Friday, 19 June 2009

Cotonou

by Anni Sumari


Je suis le négro,
Je suis les réglos,
un jour un rigolo,
un jour un p’tit gigolo...



I.

Can’t get rid of you.
Even in Africa you accompanied me
like some mascot.
You don’t take up much room (but all of it) –
Flying over Berlin hurt a little
because that is where you really live -
and then you were with me again
in unreality.

Your charm turned against me.
I can’t hate you even if I try.
A dark and massive silence landed with me
at Lagos airport, where there was a power cut.
Planes waiting like salmon in a stream,
their bellies full of passengers.
Planes shivering in the stream
like a union of water and electricity
preparing to spawn.
And that was how I arrived in
Black Africa.


II.

‘Anni, give me five seconds of innocence!’
you said angrily. Five seconds of innocence?
In five seconds the coat hooks on the wall
reveal themselves as scorpions; the postman
as the village blackguard.

And the playful pilot boys who whiz low
in their white, unmarked light aircraft
to take a look at the only long, blond hair
on the West African coast – they are
hired assassins sent by the President of Togo
on the return flight after dumping
the corpses of opposition figures
in mid-ocean.

The entire coastline a deserted sandy beach,
an endless and hard-to-measure (because
constantly in motion) paradise that
like prepares for like.
I am sure that this century we will get
at least 20,000,000 white-haired American tourists
to lie on those sands, under the divine sun.
The developers are in their trenches. Monsieur Paul
is finishing his sixth whisky of the morning.
under the sun canopy. If you were here,
you would sometimes visit the barber’s
whose name is ‘Glory to God’,
buy cigarettes from the ‘Palace of Miracles’ kiosk.
Perhaps attend the ‘One God’ driving school,
and then you’d soon need the garage called ‘In Jesus’ Name’.
You see I told you not because
of beauty but of truth. Honestly
and truly, look at that restaurant’s
name: ‘Pay Now, Eat Later’.


III.

The breakers rise out of a pale green mangle
and scoop the sand from under one’s feet,
throw themselves on each other, over and
over again, never turning round.
The seashells drag themselves ashore
after the ocean has sucked out their insides.
Crabs, even faster than Nikolai,
soft and transparent as
Scandinavian hair.
Death half putrefied.
In my face a mixture of saltwater and sand,
tears and sun lotion –
this is how I say goodbye to you.
Had to come to Africa for this.

In Africa I stopped crying.
On the Slave Coast, in Ouidah
Slave Port I just couldn’t cry any more
for lost love, a lover turned cold.
Part of the boatload took their own lives on the shore
by self-strangulation or eating dirt,
fearing they would be
eaten on being captured.

Driving by jeep through Cotonou –
the second most polluted city in the world
and the salty wind gave me a Rasta hairdo –
as the fishermen spent hours trying
to bring their canoes ashore through the surf, the storms –
I just couldn’t cry.

The two-metre high breakers, all-devouring,
striking the all-devouring sand of the shore
would take care of me in a couple of minutes
quickly and cleanly, no trace would remain,
the ocean would drown me in a couple of waves,
the sand would eat my bones, how could anyone
feel sorrow on these shores?

In a little while, there’s
nothing left of us, Nikolai.


IV.

In a regular wave-motion the bats dodge
round street lamps planted with regular lights.
An old man hobbles into the yard with his long thighs,
and nimbly squats to shit in front of our house,
his backside grey with dust.
I love you, it always occurs to me
when I least expect it. The old man’s hands
play, write your name absent-mindedly
in the sand, somewhere the ice is cracking.
Perhaps it would be better to love Bruce
Chatwin, author of The Viceroy of Ouidah,
Him I do not know at all, and besides he is
dead. No pain... Painless.


V.

I just couldn’t cry any more.
The roadside poster campaign for
the child vaccination program.
A boy crosses the endless beach,
his legs crippled by polio. Now and then
he stops to rest on his pair of crutches.
Behind him walks a man whose teeth
are like a broken line of goose barnacles.
His skin smells permanently
of damp-stained bedclothes.
He leaves in the sand a torn-up letter
written in the blank space of a language lesson
hand-out: ‘Should I write you a letter,
say all those things you have heard before.’


VI.

In my blood, latent like malaria,
you may still break out even after several years.
I may call you from under my mosquito net.
Silicon plugs in my ears, drunk and
almost knocked flat by a sleeping pill,
for the moment I am safe from your influence.
But I can already hear the high-pitched whine,
and when I wake up in the morning
my face will be swollen with your bites.

Okay, I forgive you,
I even forgive the ocean for
unexpectedly overflowing on my towel and
tearing me by my hair into the tide
that never shows up when I wait for it
like Nikolai on dates, the ocean
that splatters the poor fishermen’s nets
full of smiling, head-sized jellyfish,
the sun before which hangs a grey
dust filter – the Harmattan –
Nikolai, like the African
cactus inevitably crushed
by a Finnish poet wandering
in the darkness, raising her bleeding,
pleading hands towards you.
The ocean, that needs my forgiveness
as much as Nikolai, as much as
the grains of sand that encrust my skin
and still remember the great mountains;
that drowns the heart attacks,
wipes out the after-effects, blows
the foam away from its skirts.

Blocked into a cul-de-sac a creature starts to grow
filling the whole labyrinth with its tentacles until
in some dimension of its own it finds the exit
from that Africa-shaped heart, the cloud,
the refugees fill the barges of the people smugglers.

Akó akó,” the boys sing in their croaking voices,
I see someone sweeping the sand.
They could wash the ocean too.
The waves suck and blow at the coastline,
rocking the booming shore as
tenderly as a well-balanced mother.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

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