WHY ART: Fifteen Paces


Why art? Because art matters. It’s not a biological hunger or a metaphysical need like sex and religion but art matters. Matters because it’s true…is the truth. Is a symbol of every human endeavour. Matters as one of the simplest and most economical ways to prove that one has a soul, and is human.

Art is we are real life objects encased in fragility. It’s the flicker of appreciation in a man’s eyes at the sight of a beautiful woman but something…something more. Something higher.

Why art? Because we’re here so briefly…so briefly and we love it so, and when it all gone who will know how much you loved it?

Why art? Because there’s a boy of course, and I rush to school every morning to get to class…to get to him. To sit in the fifth row from the entrance because that’s where fifteen paces across from me I think, the rays that elude the blinds at near noon catch his skin just so…just so. Not a word between us but he is the most real thing in my life. Art is the distance between us. Art is fifteen paces.

I choose art everyday because art is spice, and the opposite of death. Because not to choose it would be to live at the mercy of a need.  Art matters because we forget it more. In the mad dash to live we forget what being alive means.  And art is alive and breathing.

Art matters because it involves looking, and looking leads to seeing, and seeing means understanding. Just by standing in front of a canvas, you’ve gone through an experience. And art knocks in my inner places, my dark crevices. Art matters because I was here, I lived and in a way that matters.

Art matters because not everything is blunt intelligence, because cleverness is foolish, because sensibility craftiness and wit and words are a little to much sometimes or not enough.

ART MATTERS.

 

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My kingdom, my kingdom….


“Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.” Stevensonian wisdom. I agree with the first half of this statement, and I have proof of second.  I spent my whole life reading about how the world was, how it could be and when I finally took a step out into the world…it was bad fiction, horribly scripted and cheaply produced. And there seemed to be no place in it for me.

My father gave me my first book. It was titled Kenna, after its eponymous hero, a boy in Gaborone who ran a race and won. I know because I met him at the finish line.  Sleepy as it seems… it was the beginning. After that it was The Drummer Boy then it was For Mbatha and Rebecca my first Kenyan love story. Pacesetters, the fear street series, the Hardy boys, Nancy Drew… I watched my adolescence fly by feeling blazé because it seemed such a late entrant, and filled me with a sense of déjà vu. I had lived my whole life in books. In his 1971 Nobel acceptance speech, Neruda said: “We {writers} are called upon to fill with words the confines of a mute continent, and we become drunk with the task of naming and telling.” It is the foremost task of books. To name us and to tell us.

Books saved me. Saved me from the noise of unhappy parents in the next room. From the quiet within myself. Books sought me out, questioned me, and mocked me, asked me to stand. Gave me the world within their musty pages, gave me something of themselves, gave me my dreams. Books saved me. By letting me run away without alerting the mean gatekeepers.  Books taught me how beautiful the world was, how fragile and dark. They explained to me that I had a place in the world, if I could keep it. In books my heart would quiver but not break, they reminded me of the aches and kissed my scars. Books were my sandbox of insane passions.  Inside them I was wanton, I was la femme insensee, and they made me respect rules, gave me principles and taught me when to cede them…never. The book was my eternal playmate.  I was always safe with a book.

Also, books change me. Their words define me, breathe new life into me. I meet the most interesting people in books. Soldiers with soft hearts, world savvy wise-guys, rambunctious children. I could be a happy voyeur through books. I could stand outside people’s windows, look into their lives. In books, I could reject reality, substitute it… the quintessential escapism. Reading is one of the things in which I can completely lose myself. Books embolden me. I’m less nervous with a book around. In a bank lobby, on concrete seats on a sidewalk, I’m less self-conscious.  I’m braver after books; they give me my convictions, fortitude. They affirm me, deny me. They are the last real magic.

Allow me to share some of the magic with you: A few excerpts from some books I like.  I can’t even get the ones I love because I’m in between houses. Here’s to hoping I’m not breaking International Copyright Law.

Caesar and Cleopatra by Bernard Shaw: this was my first encounter with this Irish dramatist.  His is by far my favorite representation of Caesar shrewd, charming, vain, light and with a bit of flair for the dramatic. I love his soliloquy before the Sphinx.

The man: Hail Sphinx: salutations from Julius Caesar! I have wandered in many lands seeking the lost regions from which my birth into this world exiled me, and the company of creatures such as myself. I have found flocks and pastures, men and cities but no other Caesar, no air native to me, no man kindred to me, none who can do my day’s deed and think my night’s thought. In the little world yonder Sphinx, my place is as high as yours only I wonder and you sit still; I conquer and you endure; I work and wonder, you watch and wait. I look up and am dazzled, look down and am darkened look around and am puzzled, whilst your eyes never turn from looking out- out of this world-to the lost regions-the home from which we have strayed. Sphinx, you and I, strangers to the race of men, are no strangers to one another: have I not been conscious of you and of this place since I was born? Rome is a madman’s dream: this is my reality. These starry lamps of yours seen from afar in Gaul, in Britain, in Spain, in Thessaly signaling great secrets from some eternal sentinel below, whose post I could never find. And here at last is their sentinel-an image of the immortal and constant part of my life, silent, full of thought, alone in this great silver desert. Sphinx, Sphinx: I have climbed mountains at night to hear the stealthy footfall of the winds that chase your sands in forbidden play-our invisible children, O Sphinx, laughing in whispers. My way hither was the way of destiny; for I am he of whose genius you are the symbol: part brute, part woman, part god- nothing of man in me at all. Have I read your riddle, Sphinx?

