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In Memory of Kamau Brathwaite

By Safia Elhillo


In Memory Of Kamau Brathwaite

i sat by the lake & ate five tiny oranges & every strand
            of flesh & pith was my teacher 
i grew warm & soft in the sun         & from this ripening
            made a poem to search for my teacher

i hear in every syllable its older drum
             for this first part of my life      
my ancestor was alive     my ancestor was kind   
            & my ancestor was my teacher 

i learned music as the bright flesh of the poem     
            i learned percussion as its pith      i learned to listen 
to my people speak      & harness my many mouths to write    
            my many mouths to music     my people as my teacher

i want badly to write well      i want badly 
            for my teacher to remain or return
to explain again about the drum       
            draw a circle for me to stand inside 

i want more than i dare write      i want 
            more than i understand        i want porous borders 
to the other world     to part & reveal him there
            my teacher             i want the lake & its secrets

i want enormous things      the audacity 
            for words previously not mine     since poured 
from my softer places    i know enough to believe the miracle 
            of my faith            not resurrection    & not water 

but the book       i want badly to explain 
            something about music         something exact 
& pure but what is more polluted than language 
            language hollowed to an instrument 

by my selfish grief     you were enormous as a god 
              & you were kind to me         & from that brief overlap 
i sit down every time to write        hands fragrant 
            with pith & peel       i want to grow larger 

than my mourning    my ancestor beside me on the long walk 
            to the poem      the long walk 
around the lake & now i will begin again      
            visited in sleep & here by my teacher

Added: Friday, May 22, 2020  /  Used with permission. Safia Elhillo performs "In Memory Of Kamau Brathwaite" on May 7, 2020 as part of Split This Rock's 2020 Virtual Poetry Reading Series.
Safia Elhillo
Photo by Aris Theotokatos.

Safia Elhillo is the author of The January Children (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), which received the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and a 2018 Arab American Book Award, and Girls That Never Die (One World/Random House, 2021), and a novel in verse forthcoming in 2021 from Make Me A World/Random House.

She holds an MFA from The New School, a Cave Canem Fellowship, and a 2018 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. In addition to appearing widely in journals and anthologies, her work has been translated into several languages and commissioned by Under Armour and the Bavarian State Ballet. With Fatimah Asghar, she is co-editor of the anthology Halal If You Hear Me (Haymarket Books, 2019). She was listed in Forbes Africa’s 2018 “30 Under 30” and is a 2019-2021 Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

Elhillo was invited as a Featured Poet for Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness (March 26-28, 2020) in Washington, DC which was cancelled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Split This Rock began a virtual poetry reading series in May 2020 which included a reading by Safia Elhillo & Eve L. Ewing on May 7, 2020.

Other poems by this author