haunt me. I’m considering the option of burning it and deleting all the electronic copies I have. I want to talk about that girl, who has died five times since I met her. I’m only counting the times she confessed to me. I know she has died more times but somehow she is embarrassed to admit all this to me.

          I met her outside Kenya Cinema. She was much taller and skinnier back then. I watched her from a distance before I decided she was the person I had seen on the photographs. She insisted that we walk around the CBD, along the cooler shadows of buildings. This was the first time she was out in the open in a long time but somehow still preferred to answer to the call of shadows. There were moments when she lingered in the sunlight and dashed back to the dark, like a coldblooded animal. The meeting did not last for long. I imagined she did not find my long silences and inarticulate self very pleasant. I tried to venture into the areas of ice cream flavors and nature poems while all around us were blue glass monuments and beggars. What most people call ignorance I call metaphysics. We both could not wait to get back home and start texting each other; it was much easier that way. We talked all night, everyday for a few weeks.

          Consider for a moment a girl who carries her jewelry box everywhere she goes. This is what I was dealing with. Once, we woke up next to each other in a boys’ boarding house and she took thirty minutes to put on her jewelry. I will not dwell on the circumstances that led us to a boys’ boarding house, but during those six hours of sleep our bodies did not touch. We had declared to each other that matters of the flesh were for the weak, and for all those who read Oscar Wilde. I began to write love letters. I have a long history of love letters. In fact, the first time I ever wrote anything outside the classroom it was a love letter written at the back of a mathematics exercise book. It should come as no surprise that I rarely mail the letters unless they have been written to a stranger. Once I get to know someone I find no use of mailing the letter. Somehow the contents of the letters find their way into our respective conversations, for example, the conversation about nature poems outside Westminster House. It was during one of these nights that she first died, and sure enough, without warning, all communication between us came to a stop.

          Three months later she called me. Apparently she had picked up smoking and an appetite for spaghetti. By then I had around ten love letters all addressed to her. We got back to the late night conversations. While she was pulling her hair I was making coffee at the other end of the line. This happened until her next four deaths. After her third death the details of her coming and going did not matter so much, except for the time when she came back married. Eventually I learnt to forget her.

          I have come to the conclusion that the expansion of the universe is a function of the character we create and/or eliminate from the first draft to the manuscript. That’s the kind of thing I tell a friend whenever the silence between us becomes too awkward.

          A year passed before I found myself in need of the memories from that encounter. I called back our conversation whenever I needed material for the first draft. I had sworn never to talk to her again. With the first draft all this felt terribly difficult. I had to see her again. I picked up a few poems I had written and went to visit her. She cried and hugged me –the first time flesh became consequential- after I read her the poems, in my inarticulate manner. To my relief her tears were staccato. Metaphysics.

          Now that I come to think about it, we never really had the kind lyricism found in some poems. I imagine lyricism to be a continuous thing, like a stream. I imagine it to be a long dream where you wake up smiling. We never had continuity, me and her. We were in opposite directions and the traffic lights between us were showing different colors. While I was given up to the simple pleasure of my generation she was ascending to the heights of the elusiveness of our metaphysics. I am aware of the counterintuitive fact that that, at least for me, nothing is ever final. She will come back. I can hear her voice through the walls when my neighbors are arguing. I can see her face in the obituaries. I can smell her in the shops of cologne vendors along Moi Avenue. And when I close my eyes and listen to Miles Davis I can hear her trying to get through to me.

the poetics of absence

I was reading Mamet and thinking about the art of filmmaking, if it is not a kind of epic poem to create a film. All that juxtaposition has to mean something. I envy films because they get to travel in time, disregarding all laws.  I want to do that, to be here and there and still be part of the narrative. I had gone for a reunion in Nakuru. The house looked like a studio apartment, the kind of place I always imagine myself settling down in. It had an old feel to it, from the roof you could see Lake Nakuru under a charmless haze. There were weeds at the back and front, and like its newest inhabitant it was a place still under renovation.  Tomatoes were growing at the front, too.  but what really got to me was the silence surrounding it. It was the same feeling I got when I was reading Gurnah’s ‘Desertion’: I was back in Mombasa, on a terrace somewhere reading Shelley and sharing a cigarette with a white District Commissioner.

Instead of enjoying my Tusker I kept thinking about the words ‘juxtaposition’ and ‘uninflected’. I still have trouble using the later in a conversation. So during the reunion and the trip back I would turn to pages of the book to read about something that had resonated well with me. On the dance floor I would look at a couple dancing and imagine that their gestures were uninflected, the light in the restaurant was uninflected, the very idea of a reunion is uninflected. A good friend of mine has a weird way of talking, weird to mean whatever he says does not make sense. He is always using words the way E. E. Cummings would.  Now, Imagine that! I think that E. E. Cummings was trying to make films when he was writing.  My friend, Patrick, is a Cummings. I was imbued and confused by every little detail about the day.

It had been a long time since I was with my friends. We had our own cult and way of thinking, every sentence spoken implied more than was obvious. Over the months absence and silence have also acquired their own greater meanings, perhaps more important than anything that we had ever talked about. I read that some poets use the white of the page as text. I wonder if it means that we can use the silence between as as meaning, as life. Of course we had our moments of silence back then, but this new silence is louder.

The absence of things has come to mean a lot, especially because I never know how to take anything in moderation. I took in expanses of valleys and skies. I imagined ‘A Hero Of Our Time’, the beautiful descriptions of the mountains, I questioned my own ability to write, to create. I was back in my room reading Rilke’s letters, trying to borrow his solitude. I was thrown back that cloud of silence, to closing my eyes and dealing with the absence of  everything. By the time I was done reading Mamet I realized I still do not know much about writing.

This is me, trying to get there.