Troubled Sleep by Jean-Paul Sartre: a story of from the fringe of society when the world was burning, the Second World War. The artists, the pacifists during the Nazi occupation of France.  Sartre is a celebrated existentialist. The excerpt is about Boris, a career soldier and in the style of the picaresque hero.

It was true of course that he thoroughly disapproved of melancholy, but when the mood was on one, it was the very devil to shake it off. “I must have an unhappy temperament,” he thought. There were many reasons why he should rejoice; in particular he ought to congratulate himself on his narrow escape from peritonitis, on being quite well again. Instead of which, he was thinking: “I have outlived my day,” and the knowledge was bitter to him. When one is melancholy, even the reason for rejoicing become melancholy too so that one rejoices in a melancholy way. “Besides,” he thought, “I am dead.” For all practical purposes he had died at Sedan in 1940: all the years of life remaining to him were only boredom. He sighed again, following with his eyes a large green fly moving across the ceiling; and then he concluded: “I’m a second-rater.” This idea was profoundly disagreeable to him. Until now Boris had made it a rule never to question himself introspectively, and it had always worked very well. Besides so long as his main problem had merely been that of getting himself decently and neatly killed the fact that he was a second rater had not very much mattered; on the contrary, he had less to regret. But now all this had changed; destiny had decided that he was to live, and he was being forced to realize that he had no vocation, no talents, no money- none of the qualities in short which were necessary for living, with the single exception of good health. “How bored I am going to be,” he thought with a sense of frustration.

 

Oxford Lecturers on Poetry, 1909 by A.C Bradley:  this is an excerpt on a criticism of the Anthony and Cleopatra play by Shakespeare. I don’t know why I like this one but I really do. I like this by-gone era of literary debate

When he {Anthony} first meets Cleopatra he finds his Absolute. She satisfies, nay glorifies his whole being. She intoxicates his senses. Her wiles, her taunts, her furies and meltings, her laughter and tears, bewitch him all alike. She loves what he loves, and surpasses him. She can drink him to his bed, out-jest his practical jokes, out-act the best actresses who ever amused him, out-dazzle his own magnificence. She is his playfellow and yet a great queen. Angling in the river, playing billiards, flourishing the sword he used at Philippi, hopping forty paces in a public street, she remains an enchantress. Her spirit is made of wind and flame and the poet in him worships her no less than the man. He is under no illusions about her, knows all her faults, sees through her wiles, believes her capable of betraying him. It makes no difference. She is his heart’s desire made perfect. To love her is what he was born for. What have the gods in heaven to say against it? To imagine heaven is to imagine her; to die is to rejoin her. To deny that this is love is the madness of morality. He gives her every atom of his heart. She destroys him

A room without books is like a body without a soul- Chesterton. Read something.

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Remebering with you: part I


1 - 2 And finally I twist my heart round again, so that the bad is on the outside and the good is on the inside, and keep on trying to find a way of becoming what I would so like to be, and could be, if there weren't any other people living in the world. Anne Frank

Writing like living is something you can’t fake.  You have to sit in the chair, stay in the room, don’t dare leave the room unless…until it comes ‘in search of you.’ Shards of a past or glimpses of the future. Even when it comes in shades or shadow you always get the same feeling you get when you’re staring at the first crack of light in the skyline at daybreak.

I just finished watching the movie Darfur and I feel something dark and pungent in my soul that tastes like metal. There’s literally no one in the world I don’t hate. No one. Even knowing that that murky Chapter of history is closed, I don’t trust that knowledge. Maybe the victims may have lightened in pigment but the Al-assads and the Bashirs of this world are blood-brothers and Syria is the new axis of Evil. Maybe we lost the war somewhere in Kabul or Auschwitz or Eden…man’s innocence couldn’t survive one bite of the apple.

Little by little I’m learning not to be surprised at myself but the world astounds me. Ambivalence looks to be the code of our civic belief system and seemingly the most economical way to prove one’s self apart of the world. If you don’t have a personal “fuck you” stamped on your forehead you’re not one of us. In such a world oil is the only spoil. Oil is the only term of engagement. Libya had it; Syria doesn’t. Congratulations citizens, you’re living in a world in which governments take a rashly extravagant view as to the question of whether the government exists for man or man for the government.  According to deathly reliable statistic, governments alone were responsible for cold-blooded murder of 169 million people in the first 88 years of the 20th century. The Soviet Union alone could claim 55 million of these.

 

USSR: 61,911,000 murders

Vietnam: 1,678,000 murders

China: 45,314,000 murders

Poland: 1,585,000 murders

Germany: 20,946,000 murders

Pakistan: 1,503,000 murders

Japan: 5,964,000 murders

Yugoslavia: 1,072,000 murders

Cambodia: 2,035,000 murders

North Korea: 1,663,000 murders

Turkey: 1,883,000 murders

Mexico: 1,417,000 murders

 

Maybe…maybe the world really wasn’t created for us.

The data on moral behavior provides no support for the widespread psychodynamic belief in the unitary entity of conscious. Anonymous, cynical and honest. Evil like the flu just keeps on catching.

