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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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The Shade of the Niger

 

  

 

From the air

          it is the vast body

                    of a snake,

 

its loops motionless, 

          not a breath or twitch

                    in the desert sand.

 

But from a pirogue

          the river

                    is silt brown,

 

slow-moving

          through the dry season,

                    but wide enough

 

for fishermen

          to call it

                    the sea,

 

as in, Do you have the sea

          in your country?

                    Where it turns

 

it is stagnant and clouded

          like a half-hearted scam

                    resolving slowly

 

into a puddle.  Toward noon

          it is a heavy brown skirt

                    covering a cluster of women

                     

to the waist

         as they wash themselves

                   and a few pots.

 

My pirogue moves among them

         searching 

                   the mud

 

for a landing.

         Their nipples

                  are chapped, coarsened,

 

cracked, chewed, and stretched.

         They snigger and cackle.

                  Their breasts hang like paper bags.

 

They cannot ask 

         for money--

                 the hidden pockets

 

of the river

         will hold no banknotes.

                 I stare

 

into the scarified

        eyes below their eyes,

                the white outlines

 

shaped like almonds,

         cut into their cheeks

                with a razor blade.

 

I try to guess their ages

         within ten years

                the way my grandmother

 

taught me

        go look at the teeth

                of shelter dogs.

 

The river's shade is deep enough

         for a person to pee in secret,

                those beside her

 

noticing nothing

        but the quick warmth

                of a little current.

 

Neither shy

         nor forward--

                like the river

 

in the desert

         they are neither welcoming

                nor hostile.

 

I squat with them

         at night

                 in the dirt,

 

their fingers twisting

         the dorsal fins

                off a pile of fish

 

still quivering,

         small enough

                to be bait.

 

Moon and lantern light

         catch in the white underbellies

                and in the outlined

 

second set of eyes.

         The huts are the light brown

                of the drying river bed,

 

made from its mud.

         Night enclosed

                by windowless adobe

    

is a crawl space

        between river and river god.

                Dawn starts as a slit in a thatched roof.

 

And the day,

         like everyday,

                is burning.

 

             -Andrew Kaufman



 

Both Sides of the Niger


 

 

Trachoma, typhoid, bilharzia, more Latin names--
until age twelve, usually before three,
both sides of the river, they die just the same.

 

The village chief, hunched on his dirt floor, complained--
You give pencils but you give no money.
Schistosomiasis, filariasis-- more Latin names.

 

A boy who giggled at his laughter on my tape
and one who tried to drown a wild donkey--
both sides of the Niger, they died just the same.

 

Near a copse of cypress trees the wind changed
the voices in the leaves to a sea--
leishmaniasis, TB, cholera, still more Latin names...

 

They die in the pirogue, leave too late
to Mopti,
the chief said..  No doctor, No money,
Both sides. This river. Sick.  Then dead. The same.

 

The bully who smirked, Ka-boom!  Bin Laden.  Plane! 
A scared girl, her  "Duck, duck, goosie!" always me.
Dengue fever, river blindness, malaria, non-Latin names--
both sides of the Niger they died just the same.


                                                   -Andrew Kaufman





          Against Dying
 
 
                         1.

Because of the gods and spirits
that surround Kudadze's home...
Because his family was curious,
since I am white, and, by local standards, rich.
Or because Kudadze is kindly and patient,
or since I am a stranger, or because
his family expected money...
 
Because it was already noon
and I was leaving the next day,
he and two friends led me to his home
through miles of heat and dust.
When I could no longer ride the old bicycle
they walked with me.
When I could no longer walk in the sun
they sat in the shade. 
Not much more,
they smiled, Not much more.
 

                
                               2.


Because the countryside, flat and treeless,
had been surrounded by warlords,
warring kings, and slave-traders
since before they counted years...
the people still build their homes
as fortresses--dried mud walls
too high to be scaled, too thick
for arrows and muskets.
 
Since dry mud cannot protect
against what is not visible,
to keep out hostile spirits
they etched tightly bunched lines
across the walls.
Taking a double bond of fate,
they scarify the lines
across their foreheads and cheeks.
 
Because the spirits of sickness
seep like water
between etched lines,
a god is needed,
Kudadze labored to explain                     
in pidgin French.
 
