Poems by Syl Cheney-Coker (Sierra Leone)
Published in The Ofi Press issue 36.
The Colour of Stones
When you arrive in this misnamed country,
come to the crooked hills; the fierce, verdant eyes
of Sierra Leone, mythic songs, its crazy history!
Named in limestone - Wilberforce, Regent,
Leicester, Gloucester and Charlotte- the old,
smoky villages of deft colonials and benefactors
are dying. Quarried with ruin now, they were once
the crown jewels of English Christian love.
Under the tamarind, the gowned- women in kabaslot
are shy, but still invite young men to their modest homes.
They dim the paraffin lamps, offer sweet fibers of ginger,
the sorrel fragrance of golden days, and move their lips,
as though under the magic of the Gambian herb, with which
the Aku women once tempted the mouths of Christian lovers.
The secrets of golden age, entombed in the old grannies’
bones, have turned gray; but they shimmer and refuse
the eternal death stamp. Fiery lianas, they twine round
the bodies of the young, philistine ploughmen, who are
reckless with adzes. Ah, those beloved grannies, eternal
and watching, as new arrogance drapes their smoking hills,
which will never die- always alive- this mountain country!
For Chinua Achebe (1930- 2013)
After your pioneering days, go and rest
with the other pioneers in a cool place,
where the branches of the sapodilla trees sing,
and the waterfalls cascade down from the hills.
In the sacred shrine, the High Priest, kola nut in hand,
awaits you after you awake, story teller and scribe,
to strengthen those bones wrecked on Eri’s road.
It was your fate that night that rendered you
less ambulatory than us, but not your courage!
At heaven’s gate, Okigbo stands guard,
watchman of the word, sorcerer of Nri,
a profound gift tragically cut down early in life!
Unlike him, you were a calm voyager, proud chronicler
of myths. Over the gleaming years, your luscious fruit
was knowledge to a world ignorant about us;
you did your best, Okonkwo’s harvest interpreter,
to colour the naked page with proverbs and rhythms
ancestral to you, but alien to the wide, gawking world.
And as for that Conradian slur, you did not let it pass,
without returning the favour!
I know you derived your name Chinua
from an incantation of God. He who, after your birth,
walked sagely alongside you into the dark pathways, to
free the twisted labyrinths in the hearts of forests,
so that you could inspire others in the alien pathways,
on which the exile must travel, before coming home to rest
in the grove of his father. Or, as we say in Sierra Leone,
‘going home to suckle at the breasts of your mother.’
I too derived my name from the invocation of God:
a benediction of my grandmother’s. Proud of ancestry,
although three generations removed, she had not lost the
memories of the sacred python’s fire; how it
kept watch over its children always , in your voice,
magical, in the umbilicus of genealogy !
Syl Cheney-Coker (born 1945) is a poet, novelist, and journalist from Freetown, Sierra Leone. Educated in the United States, he has a global sense of literary history, and has introduced styles and techniques from French and Latin American literatures to Sierra Leone. He has spent much of his life in exile from his native country, and has written extensively (in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction) about the condition of exile and the view of Africa from an African abroad.
Image: "Ploughman" detail from an Etruscan vase at the Louvre.