Understanding the genocide has been termed as ‘…part of being a moral adult.’ But what a genocide is, its mechanics , metaphysics and human truths is something we can never really understand.  Out of the experience that has been described by survivors as something outside the human experience, that has no place in it, only truth remains…unscarred, unapologetic. It is for the others to cower in discomfort and grudging acceptance or imprudent denial over its unabashed existence. And this is the truth, one of many…that it happened, that it has been allowed to happen and that it could happen again.  And it is for us, the detached third parties to stare at our TV screens in stunned disbelief and secret relief that we had no hand in it, that we couldn’t possibly resemble them. A Rwandan survivor said: ‘in the quiet moments, I think about the Genocide so as to know where to put my life but I can find no place for it. I simply mean that it is beyond the human.’

Genocide has left me shaken and faithless especially in man.

Why do I bother talking about something that I have never experience?  There are parts of me that God has left void…that He doesn’t fill. He has left them void for his own purposes, to punish me or to teach me. And it is because of this void that I am those children. I am all those children defaced by war and debased by it cruelty. I am all those lost souls displaced, ravaged and dehumanized. And you are too.

Did you know, in Rwanda they cut off the Achilles tendons of the women before they raped them so that they wouldn’t run. In Sri Lanka, the Sinhala casually set fire to a bus that had20 Tamils on board. These are things which we must remember, and which they must forget. You have voids too.

It takes all kinds to make a world; not so many to make a nation. In Rwanda it takes Hutu murderers and Tutsi survivors. Her political requirements after the Genocide were famously termed ‘emotionally incomprehensible.’ So what does it really take to make a nation? Ernst Renan ruling out dynastic linkage, race, religious ties and language rather eloquently concludes that a nation is ‘…a grand solidarity…a soul, a spiritual principle…a culmination of a long past of endeavors, sacrifice and devotion.’

‘…to have common glories in the past and to have a common will in the present; to have performed great deeds together, to wish to perform still more- these are the essential conditions for being a people.’

But greater than all these fundamental requirements as to commonalities, the individuals of a nation must also have ‘forgotten many things.’ Now there’s the rub. Forgetting. The real moments of life are brief, whether breathtakingly beautiful or achingly abhorrent. Always, always it is forgetting that spans a lifetime. Slights are easy, petty betrayals too but how does one forgive a child born to her and whose face reminds her of rape that spanned weeks? In the Armenian genocide, after they raped the women, they defecated in their mouths. In Rwanda, they fed them human blood. How do you forgive life or the world for treating your survival as an inconvenience? ‘Forgiving will help us forget together.’ The unbelievably brazen words of a Hutu genocidaire, a killer.

Is forgiveness not just right but moral?  “Only I possessed, and still possess, the moral truth of the blows that even today roar in my skull, and for that reason I am more entitled to judge, not only more than the culprit but more than society—which thinks only about its continued existence. The social body is occupied merely with safeguarding itself and could not care less about a life that has been damaged. At the very best, it looks forward, so that such things don’t happen again. But my resentments are there in order that the crime become a moral reality for the criminal, in order that he be swept into the truth of his atrocity-“ Jean Amery.

 

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Cupid’s Reflections II: Love and other pains


For Violeta:

Image

 

At Violeta’s insistence I’ve decided to pen something down. A well-deserved admonition, needless to say…it seems so long since I put pen to paper. Seems so long since I lived out loud.

Violeta also generously provided a theme: Valentine’s. It does nothing for me. Never has. This Valentine’s I won’t do anything out of script. I’ll do what I’ve always done for so long. Cook myself a nice meal or settle for a consolatory bowl of ice-cream with the possibility of wine then sit with Neruda for hours or Ronsard or the Venezuelans perhaps this year. I’ll probably go out to stare at the sky, there’s no moon tonight and the night seems endless, expansive. I must be a diminutive figure from the sky looking downwards. And I like feeling small because it means I have no control over any of it; war or peace or love.

I’ve survived so many Valentines alone that the real surprise would be to take a walk inside my vast loneliness and find a friendly intruder there. I feel immune to it. To the undeserved importance lavished on the day, to the empty grand gesturing, the unabated consumerism. I’ll stop before this starts reading like the revenge of the unhappy.

I’m a loner…perhaps that reads more dramatically than I intended. I definitely know that the romanticism of being a loner has waned. But it has always come easily to me. To some extent I feel some inflated sense of superiority to those who can’t be alone. I love people, even those I’ve never met but to me they are simply impermanent wood, materials for my writing. I endured loneliness because I could see the magic that came out of it. I can only write in pure solitude. It has made me so aware of myself and the things around me that to this day I find it hard to form a conscious thought unless I’m surrounded by anything near 20Hz and under: silence. Am in eternal awe of people looking for chaos and noise in dens, in busy streets or inside themselves.

Sometimes I wonder if this is symptomatic of some deep character flaw. My arms-length way of interaction, my near-perverse need to run from those I feel I could need.  Maybe love is like any other religion and per Borges it is still easier to die for it than to live it truly. So Romeo had it made but…am I the faithless one?  Is it my fault for not believing hard enough? Because I do believe in love…still. Yet this and every Valentine’s I see people aiming for less. Chocolates and flowers…things that wither and melt. I want every day to be worth the rose. I want a man who can penetrate my loneliness. Because I do feel it. Even with the unwavering pride of conviction I feel at times so hollow that when a cold wind passes I can hear it echo inside. On such days my heart is emptier than my stomach.

