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The Gallery at the End of Time & Other Poems

Romeo Oriogun





The Wild Mystic


In the evening, walking through the paved roads of the island,

I was confronted by majestic buildings and their old names.

The cathedral where stonemasons carved their names on stones

and rejoiced in the eternal language of art was before me.


Its glory was wrapped around the figurine of a weeping Mary,

around the statue of dead angels pointing to the sea.


Around me, the island rang out like a hundred bells.


The traffic warden danced as he directed traffic

while taxi drivers who dreamt of old days smoked

their Benson & Hedges, lamenting the country.


I followed the smoke of their cigarettes, turning

from the Cathedral of Christ into the long line of beggars

waiting at the entrance of a small street, jingling coins

in metal bowls, calling the world through the din

of their suffering.


There was nothing I could do to be saved, or to save

others. Powerless like a child standing before a mural,

waiting for the wall to open into the joy painted before him,

I waited, then I ran from the suffering around me,

from the hallowed music of beggars.


I ran to those who loved the sea, the wind, the gospels

and their stories of hunger and bread.


In the air was the old songs of fishermen, the old songs

of frigates, the salt and music of water. There were also

the old ladies who had come to praise the blue of the sea,

its clean smell, the beauty of cracked seashells.


I, like all the others praying along the coast, had chosen

the selfishness of being, turning from the world’s struggle

into the silence of faith. All around me, mystics,

with their uncombed hair, ran into water, saying hosanna

as waves washed over them.


For a while, I, too, was underwater, then it was all over.

It was nightfall, and all around me cats and stray dogs

walked like old ghosts walking to familiar places. At sea

I saw the lights of distant ships. And from afar a canoe,

lighting its way with a lantern, approached slowly, bringing

to shore the anticipation of a new day.



 

A Letter from The Village of Trees

for Gloria


A whole year in which the fields mourn the absence

of horses, in which you sat in the open, in a country

away from me, drinking mint tea as a projector played

Los Olvidados, Oum, So What if The Goats Die.


I was stuck in the village, living with an anthropologist

from Belgium, writing vignettes about trees, their shadows,

the swiftness of language. And on the day of the dead,


I walked away from the quiet of my room, from the fellowship

of the restless, that space where what is alive laments the heat,

the lamp holding back darkness, the white curtains which separated

our lives. Around the many roads that led to the river of rituals,


abode of those still tethered to earth, the old men,

the old workers beaten into the edge of dust, waited

by the store, waiting to order from the bowlegged clerk

gin, rum, cigarettes gotten from a faraway city.


The shacks between the store and Queen’s Road,

made out of nylon, folded and unfolded in the wind.

The language of worry was alive, shared on each door

like the blood of a firstborn lamb. And on passing

these crumbs of desolation, I saw them,


the old men, staring into distance, turning the movement

of boats into stories they will tell by moonlight;

stories of hostels forgotten at the edge of foreign cities

where men washed plates, dead bodies, old skin, and even

restrooms where a man after using a urinal spat out

his words, leaving it on the ground – a dead thing

waiting to be cleaned.


I had nothing to interpret to the world, nothing to say

to the anthropologist who walked beside me, saying,

I have studied your people and their docile ways,

their acceptance of tyrants. And as I turned to the night,

I heard the ending of a Greek play, a school boy roaring

in all seriousness into the sky, O Ithaka, I have loved you

through sorrow, I have loved you through the stars,

the anagram of wonder, through the vastness of the world.



 


The Gallery at the End of Time

after Ben Enwonwu’s Painting, Tutu


It is pointless now, the old masters are gone,

their works stowed in the attic,

labelled carefully after the years of their brilliance,

and though I have tried to map the places

they walked through – Venice, Owerri, Botticelli’s

Florence, and even the settlement in the desert

where decomposing bodies of shepherds

wrapped in cotton, old corals, bones of dead camels,

and cow horns have continued to sculpt, out of the earth,

a lesson in the abstract nature of life – I have failed

to witness the acrylic heaven, bounty of colors,

the gradual unveiling of marble. Tethered by my chain

to words, I walked and stood in front of every painting,

every sculpture, taking lessons in symmetry, expecting

to see through canvas an old man sitting before the Seine,

drawing with charcoal the last evening of a dying master.

In the middle of beauty, imagination failed me

just like joy. See for yourself Ben Enwonwu’s long lost

Tutu, the sharp gaze of her eyes, her blue blouse

like the evening sky, and then under her chin

a subtle burst of light. Where does it lead?

When last did it light a face? There are disappearances

that are beautiful, carefully curated to hold us in wonder.

There are beautiful moments so powerful they give

grace unto darkness like these paintings, like my mother.

The gallery has been emptied of wonder, each work

of art taken away, each of them saying, before entering

their crates, I have spent my time under the sun, so another

may take my place. And beside me, an art critic wrote down

these words, we may never see the likes of these again,

the gradual flirting with light, the gradient, O beauty, O beauty.

I have not studied the history of all art, but having

witnessed the stampede of those who seek the peace

that comes out of holiness, I said to myself, perfection

leads to chaos, and love holds in its palm

the balm of death and eternity. And as I walked

the night, knowing that out of the darkness of time,

a new school of old masters were getting ready

to know light again, I knew the lens of the world

was upon me, I smiled, waiting for my end,

for the light of the world to descend upon a poet

writing in a small room in St. Louis, reciting the poems

of Haji Gora Haji. O poet of reed and sea songs,

I have been travelling towards you, bringing

to your old city the darkness that I have become.


 

Romeo Oriogun is the author of Sacrament of Bodies and Nomad. He currently lives in Ames where is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Iowa State University.

 

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