Marie-Célie Agnant

Vade Mecum
  “Negro peddler of rebellion         
You know all the routes of the world.
—Jacques Roumain, “Ebony Wood”        

don’t tell me about your life
and I’ll keep mine to myself

we will feel our way along
chewing on our uncertainties

with our contorted laughs
our eyes riddled with lies

and our lives
drained of pleasure

don’t tell me about your life
I won’t tell you about mine

and side by side we’ll go
not looking at each other
not touching

and this beast in our bellies

don’t tell me about your life
let’s take out our masks
our frocks
our fables
let’s dress up in carnivalesque
and falsehoods

keep your secrets to yourself
I’m not indiscreet
I won’t talk your ear off either

I do want to say something
about those countries
of unending
and also say
that I’ve seen so many men
consumed by hate
poisoned by venom
like hungry waves
their starving mouths
opening on the shore

I’ve seen stars change into tears
bewildered fireflies
I saw them
fall from the sky
into the guts of the earth

they were children
they never saw
the dew
or its promises

I don’t want to bother you
but before the hooves of silence pound out
                                                                       my voice

let me just say
that I was born
with my neck
between the chopping block
and the machete

they told me: “move”

I snuck past the prison guards
but on the other side
they said:

“if you’re not happy
go home”

the desert stretches on
burning beneath my feet
I can’t find my way home

my home
in tatters
mismatched shreds

the blunt shears of exile
cut out a shroud to cover my life
time mocks me
a long sob chokes me

with the passing years
I’m no longer this woman
or that woman
or this woman next to me

I’ve become
the wave
to be warded off

the horde
to disperse

the menacing crowd

I arrive
I unfurl


with my bongo-drum look

my face of a sand nigger

my tongue

my customs

my heritage



I dare to ask for
the sun
for my children

don’t listen to me if you don’t want to
but I need to shout
the noose is tightening

squeezing so the rot seeps out

the noose is tightening
echoing all the way from Sharpeville
this memory

the noose tightens

shouts—five hundred years captive—
ring out

saying Guacanagaric

saying Anacaona
the one we called
the flower of Xaragua

the noose tightens
and the names are called out

of Tupac Amaru

of Caonabo

and of Toussaint Louverture
at Fort de Joux
in the Jura mountains


the same pain that continues to plough our banks
all the way from the coasts of Africa

don’t tell me your story
but I need to tell you what mine’s been like
what was once mine

like the snorting breath of a thorough-bred
my voice kicks up dust
I don’t want to wrap my wounds
                                                  in silence

though my neck’s on the chopping block
I won’t water down my wine
I get drunk every day
on cups of refusal
and I will live a thousand existences
on Robben Island
with hate as my only companion

I didn’t tell you anything

and as for me,
I heard nothing

but in this life of slashing knives


                     to the places of my childhood

Down the hallways of my mind
I lug
this bundle of broken memories
a diver
a keeper
at the mercy of each new day
a hungry man
becomes a bull
thighs move in cadence
to a rhythm that rages on
feet and asphalt blend
smell of tafia
rotten mangoes
toothless Marias decrepit in the dirt
courtyard of miracles
rivulets of bird droppings
negro children’s crib
rancid fried food
in the sun
and that echo of flies
acid chuckles
sweet syrup
candied ginger
sewer screaming its stench
down the hallways of my mind
a procession
of mummies
symphony of dread
bathed in sweat
and mud.

translated from the French by Siobhan Marie Meï