 At twenty-three I feel very unfulfilled still.  No one can understand standing at the smallest spot in the world, which for me was the back of my father’s house by the water meter, and wanting everything. How can the world be so full and how can there be no one in it for me? I’ve endured the third rate psycho-analysis from friends; a childhood trauma, impossibly high standards, high school with nuns who ‘did a number on me’…no, they all draw blanks. A woman who pretends to laugh at love is like, they say, a child who sings at night when he is afraid of the dark. But I like love. I feel a healthy instinct for it.

Maybe I don’t make myself amenable to love; I’m not relationship-compliant. I hate order. I have no compulsion for it. It doesn’t add anything to my life. I like reaching into my messy closet, messy bag or life and extracting just what I need. And I can’t be trusted to be sensible. Not when the rest of me is certifiable.  I have my head in the clouds, sometimes in the sand but I like it that way. I’m out for feeling, and this need compels me more than my reason. There’s no room for sensibility. And I’m a restless person always searching for instant illumination in people else I’m bored. When I finally sit still I find that it is my soul that is moving. ‘In chaos there is fertility.’ It would take a special kind of man to understand this.

Yet love is the sine qua non.  And by not admitting to a need we live at its mercy. I dream of love. I have all my life. That dream overpowers every need, every compulsion for loneliness. I have wanted that feeling for which love itself was too small and ineffectual a word to encapsulate the depth of sensations that tangled every molecule in the distance between me and that friendly intruder.  

When you look at me, I feel waves crashing against my heart…kiss me; maybe you’ll feel the waves too.

Yes, I want a great love story. Epic. Blood, tears, waste, ruin and spoils. A love story that would span worlds and lifetimes. The ones poets write about and angels bear witness. A love story on which ‘the gods themselves would throw incense’, like a great sacrifice.  Everything else seems like a cheap production; light years away from this.

I’ve dreamed of loving someone like I love rain. I’m not a farmer…I need it for poetic reasons. I need it for my soul garden.  I would love for this to be any other ordinary day but it isn’t. It’s a defining day and I feel I need a new mantra. I think I just found it:

Be still my heart,

And let yourself be touched,

By groping hands…love fumbles at times

 

Be still my heart,

And let yourself be broken,

By love…too little or too much

 

Be still my heart,

And let yourself be taught,

How to love.

I’m 23 and I still think life is beautiful. I have a right to that.

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CAREFUL CONFESSIONS


I tried my hand at a story writing contest for a national short story contest…Kwani eat your heart out!

“Loneliness,” he replied with a disaffected shrug; as much dis-affectation as a fifty-one-year old priest could manage. But it was too simplistic, true but simplistic. It was loneliness unlike any other he had read of before. It was more than haunting, worse than abject

He hated Nairobi in April. It was everything a city should be, perhaps more so. Cold, impersonal like a rich man’s handshake. He sat shuffling a few photos in his large hands his mind wondering on and off to the morning call. He hated mobile phones; any and all gadgetry that was awash in the market nowadays and he’d only got one at the volunteer Matron, Edna’s insistence. For emergencies. But almost out of insolence it rang incessantly, extravagantly and hysterically.

The weather made him pensive. He hated that too.

Pacing the narrow space spared by the cheap sparce furnishing of his meager office, he could imagine the man to whom the voice over the telephone belonged. It was sonorous and clinical. It doled out de riguer wishes of good health and congratulations on his well merited award without the slightest inclination to sincerity. It wasn’t distinctive, except it made suggestions in the peremptory tone of a thirty five-ish over-achiever pumped with ambition strong coffee and yesterday’s liquor.

He’d heard intermittent shuffling and the monotonous buzz of a slow news day over unsettling silence which the voice tried to fill with short hollow laughs that he resolutely refused to join.

There was something superior about it, about the way it sounded out that word, “sir” as to leave no doubt if its European inflicted education.  About the slightly condescending way it put the word “well” before “sir”.

“My name is Albert. Albert Duma. It started and paused momentarily. I write for the daily express.” It paused again this time well-meaningfully for his benefit. Waiting for a friendly quip from him about having read one of his articles. It was a curious thing to him; the human propensity for lying and the commensurate need to be lied to.

“I don’t read the gossip pages,” he replied.

“I’m a journalist,” the voice sounded martyred.

“Same difference.”

“Well sir, I suppose,” it conceded with a resigned laugh: quicker than he’d anticipated.

Albert Duma had called to warn him of their interview, alert him on the possible questions. He didn’t believe in “spontaneous eloquence”; he crisply informed him.

It was Sunday and the outside was lending itself to a precarious and gloomy grayness that saw many reluctant to leave the warmth of each other to hazard any potential precipitation. It made him long for a sunset he had seen on a bus out of Limuru, once. It made him wonder about the voice and his reticence towards it. It made him accept the other man’s suggested meeting date with gruff friendliness.

 

“My earliest memory is of shearing sheep as a young boy in my grandfather’s mountain farm. I was born in a farming village in Vent, Tyrol-“

“Austria.”

The older man laughed indulgently, “You read up on me?”

“You’d be insulted if I hadn’t”

He regarded him a bit and after what seemed like mental note taking he retrieved an old Bible from one of the two shelves peopled with books on philosophy and theology and bibles, variedly sized and colored. He took out four photographs and spread them out on a mahogany table decadently out of place in the frugal office. A donation no doubt from a penitent well-to-do West side city dweller looking for bloodless redemption.

