The Gallery at the End of Time & Other Poems
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
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.