A priest is needed
to know which god.
An augury is needed
to inform the priest
what food and drink
the god must have.
          
 
                                                 3.
 
         Beside the doorway a sheaf of grain
         assures the plentitude of rain.
 
         Monkey skulls beside the sheaf
         watch the home against the thief.
 
         Crockery crumbling in the tomb
         feeds the dead as in the womb.
  
 
                          4.
                                    
At first featureless and limbless,
the large mud god
they had formed rested
before the house.  He sees and hears,
Kudadze tells me, eats and breathes
through the hole
that is his navel.
 
The priest said he demanded cowrie shells
so we mixed these into the mud
of
his body.
 
He demanded wood
to form his legs--
we brought two trunks.
 
He demanded the white feathers
of a baby bird--
we stuck these
to his head.
 
He demanded water-
we set the kettle
before him.
 
He demanded millet--
we poured the porridge
over him.
 
He demanded goat's blood--
we spilled the blood
upon him.                                          
 
He demanded meat--
the goat's skull
is beside him.
 
He demanded his children--
the small gods
are around him.
                                            
                        
                         5.
                                                          
Beneath my feet
I noticed the shallow breaths
of a week-old puppy,
rust-brown like the dirt and dust,
struggling to stand
and failing.
  
                                                  6.
                        
          A boar's skull beside the door
          assures the hunt as before.
  
          The gazelle's tracks in the shaman's sand
          predict the bounty of the land
  
          The shaman reads the face and sum
          of what is passing and to come.
 
                                     
                         7.

Children and an old woman
surrounded me from a distance,
too shy to come closer. 
 
I became aware of a friend or brother
of Kudadze approaching me,
then a soft, frightened chicken
pressed into my arms, and a voice
in a language I did not know,
repeating what could have been,
You, please, take, and gift.

              
-Andrew Kaufman




On the Hut Walls in Togo


 

 

A series of animals

with their names in English:

dog, parrot, goat, cat, camel.

                 

                                 *

 

In one, a red-haired toddler

in a red baseball cap

and matching pants

rides a toy red tractor

in front of a 1950's American

split level and its restful lawn.

                

                                 *

 

Above the caption, Look at the face

and hand of this man.  It reveals his character,

stands a beneficent Osama bin-Laden,

with his beard and robes.

 

                                *

 

Botticelli's Mary

gazes from the heaven

of a magazine cut-out.

                 

                                *  

 

A collage of bodies

with gaping wounds,

and troops aiming

automatic weapons at villagers

is captioned, General Taylor's soldiers

killing people.

                 

                                *

 

In hut after hut the de facto

president-for-life gazes severely

out of a campaign poster.

                 

                                 *

 

A buxom white girl

in a cowboy hat with feathers

and a fetching little denim jacket

as the sun explodes

on her bare midriff.

 

                                 * 

 

The brown face of Jesus,

captioned I drank from this cup

for your sake gazes from a newspaper cut-out.  

              

                                 *

 

A photo of Idi Amin,

large red capitals reading, The Butcher

of Uganda.

                  

                                *

 

A ravishing, blank-eyed white woman

in ripped denim shorts and see-through panties

lowers her head between the hips

of another woman.

   

                                *

 

In one hut Blake's Nebuchadnezzar

crawls, half changed

to a lion, above the caption,

Consider this picture and repent,

or your punishment shall be like his.

 

                                *

 

A portrait of Mbuto,

captioned, The most wicked

man in Africa.

 

                                *   

 

In one hut the haloed Christ,

his body healed, walks away

from the burial cave.

 

                                *

 

A white man buries his face

in a white girl's spread butt--

What do they do here? a village girl,

carrying her baby, asks her friend,

who shrugs as they walk away.

                 

                                *

 

In one there is nothing

but a calendar.

 

                                *

 

In many there is nothing

but one or two geckos

holding their breath.

 

                                *

 

In most there are only spiders.




[Pushcart Nomination]

Masked, Costumed Voodoo Dancers in a ceremony to bring luck for the New Year, Republic of Benin. 

Photograph by Andrew Kaufman























































































































































































































































House with Deities, Naboda, Togo,

Photograph by Andrew Kaufman