“You want the truth I suppose, not a story.”

“I am a journalist” the bespectacled Albert Duma restated, he was thirty four.

The musty smell of age that he loved so much spread from the old bible across the room. He opened his arms expressing, partly in resignation and partly to gesture him to pick up a photo.

Two were monochromes, two in colour. The oldest, older than himself was the only thing that had come to him in the old Bible was his family heirloom. It and the other black and white picture which was fairly recent; this of himself on a July 7th protest march in the 1990s evoqued wistful nostalgia in him. The protest photo was a courtesy of the photojournalist who had taken it. It was signed and dated at back.

The two colored ones were of equal and immensurable importance. One, a scenic vista was his own effort and the other a gift at his request from the unusually lovely and intent doe-eyed girl who was its only subject. By far the most visually rewarding. She must have been twenty three in the photo but with hair held back and her face devoid of make-up yet lit magnificently, she didn’t look a day over eighteen.

With calculating discretion and restrained curiosity, he chose the older monochrome. It was dog – eared. The adolescent wisdom to preserve it had come too late. It was of a young man, badly out of focus. It must have been shot by a giggling girl or a nervous young woman lying on the grass that made the back: either way his mother. The young man of the photo had jet black hair cut even tastelessly at shoulder length. His hands supporting him from the back as he sat were cut out midlength as was his lower body.

“Your father?”

It was the closest he had ever been to him.

“They died soon after his picture was taken.” It had been handed to him at twelve by his steel faced grand father and effusive grandmother. They are with God now …and so was but he had never been with them. He’d spent most of his life pouring over it; trying to decipher some subliminal message or discover a forgotten memory. With childish reverence at first, then adolescent resentment, youthful disaffectation and now wistful sentimentalism.

At twenty six, he had been the spitting image of the photo despite colorful efforts on his part to thwart a genetically foregone conclusion. At times he felt a nostalgia for something familiar and unknown. At times it was a warm emptiness. He’d often wondered about the other darkness where his father was and such musing developed unusual precocities in him as a child. Mysticism and religious ardour.

“Is that why you became a priest?”

“Yes and No”

Vent was really as rural and insufferable as it sounded. Its somnolent charms did little for him. There had been no still, small voice in the mountains but a consuming desire for meaning. But he took a rather lofty view to his occupation. He’d wanted to change the world and back then he had a flair for the dramatic. He envisioned himself a custodian of humanity’s humanity. He had had hopelessly rudimentary conception of evil, perhaps he still did. It was to him something insidious; an entity with physical manifestation. He thought of borders like geographical semantics, and at twenty he considered himself a citizen of the world.  So why not Africa? Why not Kenya? Why not Kibera, Nairobi Kenya?

In this way, to his cost, he couldn’t argue to be any better than the many back packing, demin-sporting. “Friends of Africa” Yet white guilt was lost on him. He could claim to be different on that regard. He had come in search of adventure and as Kafka had once eloquently echoed in him a “concern” for “higher things” A feeling that he was at the front for something, and in that way, yes, unwittingly championing the white man’s burden.

He had been born in the compunctious shadow of the third Reich but his motives were also self serving. And that was the extent of his heroism, if there had been any at all. He’d set up a health clinic, for which he sourced funds and workers. He’d also set up a church done good deeds for which he was slated to receive a presidential award.

“Yet all this wasn’t enough. You engaged in politics…”

“Engaged is too committal a word,” he protested highly.

“You are an activist.”

He had been the golden white boy of the tumultuous late 80s and 90s that the opposition dressed in African regalia and neatly presented to the West, to solicit funds, and no move. He got up to gaze disinterestedly out the window.

“You believed -”

“It was easy to believe back then …in everything. Anything.” He began and ended with a good natured laugh. He thought of politics much like a Salvationism; the religion of the poor, only politics was a false religion.

They had all blindly wanted change back then, and they hadn’t been specific.

“Do you feel betrayed by them, the politicos?”

‘Yes, if you can forgive the paradox.” After a silence he started abruptly, and quietly, more to himself. “You know I was there at Saba Saba, there in ’92 and before…there in ’07. They chopped off a boy’s ear right in front of me.” Maybe to show that they weren’t afraid of his skin. Angry, poor, poisoned machete-wielding youth. He covered his eyes with his hands as if trying to relieve himself of the memory, and not.

“These people are no better.’ Albert said in idle commentary but it was the superior voice he heard.

‘They’re no worse. Either.’ He didn’t think poverty and inhumanity to the synonymous nor was poverty an excuse to be inhumane. No, there was tenderness here but it was fated to die a quick death from a familiarity with the course landscape, like excess harvest that rots away in the granary.

“You’d been summoned to State House once by Moi…’ At the very height of the reformed chatter. He had wild fantasies of martyrdom in a darkly lit, unswept corner of a chamber at Nyayo house but his fears had flattered him greatly then.

“You know the old man is everything they say he is.” There was a hushed smile in his voice and grudging respect that betrayed themselves, and him.

“They say a lot of things.” The young man replied blandly, wishing to leave no doubt as to his unconflicting loyalties where tyrants were concerned.

“He’s a lot of things.”

