The traditional poets are playing now at sleeping
in the weak radiance of a setting sun
as their rhythms twist and turn on a sea of story,
having failed to plumb the depths of rationality.
Those sages in their little huts aren't coming out again.
There's no more of the dance, no more swaying delightedly together.
And poetry has moved on, has returned to the winds,
but the grass is dry and won't be rustled now,
and windows of the houses are shut tight,
their inhabitants fearing the anger of ghosts.
Soon darkness will be total
and nighttime animals will control the imagery.
Because I remember the way, I'll enter this forest
full of a century's darkness, without any shortcuts.
In possession of my harp, I'll elaborate new songs.
I'll use my native character to find my direction—
meaning I've never thrown my beaded necklace away.
And what sort of hut is this, at once in front of me!
A cone-shaped hut with one door
and that door open and a fire blazing inside.
Hello, hello in there, it's me the Fool.
I'm looking for my ankle bells and my palm clothes.
Though I don't have a baobab stone,
I've come to stay up late with all of you.
It's a dilapidated hut, almost falling down,
with a single pillar that's begun to split,
and the termites chitter: the roof's no longer a roof.
Near this pillar in the center of the hut
there's a three-legged stool adorned with a leopard skin
and in front of it a fire fueled by bones.
The wall is hung with an abundance of musical instruments.
Here inside the old folks sit in silence,
their heads bent, their thoughts downcast.
Near the pillar an old woman raises her head
and a dog suddenly jumps up and starts barking,
toothless yet frothing at the mouth.
Other old people startle, lift their heads,
their sharp eyes coming to rest on my face.
The dog barks again, as if to attack.
You, Mavina! Lie down! orders the old woman,
carefully regarding me, investigating me in silence.
Welcome inside, she says, you're no stranger here.
We've been waiting for you, although you're early.
You're in the circle, caught in a snare,
surrounded here by the memories that shaped you.
Here you cleaned your gums on your mother's breast
and this is the dog who licked your chin
and these are the faces that measured your steps
when you entered and left, in and out of the compound.
This is the roof onto which your teeth were thrown.
We give thanks that you've arrived here in the cradle of identity.
Join the dance and enter the fray.
This instrument you've brought, we remember its performances;
your praises have reached us, and word of your feud.
The traditional songs are wonderful, no doubt,
with their rhythms and their drumbeat, how they electrify.
Yet those songs laid us down to sleep very early
so it came to seem God had forgotten us.
Your songs have enlivened our culture.
The door is open for whoever follows you.
Look at the wall, at the relics of your humanity.
Choose a harp, have a seat on the stool.
We'd like to dance, to put the century on display.
I chose a lute and tuned it.
My first song was "Evening Meal."
The old people started dancing their twisting dance
to music that touched their exquisite wounds.
Tears ran down their faces, and they wept.
I played my song again and they started to sweat,
the sweat itself blood, the climax of their feeling.
Snakes, mice, bats, and roaches burst onto the dance floor,
and this is when one old man stood among the rest
with eyes closed, shouting
Ai! Who will hold back the sun? One night isn't enough!
Ai! Clap for me so I can break my bones!
Ai! I swallowed a snake and it emerged behind me!
Ai! Where were you, Fool? If only you'd been born sooner!
Finally the old woman signaled me to pause.
Build a new hut here, she said, drawing near.
I smear these tears on you to make your heart strong,
and let this blood enable you to face critics.
Justly I set this ostrich feather in your hair.
Now shut your eyes so you can't see how we dissolve.
The lion's roar woke me, and I opened my eyes.
It was light out, and the birds sang.
There was a path right through the center, animals all around,
their heads lowered as I passed among them.
Departing the forest, I looked back.
Far off I saw Mavina, wandering there.
translated from the Swahili by Annmarie Drury