“So there was a girl…” he begun brightly and conversationally, trying not to look too curious, too scandalized, too blazé all at once and failing. He was somewhat mollified that she was a girl, not a boy. And he didn’t like what that said about his morality. It could be bought. And he could see it gazing into the old priests face, the same liquid eyes and soft face that ended expectedly in a double chin. Distant echoes of the old photo. His body too that had increased somewhat in girth had the same lean and slender build.

“Unofficially… yes.” He was gruff and somber and inwardly he wondered at the ease with which a sinner’s sin rolled off his tongue. Still he didn’t feel repentant. He felt old and he blamed her for that.

“Why?” Albert asked a bit stupidly.

“Loneliness,” he replied with a disaffected shrug; as much dis-affectation as a fifty-one-year old priest could manage. But it was too simplistic, true but simplistic. It was loneliness unlike any other he had read of before. It was more than haunting, worse than abject. It martyred him every night. It was a crippling eternal hunger or disease. It made him lie in a foetal position motionless in bed stuck within himself; stuck outside. Or prostrate on the cold cement floor blinking into the darkness to discern the strange and hostile forms that the heavy blackness gave to his chair, his lamp, his table and his life. On other nights he walked streets that were as empty as himself, looking into windows and catching the limp eyes of mannequins through the displays. Looking at the distant, unchanging horizon and the low, inconstant moon. Or sitting up alert at daybreak listening to the light play of footfalls form the rain’s innumerable feet over his iron roofs.

He was alone…not lonely, wasn’t that how irrationalized his life? Cost to self; the essence of sacrifice…and he suffered. On some days he dismissed strangers at the start of the impersonal handshakes, on others, often on others; he made it his business to be in the middle of the crowd so that he brush shoulders with them or touch a hem and be healed.

No, it had not been the manly desire for a woman. He was seeking something slightly lower than God; turbulence, a conditional love or a mortality of soul, fever or a scent lingering on the sheets. His vocation allowed him curious opportunities to thrust himself into the lives of others. But it was such hygienic contact…and they always left. Maybe it was a need to be more than the habitual detached observer. A desire not just to be admired as a hero but loved as a man. A selfish need to win a heart, chain it to himself and yes…to be worshipped.

It was then that she had arrived. At that age when he was old enough to know that it wouldn’t last and older still as to want to believe that it could.

He was forty two then and even then he had been too young for him. Kasanza. She came back to him now like a distant memory of madness. She was beautiful. It was still the greatest thing a woman could be. And having possessed her, he knew intimately about the other worlds he’d abjured. You couldn’t tell from the picture how long her hair was, held back in a tight bun it was. And sitting up on his sofa, perusing one of his thick philosophy books, her thick hair down …she looked ridiculously young.

He caught whiffs of her from hushed whispers in the wind, the Kenyan love for gossip being what it was. She’d married or eloped with a young accountant and relocated to Mombasa or Voi. Somewhere remote and unreachable.

“Do you regret your vows?”

“Old men shouldn’t hope for love; chaste affection at best or tolerance, not love.” For a while he was vacant.

“Do you feel Kenyan?”

“I don’t know, what are the symptoms?” It was his first half-hearted attempt at humour and he was rewarded with a serious, gummy smile for his troubles. He had been in Nairobi over a couple of decades, he still couldn’t claim it. The city. He hated the cruelty relentless pace of life, the night sound still as foreign to him as at arrival. Distant sirens, distant music, distant gunshots …like hazy memories of a bad cinema production. Nevertheless something started in him here. He felt himself in Nairobi a part of the four million souls circling each other, looking for connection, money, meaning. In some respect it had changed. The sky line was under the constant attack of Babel-minded constructors, fresh paint over old signs, rushed recarpeting of pot-holes which the rain merrily washed off. Yet in some respects, it hadn’t. The rhythm was perennial. But he was an anachronist and he saw everything as it was; as he was. He could feel the burgeoning of hope, good in the city as in himself. “This is Nairobi.”

He pointed towards the shot of a panoramic view. Albert nodded agreeably, unconvinced.

He had stumbled on woods on one of those moist, uneventful Tuesdays of January. A happy accident on a whimsical detour ten years ago. They were still  untouched, still untamed, still made him nostalgic for the little forest near his maternal old father’s country house in the mountain region, which seemed to him now, a middle aged man, a magical childhood fantasy. He remembered running through the little forest of his youth laced with heavy, ethereal mist, through closely spaced conifers his happy feet cutting through pretty weeds and undergrowth. Fluttering, curious and happy. Full lungs and sweaty palms; it was the only conception of freedom his little mind could understand then and even now, feeling older than his fifty one years he found himself no wiser.

They were about sixty kilometers west of the city. To get there he had to get off the highway, travel up a dusty murram road and climb up a gentle incline carpeted with Napier grass and dotted with lemon green shrubs like an artistic after thought of nature. The woods broke abruptly reveal a clearing, circular and with a Mugumo tree at the center. He panted more getting to then than he had the first time. He never allowed himself fatalistic moments that he could feel the sunset of days, of years…of life.

The clearing was covered with a prefusion of wild flowers like a dust of European spring spread out. There were the usual creatures of small forest; lizards moving in fast paced semi leaps over rocks, ants in single files to crimson anthills. The Columbus monkeys that patronize his little paradise refused to scurry in panic at his surprise arrivals perhaps out of reticence on familiarity. He fed them macadamia nuts from petrol station en route. He often went there when he wanted to be a boy. And he was determined with that intractability of age, even through the melodrama of it, to die there.

“I am this mud.” He was part of the muck and the mafia, the stagnant sewage and flying toilets. Life was hard but bearable. He paid protection money to the local gang Siafu or Mungiki for the clinic; they were gentle to an old priest but persuasive. He was part of the narrative. An everyday man. He wasn’t black or born here but that didn’t weigh heavily on him. The lion’s story should be taken with as much pinch of salt as the hunter’s, he thought.

“Are you seeking absolution through public plagellation?”

Redemption. If he believed and hoped it for others he could believe it for himself. He subconsciously rubbed the beads of his crucifix.

“Do you accept the president’s award?”

“Yes”

He had finished reading a glowing tribute to tirelessly dedicated friend of Africa by Albert Duma in the Daily express. Albert Duma had defended the phrasing as honest but admitted to its less than good taste. The voice over the phone was still superior, still clinical, still sonorous but familiar.

“You didn’t write the truth?”

“The public doesn’t need to be entertained as much as you think. God knows the country doesn’t need another scandal”

“Was that all?”

He paused for a while. “A feel good story is what the public needs”

“You don’t sound like a gossip writer.”

The journalist laughed and the old .priest felt compelled to join in.

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POETIC REASONS


Poetry was born with two sisters, language and emotion. Conjoined triplets.  Her spirit is made of wind. She travels the world barefoot with the trees and whispers in the ears of men the meaning of things. Silly things like love and flowers, and great things like the sea and living. But she can’t leave her sisters because she is really their heart. She can’t travel far often she has sons who tell us about her message.

Poetry is what in  a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails wrinkle, makes you want to do this or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss is forever shared and forever your own.’                                                                                   -Dylan.

Yeah…what he said. She had many great sons, some greater than others but her greatest emissary was Ricardo Neftali Reyes, known to you as Pablo Neruda. In him, she was reborn. And in her others too; Bukowski, Qabbani, Hikmet and countless others who as ‘priests of the invisible’ also sought to free their mother from the harsh rules of those who proclaimed themselves her heirs but really wanted to enslave her. She can never die, not while there are those who know what flowers and love, and the sea and living mean.

PABLO NERUDA

Body of a woman, white hills,

white thighs,

You look like a world lying in surrender,

My rough peasant’s body digs

into you,

and makes the son leap from the depths of the earth…

Body of a woman, I sonnet

I love Neruda. He is the absolute poet of my soul. He is earnest and unabashed in the way he celebrates sex and sensuality. How he tangles metaphors to explain his love for a woman and his land in a way that is subtle and seamless. They are the same to him.

Here I love you.

In the dark pines the wind disentangles itself.

The moon glows like phosphorus on the vagrant waters….sometimes,

I get up early and even my soul is wet…

Here I love you and the horizon hides you in vain,

I love you still among these cold things…

Here I love you

He whispers about the loneliness and the grief of a love lost to him.

Tonight, I can write the saddest lines,

write for example, ‘the night is shattered

and the blue stars shiver in the distance’…I loved her

And sometimes she loved me too…

To think I don’t have her, to feel that I have lost her,

to hear the immense night more immense without her and

the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

The night is shattered and she is not with me.

I don’t love her, that is certain, but how I loved her…love is brief

forgetting lasts so long…

I can write the saddest lines

He resounds; he magnifies and quietly thrills with words, only words. You can be very big or very small in his poetry. I won’t tell you. I’ll show you.

And it was at that age…

Poetry arrived in search of me. I don’t know,

I don’t know where it came, from winter or

a river.

I don’t know how or when,

no they were not voices,

They were not words, nor silence,

but from a street I was

summoned.

From the branches of night,

abruptly from the others,

or returning alone, there I was without a face

And it touched me.

I did not know what to say,

my mouth

had no way

with names

My eyes were blind,

and something started in

my soul,

fever or forgotten wings,

and I made my own way

deciphering

that fire,

And I wrote the first faint line,

faint, without substance,

pure

nonsense,

pure wisdom

of someone who knows

nothing,

and suddenly I saw,

the heaves unfastened

and open,

planets,

palpitating plantations,

shadow perforated,

riddled

with arrows, fire and

flowers,

the winding night, the

universe.

And I, infinitesimal being,

drunk with the great starry

void, likeness ,image of mystery,

felt myself a pure part

of the abyss,

I wheeled with the stars,

my heart broke loose on the wind.

Poetry

 

CHARLES BUKOWSKI, my Hank. Poet of the low-lifes of which I am one. His drunken, rambling and haunted poetry has led many to argue that his wasn’t poetry at all. And what do I know about rules, iambic pentameters, rhyme….I know nothing of rules except how to break them. I know nothing except that he moves me.

 

I pick up the skirt,

I pick up the sparkling

 beads

In black,

this thing that moved once

around flesh,

and I call God a liar,

I say anything that moved

 like that

or knew

my name

could never die,

in the common verity of dying,

And I pick up her lovely dress,

all her loveliness gone,

and I speak to all the gods,

Jewish gods and Christ-gods,

chips of blinking things,

idols, pills, bread

fathoms, risks,

knowledgeable surrender,

rats in a gravy of two

 gone quite mad,

without a chance,

hummingbird knowledge, humming bird chance.

I lean upon this,

I lean on all this,

and I know her dress upon my arm

but

they will not give her back to me.

For Jane: with all the love I had, which was not enough.

 

I almost cannot resist adding ‘freedom’ which is a personal favourite of mine. Bukowski was the quintessential tortured artist…who bleeds for love.

 

He drank wine all night of

The 28th,

and he kept thinking of her,

the way she talked and walked and loved,

the way she told him things that seemed true,

but were not,

and he knew the colour of each of her dresses and her shoes,

he knew the stock and curve of each heel,

as well as the leg shaped by it,

And she was out again and when he came home and

 she’d come back with that

special stink again

And she did.

She came in at 3 am in the morning

Filthy like a dung eating swine,

And he took out a butcher’s

 knife,

And she screamed

backing into the rooming house wall,

Still pretty somehow

in spite of  love’s reek

and he finished the glass of wine,

that yellow dress,

his favourite,

And she screamed again,

and he took up the knife

and unhooked his belt,

and tore away the cloth before her,

and cut off his balls.

And carried them in his hands,

like apricots.

and flushed them down the toilet bowl,

And she kept screaming

 as the room became red,

GOD! O GOD!

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!

And he sat there holding three towels, between his legs

Not caring whether she left or stayed

Wore yellow or green or anything at all.

And one hand holding,

 and one hand lifting,

 he poured another wine.

Freedom

 

Another favourite of mine is NIZAR QABBANI a Middle Eastern poet whose sensual poetry eventually became lyricised as music.

My letters to you,

are greater and more important

than both of  us

they are the only documents

 Where people will discover your beauty,

and my madness.

Light is more important than the lantern

Every time I kiss you

After a long separation,

I feel,

I am putting a hurried love letter,

In a red mailbox.

Every time I kiss you

 

While I don’t think poetry can be compartmentalized in any other way than style. ANTONIO JACINTO, a liberation fighter in Angola is a great African poet. He speaks of his poetry as being alive walking in the streets.  A letter to the contract worker is especially moving and the infusion of native language with English is especially rewarding. He is touted as the greatest Lusophone poet in Africa. Will there ever be another like him…I doubt it.

 

I wanted to write you a letter,

 my love,

A letter to tell of this longing

 to see you and

this fear,

of losing you,

Of this thing which goes deeper than I want,

I feel a nameless pain that surrounds me,

like a sorrow

wrapped around my life.

 

I wanted to write you a letter my love,

A letter of intimate secrets of you,

A letter of memories of you,

Of your lips as red as the tacula fruit

Of your hair as dark as the diloa fish

Of your eyes as gentle as the macongue

Of your breasts firm….your caresses,

better than I find down here…I wanted to write

you a letter my love, but oh my love, I cannot understand
why it is, why it is, why it is, my dear
that you cannot read
and I – oh the hopelessness! -cannot write!

 

Read some poetry.

 

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PATTERNS


 

People grow, yes of course but…do they change? Fundamentally I mean. A son of Hamas crossing over to the Mosaad is romantic, and predictable. A mantra can be changed but, not a soccer team.

Do the habits of life change? Those things that make your life distinctly yours. Pathology…hard-wiring. I mean when you lose all your memories, hallowed wealth of all your over glorified experiences…what remains, is it a constant? Is there a subsisting feeling that we are the same person always? Predictable. Do our souls have signatures? How would you know what to carry to a desert? A bottle of mineral water and a Bible…am religious only at weddings and funerals. I’ve never been to a wedding. One burial.

I ask only because I find myself abhorrently flippant about things. Small things like coffee or tea to big things like money…or meaning. Is who we are something as casual as destiny or is it organic, susceptible to everyday whims.

At twenty-two, the most priceless thing I own is my life, still. In the morning when I wake up I cling to it but as the day spends…it matters less. Jazz to rock, Ella Fitzgerald any day to the Sex Pistols. Vanilla to Chocolate. Thomas Hardy to any sort of objective reality…

If we change, and everything changes, what keeps?

Begin with an individual and before you know it, you’ll find that you’ve created a type- Fitzgerald, not the singer. Do clichés, stereotypes apply?

I don’t believe in blanket statements, organised religion, translated poetry or in death.  I believe in the unattainables. True love, perfect  happiness or at least moments of it, world peace, trickle-down economy…you know, the ones that people feel ungrudgingly charitable about. They are willing to believe it for others but not themselves.

I don’t believe in simplicity either. As a style of fashion, a dress sense…yes but not as a principle for living. I don’t believe that life is simplistic. I don’t believe that anything in life is simplistic. Just think, today a planet might roll off into space, a prince might marry a waitress. It takes ‘surprise and wild connections’ doesn’t it.

And I want something from life. It was promised to me long ago. Am not sure what it is yet but it’s out there in the world, floating around in the stars. Shapeless, nameless and undefined but sometimes I feel that the Sun knows it, and the and the leaves outside my window. And they feel me moving.

Are these the necessities of my nature?  Does everyone have these compulsions, inclinations, leanings that are distinct, seamless, yours.

Do you know enough about yourself to say that you would be that self if you had been born say, to a different social class, height range, skin colour, gender, body type? White and charmed,  rich and disaffected, leggy, an overweight child with abandonment issues.

You have you own thumb print, custom made quirky ears. But are you distinct? Would you be the person that you are in a tsunami? In Mars? Would you be that person when no one was looking. Do you know your face enough to point it out of a crowd? I don’t think I know enough about the world to comment on its affairs. I like tea though. I like my tea leaves at the bottom of my cup.

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